Behind every parent with a child going through a school assessment is a story. It’s never a cut-and-dry process—never a simple request with an instant “assessment granted” response. There is always more that transpires along the path to getting a child evaluated.
The Story Behind the Assessment
I remember the first time someone told me something “wasn’t quite right” with my child. A preschool teacher pulled me aside at pick-up one day and mentioned some things she had noticed about my son. Loud noises bothered him. He was breaking crayons. He hugged the other kids too hard. These observations continued. Every night one of the teachers rattled off a laundry list of “offenses” for the day, causing anxiety for my son and me. I used to dread picking him up—it was stressful, and I wanted nothing more than to hug him and get him home where he could break as many crayons as he wanted to and not feel threatened.
I was offended and angry when a woman told me she thought my son could have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). How dare she suggest something abnormal about my kid. I confided in a couple of friends, sharing my commentary about the nerve she had to approach me as she did. However, my curiosity had been piqued. After a quick google search of SPD and an Amazon Prime Delivery Day later, The Out-of-Sync Child arrived at my home. We found ourselves at our first assessment for SPD soon after–our first school assessment didn’t come for a few more years.
We had assessments for SPD, OT, and ADHD more than once before kindergarten. Watching my son go through an evaluation was always a bit unnerving. I often paced around. If available, I’d watch through the observation windows, wondering. I wondered how he was doing. I wondered if he was okay and how he felt. I wondered if I’d done something wrong. It was agonizing.
The first school assessment he had was a long time coming. I had requested a complete evaluation for a year and a half, and by that time things had gotten pretty rough in the classroom. I remember reviewing a form that was passed to me, simply asking for a signature— seemingly to grant permission for the testing to start. I felt uneasy signing it and asked for a few days to consult with my advocate to go over all of the different areas of testing.
In addition to not fully understanding the different components of the assessment plan, I wasn’t present for any part of the testing that occurred in school. This was a blind spot I disliked. Other parents have said they felt the same way—one even stating they wished all sessions had been recorded. As parents and caregivers,we want to be included; the assessment process had many of us feeling the opposite.
Instinctively, we often head online to gather information, which can quell the need to know more. But it can also be confusing. For example, the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), an organization whose mission is to make learning disabilities universally understood, points out the evaluation process and requirements are not universal at all. Fortunately, LDA has links to each state’s local chapter, which can provide parents and caregivers with resources and support in their region.
Although each state’s procedures may be different, for the most part, the same areas are tested, like intelligence, academics, behavior etc. Below are the Seven Basic Areas for Assessment as found in the SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area—local to California) Assessment & Prior Written Notice.
Language/Speech Communication Development
Perceptual Motor Development
When I received the assessment results, I was confused. I didn’t understand how to put everything together. The pages seemed endless, and by that point my nerves were shot. The only thing I understood and was able to focus on were the words that said my son qualified for support and accommodations, which upon reading caused sadness, anger, relief, and joy to flood over me. I felt sad to know he’d been struggling more than I was aware of, and angry at the school for pushing my concerns aside for so long. I was relieved knowing I had been right about him requiring more support for his needs, which did not come packaged in a one-size-fits-all desk. And I was happy, so happy, knowing he would finally receive his education in a way that best served him.
I started to go over the evaluation with my advocate, who acted as my translator, walking me through the verbiage, definitions, scores, and the different tests used (I later found The Arc Minnesota provides a comprehensive list of definitions). She prepared me for what to expect at the IEP the following day and what accommodations we did and didn’t want.
The Path Forward
Now, several years later, I am confronted with emotions anew—mainly fear and anxiety. My son is thriving, and it’s time for a triennial evaluation, but there’s a bit of a catch-22 involved with starting this complete re-assessment. What if he’s doing too well? I fret thinking about losing his current school placement. I wasn’t the only parent who felt this way either—I found myself in a support group joking with other parents about the desire for our children to have a meltdown—to show they still need their current level of support.
Although I’m anxious waiting for the evaluation results, this time around, I feel more supported and confident that he will continue to learn in the way that best suits him. The past few years have helped me embrace my child’s learning differences. My child is different: he is unique and he thinks and learns differently, and that is worth celebrating. So as we wrap up our triennial evaluation, I bought a cake to do just that.
If you think your child may need an evaluation, (or are waiting on an assessment, and aren’t sure where to begin), I hope the links provided in this article can help you better understand the process, decode the paperwork, request an evaluation, and even direct you to support groups.
About the Author
Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.
One of the most commonly unnoticed and, thus, undiagnosed diagnoses is Dysgraphia, a diagnosis involving the impairment (physically and cognitively) with written expression. Here we explore the definition of this diagnosis, the symptoms one can look out for, and how it is treated.
So what exactly is Dysgraphia?
A recent study conducted by The National Center for Biotechnology Information stated the prevalence of dysgraphia is, “between 10% and 30% of children experience difficulty in writing.” According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Dysgraphia is a learning disability which involves impaired ability to produce legible and automatic letter writing and often numeral writing, the latter of which may interfere with math. Dysgraphia is rooted in difficulty with storing and automatically retrieving letters and numerals.” Like several other learning differences, dysgraphia can stand alone or can go hand in hand with one or more learning disabilities. Common morbidity presents itself in learners who are diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and executive dysfunction, just to name a few.
