As a school psychologist, I work in the public school system as part of a play-based assessment team. I am mostly responsible for evaluating children aged three to five for autism, emotional disturbance, and intellectual disability. Because I evaluate 3-5 year olds, it is often the very first experience the family has had with the special education process. As such, I’ve often found myself wondering how to help these parents who are just beginning to learn about their child’s impairment, while simultaneously navigating the waters of parenthood from a slightly different perspective than most. I sought out to create simple, concrete behavioral resources that will foster immediate results for parents. My hope is to play a small role in alleviating some of the behavioral outbursts that parents of children with autism or other communication impairments face on a daily basis, such as navigating the community and performing activities of daily living with their children.
Navigating the World of Early Childhood Special Education:
There is widespread empirical data to support two important facts regarding autism:
1. The earlier a child receives intervention, the greater his or her gains will be, and
2. The more intensive the intervention (i.e. fifteen hours per week or more), the greater his or her gains will be
If you are concerned about your child’s social-emotional, language, physical, or cognitive development, early intervention is key! Early intervention focuses on helping children from birth to age three reach the developmental milestones that typically occur during these years of life. It is available in every state as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education ACT (IDEA) Part C. Although the guidelines for each state differ slightly, parents are encouraged to contact their local program directly and request to have their child evaluated under Part C of IDEA if developmental concerns exist. This evaluation is provided free of charge, as it is funded by the federal and state government.
If your child has already had his or her third birthday, they can still be evaluated at no cost; however, the evaluation will occur through the public school system governed by a program called Child Find. In order to pursue an evaluation for a child older than three, parents will need to contact their school district’s special education program director or Child Find coordinator and inquire about evaluation services. Although the evaluation process will differ from state to state, parents can expect the following to occur in regards to the evaluation:
The evaluation team will be comprised of professionals who are trained in all areas of early childhood development. Members of this time typically consist of a speech therapist, physical and/or occupational therapist, school psychologist, educational diagnostician, and occasionally a social worker.
The evaluation will consist of a combination of formal and informal data collection. For example, the team will administer standardized assessments and rating scales in conjunction with parent interview, observations of your child, and anecdotal information provided by caregivers.
The evaluation will be completed in a pre-specified timeline; most commonly within 45 school days although this differs according to each state.
An integrated report (most commonly referred to as a Full and Individual Evaluation) will be written by the assessment team. This report will clarify whether or not your child meets eligibility criteria for special education services according to IDEA guidelines.
Once an eligibility is determined, the assessment team will request to hold an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for your child. At this meeting, specific services (such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.) will be recommended. This is a collaborative meeting in which parents are encouraged to provide their input regarding which strategies, techniques, and accommodations will work best in regards to educating their child.
In my experience, parents can occasionally feel overwhelmed with the evaluation process and are hesitant to provide their input because they feel intimidated. It is my hope that parents truly feel that the evaluation is a collaborative process and that their input is of utmost importance and crucial to the development of an appropriate plan for their child. You know your child the best! You know what motivates them, what makes them act more withdrawn, what triggers their outbursts, etc. The following are a just a few simple ways to advocate for your child throughout the evaluation process:
DURING THE EVALUATION:
Be very clear about your current concerns in all areas of functioning:
Social-emotional: How does your child interact with others? Does he appear more withdrawn or inhibited? Is he overly impulsive? Does he engage in emotional outbursts? Can he regulate these behaviors independently?
Communication: Be specific about receptive, expressive, pragmatic, articulation skills. (Expressive language is the ability to use vocabulary and put words together into sentences to express yourself. Receptive language is about understanding what is said to you. Pragmatic language deals with the social use of language. Articulation is the formation of clear and distinct sounds in speech.)
Physical: Discuss any fine or gross motor concerns (Fine motor skills are movements that use the small muscles of the fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and tongue. Gross motor skills are the bigger movements that use the large muscles in the arms, legs, torso, and feet.)
Cognitive: While most parents associate cognitive skills with pre-academic skills (such as identifying letters, numbers, shapes, and colors), other aspects of cognition are equally important. These aspects include memory, attention, complexity of play and social cognition. Does your child seem to forget newly acquired skills easily or have difficulty remembering routines? Does she have a short attention span? Does her play consist of mostly one-step sequences or repetitive behaviors with the same toy?
Adaptive behavior: Consists of self-help skills like toileting, independently using utensils, daily living routines such as dressing, washing, bathing, etc. Do you feel that your child is lagging in regards to typical activities of daily living?
PRIOR TO THE IEP MEETING:
Ask the evaluation team to meet with you to review their evaluation report a few days BEFORE the IEP meeting. This allows you to go home and digest the information provided by the report before attending an IEP meeting. It is a legal requirement that the evaluation team provides their report to you five days prior to the IEP meeting; however, some states abide by this guideline more thoroughly than others.
