There were five woman sitting around the table in the conference room. We were here to discuss whether or not Daniel should remain in a standard Science class or be moved to a self contained ESE class. We began by introducing ourselves.
“Hello, I am Rachel M*****, Daniel’s mother.” I started.
“I am Mrs. C*****, Daniel’s ESE Reading and Learning Solutions teacher,” the woman to my right said.
“I am Mrs. D*****, Daniel’s science teacher, ” said the woman across from me.
“I am Tina, Daniel’s aid,” said the woman next to Mrs. D*****, “I split between Daniel and two other children and follow them in almost all their classes. The only classes I do not attend with Daniel are his ESE Language Art class and Science.”
“And I am Mrs. G****, one of the ESE liaisons at this middle school,” said the woman to my left. “Why don’t you start Mrs. M******. What are your concerns?”
STEP ONE: Non-Judgmental Summary of Concerns
I began by a bullet point type presentation of the concerns that had been communicated to me via notes from Daniel’s Science teacher, as well as the two emails I had received when the IEP meeting had been arranged. I tried to leave all judgment, commentary and emotion out of this part.
– Daniel was not completing work in a timely fashion.
– Daniel was not starting work independently at the beginning of class.
STEP TWO: Take ResponsibilityIf I am honest with myself, there is almost always an area where Daniel has some “fault”, some area where he could be pushing himself to make progress. At least, I hope that is the case, otherwise we are powerless. Responsibility = Power. This is where I take responsibility for the areas I know my son is not putting out his best effort. I find that if I begin by stating where I can see Daniel needs to increase his effort, it defuses most defensiveness on the part of the team and goes a long way towards making this truly a team effort. This is particularly true when I am working with a new team like I am this year.
I then gave my observations regarding how I saw Daniel working.
I admitted that self starting in class is a chronic struggle for Daniel, particularly when it comes to written work. I acknowledged that when faced with written work Daniel will often give up before he begins writing. Daniel will sometimes verbally blame his learning disability for his unwillingness to even try. (Everyone in the room nodded their head, smiling at seeing that I knew what they were facing.) As I explained, I found myself sketching a chart for the teachers. It is the same chart I used at home with Daniel.
“In order to get over this hump at home, it takes me pushing, pulling and persuading,” I explained, ” I have had a conversation with Daniel where I communicated that at school, there is no mommy to do this for him. He must take over more of this responsibility in order to become more independent. This is something I am addressing since I received the communication from you.”
I continued, “That being said,some days the hump is small and easy to overcome. Other days, the hump seems insurmountable. On those days, Daniel becomes an inch worm barely making it to the top during the time allotted in class. I am hoping that we can find some ways to make that hump consistently a more manageable level for everyone.”
STEP THREE: Define what I believe is the problemAgain, I try to avoid judgment which just makes everyone defensive. I don’t tell them what I think they are doing wrong. Instead I try to present what I see is the issue – Daniel understands the concepts but struggles to communicate this through written work given his processing learning disability which makes writing slow and laborious. In order to say this effectively, I present the idea in pieces and backed up my assertions with objective facts such as test results and timed work. This is how I presented it at this meeting.
“However, Daniel is scoring 80-90% on tests,” I continued, pulling out the test I had brought with me. “It is obvious Daniel is understanding the concepts. The struggle is solely in completing written work.”
The science teacher nodded her head in agreement, “At this point, his grade is completely made up of the quizzes I give every Friday. As a result, he currently has a high “B” to low “A” in the class.”I have now removed the question of content being a problem.
“You sent home his class work and I noticed the following things:” I continued.
” First, there were two packets with 24 written responses in each packet. I read the questions to him, as his accommodations state, and had Daniel to time himself as he answered each question,” I began.
I find that Daniel is more motivated to work consistently when he has his stopwatch,” I confided. “Would this be an accommodation we could allow in your class?”
Mrs. D**** agreed.
“While Daniel worked I was available for questions but I was not standing right over him. His time included research and writing as it would in class. It took Daniel an average of 2.6 minutes per question. That means a packet would take him just over an hour to complete, if he is working consistently,” I concluded
“For the next step, I asked his former ESE teacher, and current tutor, about this and she said the time for a typical student would be 1.5 minutes. It seems obvious to me that even in the best of circumstances – that is with Daniel working consistently – he will be very slow when it comes to written answers. I think this is clearly reflected in his IEP.” I stated, “It would be disappointing to force Daniel to move from this class when he is able to comprehend the concepts and subject matter, simply because of his known disability. Particularly when we already have accommodations in place to address those disabilities.”
STEP FOUR: If possible, engage the emotions and goodwill of the team.Most teachers do not get paid much. Good teachers teach for the love of seeing their students “get it”. They put hours of work in and when they feel they are not succeeding with a child it is discouraging. If I can re-ignite the possibility of success with my son, I can get a lot more cooperation and good will. That goes a long way.
I leaned forward, “To be honest with you, Science is Daniel’s passion. During difficult times in the past, it was his love of this subject that kept him interested in school.”While being completely honest, I have now appealed to her emotions. I have impressed upon her how important she is in Daniel’s success.
