Parental Rights: Obtaining Information from your School System

One of the most serious topics that I often have to deal with is dissemination of information on parental rights.  School systems tend to stay mum when it comes to providing accurate, easy to follow, and up-to-date information on how to follow proper procedures when a parent feels that the rights of his/her child have been violated.  I have often encountered those professionals who are simply afraid to mention next steps in regards to disagreement on children’s IEPs (Individualized Educational Plan), will not answer questions about the filing of impartial hearings, fail to point to guidelines and procedures, or simply withhold information that could be useful to a parent in making an informed decision.

Our world has changed for the better in many aspects, but professionals within school systems are still afraid that they could be penalized for expanding parent’s choices since those choices can come at an additional cost to the system.  For example, if your child has an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) that recommends that for the majority of the school day, he/she is to receive instruction in a 12.1.1 setting (12 students/1 teacher/1 assistant), and your child has not been receiving this type of instruction, then you can request mediation or an impartial hearing to resolve the issue.  Sometimes the issue can be resolved at the school level, sometimes a transfer is necessary, and some other times even a private school may be needed.  In the latter case, the school system is liable to reimburse the parent for school tuition, since federal law clearly states that this is an educational right (Free Appropriate Public Education).

I was involved in a difficult situation just a few days ago.  One of my co-workers, under my guidance, informed a mother that in order to better serve the needs of her child (who needed a great degree of educational supports), she had the option of having him attend a particular school who could supply him with a much more specialized and tailored program.  Of course, if she desired, she could also send both her children, the child who needs a special program and his brother in general education, to the closest school.  They would both be together at this location, and the school would have to figure out a way to service the child with special needs as they do not have a ready-made setting, but the option was also available.  The parent chose to have the siblings in separate schools but felt that this was the best setting for each child, therefore tailoring her children’s education to their needs, rather than using a cookie-cutter formula.

When the above situation was revealed to one of the administrators in the division that manages student enrollment for this school system, I was asked to not have these conversations with parents again, as the choice should have never been on the parent.  The administrator referenced the system’s new guidelines and explained how students’ disability status could not be taken into consideration.  This is a great misunderstanding, as the point of the new guidelines is to expand parental choice, so as to not confine the parent to only one choice, a choice that would only be based on the child’s disability.  However, it is perfectly all right, actually desirable, for a parent to have this information and made the choice based on the information that she has been provided.  This is the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education in his or her Least Restrictive Environment (more on this to come).

When it comes to dealing with school systems, your best option is to ASK, ASK, and ASK.  Don’t forget to drop me a line if you would like to get in touch with me!

Only by asking you will know!

Integration vs. Inclusion

I was recently talking to a group of people from work, a group of counselors and former educators, about the Department of Education’s policy* and efforts on integration and policy change based on this premise.  The integration that the department is targeting relates to efforts in ensuring that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, housing status, and disability status are represented in all schools, and districts without zoning rules are encouraged and programmed to participate in these efforts more fully, as they are not bound by address rules (zoning implies that a family’s address determines where the child/children go to school).

My contention with the term “integration” stems from my perception on what the term means.  I’m a much bigger proponent of the term “inclusion” as “integration,” in my view, implies that a group of people (namely students of color, students of low socioeconomic status, students in shelters or students with disabilities) have a lesser standing in society and need to be brought into the mainstream, need to be assimilated by the mainstream, and need to be educated so that they are up to par, hence, they need to be “integrated.”  The term “inclusion” on the other hand, implies, in my view, that regardless of the student’s status, the mainstream needs to make the effort to accept and incorporate those students in all areas of life.  Inclusion implies a general character and pertains to an effort from all involved.

Of course, I have colleagues that work in this arena as well, who prefer other terminology.  Even the term “inclusion,” for some of them, is not enough to capture the spirit behind what we are trying to accomplish.  Inclusion, they contend, implies that there is a group of people (people in temporary housing, people with disabilities, you name it), who have a lower standing and therefore need to be included.  They prefer terms such as “coexisting” because terms like do not presuppose any particular standing (higher or lower) within society.  I can clearly see why they take this approach and why they practice using this terminology. 

Do you have any thoughts about these terms?  What do they mean to you?  What kinds of feelings do they provoke? 

Share your thoughts below!

Love & Hugs,

Dr. Klimek

*location to be disclosed at a future date

Coexisting together as an inclusive family!

Taking Responsibility for Our Village

As parents, we may be faced with difficult choices, difficult decisions, and sometimes we get a little sidetracked and lose sight of who we are. Families, and parents in particular, can become really pivotal figures in the development of their children. This is not to say that as parents we shouldn’t depend on a village to raise our children. Much to the contrary, we should keep the village in mind, but we also need to understand that each person within the village has a role that he or she must be responsible for.
It may be tempting to rely solely and exclusively on the knowledge and experience of another person, but the truth is that there is no replacement for the knowledge that we as parents, or as family members, can provide. Therefore, pointing fingers is not useful. Providing support is. Support comes in many different forms and in different directions. We are accustomed to talking about “support” as in coming from the professional to the family, but the family can also provide support to the professional.
In an ideal situation, collaboration is mutual, the village grows, and the knowledge is shared. For example, when a child is having a difficult time focusing on a particular toy, it is important to ask the parent if there was anything happening during the week that may have determined the behavior. The parent may provide information that will save time and frustration to the child, and the teacher may be able to introduce a novel toy so that the child can learn a new task. Support can be something that seems very simple but can have powerful consequences. Knowing that the child had a negative experience with the toy prevents frustration and promotes a positive learning environment.
Our village is richer, when we all collaborate. The questions still remains, what do we do in the face of frustrations? We look inside. There is a way to move forward. There is someone to reach out to. There is a helping hand.

