This article was originally written and published in 2012 by RDI® Certified Consultant Libby Majewski
During Independent Education Plan (IEP) season, parents everywhere are preparing, researching, talking to other parents, consulting with advocates, case managers, and a variety of professionals. All in hopes of hitting the nail on the head and creating a comprehensive plan that will take their special needs child to the next level, academically and otherwise.
As one of those parents, you may be thinking that maybe next year will be the year your child will flourish and become more independent, more social, more engaged. That is definitely possible. A lot of that will depend, of course, on what type of approach you take with your child in the home setting. It is my feeling as a developmental consultant that home is the best place to start working on addressing your child’s deficits, whatever they may be. However, with the right IEP, a lot can be accomplished as well. In my experience, shifting the focus to developmental growth in an IEP can dramatically alleviate a child’s stress level and improve their functioning both at home and school.
Chances are your child’s IEP this year will focus on academic objectives and outlining special services like speech and occupational therapy. Social skills may also be represented in the document. Of course, all these things are important. Sometimes, however, they are just too much too soon. Children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a related disorder, for example, often are not prepared to “use” the academic and even social skills they are learning in school in a meaningful way. This often leaves the child and the parents frustrated with feelings of incompetency. As a consultant with over 17 years of experience writing IEP goals and objectives, I have learned a few important things for us as parents and professionals to consider during the IEP process.
One of the most important things, I believe, when writing IEP goals or accommodations, is to meet them where they are. In a nutshell, meeting your special needs child “where they are‟ means understanding and programming for where they are not just in their academics but also in their socio-emotional development. It is upon this rock that everything else grows and takes flight. Requesting (or, requiring) your child’s school to do the same is extremely important.
As a parent, you can and should encourage all those who come into contact with your child to understand where they are in terms of not just their academic level but also in their socio-emotional development. Teachers can and should begin to provide opportunities that will not overwhelm your child or make them feel incompetent.
It is important to understand that your child’s teacher and entire team may need support and even training to learn how to put these accommodations in place. You may also need to gently push your team towards an understanding of the developmental importance of these items and how not programming for them can negatively impact your child’s progress in the classroom.
Our team of developmental consultants strongly recommends for our clients to request certain accommodations in their child’s IEP that focus on developmental milestones that are often overlooked by others.
Here is a list of possible accommodations that can be built into your child’s IEP that will help alleviate stress, increase feelings of overall competency, and improve functioning in and out of the classroom.
As a parent of a special needs child, consider requesting your child’s teacher and staff to:
1. “Go Non-Verbal” and increase their use of non-verbal communication. This includes increasing the use of gestures, facial expressions, and body language. A shrug indicating “I don’t know”, a
point indicating that an item they are looking for is “over there”, a confused look – these are all things that can go a long way in encouraging your child to reference the most important thing in the room (and it’s not the paper and pencil), it’s the teacher!
2. Go for quality over quantity when it comes to language and limit their use of spoken language including lengthy explanations, instructions, questions, and prompted responses and conversations. I am well aware that this request is one that seems contradictory to what schools are trying to accomplish with children who struggle with language (and that the goal is typically to get them to talk more). However, the children we see who struggle with language (both processing and use of expressive language) often are at pre-verbal stage developmentally and can quickly become overwhelmed and confused by language. This often sparks behaviors as the child tries to make sense of their environment and reduce their confusion and anxiety by fighting for control.
3. Talk to share experiences – teachers can enhance the student-teacher relationship by increasing language that focuses on sharing experiences (“I’m so hungry today!”, “Oops, I made a mistake. I’ll try again,” “I think it’s going to rain today”) rather than focusing on questions or quizzing them on seeing what they have learned or are retaining. Increasing this type of communication serves as a model for children to use their language in a more meaningful and shared way that is quite natural and invaluable for children’s language and communication development.
4. Decrease prompt dependency by drastically decreasing the use of direct prompts so that your child begins to engage in more problem solving and cognitive growth. This means that you will have to request the teacher and staff to NOT directly tell your child what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. No more telling them, “You need a pencil. Take out your pencil box and open it.” Rather, ask them to increase their use of indirect prompts. In the pencil example, this would look like “Hmm, you need something…I bet you can find it.” And then, wait!
5. Implement “The 30 Second Rule” and increase “wait time” – children with special needs like ASD and related disorders often have processing issues and therefore they can quickly become reliant on those around them to problem solve and take action. However, they are often very capable of doing a lot more than we think they are capable of…if only given the time to process and figure out what they need to do next. So, asking your childs teacher and support staff to wait after they ask a question or give a direction, give an indirect prompt (“Uh oh!” while pointing to floor when something has fallen and shifting gaze back and forth from child to the floor) is a wonderful way to increase your child’s confidence and ability to learn that they can figure things out on their own. Remember, patience is a virtue.
6. Implement “A Picture a Day” and incorporate the use of pictures in the classroom to help your child encode positive memories about their own personal accomplishments or positive interactions with their peers. Autobiographical memory is often very weak or non-existent in children with ASD and related disorders. This means that they do not hold on to memories of positive personal memories in the same way as their neurotypical peers do. They may not remember the emotional feeling they had during a great experience working with a peer on a class project or that they shared a funny moment with a peer. And, if they do not remember the feelings of shared success or shared humor, how can we expect that they would bother to do it again? What is the point in seeking out that peer again tomorrow?
With this in mind, it is up to the adults around your child to help them encode positive moments in their memory. Taking pictures on a regular basis, printing them out, and reviewing the pictures with your child daily is something you can ask to be put into your child‟s IEP this year. Then, a simple “Memory Book” can be created (with your child‟s help to personalize it by decorating it, making title page, etc) and reviewed on a regular basis to help your child encode those memories.
If the list above seems to be a lot to ask for all at once, start with just one or two and work from there. If you are doing these things at home, communicate to the school and teachers how it is helping and give examples. In the end, you may need to enlist the help of a consultant who is experienced in working with schools to help them understand what you are hoping to accomplish for your child and their future.