STEP FOUR: Open the table for a discussion of solutions instead of problems.This can be difficult. It can be easy to slip back into discussing problematic symptoms. That is why I keep a journal with me where I have bullet pointed the problems and my idea of solutions. Now I was ready to address the fact that they were not following Daniel’s accommodations. The goal was to do so without alienating anyone.
I pulled out the IEP and turned it to the page regarding writing accommodations.
“So, I read through Daniel’s most recent IEP and accommodations and I have some questions,” I continued, “It says here that the annual goal in writing is for Daniel to start on his own 4 out of 5 times. However, the first benchmark goal is that he will complete 1/4 of the written work in the amount of time allotted and the second benchmark goal is that he will complete 1/2 of the written work. I believe Daniel is capable of 50% right now, so I have told Daniel he is required to complete 50% and to push himself to try for one more question. I told him that the goal being that he will eventually close the gap. I believe he can do this and do not want to tell him differently. That will lead to him lowering his goal. Do you think this would work in class? ”I have made meeting the accommodation seem like a success and given the expectation of continued improvement. I have also demonstrated Daniel and I are using the IEP as a safety net, not a hammock.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ESE liaison frantically scanning the IEP. It was obvious she has not read it and was trying to get up to date.
The science teacher nodded yes but then began, “Daniel sometimes struggles to even get started writing. He never has his agenda out at the beginning of class even though there is a list at the front of the class breaking down the steps for him – sit down, get out notebook and agenda, etc. He is easy distracted by noises and I often have to remove him from the table with other children.”
“Well, he could answer orally, that is one of his accommodations,” Mrs. G*****, the ESE liaison interjected, “and you could highlight the questions he has to answer so he knows the number of questions he needs to answer.”
“I can’t sit with him that long,” replied the science teacher.
I turned to Daniel’s ESE Language and Learning Solutions teacher, Mrs. C*****, “How does he handle this in your Learning Solutions class?” I asked.
“Well, he has Tina, his aid there.” she replied, “Tina coaches him through the starting process and assists when he gets stuck.”
“Well, then it seems to me that an aid with Daniel in this class would really make a difference,” I offered. Turning to Tina, I asked, “Are you not available?”
“I also have John **** in another class in that period and,” she paused looking around the room at the group knowingly, “we all know what a problem he is! Then I have lunch. I mean, I have to eat some time!”
I turned to the ESE teacher and the ESE Liaison, “How many aids do you have in the school? Are there any available?” I asked.
“We are supposed to have 4 but there was only money for 3 and two are new hires,” the ESE liaison explained.
Mrs. D****, the science teacher interjected, “I have 22 students in this class. 11 are ESE students. I am spread thin!” her frustration showed on her face.
“Wait, you mean there is no aid at all in that class?” I asked, astonished.
Mrs. D**** nodded.
“Well, there isn’t the money,” the ESE Liaison offered.
“Well, that isn’t my problem.” I replied curtly.It is a pet peeve of mine when the schools go to the place of budget issues. While they are real, I have no responsibility in that arena and therefore no power. My son also has the right to the necessary accommodations regardless of budget. I always nip this discussion in the bud.
“I have been requesting an aid since the beginning of school,” Mrs. D**** confided.
“Maybe you could contact Mrs. E****, the head ESE Liaison,” Mrs. G**** suggested, “Parents don’t have to follow the chain of command as we do. A parent request holds more weight too. Also, there is a program to allow dyslexic students have the textbook as an audio book on a personal CD pack in class and at home.”
The ESE Liaison was suddenly full of ideas.
I looked at the Science teacher, “Would you also be willing to let Daniel use a stopwatch in class to help motivate him?” I asked.
“Sure,” was the reply
STEP FIVE: Summarize solutionsI like to bullet point solutions before I review the ESE meeting page that I have to sign. This clarifies everyone’s responsibilities and the plan of attack. It also allows for any further problems to be addressed. Again, I start with what I am going to do.
“So I am going to contact Mrs. E**** regarding the question of the aid. I am also going to register for the audio textbook program for Daniel. In the meantime, Mrs. D**** is there anyway you could write a number between 1 and 10 on Daniel’s agenda regarding how well he got himself set up at the beginning of class? That way, I can address with him his preparing for class on a day-to-day basis and support you from home. Also, you are going to highlight the numbers that he has to answer and he will bring home his in-class work at the end of the week so I can see how he is doing. Mrs. G***** you are also going to look into finding an aid for this class? At this time, we are not going to remove him from his science class, correct?”
There are enthusiastic, “yes’s” around the table.
“Thank you all for taking the time to meet with me and working with my son.” I concluded.
STEP SIX: Follow up
Make sure to follow through on your promises, the same day if possible. I also like to follow up with a thank you email to reinforce the ongoing flow of communication with the teacher.
While it may seem I am some times being manipulative, that is not my goal. I am never dishonest, but I think it is fair to honor human nature. Instead of becoming emotional and argumentative, I strive to enlist the good will, of those I work with. It is easy to feel like the school and I are on opposite teams. However, I have to entrust my child to these people every day. I can use simple tools such as taking responsibility and verbalizing the importance of individual team members to bridge that gap and give us a sense of all working together for a common good – my son’s success.