Challenged Hope

Grandmother raising Grandchildren with FASD in Hamilton Ontario Canada


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What Is Specialized School Programming: High School?

Today, I had an appointment, along with other parents, to tour a specialized classroom that my two eldest mentally disabled grandchildren might be attending when they begin high school. I have to say up front that I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic way in which we were welcomed by the staff of the program, plus, their efficiency in answering our questions about specialized programming, and also their interest in transitioning disabled children from high school into inter-dependent adult living including the workforce.

At the time of writing this, a decision has yet to be reached as to whether this will be the high school my grandchildren will be attending, so I have to withhold my excitement for now, but for readers who are curious about specialized programming in high school, the following notes I quickly scribbled, while trying to keep up with the discussion, might be of interest.

At this school:

  • There are three classes in the specialized programming: Comprehensive, Autism, and Developmentally Delayed. The tour I attended was for the Comprehensive Program.
  • In the Comprehensive Program, the graduation age is twenty-one.
  • In all three classes combined there is a total of ten Educational Assistants.
  • The Comprehensive Program is geared to students with a minimum grade one or two reading level, plus simple math. Below that, the student would be placed in the Developmentally Delayed program.
  • The students work from the same timetable daily which is important as mentally disabled children prefer structure with as less change as possible, although activities do vary minimally, such as: during cooking class the students will learn to make different meals each time.
  • The students learn life-skills. For example: cooking, shopping, socializing, hygiene, fitness, transportation (taking a bus from A to B without losing their way).
  • Many people (which, before this tour, included me) don’t realize that mentally disabled children can be musically proficient, so I was pleased to learn that specialized programming encourages the student’s skills and confidence through performances in front of other students and parents.
  • Communication between parents and teachers is important to the staff and so daily agendas containing pertinent comments regarding the child’s day are used, plus telephone communication on a regular basis is encouraged.
  • Although registered in specialized programming, students could be assigned an IEP to ensure their individualized needs are continually being met (See post: What is an IEP?).
  • The students are constantly supervised during the school day and travel with a member of staff whenever they leave the classroom (e.g. going to the school cafeteria for lunch, and helping the student to make change while paying for lunch).
  • The staff encourages one-to-one friendships between the students. This particular school has a Best Buddies program to help utilize that goal. There are also after-school activities designed to generate friendships between students such as school dances.
  • When a student helps with necessary work such as clean-up, they receive a freebie snack.
  • The students are encouraged to participate in co-op placements with businesses in their area, resulting in many students finding positions in the workforce upon graduation.
  • I asked if bullying of the challenged children by the mainstream school children was more frequent than bullying of non-disabled students, and was met with a chorus of denials by the staff who assured me they are constantly aware of possible bullying and keep on top of any potential victimizing situations.

If you live in the Hamilton-Wentworth district of Ontario, please go to http://www.hwdsb.on.ca for further information about specialized school programming.

UPDATE: 

I’m extremely pleased to report that my two eldest grandchildren with mental disabilities have been accepted into a Comprehensive Class: Living & Learning Program at a Secondary School for September 2013.

I took my two grandchildren on a recent tour of their new classroom, so they could meet the Teacher and Educational Assistant, and also their fellow students. The classroom will be their home until they are twenty-years of age, during which time they will learn much needed life skills for independence and will get support and help for securing workplace experience and hopefully future employment.

After we had been introduced to everyone in the class, my grandkids were taken on a tour of the school by several of their classmates, during which time the teacher explained to me the various program elements offered in her class, which include:

Functional Literacy:
A reading program which includes a combination of independent reading, guided reading, and shared reading. Materials include – novel studies, magazines, maps, library books, pamphlets, calendars, etc. Writing program includes reading responses, journal writing, resumes, filling out forms, etc. Speaking opportunities include oral presentations, sharing work, role-playing, etc.

Functional Numeracy:
Foundational skills are practiced through hands-on math manipulative, role-playing, environmental numeracy (looking at bowling scores, grocery receipts, menu items, etc.) worksheets and computer drills. Topics include: money, telling time, number sense (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing), estimating, weather charts and temperature graphs, shopping, time management, etc.

Vocational Skills:
All students learn job readiness skills such as: resumes, interviewing, positive attitude, problem solving, etc. Senior students participate in Transitional Work Experience Program (TWEP) where the EA takes 1-3 students to a job placement. Students in the past have worked at: Fortinos, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Dollarama, Blockbuster Video, local public schools, and Value Village.

Physical Skills:
Students learn about healthy living and improve motor skills through swimming, bowling, outdoor recreation, physical education, games and leisure activities.

