Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Help With IEP's

OverviewResponding to one of last week's posts, "Miz Sharon" sent the following email:
 "I truly enjoyed your blog as well (especially the post on graphic novels. I learned how to read through comic books).

Do you think you may add a post in which you provide tips for parents of children with autism? My child has autism, and trying to sort out the lingo such as "IEP" can be confusing. The school also uses the term "case manager" for special education teacher, although I let the school staff know that in my opinion, case managers were not the same as special education teachers."
What I did this week was begin addressing her question by debunking IEP's.  As I don't know Sharon's child's specific issues (autism encompasses so many different levels and types of learning, cognitive functioning and educational issues) it may be more helpful addressing IEPs.
IEP Basics:   Unfortunately there is no standard IEP (Individualized Educational Program)  form to be followed which makes it so much more challenging for parents and students to navigate.  (Which is why I can't really address who Sharon's "case manager" should be.)  There are, however, certain basics to an IEP:
  • An IEP is a detailed program delineating specific educational services, accommodations and learning plans for all students receiving special educational assistance;
  • The way IEP's are organized will vary but certain information must be included:
    • It should accurately describe your child's current school-related performance.
    • Annual goals must be stated and broken down into short -term objectives.  [Note: make sure these objectives are clearly stated and can be easily assessed.]
    • There should be an explanation of how much of the school day (if any) will be spent in the regular classroom vs. resource room vs. self-contained classroom;
    • Any test modifications your child will need must be clearly stated.  If tests are inappropriate for your child and/or he/she is excused from these tests - that too must be clearly stated.  IF your child is excused from testing make sure the IEP specifies how your child will be evaluated in lieu of the standardized test.
    • If outside services are needed make sure the IEP states when, where, how frequently the services will be provided and how long the services will last.
    • NOTE:  Make sure there is a clear plan to evaluate your child's progress. (Some IEPs fall short in this area - make sure your child's does not.)
  • Certain individuals must attend the meeting where the IEP is developed and written:
    • There must be at least one regular education teacher (if the student is taking part in the 'regular' classroom);
    • There must be a special education teacher;
    • Someone to discuss test results taken to classify/diagnose the student's learning issues must be present (it could be a school counselor, principal, or district representative and will also vary across schools/states);
  • I recommend that a parent ALWAYS be there to advocate for your child's needs, and listen carefully to what is and what is not being said.   Do not let professionals leave the room until you understand what is in the IEP.  
  • The student can (and older kids - should) attend as well.
  • The law requires that IEP's be reviewed and/or revised at least once a year, but you can ask for more meetings if you deem them necessary.
Helpful tips to prepare for the IEP meeting:
  • Review grades, test scores, teacher comments (from this year and/or previous years).  Make sure you understand your child's needs.  
  • You may want to invite and/or consult with an outside child advocate to help you articulate your child's needs.
  • Come prepared with a list of your child's strengths and weaknesses - make sure these are considered when developing a program.  These skills (in addition to academic subjects) can include attention, memory, social skills, physical coordination, ability to express oneself, affinities your child loves doing and what he or she does not, what study strategies seem to work over others... Use this profile to help address his or her issues.
  • Research possible options available to kids with your child's learning issues.  The web now makes this so much easier!
  • Come up with your own list of goals you want achieved over the course of the school year.
  • Talk to your child (if appropriate) about what he or she thinks he or she needs/wants.
  • If there have been previous IEP's read them -evaluate what worked and what did or did not work - and why this may be the case.  Make sure what worked before is modeled again and what did not work is 'tweaked' in this next version.

Helpful links:The following are various websites that will help debunk an IEP. 

MY CHILD'S SPECIAL NEEDS A Guide to the Individualized Education Program Archived Information

[PDF] A Parent's Guide to Understanding the IEP Process Welcome Parents 

Top 8 Essential Parts of an Individual Education Program Understanding IDEA IEP Requirements - Learn What an IEP Must Contain By Ann Logsdon, Guide

A Student's Guide to the IEP By: Marcy McGahee-Kovac (2002) 

Your Child's IEP: Practical and Legal Guidance for Parents By: Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright (2003)

Also, to all who follow this blog, Miz Sharon has a wonderful blog you may want to check out.  She regularly presents interesting "finds" (mostly dealing with writing) she's discovered on the internet.  You may want to check it out.

