Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

April 07

Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

IEP Issues

Springtime means IEP time in a lot of school districts. As a behavioral consultant, I've had my fair share of IEP meetings that have gone smoothly and those that have been contentious. Often there are controversies surrounding the services a child should receive. Both parents and school personnel feel strongly about their position and coming to a consensus can seem impossible. However, I've also found that there are a number of critical areas that make it more or less likely parents will be willing to listen to what the school district has to offer. Here are common requests I hear from parents about IEP meetings.

  1. Focus on a child's true strengths. Sure there is a section on the IEP where a child's strengths are listed, but this section is sometimes glossed over or filled with platitudes. When a child with a challenging behavior issue is discussed, an IEP meeting can quickly become focused on that one behavior. When school personnel believe a child needs placed in a more restrictive environment, an IEP meeting can quickly become focused on all the difficulties a child has in his current placement. Behavior issues and difficulties in the classroom are obviously critical to discuss, but every child has his or her own unique strengths as well. Of course, platitudes should also be avoided. Every child is "a pleasure to work with." Many children with autism are "visual learners." These strengths are less insightful than ones such as: "learns labels more rapidly when pictures are used rather than objects or black and white drawings" or "responds well to peers - less likely to engage in disruptive behavior when a peer gives a direction." Parents are more likely to listen to a school's concerns if they feel the personnel truly know their child: both his or her strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Don't gloss over the weaknesses. Parents want a realistic picture of what their child can and cannot do. Parents feel a disconnect when a school system says a child is doing well and yet the parents are living at home with that same child who still shows signs of autism or struggles in certain areas. Even parents of children who are doing extremely well want to know: Where is my child behind his or her peers academically? What are the most critical concerns of the school staff? How is my son or daughter doing when it comes to making friends? Parents are more likely to listen to a school's recommendations if they feel the school is straightforward with the challenges that a child may still face.
  3. Make objectives as specific as possible. Measurable objectives are no doubt something that is drilled into teachers in many college education courses. Nevertheless, it is amazing how frequently objectives fail as indicators of progress or lack thereof. This is in part due to the ambiguity of language in general and in part due to a fundamental deficit in autism in which a skill taught in one format may not carry over to another format. Therefore, it is critical that IEP objectives outline exactly what will be measured. Is a child's performance expected to be receptive, expressive, or written? Will the child be responding to visual stimuli or to questions/instructions without visual stimuli? If visual stimuli will be used, will it always be the same visual stimuli or will materials vary? Exactly how many pictures, words, requests, etc. will be acquired by the end of the year? Parents are more likely to listen to a school's recommendations if they feel there is an unambiguous means of checking for progress.
  4. Include goals for peer interactions. A deficit in social interactions is a key feature of all children with autism. Yet, many IEP's focus on academics and/or functional living skills with little to no attention devoted to interactions with peers. Providing opportunities for peer interactions can be challenging in some cases. Yet, there are a wealth of strategies including reversed inclusion, peer buddy systems, lunch groups, and incidental activities throughout the day that can be used to reach these goals. Parents are more likely to listen to a school's recommendations if they feel the school system is making an effort to address all areas of need for their child, not just the standard needs of other children with disabilities.
  5. Don't focus on placement, focus on the services provided. All too frequently, the discussion moves from discussing goals and objectives to discussing where these goals and objectives will take place. However, parents are less interested in where the objectives will take place and more interested in how the objectives will be met. If the school believes a special education placement is appropriate, what services in that special education environment make it the appropriate place to learn? Is it because the child needs 1:1 instruction? Is it the fact that another child with similar needs can be used for small group learning? Are there particular features of that environment that are likely to help overcome a child's challenging behaviors? This is the information that parents often want to know. At the same time, when discussing services rather than placement, be ready to consider new strategies. If the special education environment is appropriate because it offers the service of 1:1 instruction, is it possible for that same 1:1 instruction to occur in the regular education classroom throughout the day? If special education allows for the service of group learning with just one or two other peers, is it possible to set up a similar group in the regular education environment and pull out one or two of those children who need additional help in a subject? Parents are more likely to listen to a school's recommendations if the school shows they are willing to first focus on the services that are unique to that child and only then discuss the best place in which these services can take place.
  6. Make sure to discuss the family's involvement. I've been to many IEP meetings in which parents have been informed of what they can't do (observe in the classroom more than once a month, hire an aide from school to also work in the home environment). I've only been to a few IEP meetings in which the parents were informed what they could or were encouraged to do. Schools often talk about "working closely with families" either in their mission statement or philosophy, but in IEP meetings, emphasis is often placed on the relationship between the school and the child, not the school, the child, and the family. Are there chances to volunteer? Are there special presentations or outings that the school offers to parents of children with disabilities? Will there be communication between home and school so that parents can be a part of acquiring, maintaining, and generalizing skills learned at school? Parents are more likely to listen to a school's recommendations if the school shows they are creating a collaborative environment in which both the school and family are involved in a child's education.

Would you like more information on other issues that often arise at school? Let us know here

The names of all children in this newsletter have been changed in respect for family confidentiality.

From the Editor

You asked. We'll answer. Thanks to the many suggestions submitted by readers of past newsletters, we are in the process of determining some of the content for our upcoming newsletters. We hope you'll keep sending us feedback so that we can continue to provide a resource you find of practical value. Below are some of the upcoming articles, based on that feedback. I look forward to continuing our discussion next month.

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Wind-up Hand! Wind up your hand like it's a toy - use cranking sound effects - then let it go and flap your hand wildly over the table and child's tickle spots in a flip-flop motion.

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Life can seem like a never-ending series of challenges when your child is diagnosed with autism. For the Bronwyn family, the challenges also lead to an epiphany.

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