If you are experiencing frustration, have questions, or just want connect, please leave me at the contact form below.

I’m so Afraid!

Your child’s education may seem like a puzzle, an enigma that is difficult to figure out. Sometimes it is overwhelming, and it is easier to freeze with fear than to push ahead. I want to tell you that it is ok to be afraid. It is also ok to not know what to do, to not have all the answers. We need to start somewhere, and sometimes where we start it is a place of fear. Making peace with fear and accepting that fear will be a factor that is present in our lives will make an impact and will help in moving forward.
How do we deal with fear? It is important to know, that even though “conquering fear” is a very popular concept, it is not a practical one. Fear is something to accept, live with, recognize, but never let it rule us. Fear is an emotion, just like any other. Fear should not overcome us. When we are overwhelmed by feelings of “what do I do next?” or “why would they listen to me?” it is important to say, “Fear, I know you, I understand you, but I have to put you aside for now.” This is how we move on. We continue to move forward in spite of our fear. We continue to push ahead. We continue to walk this journey, together with our fear.
So when fear strikes, and the IEP meeting is around the corner, we should still ask questions, even if we are shaking, even if we feel like our question is not worth asking. All questions are worth spending time on, and all fears are worth exploring. People that deal with these situations should be understanding. If they are not, the burden is not on you. It’s on them.
Take a deep breath, exhale, and feel the spark within yourself. You can do this. You are afraid, yes, but you can do this, for yourself, for your child, and for your family.
And as always, reach out to me with comments and questions. You are not alone.

I referred my child for an IEP, now what?

You have just made a very difficult decision: You have decided that your child may do better in school, and perhaps in other areas of life, if a special plan is put into place to help him/her achieve academically. Now that this decision has been made, and you are done writing the letter that will determine your child’s future, what do you do?
For starters, give yourself a pat on the back. There will be many decisions that you will be faced with in the future, many difficult decisions, and this is just one of them. Once you have taken some time to do this, realize that you need to vigilantly keep track of how the evaluation proceeds. The time that elapses between referral and IEP should not be more than sixty days.
The evaluation process will consist of a few steps, but most importantly, this is a time for the team (more on the “team” later) to start assessment planning to figure out what is needed in terms of assessment. Typically, this assessment will include a social history report (generally done by a social worker interviewing the parent), a Psychosocial assessment (typically performed by a school psychologist during school hours), and classroom observations. These evaluations will determine “eligibility,” which means whether a student qualifies for special education services, or not. What determines this? Three criteria are used: 1) The student must have a disability, 2) The disability must have an impact in the student’s learning, 3) This disability/impact cannot be addressed in the general education classroom.
As a parent, this process can be overwhelming. It can also be nerve-wrecking. It is difficult to stay calm and collected when you don’t know what decision will be made, and worse yet, wonder whether the decision that is made is the best for your child. As a parent though, you have the right to ask questions, follow up, express your opinion, and be a very active member of this evaluation. You can approach the social worker, the school psychologist, and even the teacher/s and school administrators with your questions or concerns. The purpose of the evaluation is to come up with the strongest plan possible, and careful planning is very important. Your role is important!
As always, if you have any questions or you just want to share your experience, do not hesitate to write me a note!

Love,
Dr. Klimek

Judgement & Isolation

All parents feel like they are being judged by friends, family, and sometimes even strangers. In the age of social media, everyone has an opinion about almost everything, and everyone has an opinion on how you should raise your child. It seems that everywhere you look, other parents are perfect while you are not. This leads to feelings of isolation. Typically, parent will continually turn inward when they need to reach out and seek help. Parenting is a community endeavor, but for many parents this can be a very lonely experience.
For special families, the feelings of isolation, of being constantly judged, can be even more pronounced. I have experienced it myself as a parent, as a sibling of a child with disabilities, and I have heard different people, relatives and strangers alike, talk about how flawed my parents were in raising my brother. In their view, they could have done it better.
Truth is, being a parent is a very difficult job. Being a parent is a job that should be accomplished not by parents alone, but by parents supported by their communities. Humans are social animals, and as such, we need to be in contact with one another. Being judged leads to parents behaving in just the opposite way, and it is not conducive to growth, both parental and children’s growth alike.
What should we do when we feel that we are being judged? Should we retreat to ourselves? No matter how strong the urge to retreat may be, we need to remind ourselves that this is not the answer. Reaching out to others, using every “judgment” as a teaching moment, as an opportunity to tell others how it feels, is what we need to figure out. There is an opportunity to teach the world how we want to be seen, not how we want to be judged. There is an opportunity to teach others how to become more inclusive without any need for us to be reclusive.
If you have been isolated for some time, reach out to a friend or a professional. Reach out to an understanding relative. Remember the strength that comes from within you, the love for your child, and the support that can come from a community of people that care.
Please reach out to me if you are in need of guidance!