What symptoms are paired with Dysgraphia?
One of the first signs that a learner is struggling with writing is noticeable in their actions. They might refuse to write their name on a worksheet, crumple their papers up or even avoid writing tasks by creating excuses (frequent bathroom breaks, anyone?) In essence, learners with dysgraphia have unclear, irregular, or inconsistent handwriting, often with different slants, shapes, a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as a combination of cursive and print styles. They also tend to write or copy things slowly.
Caregivers or educators may notice symptoms when a child first begins writing assignments in school. Some key signs of dysgraphia to watch for include:
Cramped or improper grip, which may lead to a sore hand/fingers
Difficulty spacing things out on paper or within margins (poor spatial planning)
Varying shades of writing (i.e. darker letters or small tears in their paper due to tight grips/force when writing)
Frequent erasing and/or scratching out
Difficulty organizing their written work
Inconsistency in letter and word formation and spacing
Poor spelling, including unfinished words or missing words or letters
Unusual wrist, body, or paper position while writing
What methods are used to treat Dysgraphia?
“Writing is a skill, not a talent, and this difference is very important because a skill can be improved by practice.”
Robert Stacy McCain, American Journalist
Oftentimes, a combination of personalized Occupational Therapy and Educational Therapy strategies are needed for learners to strengthen the underlying cognitive and motor skills that correlate closely to writing with independence. Occupational Therapists, for example, can address the fine and gross motor skills that are responsible for serving as a foundation for formation, spacing and endurance, while Educational Therapists can provide systematic support to the organization, planning, thought process and the like that goes into fluent written expression. In all honesty, writing and the layers of complexity that it involves may never be easy for dysgraphic learners, but, with the guidance and help of certain specialists, learners can apply differentiated techniques that work best for them so that they are not limited by their challenges.
Understood has created a fantastic list of methods one can use in order to develop dysgraphic learners’ writing skills as well in their blog, 8 Expert Tips on Helping Your Child with Dysgraphia. Assistive technology is also one of the most widely accepted accommodations for learners who struggle with the symptoms of dysgraphia. Potential solutions include, but are not limited to:
Utilize pencil grips and hand strengthening toys (such as stress balls) to encourage a healthy, proper grip.
Provide extra time to take notes and copy material.
Give the learner access to peer or teacher notes to remove the variable of notetaking altogether.
Allow the learner to use an audio recorder or a laptop in class.
Provide paper with larger spaced, different-colored or raised lines to help form letters in the right space.
Allow the use of graph paper (or lined paper to be used sideways) to help line up math problems.
Encourage learners to type and utilize keyboarding when possible/appropriate.
It is better to catch writing challenges early in order to alleviate unnecessary struggles. If you notice your learner struggling with any of the aspects within the writing process, please do not hesitate to reach out to your support ecosystem (educators, Learnfully Specialists, OTs, other caregivers, etc.) because they very well could qualify for a dysgraphia diagnosis or at least get access to techniques that will make their writing lives easier. Silencing one’s voice by not allowing them to communicate in written form can be detrimental to their self-esteem and their ability to express themselves in general. So, please join our mission to empower neurodiversity and seek support if your learner is facing written expression hardships.
Originally posted on LinkedIn.
This week marks one of the best holidays of the year: Thanksgiving. One of my favorite family traditions is to go around the table and say what we are thankful for.
Last year, like so many families, we had a scaled-down celebration. I remember that it was harder to find things to be thankful for as we headed into the first long Covid winter. The pandemic, after all, has done a number on all of us. And it’s been especially difficult for neurodivergent kids and their families. Neurodivergent learners rely heavily on routines; these past 20 months have been entirely unfamiliar. It’s caused tremendous disruption to these learners and their caregivers.
And yet, more than 20 months in, there are many silver linings that emerged out of the pandemic. Even in these difficult times, there are reasons for neurodivergent parents to be grateful.
A Newfound Acknowledgement
For far too long, those who learn differently have been overlooked brushed aside, or altogether ignored. Many curriculums at best, did not cater to them. At worst, these curricula forced them to conform to the ways others learn.
That changed a great deal during the pandemic. With 21% of American adults facing their own mental issues during the pandemic, mental health got much more deserved attention for children as well. Rather than only prioritizing outcomes: many schools and educators are looking beyond grades. They are focused on nurturing the entire child, supporting their enrichment, and prioritizing a child’s strengths and interests. Many schools, districts, and states have launched initiatives that focus on mental health and social and emotional learning (SEL).
For example, Chicago Public schools announced a $24 million plan to invest in mental health and trauma support programs for students and staff. Public schools in Miami hired 45 mental health coordinators, while also providing mental health awareness and SEL training to staff. Pew reports that the state of Maryland created a mental health response team to “address the needs of students who have experienced trauma during the pandemic and are stressed beyond their ability to cope.” This team is dispatched to schools and districts that are dealing with these issues.
