Technology and Special Education: Virtual Education for Your Special Needs Child

Being a parent of a special needs child is hard.  Whether your child’s disability is physical or developmental, you know that you need to push their education within their abilities.  How do you do that in a school system designed for able-bodied, developmentally on-target children?

Brick and mortar schools try.  They offer paraeducators to give your child more one-on-one time; they train teachers to recognize and work with students with disabilities; they try to help your family by working out an IEP (individualized education program) to set goals for your child specifically.  But with hundreds of other students, it’s hard for them to give your child the special attention or accommodations they may need.

Virtual Education

Enter “virtual schools.”  These aren’t merely online curriculums; they are managed by real, certified teachers.  They aren’t set up like online college classes either, where most communication takes place by email and recorded lectures.  Nor are they third-party education plans used in homeschooling.  These are real, state-funded schools that aim to offer the same level of education as a physical school building would.

How does it work?

These virtual schools let the teacher and student speak via microphone.  Webcams allow the teacher to physically see the child’s homework and give them individual help.  Students can “attend” live class with a webcam, see the teacher live, see the class live, ask questions and receive live answers.  Students turn in homework either by completing assignments online or even by scanning and emailing files.

Advantages and Disadvantages

As a parent of a special needs child, how could virtual education help you?  Depending on the type of disability, different families will see different advantages in the program.  Here are some examples:

  • Asperger’s/Autism.  Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty connecting with people, but we find they often have no problem connecting with technology: In fact, they seem to have a special knack with it.  Virtual education lets them learn in an environment that is comfortable to them while helping polish their technology skills, which will be beneficial later in life.  However, though physical school may be uncomfortable for kids on the autism spectrum, it does force them to learn some social skills, which they can use as they go through life.
  • Mobility difficulties.  If you have a child with a disability that affects his or her mobility, you’ve probably found that everything takes twice as long as it would with an able-bodied child.  They may move more slowly, which means they take extra time getting ready for school, which means they have to get up earlier, and possibly get less sleep.  You may have to load a wheelchair in and out of a van every morning.  A virtual education releases the burden of early morning deadlines, giving you and your child a break.  However, structure is important in any child’s life and enforcing it at home is more difficult than at school.
  • Sensory difficulties.  If your child has difficulty hearing, virtual education may be the most comfortable option for him/her, where the child can simply turn up the volume.  In the same way, children with visual difficulties can easily enlarge text on a screen.
  • Developmental delays/disabilities.  One difficulty experienced by children with developmental delays in large classrooms:  teachers are often unable to provide the one-on-one help your child needs to understand concepts.  Virtual education lets you, the parent, be the support your child needs in conjunction with his or her online teacher.  It’s easy for you to communicate with the teacher about your child’s progress and to develop individual plans as deemed best.  As a bonus, many virtual classrooms are smaller than their physical counterparts, so teachers are able to spend extra time with students who need extra help understanding concepts.  

Virtual Education

If you’ve ever wished you had the time, energy, or ability to homeschool your child but felt the burden would be too great, virtual education may be your answer.  Close parental supervision will ensure your child’s needs are met, and the assistance of a live teacher and a pre-written curriculum will keep you from burning out.  Check out this state-by-state list of free K-12 online public schools to find more information about how virtual school may benefit your family!

Playground Safety Tips for Children with Special Needs

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Having fun is an important part of growing up! Community playgrounds should be a safe space for children to play with their peers, get out of the house, and enjoy the world. Unfortunately, for many children with special needs, the playground can also be a dangerous place. Without the right supervision or equipment, children with special needs have greater risks of hurting themselves.

Luckily, these basic guidelines can help you be best prepared to spend time safely in a playground with your child:

Part One: Supervision

Children with special needs should be fully supervised at all times. This means having one or more adults on the playground, and if possible, a playmate who can run to fetch help if something happens.

Playgrounds are designed to be safe for the average child, but children with special needs often have difficulty with physical coordination, and that can make even “safe” equipment more dangerous than it would normally be. Having eyes on them at all times help avoid risky behavior.

