Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Guest Blogger: Fear and Isolation

My friend, Michelle, wrote this emotional post on Fear and Isolation on her blog The Hailey Herald last week and has granted me permission to share it on The Chronicles of Ellie Bellie Bear.  She is a mother to 3 beautiful children - 2 boys and a little girl with a little something extra who reminds me so much of Ellie.  I really identified with her writing - "oh my goodness!  How did you know that is how I feel sometimes!?"-  and I imagine that many of you can too.

The Hailey Herald
Fear and Isolation 
by Michelle

Today, I'm going to touch on something I haven't felt in a couple of years.  I probably felt it the most when Hailey was first born, those first few fragile months.   Those first months while we watched our daughter almost holding our breaths...not sure if heart failure was going to be slow or fast...not sure when open heart surgery the same time, we dealt with the shocking news of a Down syndrome diagnosis.  Those first few months were isolating.  I felt alone in the world.  I felt like no one knew what I was going through.  I felt different than all my friends with typical children.  There is no way they could understand what I was going through.  I felt like an impostor with parents with other children with Down syndrome because I wasn't sure how to navigate that world.  The isolation made me angry...made me sad.  It enveloped me at times.  I couldn't sleep and I turned to lots of Graeter's ice cream at 3 in the morning to make it better (no, that didn't really work either).  Hailey's open heart surgery was finally scheduled and life moved on.  The feelings dissipated some.  I had other things to focus on.  I had a healthy little girl who had tasks that needed accomplished.  The boys were back in school and we had two soccer schedules to juggle.

I remember the isolating feeling returning a couple of time over the past 4 1/2 years.  I don't remember it lingering though.  I think it reared it's ugly head when Hailey was crawling and then again when she started walking.  I know I've dealt with it some waiting for my daughter to learn to communicate.  Since the very beginning though, it never stayed.  It was a thought or two and it was moved to the back burner again.

Last week, however, the overwhelming, smothering feeling returned.  It hit when I wasn't looking and it hurt.  It stopped me in my tracks.  I have a feeling when it started.  We were out and two little girls were standing beside Hailey that are just a little older than her.  There was one on each side of her.  They didn't speak to her, they just stared.  They didn't interact with her...they just laughed and ran away.  No, they did not do anything wrong, but I could see it.  They saw the differences with Hailey and there is nothing I can do about it.  I can't make kids like her.  I can't make kids play with her.

The next day, it hit me that Hailey does not have any friends.  No typical friends that she has play dates with...she occasionally has play dates with kids that have Ds, but let's face it, that is not the real world.  The majority of Hailey's world is with people who are typical.  I have to find a way to build up Hailey's community.  Hailey needs typical friends.  She does well at school with the typical kids, but she doesn't get invited to any of their birthday parties and she's only 4.  How will it be at 5, 6, 10?  Will it be better when she's in a school environment and not just preschool?  Will it be worse?  It makes me anxious and gives me a panic attack just thinking about it.  I suddenly feel like I'm that brand new mom in the world of special needs.  I feel like I'm starting all over again.  I feel alone again....I feel isolated.

Fortunately, I know what triggered this and I knew what the issue was.  I also realize that spending a TON of time at home this summer (due to attempting to potty train Hailey) is compounding the feeling of's can be isolating spending so much time in the bathroom at home with your 4 year old.  I'm partially through this episode and I'm working on a game plan.  Unfortunately, I know that isolation and fear will come back again.  Maybe next week...maybe next month...may not be until next year, but it will return.  I know I am not alone in these feelings, but sometimes they just stink.

In the end, I know I am not alone.  This world may have it bumps and it is not the road I planned to travel, but with this little girl leading the way, it is bound to be full of smiles, dimples, laughter, fun and hugs.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Parents Shaming Parents: IEPs and schooling decisions

Yes, we are here!  We are still alive!  I know that it has been well over a month since I last posted.  Here is the thing, I wrote most of this post about a month ago then I sort of got side tracked and well, life happened.  This post is something that was difficult for me to write because it is a "hot topic" and I am shy in the face of conflict.  I welcome discussion, but this post is absolutely not about the school system and what educational placement is best for so-and-so.  Rather, this post is about something I have been witnessing amongst parents for a while now and it really came to a head these recent months as we prepared for Ellie's transition IEP into Kindergarten.

