Experts Weigh In – Special Education, IEPs and the Virtual School Year

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Virtual, hybrid, synchronous, asynchronous — there are a lot of terms floating around about how the school year is starting under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty looms large among students and parents as a whole, but for special education students with IEPs, there are many question marks as to how to navigate the upcoming school year. We want to ensure that our children receive the appropriate education and services they need to be successful.

There are proactive things we can do as caregivers of school-age brain tumor survivors with IEPs. There’s no getting around the fact that we as parents have a big role in how successful this situation will be for our children. We will definitely have a few more to do items on our parent-advocate lists in the coming weeks.

There’s also the ongoing concern around special ed students regressing and whether or not virtual learning in the formats planned for the new school year will be adaptable for our kids. And how do we manage getting what our child needs in the face of a situation where school systems are scrambling to try to provide education outside of the traditional classroom setting for all students?

We spoke with Katy Bosserman, educational consultant with a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education and Certification in Special Education plus 20 years of teaching experience as a Special Educator in Maryland Public Schools. Katy helps parents to understand the contents of their child’s IEP, observes and evaluates how the IEP is being implemented in the classroom and helps schools and families rewrite goals and objectives on IEP. We also spoke with Lauren Burton, a veteran elementary special education teacher from Harford County, Maryland, about how special ed teachers are preparing what we need to do as parents to to help set our kids up for success in this atypical school year. Both offer great advice on how to prepare for the coming weeks.

Start by Reviewing the IEP

Katy says she has been working with a lot of families to help them prepare to go back to school for continued online learning.

“It’s unprecedented,” Katy remarked. “We’ve never been here before, so a lot of us are kind of feeling our way as we go along so we are looking at the most critical need for the students as we go back and what kinds of supports can we put in place.”

She suggests looking at the accommodations and supplementary aid parts of the IEP and begin asking how these can be implemented in the virtual setting. “It’s important because you want to be able to have it aligned with how the instruction is going to look online.”

Katy uses “extra time” as an example of an accommodation. She says that can be implemented in a virtual setting, but the question is how? Working with the school to determine a plan to implement these accommodations in the virtual setting is key.

“If the teacher is posing a question and having the students write a response, and the teacher’s going, ‘Okay, you got three minutes to write your response,’ but your child gets six minutes, how’s that going to play out? What’s the game plan?”

She recommends taking an index card and writing out the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the accommodation.

“You’re kind of like a reporter and you’re getting the story. You’re trying to figure out what it is that we’re going to be able to do to implement this IEP on the virtual platform.”

Another example is if your child had access to things like a ball chair or a wiggle seat, anything physical that was provided from the OT perspective to help a student with sensory needs in the classroom, the school must provide these things at home.

Lauren agrees and says her school is providing families take-home bins with tools that would be used in the classroom. “Our hope is to provide iPads for families to access instruction. Our program is  making taking-home bins for families. We have ordered materials for parents to use educationally like flash cards and reinforcers like balls and slinkies and we are giving a couple ideas for communication. These bins will assist families while we are teaching because, they will have the exact same materials they would be using.”

Therapy Services

If your child receives services like speech, physical or occupational therapy, these should still be provided, virtually or in person, but if you are finding that you are struggling to get adequate services, Katy says start collecting data.

“This can be in many different forms. For instance, videotaping or jotting down notes as the therapist is going through the session. Take notes of what the therapist is doing and keep track of the number of hours of service.”

Katy says that, if adequate services aren’t being provided in the virtual setting, parents can request the school system send someone to the home or to compensate for outside service providers.

“I can’t stress that enough to parents, you’ve got to keep a log. Keep it right by the computer, wherever the workspace is. Have it in a folder. List the number of days and times for every service that they’re supposed to get. To set this up, take the IEP out, go to the service page, which is at the very end of that IEP. The service page denotes every single service that your child gets―however many minutes, however many hours, however many days per week.”

Keeping a service log and adding up time in service ensures that if time is missed, it gets made up.

Finding Success in Virtual Learning

Lauren Burton has been teaching for 23 years and has a master’s degree in special education. When asked what her school’s plan is in adapting virtual learning for her students, she says first they are pulling together tools for families and preparing to coach parents.

“I will have weekly or twice phone calls with parents and that’s where we will go over their individual objectives. Most of our program is focused on teachable moments so if the parent has the phone up and I see the student doing something, I can coach the parent on how to help them.”

When asked about preparing for virtual synchronous (live) classroom instruction, Lauren recommends getting your child in front of a screen for set times each day leading up to school to get them into the routine. Have them practice sitting in a designated space in your house for learning and if they need fidgets or other tools to help them, it is okay to have them on hand during live instruction.

“If you practice it now, you will know what will help your child,” she says.

As far as regression for special ed students in the virtual setting, Lauren says that even in evaluations from the end of the last sch
ool year, they saw that students may have regressed in some places, but they progressed in others, and a lot of the progression came from parents being home with their children and having the time to work with them. She also recommends documenting, but documenting the good along with where more help is needed.

“Even if they regress a little academically, you will see some progression in other areas like independent skills through giving them jobs and chores to do around the home.”

How to Work with Your Child’s IEP Team Right Now

Katy recommends making a request to meet with the virtual learning team. It doesn’t have to be a formal IEP meeting but a meeting with the team that is teaching your child online to review the goals, objectives, accommodations and aids. She also highly recommends requesting the meeting be recorded and getting a copy of the recording which should be made 24 hours in advance of the meeting to have the documentation to reference.

Lauren also says she would not recommend asking for a formal IEP meeting at this point since no one really has the answers as to how the coming weeks will play out.

“I would work with the teachers as a team and tell them your concerns and know that the teachers will do everything they can to help. There are no stupid questions. The more you ask, the more we get ideas of how we can help,” Lauren says.

In some school systems, there is a hybrid of in-school and virtual learning or A/B schedules which takes away the opportunity for a consistent day-to-day schedule, and that can pose a challenge for special education students who rely on a structured schedule to help them through the day. In that case, Lauren recommends working with the teachers to develop social stories and visual schedules to help indicate what type of day it is. Having a home structure and an in-school day structure written out in a visual schedule may help.

“Kids can know visually whether they are going to school or not going to school today,” says Lauren.

In Conclusion

After my conversations and evaluating these expert perspectives, here are my takeaways:

  • Connect with the education team now, review IEP goals, objectives, accommodations and supplementary aids and work with the team to develop a way to implement these in the virtual space.

  • Prepare to take lots of notes and log everything. Logged data will be the key to determining that services are adequate and if there is progression and regression.

  • Special education parents have a much bigger role in the actual implementation of our child’s education, which we may find leads to different breakthroughs and challenges as we balance this with managing our child’s medical conditions, our work, and our other children and their education. But the resounding theme is to take it day by day and do the best we can.

Katy says, “The thing that I keep coming back to is, let’s go back and look at what our mission statement is; why are we all here; what is the purpose of what we do; what we get up to do every day of our lives. We get up every day of our lives to be of service to these students.”

“Our goal is to help the families. We are all in the same boat, “ Lauren concluded.

We will be talking more about working with IEP teams at our Pituitary Brain Tumor Virtual Family Conference. Get more information and register here »