Environment IS Everything!

The 1999-2000 school year started with a bang! Over the summer I had taken classes on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and how it worked in California. Because the multi-disciplinary team had already said, “No” (See the previous Blog post, My First Encounter with the IEP Process), I had to implement a formal request process. This required me to submit a formal request to the school district. The school district had 30 days to respond to my request. During this time, the special education director made sure that Elizabeth was on a 504 and getting appropriate accommodations until the districts tests could be performed.

Why all the special attention? Three reasons: one, Elizabeth did not make it through the first day of school. Two, I had learned enough of the process that the school could not “bully” me. And, three, I had hired an educational consultant who supported me in my efforts. She attended meetings with me and helped me communicate with the school and school district. See the end of this post for more information on ways to get support.

To make a very long story short, by the end of the Fall semester, Elizabeth had an IEP, she had a new psychiatrist, she had the mental health support she needed, and we were starting to make progress. In the Spring of 2000, we moved to Colorado so that we could live on my husband’s salary and I could stay home with the children. NOTE: I will go back and forth between we and me/I because my husband traveled 75% of the time. He was definitely involved and supportive, but the day-to-day management was left to me.

The 2000-2001 school year went relatively smoothly. I had put together a very strong professional support team outside the school and I had received a great deal of support from the special education teacher, Ms. Banghart, at the elementary school. As Elizabeth’s mental health needs were met, it became evident that many of her frustrations were driven by her auditory and visual processing deficiencies. As each issue became apparent, we worked with the school to help them understand her educational needs.

The 2001-2002 school year started ok. Everyone knew Elizabeth, everyone knew me, and the teacher was a gem to work with. However, it turned into a tough year for Elizabeth. Her medications were not working. She went through about 10 medication changes and life was difficult for all of us. Elizabeth had made friends and they were worried about her. So, Elizabeth’s teacher allowed me to come into the classroom and explain what was happening. At that time, Elizabeth’s primary diagnosis was bipolar disorder. Elizabeth’s class and I discussed what it was like to have an illness which had to be monitored and controlled. It helped the children to understand what was going on with Elizabeth and how to support her on tough days. Several children chimed in with stories about someone in their family with an illness and how it is important to notify someone if you see a problem. We ended the school year very positive and hopeful for the future.

In 2002, Elizabeth started the 5th grade. At Elizabeth’s school, this was the last grade in elementary school. To prepare the 5th grade children for middle school, they had the children take different subjects from different teachers. Not only were there different teachers, but also different classrooms. The process of going from classroom to classroom was very difficult for Elizabeth to cope with as well as the different styles of the teachers. By the end of her 5th grade year, it was obvious that she was not going to be successful in a middle school with about 500 children. The principal was going to suggest that Elizabeth go to a full-time special education program. Even though Elizabeth was struggling, she was still on grade level and doing the work.

I started doing research and found a charter school that looked like it might be a good fit. Ms. Banghart agreed to go to an open house with me and check it out. Here are the reasons we liked the program:

  • 6th grade was considered part of elementary school and she would not have to switch teachers, except for math.
  • The classes were based upon the block system. So, they would study a given subject for a block (which was about 3 weeks) before moving on to another subject.
  • The teachers were very supportive and wanted Elizabeth in their class.

So, Elizabeth attended Center for Discovery Learning (CDL) for 6th and 7th grade (2003 – 2005). This was where I learned how important the school environment can be. The teachers there never wanted to send Elizabeth home unless she was truly ill. The teachers wanted her to demonstrate her learning in ways that depended on Elizabeth’s strengths, not her weaknesses. It was all pass/fail. So the stress of grades was not there. The block system allowed Elizabeth to do lots of work on good days and not worry about it on not-so-good days. Elizabeth started to blossom. Trips were part of the CDL experience which Elizabeth managed all on her own. She made friends, one she has to this day. She was recognized for her creative writing, acting, and drawing. These are skills/talents that she continues to take great pleasure in.

Here is what I learned from this experience:

  • Make sure that the IEP has ALL of your child’s needs for being a successful learner, including environment.
  • Make sure that the IEP is written independent of the school your child is attending.
  • When you find a school that can meet the needs of your child, your child is happy, learning, and the whole family can enjoy the experience.
  • Remember, there are always going to be ups and downs. Hang in there!

Support

There are many ways to get support during the IEP process. Find what works for you. Here are some ideas:

  1. There are professionals called Educational Consultants or Parent Advocates. These people work on an hourly basis. Check your area for folks who have sliding scale services.
  2. If you do not have access to a professional, see if you can find a parent who has been through the process a couple of times and can attend the meeting with you. Hearing and talking about your child’s issues is emotional and sometimes we need someone with us who can help us through the tough times.
  3. If you don’t have access to a professional and you don’t know someone who has been through the process, find a friend who is logical and less emotional about the situation. Also, always remember that it is your right to record the meeting. You need to notify the school ahead of time, but they cannot refuse this request.

What’s Your Story?

Have you felt overwhelmed and intimidated at school meetings? Has there ever been a moment where who you knew a child needed support but those around you didn’t agree? Have you had great support and your child’s needs have always been met? Learning Differences World is interested in your story. By sharing our stories and listening to the voices of parents, educators and service providers, we believe we can all learn how to make the system better for all children. So, share your story by commenting below orclick here to send us an email. Your privacy and your children's privacy is important to us - please use fictitious names when sharing your story.

Note: Elizabeth gave me permission to use her real name because her name is used in court records. But, that is a topic for another blog post.