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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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Declassification: When a Student No Longer Qualifies for Special Ed. Services

A reader on my Facebook page asked: "How [do you] ease the anxiety teachers may feel when students are doing well and you are recommending that the student be dismissed from special education?"

Dismissal, or declassification, from special education can be a tenuous celebration. The student has made adequate progress where support services are no longer needed, yay! But, what if the student starts to really struggle without those services, boo?

Typically, declassification reevaluations in my building are initiated by the teacher or speech/language pathologist (for kiddos who receive speech only). The direct service provider knows best how the student is functioning day-to-day in the classroom and can make the determination better than myself or the team alone. If a case comes up where as a Committee on Special Education (CSE) team we feel that services are no longer warranted, we start gathering oodles of information: standardized assessment data, classroom scores and curriculum based measurement data, attendance and report card grades, state-wide test scores, parent input and concerns, teacher interview and report, etc. We need to cover all bases to see how the student is functioning within the classroom. The key thing for school psychologists to consider when conducting any reevaluation is: does the student continue to meet the criteria that once qualified them under a certain special education classification?

If we make the decision that declassification is appropriate, we can choose a few different final outcomes. (it's important to remember that a kiddo's testing accommodations will follow them throughout their schooling and they can always access them if they choose) Some students we may choose to declassify "with support services" for a given period of time. For instance, if we are reevaluating for declassification mid-year, we can choose to continue to give the kiddo support services for the remainder of that school year, having them terminate for September. This would allow a sort of adjustment period. Another option would be to declassify from special education but refer for a 504 Accommodation Plan, which provides educational supports (program modifications, testing accommodations, formalized Functional Behavioral Assessments/Behavioral Intervention Plans) under general education. These options are both good for teachers and parents who may be unsure or uncomfortable with declassification because they allow the student a transition period.

The team may also recommend that a student no longer needs any services, and thus doesn't receive any further special education supports aside from testing accommodations, as mentioned above. If there is any uneasiness with this, we refer back to the data gathered--we don't make declass decisions lightly and without lots of supporting information. We also may recommend that a student receive tutoring with an adult or staff member in the building to reinforce skills, or suggest other ideas that can be done within the classroom (i.e. peer tutoring, flashcards, small group work, etc). Sometimes it helps assuage any fears when the teacher or parent remembers that the student will still have supports and help available to them, even if it isn't under special education.

How does your building or district handle special education declassifications? Do you have suggestions on how best to support teachers and ease their anxiety about it?

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Guest Post! - Conducting Comprehensive Autism Evaluations

Another marvelous guest post, and very timely since April is Autism Awareness Month! Today, we discuss best practices for Autism evaluations from an expert. “Dr. Tonya” Gscheidle, NCSP received her PhD in School Psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill, which is the home of TEACCH. She has been actively participating, leading, and/or training others in the art of Autism evaluations for the past 7 years. Tonya currently has the pleasure of “torturing” public school kiddos through evaluation in the Oklahoma City area. 

Conducting Comprehensive Autism Evaluations

According to the CDC, 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with boys four times more likely than girls to receive that diagnosis. While no one cause for Autism has been identified, many debates are ongoing with various hypotheses about a cause(s), as well as if Autism is being overly diagnosed. The rapid increase in prevalence also prompted significant changes to the diagnostic criteria for Autism in the soon-to-be-published DSM-5, due to be released May 2013.  One way we, as school psychologists, can help ensure that only students who meet diagnostic criteria are labeled as having Autism is by conducting comprehensive evaluations. How can we be sure our evaluations cover all bases?  