So please let me know if this helps, if this addresses your concerns, and please let me and others following know what has and has not worked for you.  Finally, like Miz Sharon, please feel free to ask for information on any of your child's learning issues.

Thanks, I hope to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Graphic Novels at Home and In School: A Dialogue

I spent this past weekend at the New York City ComicCon (comic convention) circulating with Jane Yolen, Joe Kelly, Magneto, Thor, Wonder Woman, and many others I didn't recognize.  It is a world which I initially entered tepidly, but am now curiously approaching (nay I say embracing?).

As a parent, I was apprehensive my kids would abandon classic literature and I was apprehensive about violence.  I was concerned every next word out of their mouths would require parental censoring. But, my kids express themselves beautifully and appropriately and my comic-reading kids read - everything - avidly.  My daughter majored in classic literature in college; my son  after consuming Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (a Young Adult novel) read Dante's Inferno because  he read that Pullman's story was based on Dante's work.  As a parent and avid reader, I realize now that one format influences, supports, and enhances the other.  As an educator and psychologist I am realizing that aside from enticing reluctant readers, graphic novels can and should be used at home and in the classroom - in terms of content, format, and skills they tap and reinforce.  The catch - finding appropriate material (which is getting easier and easier).

Overview:  Graphic novels have changed dramatically and are a force to be reckoned with.  In a world of visual images (on billboards, phone apps, television - just about everywhere), graphic novels are becoming enticing educational tools that can help our kids learn, read, critically evaluate and communicate - on many levels. 

The challenge:  finding comics, manga, and graphic novels appropriate for your kids.  This too is becoming much easier thanks to many fine publishers and careful reading and reporting by  The School Library Journal which is an excellent resource in finding just the right comics for your child.

History:  As a kid I grew up with Archie and Veronica, Batman and Robin and a few others, and never fully embraced the world of comics.  In all honesty there wasn't much to embrace.  Born in the 1950's, I was and am a product of my time.  Comic art and graphics was in its infancy.  The comics I read told short stories  of limited plot and character depth, and politics was rearing its ugly neck in censorship.

In 1954 Frederick Wertheim, in his "Seduction of the Innocent" argued that the then-popular comics such as Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Superman and the then newly devloping "Tales from the Crypt" and The Vault of Horror" directly impacted on youth and led to violent delinquency.  Wertheimer's publication led to a subcommittee investigation which forced comic book producers to draw up a self-imposed "Comic Code Authority" restricting sex, violence, curse words and criticism of religion.  Many distributors refused to sell comic books, many comic book companies disappeared, DC Comics became a shadow of its former self and Marvel Comics (then called Atlas Comics) was almost forced to fold.

Today:  Comic books and graphic novels are an alternate format for story telling that come in many different genres.  There are still many challenges to Graphic Novels today, but they've come a long way. Graphic novels are now typically printed in serial format.  As a result there is tremendous character depth.  The plots are intricate and the messages quite powerful as they incorporate visual and printed mediums in numerous genres: 
  • Science Fiction
  • Non Fiction
  • Humor
  • Super Hero
  • Romance
  • Classics
  • Western
  • Historical
What Can Graphic Novels Offer Your Kids?  The list below is introductory and only touches the tip of the iceberg.  I plan to develop and explore graphic novels in greater detail in future blog posts - detailing and expanding their educational value and providing appropriate reading lists for your kids. In short, graphic novels:
  • Are visually enticing;
  • Usher the reluctant reader into a world of  rich story-telling, character development and graphic images;
  • Reinforce and strengthen sequencing skills (visual sequencing following the panels, cognitive sequencing following the story line and plot)
  • Reinforce and sharpen cognitive skills - especially problem solving and making inferences (since much of the plot and story are either provided visually in the art and inferred between panels);
  • Reinforce and sharpen attention skills as readers must integrate language and visual forms - attending not only to print but to the illustrations and graphic representations as well;
  • Often offer rich, challenging vocabulary;
  • Sharpen visual literacy in a world of bombarding visual images;
  • Further enrich  social skills and social cognition as their very nature evokes strong emotions as characters face diverse social issues.
Graphic Novels for Kids:  This weekend I was pleasantly surprised at the wealth of appropriate graphic novels for kids - even young kids.  First Second, Boom, Udon, Lerner, Scholastic, Abrams, Kids Can Press, Top Shelf, and Toon Books are just a few publishers with quality lines for kids.  Check them out on your own, and come visit them on future blog posts here, and please let me know what you think and find.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ways Around Exceptions: Handwriting and Dysgraphia

