In the Beginning
I am a mom. I am a teacher. That combination made for some real heartache when my daughter, Molly was in second grade and she cried over homework. It got worse in the third grade when she drove the spike into my heart with the words, “I hate school.”
That was my breaking point. I had had enough. Molly was a bright kid. She had a great wealth of life experiences. There was no real reason that she should be struggling with schoolwork. She should not be frustrated. I should not be frustrated.
Now, I should tell you that my daughter attended the elementary school where I had been teaching since before she was born. She was considered to be of average ability and was making sufficient progress. Her behavior was stellar. When I requested that she be tested, I felt as if they did so just because I was on staff there. However, Molly’s history made it worth looking into the possibility that she had some sort of learning disability.
I had had one of “those” pregnancies. There is a reason her middle name is Raven (Poe had it right...nevermore!) I was sick every day... two or three times a day. Four months into my pregnancy, the doctor discovered what appeared to be an ovarian cyst during a routine sonogram. Two days later, I woke up in excruciating pain. At the hospital, another sonogram revealed that the cyst had twisted and would need to be removed immediately. When the doctor and I talked, he said that there was a chance that I could loose the baby. My husband and parents got a slightly different version... there could be other children, but that I would, most likely, loose this one. They removed the cyst along with the ovary and fallopian tube that had been strangled when the cyst twisted. The week I spent in the hospital was the only time that I didn’t throw up the entire time I was pregnant. My due date came and went. I was induced three times. When it became clear that the third induction was not going anywhere, combined with the plus 3 protein readings I was having lead to Molly being born by C-section twenty-two days after my due date.
Molly was interesting right from the beginning. She never babbled. She would coo and gurgle and laugh, but never once did she utilize that precious repetition of sounds. She never crawled, either. She didn’t scoot. She went from sitting up to standing and walking by holding onto the furniture. She took off across the yard, chasing the dog, when she was 8 months old.
She didn’t like to be read to (but I did it anyhow), she hated the ball crawl at Chuck E. Cheese and only ate white food... bread, pasta (plain), chicken, and cheese.
Her birthday is in December. I made the decision early that she was not going to start kindergarten at 4 years old. I was teaching kindergarten at the time and had had too many “Pooh Bears” not ready for school thrust in the mix. As it turned out, it was a good decision. The year she cold have started school, she knew maybe 5 letters of the alphabet, 2 numbers and really didn’t care. The next year, she could read simple words. Molly started school with what I considered to be her age peers. After all, she would turn 6 in December and the kids in her class would begin turning 6 the next month.
The Elementary Years (Figuring it Out)
Kindergarten was OK. She went to our neighborhood school, but asked why she had to go to school... she didn’t ever learn anything. I transferred her to my school the next year because I felt better about being there. Our school had, and still has, a reputation for excellence. First grade was a year of inconsistencies for Molly. She does wonderfully with a skill one day and poorly the next. She could not spell. Letter sound correspondences made little sense to her. She might somehow get most of the letters, just not in the right order. Math facts - well, she just could not remember them no matter what we did.
Second grade was tough. She had to do much more structured writing. The writing prompts alternated between home and schoolwork. Those we did at home were the source of great strain. She would write her first draft, half of which was off-topic. We would sit and work on it and she would cry. We would revise, she would make a good copy and when I pointed out a misspelled, repeated or omitted word, she would suck her teeth at me, get mad, and storm off. I am surprised that we both survived second grade.
Third grade made the previous year seem like a walk in the park. Third grade is a tough year academically. The expectation is bumped up. Molly experienced great frustrations. Her struggles with writing and math were really taking their toll on her self-esteem. It exasperated her when she cold not recalls the name for things and facts that seemed on the tip of her tongue. She hated school, thought she was dumb. Her teachers all said she was an average student. I could live with average. Average was not bad, I was not one of those parents who clamored to get their kid into The Tag (Talented and Gifted) Program. I just wanted her to learn and enjoy what she was doing, I wanted her to feel good about herself and school. I reached the end of my rope and referred her to the Multidisciplinary Team for possible testing - not as a teacher, but as a parent.
We met, we talked, we reviewed her records and, mostly as a courtesy to me, the teacher, they tested her. Her general knowledge scores were above her chronological age. She did well on most of the assessments, especially when she did not have to construct a response. There were weaknesses in the areas of language processing and both long and short-term memory. There were some occupational therapy issues. Her eyes did not appear to track smoothly and did not converge. She also displayed some dyslexic tendencies - reversals and such.
I cannot tell you how wonderful it felt when there finally was an explanation. I was not crazy. My child was learning disabled. I wanted to cheer.
A trip to a pediatric developmental ophthalmologist yielded results that indicated some weaknesses that were considered to be within normal limits. Molly did benefit from a year of occupational therapy at school that was prescribed to help her improve small motor coordination. In addition, her IEP had goals for written language and math.