While many of us are back to a more ‘normal’ school routine that is predominantly in-person, the last year and a half has created space for conversations about mental health. And hopefully, it ensures that mental health is a key part of curriculums going forward.
Availability of Resources Online
In the past, learning online or remotely was viewed as ineffective. If there’s anything we learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that technology empowers us to do things we never thought possible: and that includes getting an education via video conferencing. Online learning is not perfect, of course, but it provides access to more resources than ever.
As a result of the move to digital learning environments, students have had greater opportunities to get specialized instruction. Students can meet with educational specialists all the way across the country via Zoom. They can talk with an educator who specializes in teaching the ways that best fit their learning style. Students can get more tailored attention when it works with their schedule. The flexibility and personalized attention break down significant barriers for neurodivergent learners.
At the same time, technology has empowered parents to connect and share information like never before. Even during the pandemic, I felt more connected than ever before to fellow parents. That is thanks to many more parents who used online forums to connect. I’ve found numerous resources that have been invaluable to my son, thanks to other parents who have come online during this time and connected with me. More than anything, it’s made all of us feel less alone.
It’s been a trying period for everyone, but teachers have been hit especially hard by the impact of the pandemic. Even before Covid-19 struck, an average of 36% of teachers were likely to quit their jobs in any given year. 77% of teachers are working more today than they were a year ago, and the top two reasons for driving teachers to quit their jobs are high stress and insufficient pay.
There are so many phenomenal educators that go unappreciated, underpaid, and overworked. I’m taking steps this year to ensure they feel valued and know the impact they have on my child. The parents in my community are offering additional volunteer hours, while I’ve heard of other parents providing classroom care packages to show gratitude to educators.
Teachers are truly superheroes: one study found that the average teacher works 400 hours of overtime every year. The National Education Association found that they spend an average of $459 on teaching materials annually – out of their own pocket. This comes even as the average teacher salary is at least 3.1% lower than the rest of U.S. jobs.
Teachers need and deserve much better. How parents, our schools, and society overall can better support them is a much larger conversation – one for a separate article. But I am endlessly grateful for the critical work they do every day for our children.
We’ve moved forward in many ways over the past 20 months. We’ve still, unfortunately, got a long way to go. But we would have a much longer, more arduous journey if it weren’t for the many silver linings that have come out of this pandemic. As a parent of a neurodiverse learner, that’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving.
According to an April study of 1500 participants, understood.org found that in the remote learning environment, “nearly three-quarters (72%) of parents have become aware of or noticed their children may have learning challenges or differences.” The pandemic only punctuated the point that parents and educators appreciate insight into their learners’ underlying abilities in order to help differentiate levels of support. In order to uncover a learner’s present levels and wholehearted capabilities, parents and educators must seek inventories, screenings and evaluations administered by professionals in the field. There are very few affordable and accessible resources available that are able to provide pinpointed information into the inner workings of learners’ processing skills and aptitude abilities in areas such as literacy, math, executive functioning and cognition. Then, provide clearly defined recommendations, resources, and referrals to match the learners’ diverse needs. Once you uncover both how your learner is performing and what their overall potential is, you can streamline a plan to expedite progress and strengthen feelings of success. So let’s get started!
The Learnfully screening is truly like no other – we are able to discover an accurate appraisal of your learner’s skill set through two online evaluative sessions. To optimize learner engagement, we establish a strong rapport between learner and educational specialist before proceeding with the screening. Each screening is individualized in nature, yet standardized in administration. Depending on your learner’s needs and struggles, we are able to create a screening to specifically measure, then address, your learner’s current abilities in order to heighten cognizance of your learner’s entire profile. This way, you can understand how your learner learns best, what personality and instructional style works best to maximize engagement and what multisensory, evidence-based programs will develop, strengthen and apply the underlying sensory-cognitive areas of challenge. Areas that our screening explores are:
Reading/Literacy – phonological processing, phonemic awareness, decoding, spelling, sight words, reading fluency, comprehension and written expression
Math – computation, conceptualization, problem solving and word problem skills
Cognition – areas such as processing speed, verbal/visual memory and the like
Executive Functioning – each of the eight levels are measured
Traditional vs. Whole-child Screening Comparison
Traditional Classroom Assessment
Tina does not know how to write her ABCs, so she scribbles during class. This feedback leads to frustrated parents who think that their child is lazy in the classroom. This is because Tina is perfectly capable of writing her ABCs at home. This only increases Tina’s anxiety levels at school which makes her performance worse.
Learnfully’s Whole-Child Screening
Tina is a fluent reader and knows her ABC’s; however, she has undiagnosed auditory processing issues which makes it hard for her to consume auditory instructions. The parents now know that Tina is perfectly capable of completing her tasks when the instructions are written down, versus when delivered auditorily.