  • Screen, screen, screen! How many times have you been pulled aside by a teacher or parent stating that a student may have Autism because they do not make eye contact? Or does not speak in class? Prefers to play alone? Each one of those observations is a symptom of ASD, but in isolation, does not necessarily mean a child warrants a formal diagnosis of an Autism spectrum disorder. Just as we do not automatically rush to evaluate for Emotional Disturbance based on a single tantrum or ADHD if they are easily distracted, it is best practice to do classroom observations and gather information to develop a profile of behaviors for a particular student before rushing to obtain consent for an evaluation for special education. Screening is a relatively quick and easy way to do that – and there are screeners published for both the home and school settings. (We use the Autism Screening Instrument for Educational Programming – 3rd Ed (ASIEP-3) for school and Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) for parents.) Screeners help you know how to proceed with your evaluation, as well as to help further educate parents and teachers. If they are insistent on an Autism evaluation based on one isolated symptom (e.g., does not make eye contact) but the screeners do not show that a full evaluation is warranted, you have documentation that you addressed their concern and can provide that information to the team without completing a full Autism evaluation (though an evaluation in another area may be indicated). 
  • Social-Developmental/Medical History is crucial! Diagnostic criteria clearly state that symptoms must be present before age 3 for a student to be diagnosed with Autism. How else can you gather that information other than interviewing a parent?  Although some questionnaires can be sent home with a student for the parent to complete and return, I have found that it is better to do these interviews face to face or via phone conference so that you can ask follow up questions. Remember to include questions about sensory differences, responses to transitions/schedule changes, and family/peer relationships in any interview you use. Part of the history gathering should also include a medical history to rule out any possible diagnosis that could be causing the behaviors of concern.
  • There is no “I” in play based evaluations! ASD is characterized by significant disruptions in language and communication, reciprocal social interactions, and repeated/restricted stereotyped behaviors. The best way to assess those areas is thru a structured play-based assessment. The Psychoeducational Profile – 3rd Ed (PEP-3) and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – 2nd Ed (ADOS-2) are the two most commonly used standardized play-based assessments used in Autism evaluations and allow direct assessment of those specific areas through activities or presses. As communication and sensory differences are two main diagnostic areas, Autism evaluations should be completed using a multi-disciplinary team approach to the greatest extent possible. If that is not the practice in your school district, consider seeking out your Speech/Language Pathologist or Occupational Therapist to see if the findings they found in the course of their evaluations support or contradict your own. The ADOS-2 has a scoring algorithm built in to quantify observations through ratings to determine if a student’s behaviors rise to the diagnosis of an ASD. When doing the PEP-3, teams in my district complete the CARS-2 rating scales to quantify our observations. The focus of your report should be on the behaviors observed in response to the presses/activities and NOT on the scores obtained.  In fact, the authors of the ADOS-2 advise NOT to report scores from the ADOS-2 in the report.  
  • What – more behavior rating scales? In most instances, Autism is considered to be a life-long disability. A student may (and should!) learn compensatory strategies to be productive in school and the community, but in most cases Autism will always be present.  This “life-long disability” label should not be taken lightly. Additional rating scales can be collected to further validate your observations. Preferred rating scales for teams I have been involved with include the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and Gilliam Autism Rating Scale-2nd Ed (GARS-2). 

A word about cognitive testing: I would strongly recommend using low-verbal batteries that utilize manipulatives such as the KABC-II NVI or Stanford-Binet 5.  Remember that while we engage our worlds socially and through language, those with ASD tend to engage through the sensory realm.  It may help to start a student with a brief sensory activity (e.g., using a Rain Stick, Bumble Ball, texture bocks, or digging through a bucket of dried beans) to help them regulate emotionally before putting academic stressors on them. To keep sessions structured, I almost always use a sticker chart and allow students to put a sticker in a box for every activity (subtest) completed. The chart gives students a visual of the progress made, how much is left, and something to take with them as tangible evidence of how much was able to be completed during a given session.

Recommendations should address particular concerns that drove the initial referral as well as behaviors observed throughout the evaluation. Commonly, recommendations include strategies to increase structure in the classroom (including structuring play scenarios for younger students), warn students of impending transitions, provide frequent sensory breaks, and explicit teaching of expected behaviors followed by immediate consequences or rewards.  Often, it takes students with ASD a significantly longer time to directly associate specific behaviors with rewards or consequences. Many more discreet trials are often needed. Visual supports and hands-on learning may also be considered depending on the needs of the student.