Daily Living Skills:
All students participate in daily classroom jobs such as: preparing food, washing and drying dishes, setting-up the agenda, putting chairs up and down, etc. Class activities include how to ride buses safely in the community, preparing healthy meals, washing clothes, healthy relationships, etc.

Pathways Plan:
Students learn about transitions by using a daily agenda and monthly calendar.

Instructional Practices include:

  • Individualized planning based on student needs
  • Combination of independent and group work
  • Use of hands-on materials
  • Experiential learning through “doing” – Field Trips

This class is an excellent environment in which, over the next several years, I am sure, my grandchildren will thrive and learn skills designed to provide them with a solid foundation for life as adults with disabilities.

Some times, amazing things do happen!


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Special Needs Educator

… My school years are long in the past, but I do remember how mentally disabled students were treated back then. I’m thinking of two students in particular who were my peers in the elementary school in England where I grew up. There was Jennifer who suffered with the worst stutter I have ever heard plus severe learning disabilities, and Robert who was obviously challenged by an acute case of ADHD. Strangely enough, in those days, bullying of the more vulnerable by fellow students was seldom practiced, sad to say the teachers more than made up for it.

Not a day passed without my seeing a teacher lob a blackboard eraser at Jennifer or whack the back of her hand with a wooden ruler as she painfully stuttered her way through a story she couldn’t read, her face turning red with embarrassment and tears streaming down her cheeks as she was heckled and humiliated by the very person who should have been helping her. And I remember the time the Principal called the whole school staff and students out into the grounds, then dragged Robert outside and publicly shamed him by pulling down his pants and repeatedly swiping him on the rear end with a sneaker, for insolence over not listening to authority. Robert’s protesting howls are with me to this day.

For me, trying to justify this sordid behaviour against the mentally disabled with the excuse that teachers just didn’t know enough about mental disorders in those days is unacceptable. When did ignorance replace compassion?

Thank goodness things have changed! That’s one reason why I contacted my two eldest mentally disabled grandchildren’s teacher and asked him to help parents realize just how much help there is for mentally disabled children in the classrooms today.

His name is Tim Groenewegen and he is a special needs educator in the city of Hamilton, Ontario and kindly agreed to share his experience with, and knowledge of, special needs education….

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             Teaching Students with FASD: Tim Groenewegen

As a special needs educator within the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), I have been privileged to work with many students diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD). In this article I hope to inform parents and guardians of children with FASD of the education systems support for students with such needs, the educational choices that will have to be made, and how to unite parents/guardians and educators in supporting children. I will include in the term FASD: Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), Partial FAS (PFAS), Alcohol-Related Neuro-developmental Disorder (ARND), and Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD).

Background

I have been working with students with special needs for the past four years with the previous two years having been in a special class setting. I made the switch into the special education classroom after working as a respite care worker for students with mental and physical disabilities. I had several realizations while working as a respite care giver: I have a skill set useful for special needs education, I enjoy teaching the life skills component of a special needs education classroom, I am able to perform the administrative duties associated with high needs and I very much enjoy seeing students reach their social, emotional, educational and physical goals. After this realization, I pursued my Special Needs Education specialist certificate through on-line course work.

Teaching students with FASD has been both challenging and rewarding. Understanding the needs of a child with FASD is a complex matter as their needs are different to the other children in my class. In addition, the needs can vary greatly between students with FASD. It is a learning process to understand how to better structure their day, lesson or social expectations and the HWDSB has provided me with training from a FASD specialist. By communicating with parents, caregivers, social workers and the academia, I have been better able help my 4 students with FASD perform better in the special education classroom.

Through experience I have found the following premises essential to apply to the education of students with FASD:

  • – Foundational to the success of students with FASD is the premise that they are trained for a successfully dependent future not a successful future of independence. In doing so, we teach students how to access the resources available to them. 
  • – Repetition can replace thinking so we repeat important actions until they become automatic. 
  • – Constant supervision and structured choices will help students to choose the right actions. Extra supervision is given to children with FASD during unstructured times such as recess time, before and after school. 
  • – Setting educational goals just below the child’s potential, which seems contrary to success, but will enable students to approach material feeling confident in themselves and their surroundings. 
  • – Offering what may appear to be rewards before more difficult academic content helps students feel successful before venturing into something new. These nuanced approaches have lead to much success in the classroom.

Placement

The twelve students I educate were placed in my classroom through a formal process following the decision of the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC). This committee determines if a student should be identified as an exceptional student (according to ministry and board criteria) what exceptionality/exceptionalities they have and what classroom placement would best suit their needs. This committee may consist of a principal, vice principal, special education consultant, learning resource teacher and a classroom teacher. Parent/guardian input into this committee is important in order to benefit the student.