Once the evaluation team tells you their proposals, go home and research accommodations that are proven to be effective when combating these concerns in the classroom. For example, visual schedules, picture exchange communication systems, “first/then” boards, etc.
Begin to immerse yourself in the special education lingo. At the IEP meeting, therapists may use terms like “direct” or “indirect” services, or “pull-out”/”push-in”. This simply refers to the concept of taking your child out of the classroom for therapy versus working with your child in the classroom setting.
AT THE IEP MEETING:
Service providers will propose a schedule of services for your child. For example, the speech therapist may propose that she will work with your child directly for thirty minutes sessions two times per week. If you feel that your child may require more service time, do not be afraid to ask. Conversely, if you feel that your child will be unable to maintain attention for thirty minutes at a time, request that these sessions be split up into more manageable chunks.
Request accommodations that you think will be helpful for your child. You know your child the best. For example, if hyperactivity or impulsivity is a concern, the popular trend nowadays is to provide a “fidget toy” or some other handheld item, but make sure that other evidence-based accommodations (such as preferential seating, access to visual schedules, shortening the length of homework and classwork assignments, and restating test questions) are not overlooked.
Make sure the IEP team is very clear about topics such as extended school year services, transportation, the amount and type of therapies that will be provided to your child, how they will monitor your child’s progress through the curriculum, whether or not your child will take district/state testing (with or without the agreed upon accommodations), and how much time your child will be exposed to typically functioning students. The goal is to provide necessary services while including your child in the general education setting as much as possible.
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that YOU are an active part of the IEP team. The more prepared you are, the more likely you will be to ask the questions that will ensure your child is provided the education that he or she needs in order to be successful. Being knowledgeable about the IEP process in advance will allow you to focus less on the semantics and more on creating an individualized plan that is most appropriate for your child.
AFTER THE IEP MEETING:
Whenever your child begins his or her services in the public education system, it is crucial to maintain open communication between all parties, including outside service providers when applicable. If your child’s special education teacher has developed strategies that help to curtail behaviors in the classroom, utilizing those same strategies in the home setting will help your child generalize across settings.
Some districts offer parent training as a related service. If you continue to struggle with behavioral concerns in the home setting, yet the teacher has developed strategies to alleviate concerns in the school setting, it may be beneficial to inquire about parent training services.
Below are some of the most common behavioral interventions that special education teachers utilize in the classroom:
“First/Then” Boards: Children who have difficulty expressing themselves or completing tasks often require assistance in the form of visual prompts. The “First/Then” board is a visual prompt which aids in keeping your child on task and behaving appropriately by providing them with simple, concrete reminders. Simply provide the prompt, “First we will _______________ (first task), next we will _______________ (second task), and then you can ____________ (reward). The teacher will pair this verbal prompt with pictures so that your child understands what he or she is responsible for completing.
Visual Schedules: Visual schedules are similar to “First/Then” boards in that they pair requests for action with pictures. This aids in keeping your child on task and behaving appropriately by providing them with simple, concrete reminders of the next task they will be required to complete. It is helpful for children who struggle with attention, as well as children who struggle with rigidity and changes to their routine.
Token Systems: Although this may sound like an unfamiliar concept, odds are you use a modified version of a token system on a daily basis. The function is relatively simple: Tokens (such as pieces of paper, coins, or poker chips) can be traded in for access to a variety of rewards (including activities or inexpensive items) in return for good behavior. Children perform better on tasks whenever an immediate incentive is provided. The purpose of the token system is to make the abstract concept of following an adult directive appear more concrete by providing a visual representation to the child. It can be used to complete academic routines, such as homework completion (for example, the child receives one token per 5 math problems completed, or one token per correct spelling word). It can also be used to facilitate communication and peer interaction (for example, earning a token when making appropriate eye contact or when using appropriate verbal and non-verbal communication).
If your child’s teacher is not utilizing any of the above techniques and you feel that they may be beneficial, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask that they be incorporated into his or her educational plan. Better yet, ask that she make an extra copy for you to use at home or download them from my shop, www.RootsToGrowth.com/shop/ and mention them at your next parent-teacher conference or annual IEP meeting!
Although autism is labeled as a disorder, I like to think of it simply as a different way of viewing the world. In the same way that every child’s personality is different, autism looks different for every single child. That’s why individualized education plans are so important. All that we, as professionals and educators, hope to do is assist you in any way possible. If we can make your journey even a slight bit easier to navigate, we count that as a victory. While autism doesn’t come with a manual, it has been my experience that it comes with the strongest parents I have ever met.
For more information and to download Chelsi’s helpful visuals, please visit www.RootsToGrowth.com