I end with a few recommendations of my own. The number of resources out there for Autism is exponential but there is a handful that I use regularly when consulting with parents and teachers and keep close when asked for resources that I will share with you lucky readers out there. This list is not at all meant to be comprehensive, rather just “tried and true” suggestions you may want to consider adding to your toolbox.

Parent/Teacher Resources
-Practical Ideas That Really Work for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Kathleen Mc Connell and Gail R. Ryser
-Educating the Young Child with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Michael Abraham
-*Anything* by Temple Grandin [side note from Musings--I'm reading The Way I See It, 2nd Edition and it's stellar)

Student Resources (fictional stories about living with an Autism spectrum disorder)
-Understanding Sam and Asperger’s Syndrome – Clarabelle van Niekerk and Liezl Venter
-Mockingbird – Kathryn Erskine

Websites (picture cards and picture schedules)

Please consider “Lighting it Up Blue” this April to show support for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders! 

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

It's 1:20pm and I'm Losing My Mind: Mid-Day De-Stressing

Here's a question from a reader of my Facebook page... "What do you do to de-stress during your day when you feel like you are going crazy?"

Great question! A lot of times, we feel like we're stuck at the desk or in our office, dealing with crises/ issues or chained to a computer typing reports. Once we leave for the day, we can redirect ourselves, hit the gym, go home to our families... but what do you do when you can't escape during the day? I think we all need an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with "refocusing and redirection" on it!

Personally, I rarely leave the building, because my workload is such that I can't take much time away, plus there's no place to go near my school since we're not in a great neighborhood. If I do leave, I drive to a better part of the city to get Starbucks (nom nom Skinny Caramel Macchiato, Cinnamon Dolce Latte, and the new Hazelnut Macchiato). Very very occasionally, a co-worker and I will pick up lunch to bring back to the office. That being said, I have to at least get out of my office during the day if I'm starting to crack!

Sometimes, I just need a quiet place for a bit where there's no phone ringing, no kids in the office, and no co-workers, so I'll go to our meeting/group counseling room by myself to focus. Usually, I take a walk. If a stop to check my mailbox and chat with the main office clerk isn't enough, I climb the stairs and do a few laps around the building, tactically avoiding a trip past certain classrooms so I don't get dragged into something (goodness knows I can't show my face outside my door some days without something happening!). On my way, I'll check in with a few kids that I work with or chat with a teacher. If I'm still plotting to rip out my hair, I stop by the cafeteria or one of my favorite classrooms to hang out with the kids and hand out Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) tickets to boost all our moods. It's impossible to be grumpy after spending time with the little ones. I like to observe as they learn, have them show me the literacy computer games they're doing, or sit down and work alongside them with manipulatives or a hands-on activity. My classroom of choice this year is our first grade 6:1+1 Special Class, who I did a counseling group with this fall. They are utterly precious... except for the times when they're having a massive freak-out and kicking me in the chest (that's another story).

If I can't get away from the desk or don't want to venture outside (and possibly getting dumped on :) ), I chit chat with co-workers. I share an office with three other people on a regular basis (with a few other part-timers), so there's always someone around and we typically get along well. Our favorite light-hearted, possibly inappropriate, past-times include: reading our daily "FML" calendar, making "That's What She Said" jokes (and hitting the TWSS button in my desk drawer), and dancing to "Friday" by Rebecca Black (but only on the appropriate day). Laughter is an absolute must to de-stress! I also will talk to Husband on Gmail Chat throughout the day to break up the monotony, or check Facebook, Pinterest, or play a quick game on my iPhone (anything in the "... With Friends" series does me good, or this Jetpack Joyride game that Husband downloaded).

How do you de-stress and re-boot during the day?