Deciding on which classroom setting is best suited for a child with FASD is an important decision. The following options are most often presented:

1. Regular classroom: In this case, a student identified as exceptional will stay in a regular classroom with additional support. These supports will include an Individual Education Plan (IEP), and may include assistance from an Educational Assistant (EA) or from a Learning Resource Teacher (LRT), extra supervision, and a safety intervention plan (SIP). In some cases, a student will spend most of their time in the regular classroom and integrate into another classroom for a particular subject (e.g. attend a grade 3 math class).
2. Special Class: In a special class, a student will be one of a maximum of 12 students. Their teacher will have special training in Special Needs Education and there will be at least one EA in the class. Each student will be on an IEP, more closely supervised during transitions (between classes, before and after school), and have a greater focus on daily living skills during the course of a school week. The academic level of a special class is a large factor to consider as students in a special class are typically placed there due to high educational needs.
3. Special Day School: This placement best suits students with severe behaviour needs, mental health needs and academic concerns. All students are on IEPs, are placed in small class sizes and have access to special education teachers and EAs.
Communication between school and home

Open communication between home and school is vital for the success of students. Teachers may send home a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year or partway through the year if new student arrives. The questionnaire seeks to gain understanding of key topics such as: how a student communicates, what their strengths and needs are, what interests they have and what goals they are trying to achieve. Accessing this information will minimize the “settling in period” into a new school or new class setting. Teachers will use the student agenda, phone or possibly email to communicate success, concerns or incidents. The student agenda is the most used medium of communication between home and school. Many parents and guardians find it helpful when the teacher notes down the nature of a conflict or incident at school so they can discuss it with the child at home. For many students with FASD, the connection between how they feel and what happened can be too great of an intellectual step to make on their own; the agenda can help make that step.

Teachers appreciate being kept up to date on issues pertaining to the well being of their students such as:

  • – changes in medications
  • – change in living arrangements
  • – upcoming events that may be causing excitement or anxiety
  • – new reward systems or behaviour tracking systems
  • – key terms or language used at home targeting behaviour e.g. “keep it small”, “ fishing” (when someone is looking or “fishing” for negative attention), “because that is the rule…”
  • – meetings with other people in the students care team e.g. doctor, psychologist, therapist…
  • – information regarding school the parent/guardian may not be aware of e.g. student broke up with her boyfriend or hurtful words were exchanged between students in the change room

Plan for the future

Goals for students with FASD should be goals of successful dependence on others rather than goals of successful independence. Focusing on functional math skills e.g. paying for groceries, budgeting; and functional literacy skills e.g. using a bus map, reading a recipe are crucial for future success. Goals for the future can and should be chosen with the student/parent/guardian and teaching team. Many generic goals will be set for students such as the ones listed above. Additional goals or refining goals can be done with increased input from guardians and parents. For example, a parent or guardian could provide a more individualized perspective by indicating a child’s phobia of being in crowded places (i.e. bus), anxiety around talking to strangers, personal hygiene skills, toileting, fine motor skills, or pronunciation. Together, goals can be chosen and monitored to help meet these needs on a case by case basis.

Choosing a high school setting that will equip students with dependent living skills, teaching functional math and language, and training in employable skills will help students achieve a successful future. This can be discussed at an IPRC meeting and be written into the “transition” section of the student I.E.P. Working as a team of parents/guardians, educators and medical staff can support students with FASD from kindergarten through to adulthood in achieving a successful future.

I wish you all the best in planning for success. I hope my perspective has helped you in making the right educational choices for the children you care for.

Tim Groenewegen

Helpful http://www.HWDSB.on.ca documents:

  • Working Together pdf.
  • IPRC pdf.
  • IEP pdf


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What is a Psycho-Educational Assessment?

When each one of my mentally disabled grandchildren reached the age of around five, it was recommended they have a Psycho-Educational Assessment. This was something I had never heard of before, but was assured it would help them receive an academic program suited to their needs when they entered school.

Although I was allowed to attend the assessments, for the first three, I was expected to observe my grandchildren’s testing through a two-way mirror, then for the fourth, in the room itself. Given their ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), each child struggled with the testing, simply because it took over an hour to complete in two separate sessions. But their fidgeting and short attention spans were part of the assessment and taken into consideration when the final report was compiled.

On the website http://www.torontopsychologicalservices.com  you can find details on Psycho-Educational Assessments, what areas the child will be tested on, for example: Reading, Math, and Written Expression. And what disabilities the results could present, such as, learning disabilities, ADHD, intellectual disability, developmental delay, Autism, Aspergers, social problems, and organization, planning, and self-monitoring problems. If a child is tested before school entry age, it is suggested he/she be retested before entering Secondary School.

