Guest Blogs

A Red Flag for the IEP

A school schedule change sounded like a nightmare for kids with ADHD — until I did my homework on it.

A group of Ames, Iowa elementary school principals, charged with finding a way to address the district’s flattening scores on standardized tests, proposed abolishing recess.

No, that’s an exaggeration. But judging from my initial reaction, and that of many community members in our oh-so-involved-in-school-politics city, you’d have thought that was the case: evil administrators who care about nothing but test scores want to creates a two-hour “uninterrupted” block of time for literacy instruction, and they plan to reduce time in PE and art, and eliminate the morning recess in order to do so. And, to make matters worse, they didn’t consult a single teacher as they hatched their plan! Scores on standardized tests are all they care about — red flag! A two-hour “uninterrupted” block of time — red flag! Cutting recess and PE when our kids are already becoming fat and lazy — red flag!

When I read about this proposed new schedule in the local paper, my mind did, absolutely, scream, “Red flag! Red flag!” An uninterrupted two-hour block of time sounds like torture for any elementary school student. For kids with ADHD, it would be absolutely out of the question.

I knew immediately that I’d have to add accommodations to Natalie’s IEP before the new school year starts in the fall, to force the school to give her regular breaks and opportunities for movement. So, once again, I started making phone calls.

Liz Jurgensen, the district’s Director of Special Education, encouraged me to take a wait-and-see approach. First of all, she pointed out, we don’t know if the new schedule will be approved and implemented or not. Additionally, she suggested that before making any changes, we should give the new schedule a chance. See if Natalie has any problems with it before jumping in and making changes.

I told Liz I would rather be proactive. Natalie doesn’t have behavior problems at school. She holds it together there, while internalizing a lot of anxiety. The anxiety eventually comes out. Sometimes she lets loose when she gets home, other times it comes out through strange, seemingly unrelated behaviors, like stealing other people’s stuff. By the time we figured out whether or not Natalie could tolerate the new schedule, I concluded, it would be too late. Some damage would already be done.

I believe it is often the case that boys with ADHD are more likely than girls to have behavior problems, and that girls are more likely to internalize their feelings. Do you agree with this, parents? I think Natalie’s special needs are at risk of going unmet because she doesn’t act out at school. She may be struggling, but she’s struggling quietly — losing focus, feeling anxious, suppressing the urge to move her body. This new schedule sounds like a set-up: how much would she suffer, how much of the school year would be lost before it inevitably led her to fail — and for someone to take notice?

That’s why I really, really want to be proactive. Yes, I’ll wait and see, but only for the decision about whether or not the schedule will be implemented. If it will, I concluded, I’ll call an IEP meeting.

Next I talked to Pam Stangeland, principal of one of Ames’ five K-5 elementary schools, and a member of the committee that proposed the schedule. I was told she was sensitive to the needs of students in special ed, so could address my specific concerns about how the schedule will impact kids with special needs.

Pam confirmed that special ed is her passion; that every decision she makes as an educator takes into account the needs of kids in special education. She has a child of her own with special needs; a child in Level 3 special ed, who has autism.

Pam said that another parent had e-mailed her who had come to the same conclusion as me — that the new schedule will necessitate adding accommodations to our children’s IEPs. But, she disagreed. Pam said that a two-hour “uninterrupted” block of time didn’t mean two hours of straight instruction, or that kids wouldn’t move around for two hours. In fact, if teachers use the time as intended, it will allow for more interactive, creative, multi-sensory learning. It should actually allow for more movement and stimulation than with the current schedule.

For special ed kids, it offers another benefit. Right now, kids are pulled out of the regular classroom for their time in the special ed room. They miss core instruction. Their peers are aware that they are pulled out. The new schedule includes a block of time for individualized instruction for all students. Some kids would be challenged with enrichment activities. Some kids would benefit from re-teaching. The special ed kids would receive their “pull-out” time during this time, so would not miss whole-class experiences, and would not be seen as different from their peers.

“So,” I asked Pam, “parents of kids in special ed should actually be happy about this change?”

“Parents of all kids should be happy about this change,” Pam said. “But parents of kids in special ed should be celebrating.”

I’m glad I did my homework. I may still add some language to Natalie’s IEP to pique the teachers’ awareness of Natalie’s needs, but Pam pretty much sold me. Here’s hoping Ames’ teachers embrace the spirit and intent of the new schedule, and that happy kids engaged in learning fill our classrooms, if not our playgrounds, this fall.

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