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Guest Post! - A Positive Approach to Professional Transitions

Eliane Hack, a fellow member of the NY Association of School Psychologist Executive Board (NYASP; representing Chapter F) and school psychologist in the Queensbury Union Free School District, graciously offered to share this article she wrote for the New York School Psychologist newsletter as a guest post! This article is the perfect positive pick-me-up and revitalizer as we school psychologists go through March Madness and the last push to finish all those evals before June hits. Thank you, Eliane! :) If you would like to contact Eliane, drop her a line at

A Positive Approach to Professional Transitions

It is an unceremonious transition, and one that happens at different times for different people, but one transition that cannot be overlooked is that of the budding, energetic, newly-hired school psychologist to the tired, underappreciated, and frustrated professional. In my case, this shift happened somewhere between my fourth and fifth year on the job. I had secured my tenure position and established myself as a trusted person in my building, but I found that the daily hurdles and sentiments of wanting to “vote someone off the island" made me question my ability to envision myself in this career through the year 2038 (when I am first eligible for retirement). It may be inevitable that this happens to you, or possibly already has. Here are the bits of advice I have found essential in staying positive and sticking with the career for which I know I was meant.
  • Surround yourself with “balcony people” (those who encourage us, rather than “basement people”, who seek to hold us down with negativity). If you spend your time around perpetual cynics it is going to be hard to remain an eternal optimist, or even a realist. Negativity breeds negativity and the surefire way to make a bad situation worse is to harp on it without envisioning the solutions. I can thank my consultation coursework at Marist College for the solution-focused push on that one. It is also just as important to pass along compliments about others to others. Be a balcony person, a bucket-filler, and a genuine encourager wherever you can. The favor will gladly be returned.
  • Create a "smile file". It may be corny, but it helps. Keep all of those nice notes from students, parents, fellow staff members, supervisors, and administrators. Look them over from time to time, to remind yourself that on that day, you made a difference to someone.
  • Keep in touch with other graduates from your training program. You build strong bonds when you are in school together, and it will be important to share opinions and trade stories once you are employed. It is incredible how differently districts operate across the state and country. Trading stories also helps to keep perspective in that your "issues" might not be that bad! If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we would likely grab ours back.
  • Find an activity that recharges your batteries - a quick activity that gives you a short break from the rat race, and keeps you grounded in the reasons you became a school psychologist in the first place. This may be something different for everyone, but for me, it is taking a few short minutes to visit one of my school's kindergarten self-contained classrooms. I feel like a rock star as I walk in to bear hugs and exclamations of, "Ms. Hack is BACK!" And, at five years old, they often say the funniest things. It's a guarantee that I will smile when I visit that room.
  • Of course it helps to work with a solid group of school psychologists within your district. I am lucky to work with four other school psychologists in a district of about 3,700 students. As you have probably realized, being a school psychologist can be a lonely position, often being the sole psychologist in your building. Arrange monthly or quarterly meetings with your fellow school psychologists. It helps in terms of consistency across the district, as well as camaraderie and communication on some tough issues. Some of you may be the only psychologist in the entire district. This is where it helps to stay connected with others in your field, but more on that later. 
  • Professional development should be about more than accruing credits for NCSP or district requirements. Find trainings that speak to your interests. I find that for many school psychologists, it is not only our job but our hobby. A friend who works in the computer industry could not believe that I wanted to go to a work-related conference on my own time and that I would drive several hours to get to it. I get excited about big name speakers in “our world” and related fields, such as George McCloskey, Jim Wright, Ross Greene, and Michelle Garcia Winner. I stop just short of asking for autographs.
  • Speaking of professional development, I think it is important to take opportunities to deliver your own professional development. School psychologists are often looked to as experts on topics such as learning styles, behavior, mental health and disabilities, just to name a few. If you can present information to your colleagues that will ultimately help them to be more successful educators, they will be thankful, and you will feel useful! Feeling useful is one of the biggest motivators that keep me going each day. Another way to help others help themselves is to catalog the books in your office to establish a lending library. I compiled a list of over 200 books available for staff to borrow as needed, which I “advertised” throughout my building at various points throughout the school year. Of course this will not completely eliminate the need to be called on to put out fires, but it can help better equip others.
  • My last bit of advice is something you have already heeded since you are reading this article. Stay involved in your state and national associations. Being current with the goings on of your field is a necessary step in staying fresh and being re-inspired to carry on!

