Thursday, February 28, 2008

SpEd Tip #1: Stay Frosty

This is the first piece of advice I offer anyone about to enter the labyrinth of special education, related services, and 504 plans. Most every parent who gets to the point where their child is getting in trouble, getting poor grades, clearly not able to do grade level work, and admits to themselves that the kid might need special ed, gets mad. They’re mad because they think, rightly, that the school should have spotted it, should have done something about it, should have taken steps.

Maybe the parent is mad because they’ve been asking, year after year, for help for their child, and the school district has been delaying, dallying, denying, and generally dinking around, while the child is falling further and further behind. Maybe the school district has lied outright to them on any number of issues.

You’re mad because of a betrayal of expectations. We expect schools to know what they’re doing, know what they’re supposed to do, and then we expect them to do it, by gum! We expect them to be knowledgeable professionals with the best interests of our children as a priority.

We don’t expect them to lie, be incompetent, refuse to help a child in need of assistance, or to make excuses for why it’s OUR fault and not theirs. We don’t expect them to squirm like snakes to get out of providing necessary services. We don’t expect them to complain that they can’t afford help for our children because there are so many other children with greater needs. We don’t expect them to be stupid or malicious.

But they are. And that is why parents get mad; normal expectations have been betrayed, and we are hurt, hyper-alert, and angry.

So, my advice is to “stay frosty”, in other words, get cooled down and stay there while I fill you in on the reality of school districts. There are some good ones who know what they’re supposed to do and do it without even blinking. If your child were in one of those districts, he’d already be in SpEd, and you’d be reasonably well-informed and engaged in the process of getting services for him. Many school districts are not like that.

The problem is rarely malice. It’s usually a combination of ignorance and inappropriate gatekeeping. There are very few people in schools, administrators, teachers, nurses, or others who actually know more than a thimbleful about special education and the law. They only know what they’ve been told, and that’s not much.

Administrators have next to nothing to do with your children. They are the logistical planners for schools – they arrange transportation, days off, negotiate for supplies, review bills from utilities, manage office staff, call for substitute teachers, and deal with similar things. They prepare reports for the school board, report to the superintendent, and are supposed to be well-versed in the general laws regarding schools. The assistant principal may be in charge of the mechanics and procedures of formal discipline. Administrators tend to be fixated on cost containment and will do their gatekeeping (preventing your child access to special services) on that basis.

Teachers are used to dealing with “average” students. The average student acts up occasionally, responds reasonably well to consequences, gets reasonable grades, and is kind of predictable. Teachers feel themselves to be primarily responsible for teaching average students, the middle 80% of children – they rarely know what to do for a gifted child or a child with special needs. They can get belligerent if they feel they’re being blamed for your child’s poor performance (and they always feel that way). They don’t like having to do extra stuff, or complicated stuff, or things that are “more” than what they’re doing for the 80% because they feel like they’re shortchanging their “real” students. Fortunately, they can be very cooperative if the parent knows this and accommodates the TEACHER’S needs, too. Teachers will resist and gatekeep if they think you’re asking too much of them.

The only people in the whole school system who have even a moderate understanding of special needs, disabilities, and services and programs are the people in the Special Education department. Therefore, it’s important to get through the other gatekeepers, the teachers and administrators, and get to the SpEd folks. They will be gatekeepers, too, in kind of a microcosmic reflection of the regular administrators and teachers. They are always understaffed, underfunded, overworked, and you’re always asking for too much for no good reason. Oh, woe is me.

However, it is their job, and their responsibility to know the laws, to follow them, and to get your child the services required. And, eventually, they will, God willing, and with the help of research, good friends and sound advice.

Now that you know that, you need to blow off all the steam that built up while dealing with the gatekeepers in regular education. If you take your anger with you into the SpEd department, it’s only going to make you look hysterical and unreasonable. Stay frosty, because for the SpEdders, special services are their everyday business. Asking for appropriate programs should be done the same way you’d ask the butcher for a pound of good, fresh pork chops, or the greengrocer for oranges from the latest shipment. It’s really no big deal, they have to follow the law, and this group of people knows that.

Then, as legal requirements click along at a pre-determined pace, like a train on the tracks, it’s easy to get frustrated and let all that residual frustration and anger come back again. Don’t do it. Let the process flow; remain frosty.

Remember, as long as you are the coolest cucumber in the room, you’ll last the longest.

1 comment:

Kristi said...

FYI - you might want to consider asking for an INDEPENDENT assistive technology evaluation by a qualified person. The district may offer their own person, but by law you are entitled to an idependent eval. Your son sounds like maybe speech recognition software might be helpful. It let's the user talk to the computer and have it type what they say. Then it's just a matter of learning how to edit, cull, cut/copy and paste...

Good luck,
Kristi (I'm an assistive technology specialist in MA)