In traditional settings conclusions are solely based on the performance, as a result the root cause of the issue is missed and can go unnoticed. This turns into a lost opportunity to find effective intervention that helps them unlock their potential. In this case, just merely changing how the instructions are delivered would have solved the issue for everyone, reduced anxiety and increased confidence which helps Tina’s overall performance in and out of the classroom!
Screening Review & Consultation
The discussion following the screening administration paints a vibrantly clear picture about your learner as a whole. The findings shed light on interests, strengths, areas of need/challenge, differentiated recommendations (programming and short/long term goals) as well as the importance of proactive collaborative efforts with your learner’s ecosystem. We are able to gauge academic, cognitive and social-emotional skills in order to delineate a personalized learning plan that will help your learner not only reach, but realize their strong learning potential. In the screening report itself, we are able to report on the following components:
Relevant background information
Learner strengths and interests
Areas of challenge
Learner Impact (in and out of the classroom)
So now that you have the screening results and recommendations in hand, what’s next? Learnfully Educational Specialists will help secure a plan that will place your learner on the path to confidence and success. We will take care of finding the best fit Educational Specialist in terms of interests, certifications and personality so that you and your learner can start seeing and feeling progress right away! Also, we pride ourselves on proactive communication with the learner’s ecosystem – parents, educators, outside specialists – so we will make sure to maintain collaborative efforts with anyone on your learner’s team in order to provide insight and maintain consistency across all environments. Lastly, if we find that your learner is in need of supplemental support such as speech therapy or comprehensive psychological assessments, for example, we can provide you with the resources and referrals your family needs!
As a part of LD Awareness Month, we are spotlighting important aspects of the journey for neurodivergent learners and caregivers. In a previous blog, The Learner Support Ecosystem and Why it’s Important to Have One, we detailed the common roles within the learner’s support ecosystem. In this blog, let’s take a look at the role of the speech therapist. For this, we interviewed Heather Hamilton, a Licensed Speech Language Pathologist.
About Heather Hamilton
Heather Hamilton, M.S., CCC-SLP is the founder of TALK Speech & Language Therapy, LLC in Atlanta, Ga. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Syracuse University in the field of Speech-Language Pathology. Heather has over 25 years of experience from her time working in Educational, Medical, and Private settings across the United States. With a focus on continuing education and the most current, research-based practices, TALK is an international clinic that sees clients of all ages to focus on communication needs related to speech and language disorders, literacy, and corporate speech challenges.
What is Speech and Language Therapy?
Speech-Language Therapy is so multifaceted! In our clinic, our clients range in age from 1-year to 67-years of age and no two client profiles are exactly the same. At its core, Speech-Language Therapy is individualized treatment that helps an individual meet their full communication potential in order to confidently share and receive information from others through spoken, written, gesture-based, or picture-based language forms. Some children learn language from the exposure they receive in their environments, and some children require direct Speech-Language Intervention to help them master new skills.
Can you help our community with some common terminology?
Receptive Language is the ability to comprehend language at varying levels of complexity. To assess comprehension of language we look at an individual’s ability to show comprehension. For example, we might show a child three toys, hold out our hands, and say CAR. If they point to or grab the car, we know they understood. However, language complexity increases quickly. If you ask a child to, “Point to the car that is not blue,” it requires that they understand the noun CAR, the adjective BLUE, the verb POINT, the negative NOT, and understand the order of the words presented.
Expressive Language involves the ability to utilize specific words (vocabulary/semantics) in the correct combination and form (syntax and morphology). Children are using single words by 1-year and then by 3 to 4 years a child is expected to have a vocabulary of 800 to 1700 words, and be 90% to 100% intelligible during long conversations that utilize compound and complex sentences of 4 to 5 ½ words in length.
Some children and adults are nonverbal and do not communicate with spoken language. When this is the case, Assistive Technology (Augmentative and Alternative Communication or AAC) is utilized to help individuals communicate their thoughts. Low-tech forms of AAC are things like picture symbols, communication boards or writing with a pen and paper. Examples of high-tech forms of AAC include the use of iPads, computers, or devices that generate speech for a user.
Pragmatic Language is the ability to use language in socially appropriate ways across various settings.
Articulation refers to the ability to spontaneously say speech sounds correctly. Some children struggle with the production of only one or two sounds and would be diagnosed with an articulation disorder. Others have difficulty being understood (intelligibility) because they are not able to say many sounds correctly. This might be diagnosed as a Phonological Disorder as they have consistent error patterns. ChildhoodApraxiaofSpeech (CAS) is a motor coordination problem that prevents an individual’s oral structures (i.e., lips, tongue, teeth, jaw) from executing the motor planning steps that the brain tells them to. This results in inconsistent error patterns that can change each time a word is produced. It is important for parents to know that Childhood Apraxia of Speech is different from adult apraxia that results from a stroke or a traumatic brain injury.
Other elements of spoken communication that might be addressed in therapy include VoiceDisorders and Stuttering.
Our caregivers would appreciate an understanding of a list of symptoms that may otherwise go unnoticed. What should they look out for in their learners?