I received so many (insightful) comments to my last blog I decided to expand it and talk about handwriting exceptions and dysgraphia.  First, some background:

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects written expression and makes the act of writing difficult.  Dysgraphics have signtificant difficlty writing or forming letters, keeping track of letter sequences, writing inconsistently sized letters, not using the space on the line or page appropriately, and/or exhibiting significant difficulty with spelling. Note that handwriting involves graphomotor processing so fine motor skills (sewing, drawing - using the fine hand muscles) and gross motor skills (skipping, walking, throwing - using large muscle groups) are not usually affected.

Last week I responded to a WSJ article which noted that writing by hand activates certain brain centers that promote learning.  My response was that handwriting trains the brain because it provides additional motor-memory pathways and associations.  My blog entry also discussed suggestions for boosting writing skills.

Follower comments: Susan, wrote that
"I found writing by hand arduous, so I took cryptic notes...Recopying by hand didn't work for me as I spent more brain cells on creating the perfect document than on absorbing the materials...My son...described...'I can't think and write at the same time'... While I'm not disputing your evidence or even your pro-handwriting argument, I do believe there are exceptions..."
Insights and Alternatives for Dysgraphics:  
  • Make visual representaitons - I assume that Susan's first comment about recopying was directed toward my suggestion that  making study notes can help create memory and recall paths.  While this is true for most students, Susan is correct -IF your child directs most of his or her attention to spelling and forming letters, this method of study will not be effective.   What may work better is making visual graphs/charts/diagrams/time lines when applicable.  The point is that by creating different ways of visualizing and or summarizing the material you provide additional paths for memory and recall.  What may also work is not caring about the neatness or spelling (at least when writing for him or herself) and making study notes for personal review. [I realize not all dysgraphics can or want to do this - it is merely a suggestion.]
  • Attention:  Susan's son's quote, "I can't think and write at the same time" clearly illustrates the demands on attention that writing places.  For many, especially dysgraphics, so much attention must be placed on recalling sequences, shapes, size, available work space, sounds, and patterns, that little is left for cognition and learning.  
  • FIRST get thoughts down.  When, as with Susan's son, attention is so drained, I recommend that first your child get his or her thoughts down and organized.  This can be in what my husband calls, "chicken scratch" or on a computer.  It can be written in outline, in graphic representation, or on post-it notes (that can be shuffled and organized when expressing sequences of thoughts or events).  Don't worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation - just get the ideas down.  Focus on spelling, grammar, etc. can occur during the editing phase (which we all must do regardless of strengths and weaknesses).
  • Keyboarding.  One obvious alternative for dysgraphics is to keyboard information. Note, however, that some dysgraphics (my son and twilightme's grandchild are two) still prefer taking notes by hand (which only they can decipher) over keyboarding.  For school papers, however, my son keyboards.  [Note that because handwriting was so arduous for my son, he learned to express himself succinctly and accurately - the less he had to write the better.]
  • Pen/pencil grips - When handwriting sometimes the pencil grip is an issue.  In this case try using different types of pen/pencil grips.  My son had more of a sensory-integration issue (he was too sensitive to the paper and grip and pencil) and the grip did not help.   As with most interventions, some help some but not others, my advice is to try and if necessary move on if not effective.
  • Graph paper - For those who have trouble with letter size, experts suggest practicing print hand writing on large-boxed graph paper, using one square per letter.  IF you want to pursue this, I recommend this practice be done at home in private, without worrying about teachers or peers looking on.
  • Provide work space - In sixth grade my son had a lovely seasoned, dedicated, sensitive math teacher.  My son, who is actually quite good in math was failing because this teacher put 30 problems on one page with _______ spaces for the answer and no room to work out the problem.  The teacher expected his students to turn the page over and show work there.  My son's problem was that his 3's became 8's and 4's became 9's, etc.  At that point his teacher was testing my son's copying ability (which he obviously failed).  After convincing the teacher to keep the same problems while providing work space directly on the page (and not have students turn it over or recopy to work) my son earned A's not F's.  The point:  make sure your child has enough space to work in.  If not, talk to his or her teacher about it.
  • Sequencing - IF your child has difficulty with letter sequence, please go through earlier blog entries as many recommend fun activities are provided to help boost sequencing skills (and note that more entries will follow).
  • Twilightme, in her comments made another suggestion:
    I'd like to mention a product to add to your list. I co-write a blog for an inventor who developed a dry erase paddle that is ideal for many of the things you suggest in this post. Here is the link to KleenSlate Concepts  Check out the products and the blog. The paddle and the erasers definitely promote active writing and active learning.
These are just a few suggestions.  As Susan appropriately notes there are always exceptions and that is really what my blogs are about:  understanding school's demands, understanding your child's strengths and weaknesses and tweaking solutions that fit in an effort to enhance strengths and boost weaknesses.  I hope you continue to follow and comment as we continue this journey.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No Brainer: Handwriting Trains the Brain By Creating Multiple Memory Paths