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

March Madness: It's Not Just For Basketball Anymore

As the middle of March hits, if you're like me, you're kind of drowning. March and April are crazy busy months in education, especially special education. Many districts, like mine, conduct Annual Reviews of every special education student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in March, so there's constant questioning, checking, fire-putting-out, and meeting related to that. Also, early spring is when the final push to get children evaluated before the end of the year begins. This "In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb" and "April Showers Bring May Flowers" junk needs to go out the window. "In Like a Lion, Out Like a Strung Out Wildebeast" and "April Evals Bring Crazy, Exhausted School Psychs" perhaps!

I think the most important thing to remember when facing the uphill battle of spring evaluation season is this: you are one person. It is possible that you may not be able to meet timelines and deadlines for every evaluation. If this were to happen, it only means that you are not a super human (although you will always be a Super Psychologist), and it tells your district that they are understaffed for the demand. Seriously communicate the difficulties you're facing with your workload to your supervisors, other psychologists, and the superintendent, and stress that you may not be meeting compliance despite working your best to do so (they wanted to be cited less than you do!).

Take it one evaluation, one report, and one meeting at a time. Manage your time, get organized, and make things as streamlined as possible. Collaborate with other psychologists and professionals in your building or district. Be honest with people who try to draw you into other duties and responsibilities during the school day (lunch duty? I think not). Try your best to "leave work at work" and don't stay up til all hours writing reports and IEPs--it's not healthy and you won't be at your best pumping things out in mass quantities. Communicate with teachers and administrators who are making the referrals to see if something else may be more appropriate than a special education referral (i.e. RTI, counseling, mentoring, wraparound services, etc). And remember, you are one person.

You will likely be feeling all kinds of crazy stress, pressure, and general insanity. That's okay, and it comes with the territory any month of the year. Take care of yourself, first and foremost. You will not be an effective school psychologist to your students if you're totally burnt out. Check out some of my posts on stress management for suggestions on how to keep the crazy down.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Low Down on Manifestation Determination Reviews (MDRs)

One of the more challenging meetings for any school psychologist is the manifestation determination review. Manifestation determination reviews (MDRs) occur when a student with a disability has been suspended for 10 or more days, with the purpose of examining if the suspendable behavior had a direct and substantial relationship to the child's disability and/or if the behavior was a direct result of the school not implementing the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP). I won't get into the legal guidelines and specifications of the MDR process, but highly recommend you understand the expectations of your state. For any New Yorkers out there, check out Part 201: Procedural Safeguards for Students with Disabilities Regarding Discipline.

When facing an MDR, remember your most important client: the student. You will have advocates, parents, teachers, administrations, and more all with things to say about the suspension, but MDR is all about making sure that the kiddo is not being punished for a behavior that is part of their disability or because their IEP wasn't implemented. Remember, IEPs are legally binding documents, and if they are not followed properly, you can have a lot of trouble on your hands. It is unfair to suspend a student for something they may not be able to help, and thus, we have MDR to protect them. It's serious, but it's important and a good thing, because it allows us to look out for a kiddo who might not be able to advocate for himself and to investigate a change in services if what is on the IEP is not sufficient.

As a psychologist who may be leading an MDR meeting, there's lots to do to prepare. You want all the information possible, even if it seems like too much! An extremely well-informed decision is the safest and most appropriate when we're talking about a kiddo's education. Some things to consider:

  • Talk to everyone who witnessed or was involved in the incident that resulted in the suspension. Find out the facts, the chain of events, if this is a pattern of behavior, and more!
  • Make sure you know the suspended student's IEP like the back of your hand... why and how the student meets criteria for a certain disability, every accommodation and modification, typical behaviors and levels of functioning for the student, etc. 
  • In the same vein, interview the teacher either before the meeting or during and have them explain specifically how they're meeting each accommodation related to the behavior in question, such as special seating arrangements, refocusing & redirection, behavior modification, etc.
  • Does the kid have any diagnoses outside of their special education classification (i.e. a student with a Learning Disability also being diagnosed with ADHD)? You need to consider those, too, when making a decision, so re-read any diagnostic criteria.
  • Review the Functional Behavior Assessment/Behavior Intervention Plan (FBA/BIP) and talk to the teacher to see exactly how it's being implemented and the progress being made on it. Get data and specific information. 
  • Find out if the student was in the appropriate program from their IEP when the behavior occurred. If not, the IEP may not have been implemented with fidelity. (i.e. if the IEP says a 6:1+1 for all academic and special areas, was that being followed, or was there no aide/a mixed group with general ed students/etc?)
The outcomes of MDR aren't always easy, especially when it means canceling a suspension because a student's behavior is related to their disability or the IEP wasn't implemented properly. At some point along the way (if you haven't already), you will have an angry teacher or administrator who doesn't want the student back in school because of the severity of their behavior. I can say myself that I had a teacher virtually run out of an MDR meeting down to the main office to scream at the principal that I was sending her kiddo back to school. But remember: your client is the child and your job is making sure that their educational needs are being met and they aren't being punished unfairly. 

Feel free to leave your comments and thoughts on MDR, particularly tips and tricks that have helped you! Go forth and MDR, you Super Psychologists! 

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Currently... v. 2.0

This was fun the last time I did it, a nice fluffy interlude while I try and wrap my head around some upcoming blog posts!

Listening: to the radiator in my office banging and hissing like a rhumba of rattlesnakes as it blows cold air. We've called to have maintenance take a peek inside, but I think they're scared of getting bitten or frozen. As an aside, I bet you didn't know that was the scientific term for such a grouping of snakes, eh? The more you know...

Loving: the scoring software for the BASC-2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for interpreting my data and giving me a handy print-off for these six BASC-2 protocols I have to score. While I still retype the results into my reports and do my own interpretative commentary, I love not having to hand score that thing. Now, if only I could get computer scoring for the Conners-3... man, that's a pain in the backside.

Thinking: of trying out the new WPPSI-IV with a kindergartener I'm evaluating this week. I haven't gotten the chance to use it yet and it's taunting me with its shiny child-friendlyness! In reality, I just want to play with the Bingo dauber... don't be hatin'.

Wanting: the kids in the weight room to hush their faces. The weight room shares a wall with my office and my desk is closest to said wall. I've already asked them to turn the radio down once this period, which they did (barely), but I think they just got louder as a result. If I hear one more weight bar slam down, I'm going to be Angry Psychologist.

Needing: a Cherry Coke Zero. Maybe not need, but highly want. It's like my crack, not gonna lie, and I ration it so I only drink 2-3 a month. I grabbed the last plain Coke Zero from the fridge when I packed my lunch last night and it was a real let-down seeing it this afternoon. Sorry, Coke Zero, but I think we need to talk about our relationship.

Stalking: our Individualized Education Plan (IEP) software to see if teachers are opening their drafts, generating proper letters, and starting to write their IEPs for Annual Reviews this month. I really need to let them do their thing and go check them out next month when they're all done, but I'm too Type A. Just want all our IEPs to be informative, meaningful for next year's teacher, and meet state mandates!

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Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Have Reliable, Productive Psychological Testing Sessions

Since Husband had eye surgery yesterday and Winter Storm Nemo is bearing down on Northeast, I thought today would be an excellent day to stay home and hunker down in a baggy ol' college sweatshirt with a Starbucks Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte and bust out a blog post!

Recently on my Facebook page, I mentioned a case where I had heard that two brothers were planning to throw their testing in order to get classified with special education services. Every now and then, I evaluate kids who do not give their "all" during testing--whether it's because they're unmotivated, uncooperative, excessively fidgety, or a plotful mastermind like these brothers. These kiddos can be challenging to test because we don't want to push too hard, but we also require reliable results for decision-making. It's a delicate balance.