Parents and caregivers need to trust their instincts! So often families know that something is not right, but they listen to a pediatrician, family member, or friend and do not seek a professional’s opinion. If you sense that something is not developing as it should, reach out to a professional to get their recommendations. Getting intervention early can make a difference in long-term outcomes.
A few questions parents and caregivers can ask themselves to see if consultation with an SLP might be of benefit:
Do I feel like something is not quite right with how my child is engaging, speaking, or using language? If so, call a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) and ask for a phone consultation. Reputable practices will offer a complimentary call.
Have I been told by a friend or teacher that my child should see an SLP? If so, there is no harm in seeking out additional information about your child’s communication skill development.
Is my child struggling to follow directions independently without gestures or help?
If your child is 2 years of age, can they name some pictures, use simple pronouns (I, me, you) and verbs, and say some routine phrases?
If your child is 2 ½ years of age can they use 150-350 words, ask simple questions and add some simple modifiers to nouns (e.g. big truck)?
If your child is 3 years old can they carry on a meaningful conversation, describe actions seen in books and repeat some rhymes?
Are you noticing that your child says several words incorrectly not because of a speech sound error pattern, but because they seem to have learned the word incorrectly (for example, they say Pucause of Because)? Perceptual errors can be a sign of an underlying phonological processing deficit that suggests a child would benefit from structured phonological awareness training.
Does my child seem frustrated when trying to communicate? Frustration at any age can be a sign of an underlying communication problem.
What services do you and your therapists provide?
TALK Speech & Language Therapy, LLC provides both in-person and Teletherapy intervention in the areas of speech sound disorders, expressive language, receptive language, pragmatic language & social communication, literacy, written language, voice therapy, and fluency (stuttering). We have the pleasure of seeing an international population and specialize in working with bilingual and multilingual families. Additionally, TALK provides Corporate Speech Therapy services to help clients target accent reduction, cultural communication differences, pragmatic language, and effective communication strategies in the workplace.
Are there any final thoughts you wish to share?
Parents and caregivers should know that speech sound disorders are not just about saying speech sounds correctly. From the time they are toddlers, children are developing the PhonologicalAwareness skills that will allow them to be successful readers and spellers. Remediation of speech sound production errors, along with structured phonological awareness intervention, can prevent literacy issues down the road.
Finally, everyone should know that Speech-Language Therapy is not just for children. Our practice works with clients of all ages. In recent years more and more adults have sought intervention after gaining a greater understanding of their child’s challenges and recognizing the same struggles have always been an issue for them as well. It is never too late to reach out to a Speech-Language Pathologist for a consultation.
As a part of LD Awareness Month, we are spotlighting important aspects of the journey for neurodivergent learners and caregivers. In a previous blog, The Learner Support Ecosystem and Why it’s Important to Have One, we detailed the common roles within the learner’s support ecosystem. In this blog, we’re digging into psychological assessments. For this, we interviewed Dr. Ilana Jurkowitz, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, who often administers these assessments and can offer insights into the overall goals and importance of this process.
About Dr Ilana Jurkowitz
I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a specialty in pediatric psychodiagnostic assessment. In my private practice, I focus on providing comprehensive psychodiagnostic evaluations for children and adolescents to better identify their cognitive and academic profiles and create a plan to help them reach their potential. I am also an adjunct professor at Alliant International University in the Ph.D. Clinical Psychology graduate program where I teach psychodiagnostic assessment to doctoral candidates and train them in specific test instruments and data interpretation. I completed my postdoctoral training at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center in their Psychoeducational and Diagnostic Testing Program and received extensive training in cognitive, academic, attentional, and psychological testing. I work closely with families, schools, and other professionals in supporting children and improving their learning experiences.
What does a Comprehensive Psychodiagnostic Evaluation entail?
A comprehensive psychodiagnostic evaluation typically includes a parent interview, administration of several tests that measure various areas of cognitive, academic, and psychological functioning, a classroom observation (if possible), and feedback sessions with the family. The tests administered evaluate various areas of functioning, including cognition, verbal processing, non-verbal processing, memory, processing speed, attention and concentration, executive functioning, academics, and emotional experience. Tasks include things like puzzles, word games, drawings, and storytelling. Test administration lasts anywhere from 7-10 hours total, typically divided into shorter 1-3 hours sessions. Parents walk away from the assessment process with a final report and specific recommendations for how to best support their child.
Are psycho-educational assessment referrals cause for concern?
Absolutely not! A referral for an evaluation just means that a student may not be learning in the way expected. The information gathered from an assessment will help teachers instruct the child and help the child apply specific strategies to the learning process. Completing an evaluation should never be about finding out what is “wrong,” but rather about finding out what is “right.” Evaluations will identify specific strengths, which will empower the child and help them approach tasks and learning in a way that works for their brain. An assessment could benefit every child!
Can you help our community with some common terminology?
Specific Learning Disability: This is a diagnostic category in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) that describes specific weaknesses in the areas of reading, writing, or mathematics. Diagnoses are issued if the child is performing below the expected level, as determined by formal testing. The expected level is determined by IQ testing.
