Monday, September 23, 2013

IEP Writing Lesson #2: Every IEP is an English 101 Term Paper

Next up on the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) writing mini-series train(wreck) is: “spelling/grammar/name errors” and “old/irrelevant information.”

Spelling/Grammar/Name Errors
These mistakes are pretty much the most rage inducing for me. I can’t say much more about this area other than: do you seriously expect me to believe that someone couldn’t take an extra ten minutes to re-read their work and hit the spell-check button on their IEP writing software? My Type-A eyes glow red writing about this. Do accidents happen? Absolutely, but not being mindful and correcting them is not okay. Spelling errors are lazy, and while some people may not be familiar with certain grammatical conventions, colleagues/supervisors are there to proof-read if there is any doubt. Even Microsoft Word can tell a writer if there are fragments and grammatical disagreements. That ten minutes of proofreading is going to look really appealing if you ever get an angry phone call from a parent (or advocate) who found the name “Demarcus” in their child’s IEP instead “Suzanne” because the writer copied/pasted un-checked work. Write every IEP like your freshman composition professor is standing behind you (I know you just checked btw).
<3 Oxford comma

Old/Irrelevant Information
While no longer as much of a problem within my building (because my team and I go over IEPs with a fine-tooth comb and I expect teachers to do the same at annual reviews), finding old/irrelevant information in IEPs from students transferring in from another site in the district or out of district is a huge problem. It is sadly commonplace to find Present Levels of Educational Performance (PLEPs) that haven’t been updated in years. This can include: wrong dates (“As of September 2010…”), referring to past grades (15yo Lily is no longer a “sixth grader”), old test scores (always have the most up-to-date data), incorrect physical/medical information (like medication name that a child no longer takes—best to leave them off completely), out-dated related service info (worst when a child no longer receives that service!), and more.

Since the IEP is a current educational “snapshot,” it should always contain the most up-to-date information and should be edited and updated at every meeting held for the student. Even if it’s just a quick amendment meeting to update a goal, make it a habit to also update the child’s curriculum-based measurement/DIBELS/AIMSweb/semester grades/number of office referrals or suspensions/strengths/preferences/etc. I understand that this could be tedious, but it doesn’t have to take a long time if you have easy access to the necessary info (or have the teacher making the edits) and will become second-nature, especially if the framework is already there. Whenever my Committee on Special Education (CSE) chairperson makes a new meeting agenda, we pop through each child’s IEP, change document and service “start” dates, clean out old data/scores, and make sure there’s no info older than the last annual review (within the year)—before writing any new information. The benefit of this is twofold: you get a current, compliant document, and if the child were to ever leave your school, the new building would have a very representative document and clear picture of where the kiddo is functioning. Err’body wins!

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IEP Writing Lesson #1: Time Saving Tricks

Before the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) mini-series even began, I had a reader ask the following question and realized I should back this train up!

"Holy do you have time to do that?!? I barely have time to go to the bathroom a few times a week! [ditto] Do you have clerical support to manage all of that?! I'm a pretty good time manager, but still...Please share how you do this!! the teachers have issues with someone else writing goals/objectives for their kids?"

Alas, I do not have any clerical support anymore for Committee on Special Education (CSE) related tasks, but when I did, she didn't take care of any IEP writing responsibilities (only filing, mailing of letters, and being a grump). Here's a few things I do that has made the IEP writing process a lot easier for me. (BTW... the below information is facilitated a great deal by the fact that I type at a ridiculous pace. If you do not type at a ridiculous pace, you will still find them useful. :) )
  1. The majority of the information that I write into an IEP is copied directly out of my psychological report and tweaked as needed. Why type it twice? Within my psych reports is classroom academic data, cognitive descriptions/strengths/weaknesses, information on study/organizational skills, social/emotional and behavioral functioning, and when appropriate, physical development information. My CSE chairperson, who does all the standardized achievement testing (e.g. Bracken, WJ-III), also has started doing this with her observations and scores. This is a HUGE time saver!
  2. Before I write my reports, I either sit down with a teacher to chat about the kiddo or, most often due to time constraints, have teachers fill out my "teacher report" form that is literally laid out exactly like a NY state IEP. That's where I get the information for my reports, which in turn gets put into the IEP itself. I also ask for state testing data, curriculum-based measurement scores, quarter grades, DIBELS, AIMSweb, etc. with that teacher report form. I hand out the form at annual review time to help teachers scaffold when they write their IEPs so they remember everything to include. 
  3. Related service providers (speech, OT, PT, vision) write all their own PLEPs and goals/objectives, so that's off our plate.
  4. During CSE meetings, I bring my laptop and type information into the IEP and Present Levels of Educational Performance (PLEP) as we go. The teacher and parent may have more information not already gathered prior to the meeting, so we want to make sure that gets entered. We also discuss goals/objectives at this time, with the teacher and team talking things out together and agreeing (the teacher gets the final say). If I have written any social/emotional goals before the meeting, we also discuss those and agree to them/make changes. 
  5. One thing I haven't figured out how to streamline yet is the Management section. In my district, the Management section is a detailed reiteration of all the program modifications, testing accommodations, and anything that "works" for a kiddo into one place, organized under the headings of "Environmental Modifications," "Human Resources," and "Material Resources." What I do is write the entire Management list during the meeting in a Word document, paste it into Management, then follow my Word doc and enter piece-meal into Program Modifications and Testing Accommodations. It's tedious, but at least they're centralized in one place and I'm not flipping through reports or scrolling around the document. This is only really a problem for initial meetings, as reevaluations and amendments should already have this completed. 
Does this all make sense? I promise, I'm not a robot (beep boop) or have more hours in my day than you. In fact, I only take work home with me maybe once a month, and it's only for half a Sunday. I guess maybe it's working "smarter" not harder? (I dislike that saying, so I apologize) 