For Molly, writing was a big problem. She had good ideas, but by the time she figured out the name for things, how she was going to spell it ad how to form those letters... the ideas were forgotten. Our school has a keyboarding class for selected students who could benefit from it. Molly was a great candidate. Her handwriting was very difficult to read; the spelling even more difficult. She was a hard worker. So, thirty minutes, twice a week, Molly went to the computer lab with a small group of students and she learned to type. After completing the course, she would use a portable word processor called an Alphasmart to type and then print her schoolwork. She cold get her thoughts on paper and work on the spelling later. Her work became readable and organized. Learning to type was a blessing for Molly. During her sixth grade year, she even typed our school newspaper. I am not ashamed to say that she types way better than I do.
Molly also worked with the Speech and language pathologist in conjunction with the Resource Teacher to help her with some coping strategies related to her language and math goals. A pocket electronic speller and a calculator were added to the assistive technology that made her academic life easier.
Molly’s successes reached beyond her report card. Her self-esteem thrived and her attitude returned to the lighthearted, good-natured soul she had always been. She liked school, though it was not cool to admit it. Somewhere along the line, she became a reader. Like with other things in her life (talking, walking) once she began, she took off. She was hooked. She was reading age appropriate material. She was reading a novel a day. I had to do something, so I picked up a novel I remembered reading when I was near her age, Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. It slowed her down a bit. The longer and more difficult text was what she needed. Soon, she graduated to other adult authors. Soon, the routine was that she would read a book, and then pass it on to her great grandmother and I. She makes terrific recommendations.
Molly’s favorite stores are bookstores. She is a regular at the used bookstore down the road. They have called my house to tell her that a book by an author she likes has come in. We went on a vacation in the Smokey Mountains. I asked her if she wanted to go to the amusement park. “No, not really.” she replied. I told her that there was a water park in town. That did not really excite her. I finally asked her if there was something in particular she wanted to do. “Well, Mom, there is a bookstore...” We went on a cruise. She had to go exploring to find the ship’s library. I feel bad when I have to tell her to put her book down to do something else.
When her 3-year review came up at the end of her sixth grade year, at age 12 years, 6 months, her achievement levels, as measured by the Woodcock-Johnson, were found to range from 12.6 years (Math) to 19.11 years (Reading). We agreed that Molly would remain in the Special Education Program on monitor status when she went to middle school the following year.
The Middle School Years (Spreading Her Wings)
Middle School is often marked by adolescent strife. Kids at this age struggle to redefine themselves. They re no longer children, but not yet grown ups, either. Of course, some children blossom during this time. I can say with a great sigh of relief that Molly fell into this second category. That is not to say that it was all smiles and giggles. There were obstacles and events to overcome, especially in the beginning.
In moving to middle school, Molly was also leaving the nest as it were. No longer would she be at my school, where I knew what was happening, she could not pop down to my classroom when she needed something. I knew that I would have to be an active parent. She would have to be organized.
Just before the end of her sixth grade year, it occurred to me that, with her on monitor status, she would not have direct contact with a special educator. What was she to do if she needed support? Who did she go to? Who was responsible for overseeing her progress? With all of these questions running through my head, I decided to call the middle school and get some information. I talked to Mrs. Scott, a wonderful woman who is the special education department chair. I told her that I really didn’t want to be one of those “pain in the butt” parents, but... She assured me that I was doing the right thing - being an advocate for my child. We discussed what her goals were and she told me that I should be sure to call her teachers at the beginning of the year, just to clue them in to her needs; just to make sure. While she had me on the phone, she pulled up Molly’s registration on the computer. I was certainly glad she did. Because of her written language goals, she had been enrolled in what they call a “co-taught” class (one with few students and both a regular ed. and special ed. teacher). These students, she went on, read on a second, third or fourth grade level. I swallowed hard. I told her that I didn’t think that the co-taught class would be appropriate for Molly since her reading level was so high. Actually, what I said was,” O.K., and what will they do when she tunes the teachers out after 5 minutes and whips out the latest James Patterson book she is reading?” Her response was something like, “Oh. Maybe we should change that.”
Summer passes and school begins and Molly is filled with stories of middle school when she comes home. After a few days, I called and left messages for her Math and English teachers. Her Math teacher calls me back that afternoon and we have a pleasant conversation. She had not been given a copy of Molly’s I.E.P, so, she appreciated the information. I told her that Molly brought her own calculator and knows to ask if she needed help. I had a good feeling about the teacher charged with instructing Molly in the subject that gives her the most difficulty.