IQ: Intelligence Quotient. This is a numerical representation of a person’s cognitive ability. IQ is comprised of several areas of functioning including, verbal ability, visual-spatial ability, fluid reasoning (i.e. problem-solving ability), working memory, and processing speed. These combined areas make up a person’s IQ.
Comprehensive Testing: Comprehensive Testing means that the tests administered would measure many areas of functioning. This is different from just a psycho-educational assessment, which would look at basic cognitive abilities (i.e. IQ) and academic performance only. A comprehensive evaluation takes a deeper look at the way a child thinks and processes information, which helps to formulate specific recommendations and tailor classroom instruction.
Our caregivers would appreciate an understanding of sneaky symptoms of learning differences that may otherwise go unnoticed. What should they look out for in their learners?
Anytime a child seems to be avoiding a specific academic task, teachers and caregivers should wonder whether the difficulty of the task is what is getting in the way. A hasty and careless approach to tasks may also indicate difficulty with that subject area. The length of time it takes to complete homework may also be indicative of a learning difficulty. Students should not be spending hours completing their homework every night!
How do caregivers learn their child needs an assessment?
Typically, a teacher or school administrator will recommend an assessment based on their in-class observations. This conversation may begin with an initial conversation about areas of concern or weakness observed in the classroom. Caregivers may also notice that certain academic tasks are more difficult for their child to complete and wonder whether it is a function of a learning weakness. Referrals may also come from a child’s individual therapist, should they be in therapy. There may be questions that the therapist can’t answer and test data can help clarify how a child processes the world. An evaluation can also help guide therapists in their treatment and provide a type of manual for how the child sees the world.
What services are typically recommended if a learner qualifies for an official diagnosis?
Services may include educational therapy, psychotherapy, occupational therapy, speech, and language therapy.
What are a few key tips for caregivers to keep in mind while their learner undergoes psychological evaluations?
It is important not to think about the evaluation process as a test, but rather as a journey of understanding how a child’s brain works and their strengths. Kids shouldn’t feel like they need to “score high” or get the answers right because many of the tasks are intended to be difficult or beyond the child’s capacity. The goal is to encourage the child to do the best they can and not feel like they are getting a grade.
Any final thoughts you wish to offer to our shared audience?
The evaluation process should be empowering for both the child and parents and seen as a positive experience. Weaknesses can be reframed as areas of growth and the evaluation process can give kids the tools to understand how they learn and know how to approach specific tasks. Diagnoses can also be discussed in terms of a common language and not as a way to identify what is wrong. A diagnosis by itself does not tell the child’s story and should only be used as a way to classify some of the areas of difficulty. It will never answer all the questions, and the same diagnosis could look very different in two different kids.
IEPs can be complex and overwhelming, especially when it is your family’s first time experiencing the process. When your learner is struggling to access the content and curriculum in the classroom, they, too, are feeling the layers of stress and feelings of uncertainty. The IEP was created to support learners achieve academic and social-emotional goals as every learner deserves to realize and reach their full potential. Here, we provide an overview of IEPs while fully acknowledging that additional research might be needed for one to fully understand the procedure, follow through, and develop the mindset needed before, during and after an IEP meeting.
What is the purpose of an IEP?
The overall goals of an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) are to set reasonable learning goals for a learner, and to state the services that the school district will provide for the child.
What is in an IEP?
Each IEP must contain specific information, as listed within IDEA, our nation’s special education law. This includes but is not limited to:
the learner’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, describing how the learner is currently doing and how the learner’s diagnosed disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general curriculum
annual goals for the learner, meaning what caregivers and the school team think he or she can reasonably accomplish in a year
the special education and related services to be provided to the learner by the school district, including supplementary aids and services and changes to the program or supports for school personnel
how much of the school day the learner will be educated separately from neurotypical learners or not participate in extracurricular or other nonacademic activities such as lunch or clubs
how (and if) the learner is to participate in state and district-wide assessments, including what modifications to tests the learner requires
when services and modifications will begin, how often they will be provided, where they will be provided, and how long they will last
how school personnel will measure the learner’s progress toward the annual goals.
Who attends IEPs?
An IEP involves all of the relevant parties in the learner’s educational environment including the caregivers, classroom teacher(s), school psychologist evaluator, relative service providers (speech pathologists, counselor, occupational therapist, learning specialist) and a school administrator as a representative of the school district.
What is the timing of IEPs?
Once an educator or a caregiver requests a psycho-educational assessment, the district typically has 90 days to complete said testing. An IEP meeting must be held within 30 calendar days after it is determined, through a full and individual evaluation, that a learner has one of the disabilities listed in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and needs special education or related services. A learner’s IEP must also be reviewed at least annually thereafter to determine whether the annual goals are being achieved and must be revised as appropriate and tested triannually if the learner remains in need of an IEP.
How do I follow up?