Here are some general recommendations to make sure you're getting the most accurate scores possible:

  • Make sure to spend the time building rapport with the kids you're testing. Whether it's a game of Uno, asking about their interests, reading a story together, or an extra long walk & chat to the testing location, making kids feel at ease and comfortable with you is the first step towards having a productive assessment session. 
  • Pick a place to test that is relatively quiet, private, and distraction free. This is one of the first things you'll learn about assessment in grad school, and 30 years later it'll still be the solid base you need. Not all of us have our own offices or even a desk (or pencils, protocols, etc...), but doing your best to find a good place for testing can make a world of difference. You may have to get creative... nurse's exam room, librarian's office, or janitor's closet ring a bell?
  • Be familiar with your own assessment materials. As you're fumbling to see if an answer is 1pt or 2pt, trying to find your place in the manual, or checking to see if you're putting a model together the right way, it give kiddos chances to get off-track. This will come with time and practice, but making sure you know the assessment like the back of your hand will let you focus on the kid, not the text (which you will be able to recite in your sleep). 
  • Be open and flexible, but firm and structured. The more you test, the more you'll find the balance between being Robot Psychologist and Out of Control Psychologist. We need to maintain standardization and boundaries, but also be a person who the kid can relate to. Kids will run wild when given too much freedom, but can crack under someone who is too rigid. 
  • For kids that are reluctant, uncomfortable being wrong, give up easily when challenged, or who seem to not being exhibiting all their effort--be encouraging. Obviously, we can't tell kids if they are right or wrong on an answer when they ask, but saying things like, "You worked really hard on that one," "This seems easy for you," "You're positive about that answer," "Excellent effort," etc can give kids the extra push to keep going. Make sure that you give positive feedback even if a child is incorrect--it's supportive and they'll pick up if you're only responding when they're right, which can throw them.
  • For kids who are excessively fidgety, hyperactive, hard to focus--be consistent and repetitious. They are going to need multiple repetitions of directions and expectations, constant reminders to "sit on your bottom/look at me/put your listening ears on/take your time/look at these *tap finger*" and possibly breaks to let their energy out. There's nothing wrong with stopping after a few subtests (or every one) for some jumping jacks or to take a walk if it means that they'll be refocused afterwards. I always give kids the option for stretch and bathroom break halfway through regardless of their attention level--I don't like sitting for 1+hrs and I'm a typically-functioning adult (unless I have too much coffee, then I'm a tweak)! Providing reinforcers, such as M&Ms or small stickers, in short, variable intervals is also a good way to help maintain attention and give reinforcement.
  • That being said, don't be afraid to break testing into multiple sessions, especially if you're administering more than one measures. You will have to for especially little kiddos, because developmentally they just can't focus for taxing tasks for extended periods. If kiddos start getting frustrated, pushing them to keep going is only going to irritate them more, leading to less reliable results. If you have an inkling that things aren't going as they should, it's best to postpone until a later date. You may even want to ask the kid when they'd like to finish--maybe getting out of a certain subject they don't like will be extra incentive or motivation for them!
We can bend over backwards as Super Psychologists and do all the little things to make an assessment session as close to perfect as possible, but kids are unpredictable precious monsters that can still go rogue. In these instances, you'll have to decide how to report your assessment findings. It will be very important to write a strong "behavioral observations" section describing explicitly with observable terms what the child did during testing that might have impacted your results, and how they reacted to the things you did to maintain them. You will also need to write a statement describing why your results may not be reliable. Mine usually comes at the end of my "behavioral observations" section, right before my "assessment results" and sounds something like: Due to XX, the following results are believed to be an inaccurate and unreliable representation of CHILD'S current levels of cognitive functioning." Where "XX" is, note whatever it was that may have skewed the testing, such as "inattentive and hyperactive behaviors," "a lack of consistent and appropriate effort," etc. It would be painful to completely throw out your results and hard work, so when I appropriate I also note that "scores should be interpreted with caution" in whichever areas were particularly impacted.

What other suggestions, tips, and tricks do you have for productive testing sessions? 

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Retention on Repeat

A seventh grade student mistaken for a parent by a staff member. A 13-year-old in fourth grade. A first grader a two heads taller and more developed than all her classmates. An eighth grade student able to drive to school. Sound nonplausible? I have them all in my school.