Part Two: Equipment

Not all forms of playground equipment are created equal. In fact, many units are specifically intended for children in a certain age range. If you’ve ever seen a set of simple-looking equipment next to something larger and more complicated, that’s why. Make sure the child in question is only using equipment appropriate for their age and physical ability. Don’t be afraid to restrict them to simpler equipment if they’re not ready to use the whole playground.

You should also check to be sure the playground is genuinely safe. Always watch out for:

  • Broken equipment (including equipment missing any of its parts).
  • Elevated areas without appropriate safety railings
  • Sharp, exposed edges anywhere a child can reach
  • Anything that could be a problem for the child’s individual needs (steps that are too high, monkey bars that are too far apart, etc.)

Remember, what’s safe for one child may not be safe for another. Don’t be afraid to use your own judgment in deciding whether or not a given piece of equipment is appropriate for your child.

Part Three: Surfaces

About two-thirds of all injuries on the playground are caused by falls or equipment failure. Children with special needs tend to fall more often than others. It’s best to assume that sooner or later they will stumble, and the surface they’re playing on could make all the difference in how badly they’re hurt.

The best playground surfaces for children with special needs are:

 

  • Rubber mats
  • Mulch
  • Sand
  • Pea Gravel
  • Wood Chips

Harder surfaces, even grass which doesn’t cushion well, should generally be avoided. Soft surfaces should be deep enough to realize their full benefits. If the surfaces are too shallow, they won’t actually protect children when they fall.

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Part Four: Accessibility

Newly-built or remodeled playgrounds are required to be accessible to children with special needs by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, many older playgrounds were not built with this kind of accessibility in mind.

Generally speaking, it’s best to focus on playgrounds that meet ADA standards if there are any in your area. If not, see if you can get the city council or community groups in charge of the local playgrounds to upgrade them. If playground facilities aren’t being updated when they should be, legal representation may be able to help you get the playground your child deserves. No child should ever be limited to unsafe playgrounds.

Five Ways to Support a Sibling in a Special Needs Family

sibling in a special needs family

When you have a child with special needs, it can be easy to overlook other members of your family. Siblings, especially, are expected to deal with the new normal and often may feel that they only receive a small fraction of the attention they need.To put it simply, being the “other kid” in a family that has a child with special needs is hard.

Fortunately, parents can strike a balance and find ways to help close the gap. Here are five ways to support a sibling in a special needs family:

1. Get The Sibling Involved In Activities

Imagine coming home from school each day and going straight to your room because nobody has time to talk to you, not when there are a thousand things your little brother needs help with. Siblings can often feel isolated from their family. Get them actively involved in some kind of after-school activity to help boost their confidence.

This should be introduced as a reward and your child should get to choose what the activity is. It’s not “we want you out of the house while we work,” but rather “you’ve been so patient that we’re allowing you to do something you want to do.” Here’s a list of 101 activities to get you started! As the sibling gets older, look for clubs and other long-term activities at their school, church, or local youth group.

2. Speak Up

Don’t let things go unsaid. You may be feeling guilty over your capacity to support everyone in your family.  Many siblings understand that their sibling needs extra care, but that doesn’t stop the emotional hurt when they feel shut out.  Talk openly and honestly with the sibling about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how they fit into the family.

At the same time, look for things to praise the sibling about. For example, if they hold open doors to help a wheelchair-bound brother get in and out of places, praise their thoughtfulness and how well they’re contributing to the family.

3. Don’t Let Them Misbehave

Many siblings in these sorts of situations start acting up as a way to get attention. They don’t really care whether it’s positive or negative, as long as you’re focusing on them for a moment. Don’t let them get away with this. Receiving attention for bad behavior may just reinforce it.

If you’re feeling guilty about not giving them the attention they deserve, the solution is not to give them the freedom to misbehave. Nip any bad behaviors in the bud and focus on positive, constructive ways of interacting.