Your short and long term follow-up steps can depend on the nature and results of the IEP meeting itself. Although we are not advocates, we have participated in many IEPs when caregivers do not sign the documented goals (based on the above) in order to spend time at home digesting the information line by line to make sure they are in full agreement with the proposed services and corresponding timelines. If, after review, you feel comfortable signing off- great! If not, you can certainly follow up, preferably in written form via email, with a list of outstanding questions. It is important to note, however, that the district is not permitted to initiate services until the IEP document is signed by all parties. Once signed, as a caregiver, it is critical to keep the dates of services and applicable goals in mind and follow up if you do not observe progress firsthand. Occasionally, subsequent meetings are required to discuss progress or the lack thereof.
Again, we know that IEPs are intricate, so a good place to start digging deeper into the ins and outs of IEPs is through wrightslaw.com. They provide both an index and a roadmap to IEPs- both extremely useful tools to utilize as resources. As always, if you would like to consult with one of our experienced Educational Specialists, we are more than happy to help however we can. Ultimately, we wish you and your learner success in future IEP meetings and hope that learners are able to achieve their goals in order to build confidence and independence.
We understand how intimidating and/or stressful any meeting concerning your child can be. Here, we hope to reduce your angst by providing a brief overview of what to expect in a 504 Plan Meeting specifically and welcome any and all questions that you may still have following the reading of this article.
What is a 504 Meeting?
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (commonly referred to as Section 504) is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Those programs include public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies. To qualify under Section 504, a student must have a disability and that disability must limit a major life function. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 (ADA) broadened the definition of disability in the ADA as well as in Section 504. The 504 Plan is a plan developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment.
Each 504 Meeting includes the following participants:
The learner (dependent on age/maturity)
Each member of the 504 Meeting Committee typically provides insight into the learner’s strengths, areas of need, and accommodations (present or future) throughout.
How is it different from a SST? IEP?
We realize how confusing all of the acronyms can be, so fear not – we are here to help!
The SST, Student Study Team, is usually less formal than a 504 or IEP meeting and does involve documentation, but the information discussed is not upheld by the law. So, teachers will delineate recommendations and an action plan within this meeting and will follow through as best they can without repercussions if they are unable to reach a level of compliance. A 504, on the other hand, is a legal document that delineates accommodations and modifications upheld by the law.
The IEP, Individualized Education Program, involves the IDEA (The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act). We will dive deeper into IEP’s next week but generally speaking, the IDEA is less involved in 504s than they are in IEPs. Because of this–and the overarching purpose of 504 meetings–the school does not require measurable growth or specific goals with 504s like it does with IEPs.
How do I best prepare for a 504 as a caregiver?
Prior to the meeting, it is important to do your homework! Prepare a list for the following aspects of your learner’s profile: relevant background information, strengths/interests, areas of challenge, potential solutions for said challenges. If your learner is old enough and/or self-aware, it’s always a good idea to ask them the same questions that you will need to report to during the 504 Meeting. You know how to speak with your child best, of course, just be sure to stress that the purpose of the meeting is to best support their learning needs by providing strategies to help them access their full potential. Your learner should be part of the process one way or another. Sometimes, learners are asked to join the meeting and, therefore, would need to have a discussion with you prior to the meeting anyways. Feel free to review understood.org’s tips about 504s Meetings or having a productive meeting as well!
What happens during and after the 504 Meeting?
During the meeting, bring your notes, work samples, and writing utensils or your device to add to your previously delineated thoughts. Try to maintain a positive outlook before, throughout and after the meeting. Educators typically have your learner’s best interest at heart and want to see he/she/they succeed. Sometimes that means your child needs a little support to realize and reach their goals which is why we adults need to come together to make it happen!
At the conclusion of the team meeting, the facilitator will ask you to sign the notes that they took during the meeting (in person or electronically if you met virtually) and provide you with a copy. Within the notes, they will list the areas that you prepared, relevant accommodations/modifications that they will have tried or will put into place and the next steps which could include a follow-up meeting after a specific number of weeks. Please be sure to read over the team’s takeaways prior to signing the form itself since it is a legal document. Ultimately, all the present parties will also sign the document to substantiate agreement and accountability.
We wish you all of the best in your learner’s 504 Plan Meeting and know that, with the right understanding, preparation, mindset and follow through, your learner will see and feel more successful in their personal learning trajectory and within their school environment!
Welcome to our first of three blogs in our School Meeting Series! Here we will dig into the in’s and out’s of SST meetings so that you, as caregivers or as teachers, are able to maximize your time together throughout.
What is a SST meeting anyway?
SST is an acronym for Student Study Team. The initial SST meeting is typically the first time you have met to discuss a particular concern outside of a parent-teacher conference. Sometimes SST meetings are held in place of a conference because the teacher would like to involve the whole team in the discussion which could run longer than the average time allotted for a caregiver teacher conference. Someone takes notes throughout the meeting so that everyone has endless access to the discussion points.
What is the format of SST meetings?