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

IEP Writing Mini-Series!

I like to think I’m pretty good at writing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). I pride myself on well-written work of all kinds (goes back to all those advanced English/composition classes, as well as a husband who studied journalism) and poorly written IEPs make me want to claw my eyes out. Seriously. My co-workers can attest that I pretty much Hulk-out over terrible IEPs because it means three things: 1) someone out there thought their product was acceptable and that makes me sad, 2) someone out there is lazy and/or doesn’t understand the process and could get in trouble with compliance, and 3) my team now has to clean up the mess.

“Poorly written” can mean a lot of things: unrealistic goals, a lack of quality information (or you know, any information at all), spelling/grammar errors or the wrong child’s name in the document (ugh!!), no quantifiable data, old/irrelevant information, overly negative… etc. IEPs are legally binding documents that are meant to be a holistic “snapshot” of a child’s current academic, social/emotional, and physical functioning, with appropriate accommodations and modifications to meet their needs, and goals to work on for the school year. That means they’re pretty stinkin’ important.

Since starting at my building four years ago, I’ve slowly taken over writing all initial and reevaluation IEPs from my Committee on Special Education (CSE) chairperson, who admits that it isn’t her strong suit. I definitely did not receive much/any training on IEP writing during graduate school, and have picked things up from supervisors/mentors, in-services, and reading exemplar IEPs. I’ve supported my special education teachers on how to write quality IEPs during annual review time through in-services and consultation. While I’m by no means an expert, I hope that small changes and education can lead to documents that are more in compliance, more representative of the student, and staff members who better understand the IEP writing process. As such, I’m going to start a mini-series here on the blog to tackle some of the “poorly written” IEP issues that come up most often! Keep in mind that I am no expert and am only sharing what I’ve learned along the way. Also remember that I’ll be discussing the way my district writes IEPs and that may not be representative of your district/area/state, but that general tips and tricks can translate into better documents anywhere.

Catch up on all the IEP writing mishaps and blunders here!

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

You're a New School Psychologist! Now What?

Waaay back in June, Erika over at Finding the Thyme asked my Facebook page for ideas about "...where/how to get started when you enter a new school/1st job." I blame HGTV, Food Network, and The Murph-inator for the incredible delay in posting a blog entry with all the fantastic advice!

One big, huge theme was definitely on relationship building
  • "Bring yummy snacks for lounge with a card introducing yourself."
  • "...get to know the students, teachers and how the building works."
  • "Get to know [your] office and custodial staff. They truly run the school!"
  • "...make a point of introducing [yourself] or "checking in" individually with all the teachers/staff prior to the start of the new school year." 
  • "...don't forget to smile. For a lot of kids we work with, yours may the only smiling face they see."
  • "Immerse yourself into your new school community. Attend school and community sponsored events (open house, ice cream socials, PTA meetings, etc). Get to know your students, teachers, and parents. Most importantly, make sure they know who you are."
I think getting the lay of the land, figuring out whose office is where, and the general climate of a building is paramount, and also one of the most challenging things for a new professional. It took me a year to feel like I "belonged" to my current building when I was first hired. I was learning new software, new assessments, new procedures, and more, all of top of keeping in line with state timelines, managing the daily apocalypse, and of course, typing reports like a crazy woman. 

