Thursday, January 3, 2013

Back to School Again

Sky went back to school this week, so we've been talking and thinking about ways to improve upon last semester. Here's what he took to school with him on the first day back from break:

(Yes, I know the snacks aren't organic, but do you know how hard it is to find casein-free, gluten-free, organic snacks in the rural Midwest?).

Click here to see some of what Sky took with him on the first day last fall.


And, here is an excerpt from a series of e-mails I sent to his teacher in preparation for the start of the second semester. I wonder if those of you out there with ASD kids have to explain things like this throughout the school year, too? I feel like I am telling them the same story over and over and over again. I can't decide if I am being an overbearing jerk or persistently helpful, but I want to do whatever I can to make sure Sky feels like he is being heard. And the good thing about his school is that the teachers are willing to implement various interventions as long as I keep educating them about what works.

Dear Mrs. N,

Before the break, I noticed that many of the incidents recorded on his daily behavior log had to do with blurting, speaking inappropriately or out of turn, and crashing into others. These are certainly behaviors we want to help him better control, but they are also the very things his PDD-NOS makes difficult for him. It makes sense to have him to write his name in the book to remind him about/alert him to the inappropriate behaviors, but taking away his recess time is counterproductive for several reasons.*

First, like many other ASD kids, Sky doesn't respond well to negative reinforcement in the form of punishment. It merely stresses him out without actually changing the undesirable behavior (and sometimes even worsens the behavior due to his frustration and anxiety), particularly in cases where the behavior is related to his issues like blurting, crashing, and poor use of pragmatic language. Second, punishments that make him stick out from his peers can serve to further alienate him from them because he feels even more different than usual. Finally, having Sky miss recess deprives him of much needed stress/energy release as well as important opportunities to continue to work on his social skills. If he must miss recess, is it possible to give him something constructive to do such as reading or maybe even practicing social stories that would help him better manage his behavior in class?

Sky is motivated by positive reinforcement. So, perhaps you could come up with a system in which he gets one point on days when he only gets his name in the book once and two points when he doesn't have to write it at all. Then after he accumulates a certain number of points, maybe he could be rewarded with computer lab time or something else that he enjoys. Something like this which focuses on rewarding the acquisition of desired behavior instead of punishing failures he can't always control should be more effective and is also more in line with current thinking regarding autism education.


Blah, blah, blah. I'm beginning to feel like a broken record, but fortunately, Sky's teachers always seem willing to talk with me and work with me to help Sky regroup and carry on. And, lately, I have been thinking that maybe things with school aren't so bad. I mean, in many ways, Sky's an imperfect egg, so he will always struggle a bit. But much of what he is doing is going quite well. He participates in extracurricular activities with his peers. He does fine academically and seems to have supportive friends at school. And, his teachers seem patient and willing to work with him despite the time and energy he can require of them.

I constantly wonder whether we should keep him in his private school, where classes are small, the teachers are accessible and helpful, and he knows and is familiar with all of the kids in his grade. Or, whether we should move him to public school, which would save us money and give him access to free special education support. He gets some where he is now, but not much. The problem, though, is that there is no guarantee things would be much better in public school. Because he does well academically, I don't know that he would fit the profile of kids who could access more services than he already gets in his current setting. I have a feeling I would have to fight long and hard to get him any support at all, and even then it would probably wind up being more time for tests, placing his desk at the front of the room, and allowing him to bring fidget toys to class (all of which he already gets at his current school). Plus, the public school classes are larger, and he would be exposed to more kids about whom I know nothing. When you have a kid who learns to interact solely by modeling his peers, this is big. It's vital for me to know who his peers are and to have some say over the type of influences he encounters. A private, religious school enables me to do that.

Home schooling is not an option for us, but if you have any suggestions regarding the public versus private question, I am all ears! Please help me figure this out, so I don't have to worry about it so much!

* At Sky's school, kids who have to write their "names in the book" more than once per day lose part or all of their recess. This is something I have to "negotiate" with teachers every year.


Anonymous said...