SST meetings usually last 30-45 minutes (sometimes longer) and include a learner’s caregivers, teachers, and at least one school representative such as the Counselor, Learning Specialist, Program Director, and/or administrator. If your child has received any specialized services in or out of the school environment, other providers are welcomed to attend as well. The SST facilitator starts by collecting or recapping any relevant background information, then moves into strengths and areas that are going well this school year. After each team member has the chance to share, then the facilitator will move into opportunities for growth or challenges the learner is presently facing. After the discussion, the team will provide an overview as to the action plan which includes potential accommodations, modifications, layers of support, and the like. At the conclusion of the meeting, the facilitator will determine the next point of communication whether it be a follow-up SST meeting, the upcoming caregiver-teacher conference, or something of the sort. If a follow-up SST meeting is needed, they are generally held six to eight weeks after the first meeting to allow enough time for the team to gauge how the learner is responding to the documented plan of action.
Is an SST meeting cause for concern?
An SST meeting is usually not a reason to feel anxious or worried, but we are all human! This is especially true for the first meeting, although I realize it is hard to avoid feelings of angst when entering a team meeting about an area in which your learner is struggling. SST meetings are intended to remain positive and dynamic. Envision them like Think Tanks for your learner to access their full potential with the assistance of their support village!
What if the SST goals are not met?
If the suggestions/ideas do not work well for your learner, then I strongly suggest welcoming a follow-up meeting to further explore reasons as to why your learner might not feel successful or confident within particular areas. Some schools are limited by what they can offer internally, so your learner might require external support to meet the aforementioned goals, which is ok. We all have skills that are in need of development, so why not seek outside support somehow, someway? It is better that you model a growth mindset and positive outlook when your learner starts the path towards independence.
In Conclusion…If you have been asked to attend an SST meeting it simply means the teacher has noticed your learner struggling in a specific area. The educator and their team want to see your child succeed. An SST meeting is an excellent opportunity to create a positive communication link between caregivers and the school, so try to attend the meeting with a good outlook. The school wants to help. Be willing to listen to their ideas and be honest with your own concerns. When working together, clear answers, help for your learner, and a more joyful learning experience will surely follow. For more information on SST meetings, check out one of our favorite resources – understood.org.
Here we are, the school year is underway for most of us and we are approaching the months ahead with as much positivity and hopefulness that we can conjure. As caregivers, we had the opportunity to establish a relationship with our children’s teachers and school teams online last year but at the same time, we had to navigate the layers of pandemic protocols, distance learning, and so much more. Now that we can confidently say that pandemic learning is not going anywhere and we will, most likely, have most of our teacher meetings online this year as a result, we need to further explore ways in which we can connect with our learners’ teams virtually. That way, we are able to maximize opportunities for building rapport and strengthening connectivity in this new normal. Let’s dig into four simple ways that you can nurture a relationship virtually with your child’s team this school year and beyond.
Do Your Homework
Follow these steps to preparing for virtual teacher meetings and interactions this school year:
Review assignments, grades and any progress reports ahead of time.
Before the conference takes place, find an opportunity to sit with your child as he/she does homework in each subject.
Understand their strengths and thought process first-hand.
Delineate questions that come to mind throughout each of the above.
List a few talking points so that you feel more comfortable initiating or maintaining the conversation.
Half of the battle when it comes to almost anything in our life that we perceive as an obstacle is to show up! We spend a good deal of time online and, thus, should try to find ways to engage with our learners’ teams in the same way. One of the first ways to do this is to introduce yourself to your child’s teacher or specialist via email to let them know how excited you are to collaborate with them this year. They can reply when it is convenient to do so and will appreciate the notion. Next, look out for sign-up invites to teacher meetings such as Back to School/Curriculum Nights, Progress Checks, Parent-Teacher Conferences, and the like. Once you officially sign up for a time that works well, show up! I know, I know, it is much easier to NOT go because it is not as noticeable in larger group settings or your life is a juggling act like mine. But showing up sends a strong message to the teacher that being present and involved is important to you and your family as a whole.
Following up shows your learners’ team that you are committed to supporting them and your child as best you can. During the introductory point of contact, ask your child’s teacher how he/she prefers to communicate (email, note, phone calls, etc.). At the conclusion of any discussion, meeting, or Parent-Teacher Conference, remember to ask what the next formal point of contact will be so that you can ensure there will be one. And, of course, gestures of gratitude go a long way as well – thank you emails, handwritten notes, homemade teacher gifts – small tokens of your appreciation can make a huge difference throughout the school year.
Connect Outside of Meetings
This step is not as easy as it once was, let’s be honest. Most schools are not allowing parents onsite, let alone taking field trips. That said, you can still practice finding chances to connect with your children’s teaching team outside of parent meetings. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can step foot on campus, maintain consistent, open communication by chatting briefly at drop off and/or pick up. Hey, if your child’s teacher works the car line- perfect! Essentially, it is key to find/think of ways to remain involved like volunteering as a parent helper outside of the classroom doing things such as preparing materials (online or to drop off) for class or scheduling future virtual field trips. Every step you take in an effort to volunteer makes life easier for your child’s teacher so that he/she can spend more time with the learners they love!
In close, try to keep the following principles from the Harvard Family Research Projectin mind for productive and effective communication in every virtual teacher collaborative effort:
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