Thursday, January 27, 2011

No Magic Wand Required

Back in October, the Superintendent of Schools offered my friend and me the opportunity to meet with him to share the stories of our children.  At the end of that meeting, he set us some homework -- to tell him what could be done within the existing STEM Program to meet the two sets of needs of our children:  the need for academic rigor and the need for direct social skills and executive functioning skills instruction and support.  Essentially, he said, "If I could wave my magic wand, what would you want me to do?"

This week, my friend and I finished the assignment.  We wrote up a list of recommendations.  Some of these recommendations are in the process of being implemented, some are implemented partially, and we hope that others will be implemented as quickly as possible.  It all boils down to one idea, and there is no magic involved:  Know the learner.  From central office to the classroom teacher, everyone needs to know the learner.

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My friend and I started with a problem statement followed by a statement about their needs:  Students with Asperger's are not well understood and therefore may not be appropriately supported within the existing middle school STEM classroom.  Highly abled students with Asperger’s typically do well academically when challenged with appropriate rigor.  However, because their grades are good, their “life skills” need for direct instruction in social and executive functioning (EF) skills is often minimally addressed.  When both sets of needs are addressed, highly abled students with Asperger’s are truly college and career ready.

We've heard several times that the STEM Program must maintain high academic rigor, that all students must be prepared for group work, and that adults may facilitate and monitor but not "interfere."  I mostly get the the first two constraints, but the third one seems to be subject to an awful lot of interpretation.

I. As I said, knowing the learner is the basis of all the recommendations we made.  The first recommendation is about training, real, true, more-than-surface-level training.  To understand our children, general education and special education staff (both, not just special educators) must understand what it means to be a person with Asperger's and how Asperger's impacts students in the classroom; as a baseline, staff needs to be familiar with the development levels of academically highly abled neurotypical children, too.  In sum, staff need to be trained to teach twice-exceptional students.

In the case of students with Asperger's, training also needs to cover how to explicitly teach social skills and executive functioning skills.  One of my son's doctors at Children's National Medical Center said to me several years ago that we need to remediate as much as we can and then accommodate the rest.  Our children don't learn these so-important "life skills" the way their neurotypical peers do.  They can learn them, but they need trained staff, whether general education or special education, to teach them. 

One of the problems we run into so often is that one or two people on our children's school teams "get it" when it comes to working with this population.  However, when they leave or are absent or it's a new year with different personnel, everything falls apart.  Therefore, we also recommend training across the board so that one absent member of the team doesn't cause system failure.

Part of training has to include timeliness.  The law states that an IEP has to be ready to be implemented on the first day of school, yet over and over again, we've had to wait for our children's needs to be met until staffing can be assigned, and training (and supports) may not take place for weeks into the start of the school year.

II. Another major recommendation is to have one case manager (trained in 2e, especially 2e/Asperger's) for all middle school STEM grades.  (We also recommend one case manager for elementary STEM students as well as one for high school STEM students.)  My son is in his third (and final) year of middle school, and he has had three case managers, none of them experienced with his type of needs, and none of them experienced in him.  One experienced case manager for all three years eliminates the need to “start over” every year (and reduces the need for training).  But the case manager can't be just anyone.  She must have a thorough working knowledge of both the STEM curriculum and the needs of 2e students.  More than that, I believe she needs to want to work with this population, which often gets a bad reputation because they are not understood, which leads right back to the need for training and consistent staffing...

Highly abled students with Asperger's may have accommodations or goals related to social skills or executive functioning skills.  It may fall to the case manager to oversee if not implement the accommodations or goals, yet she may never see the assignments!  We believe that to proactively prepare, the case manager must have access to assignments prior to students' receiving them in order to anticipate their needs in executive functioning/social arenas and to implement appropriate interventions.

III. The third recommendation we made to the Superintendent is "ownership" of our twice-exceptional children by both STEM and Special Education.  One of the major obstacles to getting both sets of needs met is special education's attitude of "That's STEM" and general education's attitude of "That's Special Education."  If we can eliminate that delineation, both teams can work together to address both sets of needs.  And doesn't that come right back to training and understanding?

IV. The STEM program is in its fourth year, yet the organizational structure is unclear to parents.  I asked for an organization chart of the STEM Program a couple of weeks ago and am waiting for it now.  Without it, it's difficult to know the chain of command and the roles of the various staff and administrators.  We know that there are school-level issues and a lack of understanding of highly abled students with and without special needs; we are just not sure who should address them.  Our recommendation, then, is for general education and special education administration at the school level to increase its understanding of highly abled learners, including 2e.

Certainly with four years under its belt, the following should be assessed:
  • the appropriateness of the demands on STEM students
  • the expectations of how much time each assignment takes to complete
  • the developmental appropriateness of the existing curriculum for both academic rigor and EF/social skills for nondisabled highly abled students
  • the appropriateness of assignments with respect to quality vs. quantity
Perhaps that happens as a matter of course.  If it does, I'm surprised that some issues are still outstanding.  If it doesn't, let's get a baseline understanding of highly abled learners to be sure that that the Program truly aligns with their developmental levels.

Also at the the school level, administration must schedule staff training on an appropriate timeline.  As mentioned above, training must occur before the start of the school year, and appropriate staff must be trained in EF/social skills/sensory issues/etc., prior to being tasked with implementation of IEP accommodations/goals.  It's not OK to assign a duty to a staff member who has not been trained in how to perform that duty for this population.  It sets the staff member up for failure, and worse, it sets the student up for failure and often for blame.

V. Our final recommendation regards central office administrative-level understanding of appropriate programming for 2e students (STEM Programs, AP classes, etc.).  General education and special education central office administration need to become informed about twice-exceptional students, about their needs and their strengths, and about their teachability and their potential.  Additionally, general education and special education central office administration need to become informed about programming for twice-exceptional students, particularly what can be incorporated into already existing gifted/accelerated courses/programs as well as what good, true 2e programming is and how it can fit into our school system.

We summed up our recommendations to the Superintendent as simply as we could.  In order to meet the academic needs and special education needs of students with Asperger’s in the middle school STEM Program, we need look no farther than the mission statement of this school system:  Know the learner and the learning, expecting excellence in both.  Accept no excuses and educate all with rigor, relevance, respect, and positive relationships.

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My friend and I have no idea what will come of completing our "homework."  I certainly hope that it will be received in the spirit in which it was given:  to work collaboratively with all in order to reach and teach our children.


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