4. Spend Quality Time With Them

As little as ten minutes a day can be enough to help siblings feel like they’re truly valued. Keep in mind that this shouldn’t be family time — it should be their time. This means giving them your full, undivided attention. One of the worst things you can do to a sibling is make them feel like you’re never thinking about them at all, and time set aside each day just for them helps put a stop to that.

sibling in a special needs family

5. Give Them Opportunities To Prove Their Maturity

Finally, nothing says “I care” like giving a child the chance to prove they deserve more responsibilities. Try creating a plan for the sibling where they can do chores, cook meals, help around the house, and generally develop the skills they’re going to need later in life. By having a goal to work towards, they’ll have something they know they can get your attention for, and that’s a safe way to channel their feelings.

Need To Free Up Some Time?

The California Special Needs Law Group was founded to help parents like you get the help and support necessary for taking care of a child with special needs. Once your special needs child has a proper support system in place, you should be able to free up the time you can spend with the rest of your family, including those who might currently feel like they’re pushed away.

Parent Involvement Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC)

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I encourage all parents who have IEP eligible children to actively participate in the special education advisory committee organized by their local school district. The California Education Code Section 56190 in compliance with federal law requires that each Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) establish a Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC). While the CAC’s purpose is to serve as an advisory capacity to each school district’s board of education and the implementation of special education programs it can become much more.

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Parent participation in educational decisions regarding their child is the fundamental purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). School District’s must ensure that parents have the opportunity to participate in meetings or groups related to evaluation, identification, educational placement and the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). While the law encourages parent participation in the development of their own child’s individualized education program (IEP) the requirement of the CAC also mandates that parents participate at the foundational level and collaborate on decisions to best implement the resources available for all special education students and programs. Unfortunately, too many special education administrators see parent involvement as problematic and they actively seek to diminish the role of CACs.

It is important to remember that federal and state laws are in place to bring parents and their school districts together to openly participate in developing appropriate special education programs for all eligible students. Oddly, school districts continue to dismiss parental involvement and have increased their attacks on families. As a result, parents already struggling with the difficulties of having a child with unique learning needs are faced with the decision to hire legal counsel to protect their child’s educational rights or to be bullied by school district administrators. At every turn school districts are finding new ways to fight parents and deny students the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

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While CAC’s are designed to provide collaboration at the local level, under the IDEA, state special education agencies must establish and maintain an advisory panel to provide guidance on special education and related services at the state level as well. In California this advisory panel is called the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE). The ACSE advises the California Department of Education (CDE) on unmet needs in the education of children with disabilities, proposed rules and regulations, evaluation and federal reporting activities, corrective actions plans, and the coordination of services for children with disabilities. A majority of the ACSE must be individuals with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities (ages birth through 26).

Last year a “Dear Colleague” letter from the US Department of Education expressed concern that some school districts are moving to file for due process over issues that parents have already chosen to address via less litigious and expensive ways, such as state compliance complaints. Instead of going to court parents have the option to file a complaint directly to the California Department of Education (CDE). The CDE will investigate a parent’s complaint and render a decision within 60 days which may include corrective actions against the school district. However, in response to a parent filing a CDE compliance complaint school districts around the country have been escalating the situation by directly suing these families, causing them to incur significant legal fees or drop their compliant. There is nothing collaborative about this process.

Instead of working with and alongside parents, school districts are hiring aggressive law firms and spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to force parents into unfavorable settlement agreements. In the last few years one particular school district in Southern California has spent over $600,000 fighting three families who are seeking appropriate services for their children. 

Parent involvement with their CAC can help highlight and expose their school district’s mishandling of public funds and its failure to work in collaboration with parents. Monthly CAC meetings provide a forum for Parents to discuss their concerns and develop positive solutions moving forward.