Unfortunately, people in the medical field often assume that parents have a lot more knowledge about health programs than we do, and sometimes hold back from giving adequate information about the child’s needs and why he/she is being tested in the first place, and what the outcome of the testing could possibly be. It really is up to us caregivers to ask as many questions as possible and not be embarrassed by the fact that we don’t automatically have all the answers.

From personal experience, I know my lack of information around mental health isn’t from stupidity, but rather by the fact that when someone suggests my grandchild receive specific help I find myself instantly opting into nervous mode around his/her expected behaviour during the programme, like: “Oh, goodness, will he be able to sit through the testing? Will she yell or act out? What if they can’t get a proper reading – what will happen then? What if he refuses to go to the appointment – will he get another chance?” etc., which doesn’t allow for clear thinking when being informed about the programme itself.

After checking out the website, I am now aware that a Psycho-Educational Assessment is just one kind of Psychological Assessment available. Understanding it now makes it seem obvious, but I thought the PEA report could be used for other reasons, not just academic. And I didn’t know that only a licensed Psychologist or Psychological Associate could perform the test.

When visiting the website, I hope you find the information you are looking for. If you feel your child would benefit from a Psycho-Educational Assessment talk to the resource teacher, or staff, at your child’s school, or ask your doctor for details.


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What is an Intellectual Disability?

Just this year, all three of my mentally disabled grandchildren have undergone Psycho-educational testing with a result of two of them being diagnosed with an Intellectual Disability, and the third with a specific learning disability. This diagnoses means that the children are likely to learn and develop significantly more slowly than other children of the same age.

According to Community Living Ontario, at communitylivingontario.ca, an Intellectual Disability is:…a disability that significantly affects one’s ability to learn and use information. It is a disability that is present during childhood and continues throughout one’s life.  A person who has an intellectual disability is capable of participating effectively in all aspects of daily life, but sometimes requires more assistance than others in learning a task, adapting to changes in tasks and routines, and addressing the many barriers to participation that result from the complexity of our society.

When the Psychological Report was compiled and a diagnosis made, many aspects of my grandchildren’s lives and abilities were taken into consideration, i.e.,

  • Reason For Referral (in their case to review their learning strengths and needs for programme planning)
  • Background Information
  • Observations during the assessment
  • Document Reviews of previous assessments and school reports
  • Interviews with the child and myself
  • Assessment Measures which include professional Developmental Tests
  • Behaviour Testing
  • Memory and Learning Testing
  • Individual Achievement Testing

For my grandchildren, I suspect, the testing felt long and arduous as it was completed over several appointments, but each one managed to complete the task, and as a result the older two were placed in a specialized school program for children with learning disabilities. See posts: What is Specialized School Programming? and What is Specialized School Programming: High School?


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What is Specialized School Programming?

In Ontario, Canada, there are various forms of specialized school programming for children with disabilities. According to the Ontario government website at: edu.gov.on.ca …. Exceptional pupils are identified as such by an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC). Upon receiving a written request from a student’s parent(s)/guardian(s), the principal of the school must refer the student to an IPRC. The IPRC will decide whether the student is an exceptional pupil and, if so, what type of educational placement is appropriate. The principal may also, on written notice to the parent(s)/guardian(s), refer the student to an IPRC. The parent(s)/guardian(s), as well as a student who is sixteen years of age or older, have the right to attend the IPRC meeting and may request that the IPRC discuss potential programs that would meet the student’s needs. On the basis of these discussions, the IPRC can recommend the special education programs and/or services that it considers to be appropriate for the student.

The regulation governing the identification and placement of exceptional pupils directs the IPRC to consider the integration of exceptional pupils into regular classes. Before considering the option of placing a student in a special education class, the committee must first consider whether placement in a regular class, with appropriate special education programs and services, would meet the student’s needs and be consistent with the parent’s preferences. Where placement in a special education class is deemed most appropriate, the IPRC must provide written reasons for its decision. For students whose needs cannot be met entirely in the regular classroom, a range of placement options is available.

These options include:

  • A regular class with indirect support where the student is placed in a regular class for the entire day, and the teacher receives specialized consultative services.
  • A regular class with resource assistance where the student is placed in a regular class for most or all of the day and receives specialized instruction, individually or in a small group, within the regular classroom from a qualified special education teacher.
  • A regular class with withdrawal assistance where the student is placed in a regular class and receives instruction outside the classroom, for less than 50 per cent of the school day, from a qualified special education teacher.
  • A special education class with partial integration where the student is placed by the IPRC in a special education class in which the student-teacher ratio conforms to Regulation 298, section 31, for at least 50 per cent of the school day, but is integrated with a regular class for at least one instructional period daily.
  • A full-time special education class where the student-teacher ratio conforms to Regulation 298, section 31, for the entire school day.