Love,
Dr. Klimek

The Greatest IDEA

Parents of children with disabilities are fighters. Children with disabilities didn’t have access to educational systems, or at least not to the extent that they do now. In November of 2015, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the federal law that guaranteed educational access for students with disabilities: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, signed by President Ford in 1975, and later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when reauthorized by President Clinton in 1997.
There was a movement that led to legislation, and that in turn, led to the passage of PL 94-142 (IDEA). Thanks to continued parental involvement, there was more legislation that was passed after that. Parents fought to have the rights of their children recognized as well as their own. Before the passage of IDEA, there was a substantial number of students with special needs who did not have adequate access to education. IDEA guaranteed this access and created a scaffold, a backbone so that new legislation can build upon it and protect our children.
If you are a parent, a family member of a child with special needs, never hesitate to pursue what’s best for your child. You have a lot of power within you, and being a family member puts you in a very special position. You can see things in a very unique way.
I know that when your child gets diagnosed, you may be shocked, in denial. If you are confused, are ambivalent, or are not sure how to start, what to say, please do not hesitate to contact me for guidance. You are not alone!
Love,
Dr. Klimek.

What is an IEP?

If your child was diagnosed with a disability, especially if this happened within the context of school, chances are that school personnel has approached you and has spoken to you about an “IEP.” In the shock of finding out that your child has a developmental disability, you may not even have had the strength to ask what it is. There are so many things in your mind!
IEP stands for Individualized Educational Plan. It is “individualized” because it belongs to your child and to your child alone. Each specific plan includes details that aim to capture the needs of each child, the level of functioning of each particular child, and delineates what is needed from now on. It is “educational” because this plan pertains to education and not to other areas of life. However, education does lead to other areas, such as vocational or post-secondary goals, and those areas are also covered on the IEP. It is a “plan” because it contains goals, objectives, methods, strategies, and a way to measure whether those goals have been attained. It is supposed to be assessed and revised accordingly over time.
IEPs are also legal documents that show what the student needs and what the student is entitled to. They clearly identify how a student best learns and the recommended settings and accommodations needed. This is very important as the family needs to be aware not only that the IEP exists, but also that this is a document that they have direct input on, access to, and also guarantees the exercise of parental rights, should a child not receive the services delineated on the IEP.
We will continue to talk about the many ramifications of a newly written IEP. In the meantime, please drop me a note if you have any questions.

Love,
Dr. Klimek

Help! My child was just diagnosed with a disability!

Your child has just been diagnosed with a disability and you are upset, confused, and angry.  You still can’t believe it and you are already getting the “fight or flee” feeling in your stomach.  What do you do?

First, take a deep breath.  I know, this sounds beyond difficult, impossible, but it is necessary right now.  Take a step back, and take a deep breath.  You will have time to revise the words later.  You will have time to look at reports, and you will have time to consult on them.  For right now, you will need to breathe.

Second, take a look at your child.  Your child needs you and will be there after the first shock of the news go away.  Enjoy being with your child.  Enjoy this moment.  At the risk of sounding cliché I will tell you that moments are precious and will not come back.  Your child will give you moments that will try your patience but will also give you moments of extreme joy.  Be with your child, right now.

Last, do something for yourself.  You will need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your child.  You will need the energy to be there and to fight.  You will need the energy to withdraw whenever necessary.  You will need the fortitude to be your child’s voice and your child’s advocate.

Above all, keep in mind that no ride through life is never without bumps.  Some rides may be bumpier than others, but it is your very own bumpy ride anyway!

Inclusion

What is Inclusion? The online dictionary Merriam Webster lists the fourth definition of this word as “the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular school classes.” This is a valid definition and a good start. However, the definition of Inclusion has expanded dramatically in the last few years thanks in part to the activism of families of people with disabilities, and people with disabilities themselves. Under the slogan “nothing about us without us,” people with disabilities and their families have started to create change and expand the meaning of Inclusion to different areas of society.
In New York City, families have organized a march for Disability Pride for the last four years, and one of the main reasons for this march is to bring awareness to the issue of Inclusion. Inclusion ensures that curbs allow for all of us to cross the streets, for traffic lights to announce when it’s time to cross, for signs that include Braille, for menus that include large print, pictures, Braille. This list is by no means exhaustive and continues to grow and we become a more and more inclusive society.
Our responsibility as families is to make sure that we are always on the look-out, that we are agents of change, that we promote Inclusion and inclusive practices and become open-minded to what this means. This may be as simple as letting our child, who has been attending a self-contained class in school, play in the school yard with general education peers and as ground breaking as being a group organizer demanding accessible curbs.
As families, we are uniquely positioned to be agents of change. We are our voices and our children’s voices. Let’s use every possible opportunity to be heard!