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Another area of concern that CAC’s can help is in the area of independent educational evaluations (IEE). Under the law parents have the right to request public funding of independent assessments each time the school district assesses. When such request is made the school district has one of two choices, it can fund the requested IEE or file for due process to defend its assessments. Unfortunately, I have seen an increase in school districts filing for due process to defend their assessments, even when it is clear that their assessment is not appropriate. The reason… to have parents sign a settlement agreement waiving all past violations and sometimes future rights to get the requested assessments. It is a ploy aimed directly at harming the student and has nothing to do with providing the services each student needs to access and benefit from their education. School districts routinely ignore the law or do not take it seriously. On one hand it is not their money, it’s the tax payers, and on the other hand, they know that most families do not have the financial or emotional resources to challenge them.

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This is why it is so important for every parent who has a child with an IEP to get involved with their Community Advisory Committee (CAC). It is a simple numbers game. The more parents get involved the tougher time school district administrators will have attacking and bullying families. A good CAC will hold monthly trainings for parents and will actively attend school board meetings.  I encourage all of you to become members of your CAC and begin sharing your story and learning from other families in your area. Together, through open dialogue, we can change the way special education is handled.

Celebrating Valentine’s Day for Special Needs Students

Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is almost here! This holiday is a rare opportunity for children with special needs to try and communicate how they feel about others. Here are some activities to help them get involved with the celebrations and teach them a little more about social interaction.

Cards and Crafts

One of the best activities for students with special needs is to create cards and other crafts. They should be encouraged to play to their strengths. For example, if a child has trouble cutting paper but does well with computers, ask them to create digital cards and print them out. If a child has some artistic talent, get them involved with paints or drawing.

The goal here isn’t just to have them practice what they’re good at. You want to show them ways they can use their personal strengths to accomplish goals beyond the limits of education.

Handing Out Valentines

Once the class is done creating craft projects, it’s time to start handing them out to others. This is a time to get the whole school involved, because students with special needs don’t have to limit themselves to the things they’ve made.

As a school-wide event, have all the students bring the valentines they want to pass out and deposit them in a collection box. Then, on the closest appropriate school day, have the students go around to other classrooms and pass out everything that’s been collected. This gives them a chance to build goodwill among other students without having to make the interaction personal.

If you’re feeling particularly bold, have them make and pass out treats at the same time. This is another chance to connect a specific skill (creating food) to a real-world event (celebrating a holiday). Encouraging these types of connections is one of the best ways to get students with special needs to desire those skills. There are countless options to choose from, so pick whatever kinds of treats would be best for their current level of ability.

They don’t need to limit themselves to their classmates, either. Consider having them hand out cards and treats to parents, teachers, staff members, and anyone they interact with on a regular basis.

Valentine's Day

Why Do It This Way?

Children with special needs often have difficulty expressing themselves to the point of needing alternative methods of communication in order to get their point across. It may come from a physical issue (deformities, injuries, etc), a mental handicap, or something as relatively simple as poor impulse control.

Unfortunately, even when they’re being sincere about how they feel, these problems with communication can make them come across as off-putting to anyone outside their immediate social group. This isn’t a pleasant reality to face, but we’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t take this into account.

Creating cards, signing them as a group, and focusing on general well-wishes is a way to display thoughtfulness without putting them on the spot. As always, though, there’s no universal rule applicable to every child with special needs.

What about love? If a child seems socially adept and mature enough, they should be encouraged to be brave and express their love for other people. The last thing we want is to convince them that nobody will ever love them, because that sort of belief tends to become self-fulfilling.

Sometimes, a little encouragement is all they need to say the words that will change their life for the better.

Special Education and its Failure to Address Learning Disabilities

The quality of special education in California is dismal at best. Depending on where you live and how “kind” your local school district decides to be, varies dramatically throughout the state. While high school graduation rates are slowly increasing for general education students those who are receiving special education and related services are being forgotten.

learning-disabilities

It is important to note that 90% of special education students have no cognitive impairments and are absolutely capable of receiving a high school diploma and attending college. Unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons there is a lack of motivation to provide the specific related services these students require to graduate at the same rate as their peers.