The IPRC may also consider referring the student to a provincial committee for consideration of eligibility for admission to one of the Provincial Schools for blind, deaf or deaf-blind students, or to one of the Provincial Demonstration Schools for students with severe learning disabilities.


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Appropriate Stages Of Child Development

When my grandchildren were young, I realized they were not developing mentally as most children do, and looked on-line for a list of age appropriate development stages but, for some reason, was hard pressed to find one. But just the other day, I came across this one at http://www.ldonline.org and thought it might be helpful to other caregivers:

 Parents are often the first to notice that “something doesn’t seem right.” If you are aware of the common signs of learning disabilities, you will be able to recognize potential problems early. The following is a checklist of characteristics that may point to a learning disability. Most people will, from time to time, see one or more of these warning signs in their children. This is normal. If, however, you see several of these characteristics over a long period of time, consider the possibility of a learning disability.

Preschool

  • Speaks later than most children
  • Pronunciation problems
  • Slow vocabulary growth, often unable to find the right word
  • Difficulty rhyming words
  • Trouble learning numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colors, shapes
  • Extremely restless and easily distracted
  • Trouble interacting with peers
  • Difficulty following directions or routines
  • Fine motor skills slow to develop

Grades K-4

  • Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds
  • Confuses basic words (run, eat, want)
  • Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
  • Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =)
  • Slow to remember facts
  • Slow to learn new skills, relies heavily on memorization
  • Impulsive, difficulty planning
  • Unstable pencil grip
  • Trouble learning about time
  • Poor coordination, unaware of physical surroundings, prone to accidents

Grades 5-8

  • Reverses letter sequences (soiled/solid, left/felt)
  • Slow to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies
  • Avoids reading aloud
  • Trouble with word problems
  • Difficulty with handwriting
  • Awkward, fist-like, or tight pencil grip
  • Avoids writing assignments
  • Slow or poor recall of facts
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Trouble understanding body language and facial expressions

High School Students and Adults

  • Continues to spell incorrectly, frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing
  • Avoids reading and writing tasks
  • Trouble summarizing
  • Trouble with open-ended questions on tests
  • Weak memory skills
  • Difficulty adjusting to new settings
  • Works slowly
  • Poor grasp of abstract concepts
  • Either pays too little attention to details or focuses on them too much
  • Misreads information

Have your child evaluated

Ask school authorities to provide a comprehensive educational evaluation including assessment tests. Tests for learning disabilities are referred to as assessment tests because they evaluate and measure areas of strengths and weaknesses. A comprehensive evaluation, however, includes a variety of procedures in addition to the assessment tests, such as interviews, direct observation, reviews of your child’s educational and medical history, and conferences with professionals who work with your child. Either you or the school can request this evaluation, but it is given only with your written permission. Since you are one of the best observers of your child’s development, it is important that you be an active participant in the evaluation process. If you don’t understand the test results, ask questions!


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What is a Learning Disability?

For the longest while, I thought a learning disability meant that a child didn’t do well in school. Not until I began browsing the Internet, did I discover it’s a neurological disorder that can affect not only a child’s ability to read, write, spell and do math, but also their powers to reason, recall, and memorize which, obviously, are all linked to education, but can also negatively affect their daily activities.

As a grandparent raising grandchildren with learning disabilities, due to this disorder, I witness the challenges they face each day. A learning disability can’t be cured so the child must learn to live within specific boundaries handed to them through this condition, but with love and support the child can reach his full potential.

For a child with a learning disability, it’s important for them to know their strengths and be aware of their weaknesses. Caregivers can work with the child’s school and experts in mental health to offset the difficulties the child faces each day. As I browsed through the Internet I came across this list of learning disabilities at  http://www.ldonline.org

Common learning disabilities:

  • Dyslexia – a language-based disability in which a person has trouble understanding written words. It may also be referred to as reading disability or reading disorder.
  • Dyscalculia – a mathematical disability in which a person has a difficult time solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.
  • Dysgraphia – a writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space.
  • Auditory and Visual Processing Disorders – sensory disabilities in which a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision.
  • Nonverbal Learning Disabilities– a neurological disorder which originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, causing problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative and holistic processing functions

If you believe your child suffers with any one of the above learning disabilities, it’s time to communicate with the staff at your child’s school and contact your family doctor. Help is available.