Tuesday's Wall Street "Personal" Journal (October 5, 2010 page D1) headline article ("How Handwriting Trains the Brain"  by Gwendolyn Bounds) relates that writing by hand engages the brain in learning.  What she does not address is how.

How Handwriting Engages the Brain:  When writing by hand (with pen on paper or finger on an ipad), you are using more muscles and more memory pathways than when typing or keyboarding. As I wrote last week, writing involves many different brain activities and brain regions.  It involves memory (remembering letters, words, and ideas), attention (making sure you are writing what you want to write, in the right format, spelling and grammar), sequencing (making sure letter, words thoughts are expressed and written in the proper order), cognition (making sure you are addressing what you want to address, and generating and synthesizing original thoughts). 

Writing by hand provides additional brain channels and associations that trigger memory and cognition.    Picture a file cabinet with a lot of cross-filing!  By hand writing, your brain is involving more centers and more skills.  There are more ways your brain is recognizing, associating, processing and storing the information.

The good news:
  • New software for touch screen devices enables old and young to practice handwriting on the screen.  Hence practicing handwriting is a lot more fun.
  • Lower Schools still focus on handwriting.
  • Upper schools - I never thought I'd say this but there may be a silver lining to the SAT's as they require a handwritten essay.  Many high schools and SAT tutoring services address this. Your child is practicing not only handwriting skills (so graders can actually decipher the gist of the essay), they are working on developing and maintaining  multiple cognitive and memory pathways. 

Boosting the skills, without the traditional drills:
  • No matter how old your child is, provide handwriting opportunities.  Creating/writing birthday, anniversary, thank you cards, invitations, are easy ways to do this.  Your kids can draw, write, create messages, pop-up art while communicating a message.
  • For middle and upper school kids - encourage taking/making study notes, summary sheets.  The actual re-writing of the essential material is another way to involve and create memory and recall paths.
  • Leave notes for each other at home.  Have a message center -maybe the refrigerator, a box on the kitchen counter.  Leave notes for the Tooth Fairy and Santa.  Write chalk messages in your driveway.
  • Get in the habit of making checklists.  Write checklists for shopping, for remembering how to form an essay, for how to do long division, how to reboot the wireless router... (you get the idea).
  • Create and write up favorite recipes. 
In case you want more structured, directed handwriting drills, here are some iPad and iPhone software products Gwendolyn Bounds suggests in her article:
  • "WritePad" - a $3.99 application for the iPhone that accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus and then converts it to text (for email, documents, or Twitter updates).
  • "abc PocketPhonics" - a $1.99 app (again for the iPhone) that instructs kids how to draw letters with their fingers or stylus.  Cheering pencils appear with correct movements.

Maybe you have other suggestions.  I know we'd all like to read them, so please leave suggestions, further questions or comments!