One of my cohort mates was telling me about a new psychologist hired at her preschool program who came in guns blazing, in-your-face, the ultimate resource and problem solver... and everyone hated her. She spent no time getting to know people or the system, did not consult with teachers regarding plans she was putting in place, and had an attitude that she was an all-knowing island. Not gonna fly. Remember that you can really accomplish nothing without the understanding and support of your staff, special education teachers, administration, and students. Spend time just chatting with people, learning their needs and expectations, asking questions, and listening! Introduce yourself at a faculty meeting or with a note in everyone's mailbox/email explaining who you are personally and professionally and what the school psychologist does to help the school ("What Is A School Psychologist?" from NASP might be good for this). Come March Madness, you're going to have a lot more support... and you'll need it. :)

People also toted the importance of organization and time management.
  • "...set up some times to meet with the special ed teachers you will be working with to get an idea of what triennials are due this year and what initials they may know are coming up... Find out what kiddos they may need your support with and review their files and observe."
  • " need to set up your office, get your resources in order, get at least a primer on your district's procedures. Get phone lists for each of your buildings, get all the passwords you need for student data systems etc., get your e-mail set up, request your business cards, set up your e-mail, and download all your testing software if that's not already done."
  • "Meet with your principal and ask what his/her expectations are for you, what would they really like to see done/ etc."
  • "...coordinate [your] schedule with the special ed teachers and related service each school to be sure there is some overlap so you all can be available for meetings...check-in with the admin asst at the main office to see where your space will be, if you are sharing a space with anyone else, file cabinet space, etc...Try and get a map of the school or at least a list of teachers/classrooms."

You'll need a bigger Post-It.
They hit the nail on the head--you can't do your job without the essential resources. I know from my experience after getting hired that it took me over a month to have my business cards, log-ins, email account, and laptop straightened away. Without a solid organizational and resource base, you'll be scrambling. It would seem that it comes back to relationship building: it can help you figure out the right people to get important items like a schedule, phone list, etc from, will let you consult with your new staffy friends on cases and upcoming meetings, and will allow you to meet with students to get to know them and their needs.

To all of you who have just embarked upon a new position and/or new school year, or who are about to do so, good luck! I have two weeks left of summer... so I'll be over here on the couch, sitting in my sweat pants covered in puppy hair, watching Pioneer Woman. :)

PS: Check out this stellar compilation of "Musings on Survival from School Psychologists." It has a wealth of great advice from school psychologists like you! Also, consider purchasing Dr. Rebecca Branstetter's The School Psychologist's Survival Guide, because it's rather awesome.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Puppies and Children: Not That Different

The day we brought Murphy home
At the end of the school year, Husband and I became "parents" to an English Springer Spaniel puppy named Murphy. Since I would be home full-time for the summer (minus 20 half days of summer school), timing couldn't have been more perfect--two weeks at home with adorable Murphy to play, snuggle, work on crate training, house breaking, and general obedience before summer school... what could be better?

Fave sleeping spot: under the couch

Now, don't get me wrong, I love that furry little booger. Murphy is well-behaved (aside from typical puppy behaviors like nipping and accidents) and quick to learn commands (he mastered "sit" within half a day). He is such a love bug and just wants to be with his humans, whether it's sitting directly on my feet while doing dishes or crawling onto Husband's chest while he lays on the floor. He's social and loves meeting new people in the neighborhood and other dogs. Perfect on paper.
Oh hai... rub my belly?

Reality: puppies are the worst. They are so much stinkin' work. I honestly think that raising a 10-week old human baby would be easier than a 10-week old puppy. Sure, they're freakin' precious and do totes adorbs things all the time, but you have to watch them at every moment to make sure they're not harming themselves or your things, don't come when called because they're eating a tasty mouthful gravel, will stare right at you while having an accident on your beautiful new rug (right after coming inside), lay down in the middle of the street during walks, screech-cry-bark until 2:30am in the morning because they hate their crate and want to be with you, bite you in the face while playing... etc.