Last year a California Task Force met and urged the state to reform its special education funding to address the problem of low achievement rates of special education students.  (See, http://edsource.org/2015/california-task-force-urges-reform-of-special-education-funding/75057).

The two largest categories for IEPs are speech or language impairment and specific learning disability. Around $8 billion dollars per year in federal, state and district funds are spent on roughly 702,000 students in California who qualify for special education. This is a lot of money and most students with IEPs do not require expensive programs to access and benefit from their education.

Included in its recommendation the Task Force also encouraged the state to reinstate the requirement that special education teachers hold both general and special education credentials. A requirement the state removed in the 1990s so it could quickly fill special education teaching vacancies. Now, almost a generation later we are seeing the negative effects of California’s decision. Specifically, Students with learning disabilities are not keeping up with their general education peers and special education teachers are not qualified to address all of their needs.

In October 2013 the United States Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter addressing the epidemic failure by school districts (across the country) to appropriately educate students with specific learning disabilities. (http://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/guidance-on-dyslexia-10-2015.pdf).

Under the IDEA and its implementing regulations a “specific learning disability” is defined in part as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” See 20 USC Section 1401(30) and 34 CFR Section 300.8(c)(10). The law is clear that each school district must conduct an evaluation to determine whether your child meets the criteria of a specific learning disability or any of the other disabilities that may qualify him for special education and related services if they know or should know that such disability may exist.

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Specifically, the USDOE made it clear that dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia are conditions that can qualify a student for special education and should be addressed. This policy letter was written due to the reluctance many school districts have in referencing dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia in evaluations, eligibility determinations, or in developing the IEP. Often times school districts do not want to use these terms because there are certain practice guidelines that require intensive supports, that the school does not want to provide.

Sadly, many students with specific learning disabilities languish in RSP programs year after year making little to no real progress. As a result, by the time they reach high school they are years behind in reading and general knowledge, and are then routinely taken off the university and diploma track.

I have had school districts erroneously try to defend their decision to remove a fully capable and highly intelligent student from a diploma track merely because it did not want to provide the necessary reading support to bring that student up to grade level. Per the California Reading Initiative, effective prevention and early intervention programs can increase the reading skills of 85% to 90% of poor readers to average levels. This includes 2-3 hours per day of reading instruction. (http://www.ousd.org/cms/lib07/CA01001176/Centricity/Shared/The%20CA%20Reading%20Initiative%20and%20SpED%20in%20CA-Inclusion%20Material.pdf)

We now know that the vast majority of students with severe reading difficulties including dyslexia have substantial weakness in auditory-related skills, such as identifying individual sounds with words (phonemic awareness) and associating those sounds with written letters (sound-symbol relationships). As such, it is absolutely necessary for parents to request a central auditory processing disorder (CAPD) assessment. This assessment must be completed by a qualified audiologist familiar and experienced with educational placements and services. For more information, see https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/auditory-processing-disorder/understanding-auditory-processing-disorder.

An auditory processing disorder can cause difficulty with reading, spelling and writing skills. I have never seen a school district initiate a CAPD assessment without parents first requesting. Instead, I often find school districts trying to avoid such assessments by coming up with all kinds of excuses. I even had a school district freely admit a student had an auditory processing disorder and then question why an assessment was necessary. A quick reminder that, like other areas of potential weakness, assessments are necessary to have an expert explain the student’s unique needs and make clear recommendations to the IEP team, including goals on how to remediate the area(s) of concern, did get the assessment moving forward. Knowing is not enough… a plan must be put in place that addresses the auditory processing disorder.

If you have a child struggling academically you must pursue and push your school district to figure out why. If their assessments do not answer your questions you need to get independent evaluations from qualified and experienced outside assessors. Your child does not need to struggle, there are plenty of resources and programs that will appropriately address their areas of deficit which will allow them to fully access and benefit from their education. Do not stop fighting for your child.