Retention is an epidemic in my building and district. The district has pass/fail guidelines, and if a student does not meet them, chances are they will be retained and repeat the grade. Give them an extra year to make up what they didn't learn the first time through, and they're on their way. Since I recently found out that my school is in the lowest 5% of schools in the entire state, and our graduation rate hovers around 50% district-wide, my Spidey senses tell me there's a hole in that logic.

We could go on and on about the research regarding retention, but in short: retention doesn't work. Kids that are retained can lose their achievement gains from repeating within 2-3 years, are more likely to be unemployed, on public assistance, or in jail as an adult, may have negative social/emotional adjustment, are more likely to have negative social outcomes as adults (drug use, low self-esteem, emotional distress), and are 5-11x more likely to drop out of school or not achieve a diploma by age 20. In an urban setting with many of these problems already present in the community, retention is just one more strike against getting students prepared for a productive life in a post-school world.

Are there instances where retention is a good option? Sure, but educators must look at it on a kid-by-kid basis and consider the whole child (academics, social/emotional development, maturity, physical development, etc)--not use blanket guidelines or benchmarks.

Since we can't change the system, we need to work at a building and classroom level. What are some other options for educators, aside from retention? NASP has some great ideas in this excellent article. A sampling of some that would work within an urban education framework, for the short attention-spanned :) :
  • "Early developmental programs and preschool programs to enhance language and social skills. Implementing prevention and early intervention programs is more promising than waiting for learning difficulties to accumulate.
  • Early reading programs: developmentally appropriate, intensive, direct instruction strategies have been effective in promoting the reading skills of low-performing students. 
  • Systematic assessment strategies, including continuous progress monitoring and formative evaluation, to enable ongoing modification of instructional efforts.
  • Student support teams with appropriate professionals to assess and identify specific learning or behavior problems, design interventions to address those problems, and evaluate the efficacy of those interventions.
  • Extended year, extended day, and summer school programs that focus on facilitating the development of academic skills.
  • Tutoring and mentoring programs with peers, crossage, or adult tutors focusing on promoting specific academic or social skills."
Here are two other article resources from NASP:

How does retention look in your building? Does your district have academic benchmarks for students to meet in order to be promoted to the next grade? What do you do instead of retaining/repeating students?

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Awkward Conversations at School, Part 2

(a warning for sexual slang terms in this post)

At our most recent Committee on Special Education (CSE) meeting day, we held a reevaluation for a young lady in 8th grade, T, who is classified as Emotionally Disturbed. Her special education teacher and Social Studies teacher, Mr. W, were in attendance. Mr. W is a distinguished African American guy in his early 30s who the students look up to as a mentor in the sense that he "got out" and "made something" of himself. He not only teaches Social Studies, but also life skills and lessons that meet the kids where they are. He's so well-spoken, I could listen to him talk all day (plus his voice is buttery smooth). But I digress...

Mr. W was telling the story about his first day back from medical leave and his first encounter with T:

Mr. W: "I was lecturing on the Civil War and how the slaves that could not escape to the North still supported the Northern soldiers in the South. I asked the class to tell me examples of this, and the students were discussing how the slaves sabotaged Confederate weapons, brought food and supplies to the Northern soldiers... all valid points. T responded, "Yeah mister, and they nutted in they food."

Me: 0_o

Mr. W: "The other students were appalled and didn't know what to say, and I have to admit, I was shocked as well..."

Social Worker, interrupting: "Wait, I'm sorry. What happened to their food?"

CSE Chairperson: "Yes, did she mean poison?"

Me (in head, hiding behind laptop): Oh no.

Mr. W: "Oh, um. [pause] Uh... they ejaculated in their food."

Social Worker and CSE Chairperson: "OH OMG!"

Sweet T, thank you for the spectacularly embarrassing laugh we all shared after that revelation. I don't think I've ever seen two naive older ladies in their 50s turn so red, though I probably shouldn't be proud of the fact that I knew it really meant. Chalk it up to experience working in the proverbial trenches! It sure broke up the exhausting monotony of a full day of CSE meetings...

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