Murphy : Content; Clam : Happy
Terrible hide-and-seeker
I have to say, my behaviorist training has surely helped. In undergrad, I took a semester long animal behavior lab where, among other behaviors, we taught white rats and guinea pigs to use a Skinner box for research on food hoarding behaviors. With the help of positive reinforcement and oodles of training treats, Murphy recognizes verbal commands and hand signals for "sit," "shake," "down," and is working on "come" and "stay." Lots of practice, time in the crate, and rewards for going inside means that we get to sleep the entire night with minimal (pathetic) howling when he first goes to bed. Although Murphy occasionally has accidents and doesn't consistently ask to go outside, he does his business quickly when he hears "go potty" or "go poop." In fact, I think he's manipulating me with going to the bathroom, because he'll pee 2-3 times when we go out, all the while looking at me for a treat when he finishes. Now, he only gets one treat... smarty stinker

Hoarding: Puppy Edition
Please sir... I want some more.
It's really no different than "training" kiddos to accomplish the behaviors we desire. We started by flooding Murphy with praise and treats when we first were teaching behaviors so that he would quickly learn that by doing something right, he would be rewarded. We even went more basic at first by rewarding approximate behaviors--things that were close to what we wanted, but not quite. For a student you want to stay in his seat, start with him staying a designated work area or part of the classroom, then when he has mastered that, begin rewarding for in-seat behaviors. The more you consistently reward kiddos (and puppies!) for completing desired behaviors, the less they should engage in undesirable behaviors because they're getting the reinforcement they want through positive means.

Snuggling with Husband on a car ride
We are starting to use intermittent reinforcement for some of the behaviors Murphy has down pat--he does not always receive a treat when he sits or shakes hands. Intermittent reinforcement is great because Murphy still gets rewarded, it just isn't as often and is more random, so he continues to do desired behaviors hoping for a treat. Think of it like a slot machine--it's going to hit at some point, you just don't know when, so you drop a few more nickels in and hope for the best. Intermittent reinforcement can increase resistance to extinction, meaning that if we decide to forgo any treats for mastered behaviors, Murphy is less likely to notice and will continue to do the right thing. It can work for kiddos, too! Surprise or spur of the moment reinforcement, like "caught being good" tickets or a Hershey kiss during work time, for desired behaviors can be more exciting than predictable reinforcement because students may be more attuned to what they're doing in the classroom, hoping for the possibility of a reward.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Another Year Under the Belt...

Third year down and probationary period over, huzzah! At the end of last school year, I did a Committee on Special Education year in review to recap the very busy, very fulfilling year I had for '11-'12. While '12-'13 didn't quite measure up in terms of the sheer amount of CSE meetings I held, let's take a peek at the numbers...

  • The proportion of meetings held for male vs. female students held steady with disproportionality: 69 males vs. 30 females. The district remains heavily African American and male in the special education population.
  • We had 20 new initial referrals for special education this year, down 10 from last year. These referrals were still predominantly for significant behavioral concerns, only 6 were solely for academic difficulties. 7 of the 20 did not qualify for services, with 4 being recommended for 504 Accommodation Plans.
  • This year, we had 16 reevaluation meetings for more restrictive settings, such as to Integrated Co-Teaching, Special Classes, or agency/day school placements. We also held 11 reevaluation meetings where changes were made to programming or as part of a three-year reevaluation, in accordance with legal mandates.
  • We had just 3 declassifications from special education services this year, and all were students who receiving only speech who had met their goals. 
  • There were a whopping 36 amendment meetings this year, up 12 from last year. These meetings included minor changes to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) included changing goals, fixing/cleaning up parts of the Present Levels of Educational Performance (PLEP), and adjusting program modifications and testing accommodations. 
  • Last year, the highest volume of meetings came during November and December. This year, it was May and June (much more traditional). During those two months, we held 26 meetings and most were initials or reevaluations that required a lot of testing and time--yeouch! This number was much higher than normal because...
  • We were assigned 10 preschoolers out of our building to transition from Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE) services to CSE services for kindergarten. These kids were all placed in Special Classes as special sites, so we did lots of traveling to go out to see them. More to come on that!
That puts me at 99 meetings for the '12-'13 school year, 16 less than last year. Almost makes me wish I had one more meeting to make it an even hundy... but that's the mildly OCD overachiever talking.

Happy summer, you Super Psychologists!

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

But I Didn't Get to Say Goodbye

A few years ago, I wrote about W, who at the time was a kiddo in a social skills/anger management group I was running. Ever since that group, W has been one of my buds. If I needed a manly favor, he was there ready to carry Food Bank deliveries and unload holiday gifts donated by a local church for the primary students. When W was performing with our chorus in the community and didn't have transportation, Husband and I were there on the bright to pick him up from his house on one of the worst streets in the city so he could sing. W was always eager to tell me about something going on with his mom or sister, the book he was reading on the Civil War, his latest tracks laid down in his uncle's recording studio, how much he likes his teacher this year, and more. He gave me a run for my money every time we played Uno, and he was even more interested than some of my female co-workers to hear about my wedding! I loved having lunch with he and his classmates, and if it had been awhile, they made sure I knew with an excited, "Miss, can we eat with you today?" W appreciated that I let him "be him" and even curse in my presence when angry (gasp!), I appreciated him just being a kid when he would goof with his friends.