I work as a special education parapro in a public elementary school, and my advice would be to look into the public schools in your area. You could attempt to talk to teachers, parents, administrators, the special education director, etc. That might give you a better feel for how Sky's needs might be met there. Are the teachers receptive to continued parental input? (Hopefully they encourage it.) Are there so many special education students that you feel Sky may get lost in the crowd or not get the type of attention he needs? Do the teachers keep to a good routine? (And would moving schools upset Sky's routine?) Do the teachers make good behavior plans, the type that Sky needs?

If you decide to transfer Sky to a public school, I highly recommend asking his teachers and administrators at his current school to draw up some sort of IEP if he doesn't already have one. (I know that many private schools may not do IEPs.) It would be much easier on everyone involved to draw up paperwork stating Sky's needs and necessary accommodations at the school that already knows him than to sit through endless meetings SST and IEP meetings as his new school decides on accommodations.

I think you are 100% right in recognizing that though public schools have more free special education resources, there are also drawbacks depending on the child. If Sky's academics are good, it may take longer to get all of his accommodations settled. During the meantime, his teachers may or not make accommodations on their own.

There is, in general, a much greater variety of resources available to special education students in public schools (there are also a greater variety of students who need them). Public schools also have the option of bringing in employees from elsewhere in the district to work with certain students. Another major pro is the IEP, which is strictly followed at all times and ensures that Sky's teacher are all aware of (and legally required to meet/offer) the necessary tools to meet Sky's goals.

Anonymous said...

Same commenter here. I just wanted to add that we had one super-amazing mom show up to enroll her son with copies of all her son's paperwork in hand. It took his old school three weeks to fax us the paperwork, but thankfully the mom had already brought everything we needed. It was wonderful and came in handy every time her son had a meltdown. Being "that parent" (the one who is constantly in touch and making suggestions) is a beautiful thing when your child has specific needs, and although the teachers may give you looks or occasionally grumble, it really makes the whole thing run more smoothly.

I also wanted to add that I work with kids who have a variety of reasons for being in special education programs, and many of them have ASD. One in particular seems similar to your descriptions of Sky's needs, and despite her high academic ability, she is enrolled in several classes geared towards students who need academic support help. This is not because all children in the SPED program take them, but because the classes are smaller and there are fewer distractions and chances of sensory overload. Plus, there is more individualized attention.

You know that you are your son's best advocate, and I wish I could tell you that the public school system will make things easy on you. Sadly, the same laws that make IEPs and 504s binding require that schools take time to evaluate students who might need special education resources. I am proud of the school system where I work (not in your area) and I know that we care very much about our students and want to make learning as stress-free and positive for them as possible. It's just that a lot of rules and red tape put in place to protect children from being mis-labeled can be very unhelpful when you already have a diagnosis.

Anonymous said...

Not the same person as above, but I do have to clarify that although in public schools the IEP SHOULD be strictly followed at all times, it isn't always followed.

Shelley said...

My daughter attends a small Catholic grade school with 135 students. She is neurotypical so I have no experience with your ASD struggle, but I love her school for many of the same reasons you do. The majority of kids there have like-minded parents with the same values I have. She is much less likely to be exposed to things I don't want her exposed to yet (according to what I hear from her friend's mom, whose daughter attends public school). Respect for others is valued highly. There are 17 kids in her class and there is only one class for each grade, so she's been with the same kids throughout school. Everyone knows who she is and she knows everyone's name. In a *very* general way she is similar to your son only in that academically she is golden; her issues are more social and emotional. She is quite shy and sensitive, with a tendency to cry easily and become anxious easily. Most of the teachers/admin. there, as well as her classmates and many of the other kids, know this and accommodate her (most of the time). This makes school a safe place for her, although she still struggles with anxiety. My intention is not to slam public schools in any way here - our city actually has an excellent school system. But besides the religious aspect, this school just "fits" her and I think it allows her to progress in a way she may not be able to do in a larger, more chaotic setting. I do worry about her transition to high school in a few years, as the closest Catholic high school is 45 minutes away so she will probably not go there. In any case, I know our situation is quite different than yours so my thoughts may not be very helpful, but I share them because our schools seem very similar. Peace...