Then came the call from the English teacher. It was after school the next day. I tried to be upbeat and lighthearted. I told her about Molly and he accommodations. Her reply caught me off guard. “I will have to see if the is going to be acceptable in my classroom.” No lie, that is what she said to me. I wanted to ask her when did she get the authority to override an I.E.P, but I kept it to myself, probably out of shock. This was going to take some doing, but I would get her straightened out. I thought about it and decided that I probably would not get anywhere talking to this teacher further. But, neither could I sit back and allow all of the positive gains Molly had made be washed away by one teacher, ignorant of the needs of special education students. No, I would make another phone call in the morning.
During my planning period, I called over to the middle school and spoke with Mrs. Scott, the department chair. She sighed and said that she would go up and speak with the teacher right then before school started. Things seemed to smooth out for a few days until the same teacher declared that she would not collect or grade my daughter’s work because her composition book was green and white, not black and white. When I asked her if it really mattered, she told me that it did. I knew right then, it was going to be a long year. There were more incidents with the English teacher over her accommodations. She was being given zeros for work that she would turn in a day late. The reason she was turning them in late was because the printer she was to use was not working. She would bring them home to print and turn them in the next school day. Then she was told that she would get a zero on the next assignment that she typed without asking if she could type it. It was time to stop playing phone tag and have a conference.
In middle school, when you request a conference, you meet with the team of teachers that instruct your child. It was great to sit at the table and hear good thins about your child. The English teacher sat with her arms crossed and appeared to be very defensive. We got the chance to talk and things really did smooth out. She knew that I was not going to sit back and allow such nonsense. The guidance counselor assured me that they would work with her.
Throughout the year, Molly had to explain to the kids in her classes about her Aplhasmart. They thought it was neat. They were impressed at how well and how fast she could type. There were a few that had to make negative comments, but Molly has one of those quick wits that allowed her to make comments back that frequently took some time for the receiver to decipher.
Molly did survive her first year in middle school beautifully. She was on the honor roll all four quarters. She had done so well that her teachers had discussed it and wanted to change her classes for the following year. She would be in with the T.A.G. students for everything except math, where she would remain in an on grade level class. They had seen past her learning disabilities to see her capabilities. When I came home from that meeting, I told her that they wanted to change her classes next year, she, rather dejectedly, responded, “Are they going to pout me in with the dumb kids?” After a good long laugh, I explained what we had discussed.
As Molly began her eighth grade year began in late August of this year, I had great reason to be proud of her. Her math teacher had made the announcement that no calculators were to be used in class. Molly said that she waited for a good time then went to her teacher and told her that she didn’t want to get in trouble, but that she had an I.E.P. and that she was allowed to use a calculator. She had advocated for herself. She asked if I would call her English teacher, but she had taken care of math by herself. This was truly an accomplishment. This is a good beginning. Soon, she will be able to explain her disabilities to others so that they will understand, so that she can learn and achieve just like every one of her classmates. Yep, I have a feeling that she will be O.K.
Being the Parent
My experiences as a parent of an L.D. child have not always been easy. I am lucky in that I teach and have experience in the special education process. Going through the process is difficult, time consuming, confusing and can be intimidating. When I go to MDT meetings as a teacher, I understand what the parents are gong through. I feel for them. You enter the room and the table is already occupied by a group of people you have never met. They quickly introduce themselves and begin taking in a language that is unfamiliar to parents. Parents often sit with their hands in their laps, looking from person to person with little to say. They hear unfamiliar terms and acronyms, but are afraid to ask questions, afraid to appear stupid in front of the assembled group.
Parents need to remember that their children need them. They need them to go to meetings, talk with teachers, and ask questions on their behalf. If your child is referred to MDT (which is our acronym for the team of special educators, administrators, teachers, a school psychologist and a pupil personnel worker), you should first discuss it with the classroom teacher. Have them explain their concerns and ask for specific examples to make it clearer to you. Contribute to the discussion by taking about what you see at home and what your concerns are. When you go to a meeting, take notes; make a quick seating chart so you can remember who you were taking to later. Make them slow down for you so you can write things down. Be polite about it. Say, “I am sorry, would you mind repeating your name for me?” If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Do not be afraid to ask questions. I go to meetings with questions written down. Keep in mind that the meting is over when your questions are satisfied. You do not need to sign anything that day, either. If you want to talk it over with someone else or just sleep on it... say so. It’s O.K.
Something that many parents do not know is that they can refer their child to the MDT. If you have concerns, first talk with the teacher, but if you really feel that your child just seems to have something interfering in their ability to make progress at school, call and speak with whoever is in charge of special education at your child’s school.
Being an advocate for your child is important. It is your job to make sure that your child receives the services and accommodations that they are supposed to get. It is also important for you to talk to your child about their disability. They have questions. Molly wanted to know why she could not remember things, why did she have trouble with writing and math? Talking to her about her disability and what works for her has made her more aware of her learning style. She can tell people about it, but she can also laugh abut it. When she takes a phone message and not even she can tell you what it says, well, we all laugh.
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