I probably won't get to see W again.

2013 has been a rough year for W. While his behavior in school this year was stellar (minus hiccups that can be expected of a student with an Emotional Disturbance), he became increasingly involved in street life and bad things outside of school. I was astounded and shocked to hear that he was running away from home, stealing from corner stores, and drinking alcohol. Certainly that wasn't my W? His mom, who is an incredible person and cares deeply about her kids, was at her wits end and sent W to live with another family member. Things continued downhill, family court became involved, and W hasn't been back to school since.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago when W's fate was being decided in court. We were worried that he was going to be put into a detention facility for adolescents, which has a reputation in the city for being kid jail (we're talking bars on the windows, here). A curious and kind student like W would've been crushed there, so my colleagues and I had our fingers crossed that the judge would rule differently. Thankfully, W was "sentenced" to a year in a residential treatment facility. He would go to school there, live there, receive mental health and behavioral services, and be virtually on lock-down at all times.

While W will be getting a different, "better" home for the next year, it means that he will not be back to my building before he begins high school. Next year would've been his 8th grade year, the last before he applied to high schools and graduated from us. I was so looking forward to seeing him get his 8th grade diploma, because I know how hard he has worked for it. I also half expected him to ask me to "pin" him at Moving Up Day.

Once W gets a permanent bed at a facility, I plan to write him a letter. I'm not sure what it's going to say yet, but I think it'll be something along the lines of, "You're a special kid. You're going to get through this. You're going to do great things someday."

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Monday, May 6, 2013

Guest Post! - Confessions from a Former School Psychologist

It's that time again... a guest post! This guest blogger gives unique insight into leaving the field for bigger pursuits--namely, school administration. Trained as as a school psychologist at Temple University, Dr. Ari Yares is currently the Upper School Principal at the Schechter School of Long Island. He has previously worked as Head of Middle School at Krieger Schechter Day School and as a school psychologist for the Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Visit his blog Not Reinventing the Wheel!

Confessions from a Former School Psychologist

It has been five years since I last touched a WISC or any other testing kit.

No, this is not my introduction to a school psychologists’ anonymous meeting, but rather a reflection on the biggest change that I have undergone since handing in my testing kits and becoming a school administrator.  Otherwise, so many of my skills and training as a school psychologist have transferred directly to my new role.

As a school psychologist, I was very fortunate. I worked in a school district with an excellent student to school psychologist ratio and our leadership in student services pushed us to support our students through more than just the refer-test-place process. I actively consulted with teachers, had ample time for counseling, and was heavily involved in the implementation of my schools’ Positive Behavior and Intervention Support (PBIS) programs. I helped develop student support teams in my schools while working to make sure that the more restrictive special education placements that I supported worked successfully. All of this existed in a collegial atmosphere of our psychological services office which encouraged us to grow and collaborate as practitioners.

Somehow, in the midst of this, I came to a conclusion that I was feeling limited by my role. As I worked to support PBIS and other programs, I was restricted, not because of anyone’s conscious desire, but because as a school psychologist, I often functioned parallel to the educational system that I supported. While I could consult, advise, and plan, I was unable to supervise or mandate and certainly did not have direct access to a budget to support my efforts. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to have a different kind of impact on changing the school environment that I saw as a factor in my students’ difficulties.

It was at this point that I decided to pursue additional training as a school administrator. Since that initial certification as a school administrator, I have continuously marveled at the overlap between my two chosen fields. While I am now in a position to supervise teachers, I get my best results when I apply my skills as a teacher consultant. The line of students and teachers who just want a few moments to chat and get something off their chests has not changed-- I’m just in a different place to address them. Likewise, I still support our intervention teams as we work collaboratively to eliminate student problems.

There are differences, of course. As an administrator, I worry about the budget that I once longed for. Sometimes, what had been a supportive consultation with a teacher needs to move to being a directed conversation where my authority as the principal is used. Mundane issues, like the boiler or trash in the cafeteria, can fill my days and sometimes I feel a greater distance from the students that I went into both of my careers to help.

At the end of the day, though, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have crossed the bridge between school psychologist and school administrator. Most of my colleagues in administration are former teachers. Very few share my background as a school psychologist. Yet, it is this background that I feel has made me a more effective instructional leader and helps me navigate the murky waters of school administration.

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