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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