Jane Doe : “I have an 8 year-old daughter with Down syndrome and she has full inclusion at x school”.  

The above statement runs rampant in several Facebook groups related to Down syndrome or special needs.  The introduction includes the kid’s name, age, and if they have full inclusion at their school.  Well, you only list their schooling if they are in full inclusion.  If it is partial inclusion or full seclusion, forget about mentioning it to the masses.

Now, say that you are to introduce yourself  in a Facebook group:

Johnny Appleseed: “I live in Austin, TX and I graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League school.”

What is that???  Seems pretty pompous, right?  Bragging.  Snooty.  Gives an air of superiority.  Leaving people wondering why on earth this person is announcing their credentials during a basic introduction.  It isn’t like you all asked where this person went to school! 

How is Jane Doe’s introduction of her daughter any different?  It isn’t.  Why do some parents feel the need to take on their child’s school placement as a badge of honor?  What if you kiddo spends 50% of their time in a special education classroom?  Or 100% of their time fully secluded?  Does that make your child “less than”?  Does that mean that you are less successful?

Whether or not a child is in a fully inclusive environment or a self-contained environment doesn’t mean a whole hill of beans.  Your child’s school placement is not  a reflection of your self  or your success as a parent.  It is, therefore, not something to be touted about either.  So leave it out of the introduction.

This brings me to something that has been heavy on my mind lately.  It is what we as special needs parents and educators refer to as “IEP season”.  IEP stands for an Individualized Education Plan.  The emphasis being on Individualized as in a “not one size fits all”.  You will hear horror stories about schools railroading parents into placing their kids into a fully secluded classroom because that is just “what they do with all kids who have a disability”. You will also hear about wonderful teachers who truly want what is best for these kiddos and will fight tooth and nail to get that child what she needs.  You will hear about LRE [least restrictive environment], which is truly open to interpretation by the parents and by the schools as well as mainstreaming and inclusion.  However, this post in not about the schools or school placement or LRE-that is a whole other blog post.  This is about the parents.  How parents are treating other parents when it comes to educating their child with special needs.

Facebook can be a great source of support for parents, but it can also be a place of shame.  Arguments are popping up like dandelions all over my newsfeed and it makes me sad.  

There are two schools of thought:
  1. You should fight for total inclusion and if your child isn’t in a general education classroom with /without support, you are doing a disservice to your child.  You are not setting them up for success.  You are not fighting hard enough.  Or your school isn’t good enough and is breaking a gazillion laws. 
  2. You are being completely unrealistic if you think your child will thrive in 100% inclusion.  She has a cognitive disability.  She needs to be pulled out for more 1:1 education or she will otherwise sit in the back of the classroom not learning and will be disruptive.

Oh Wow!  Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. 

There is not legal definition of what exactly “Inclusion” entails.  No step by step direction on how schools must implement inclusion along with LRE.  This can be a great source of anxiety as well and frustration for us parents.  We need each other’s support, not shame. 

First, a brief breakdown of terminology: 

Full inclusion is a child being included 100% in the general education classroom with typically developing peers. Inclusion for many may look like having a 1:1 aide or an aide amongst 3 kids with special needs, or moderate classroom adaptions.  Among parents, it is often pushed as the gold standard for special education.  Maybe it is the gold standard, maybe it isn’t.  That isn’t what this post is about. The biggest complaint among parents is that the schools will not help their children be fully included in every general education class.  That some of these schools look at the disability label of their child and put her into this little box saying that she need to have her education in the X classroom.  

Full Seclusion involves a special education classroom with all kids who have special needs.  It is full seclusion when there is no time spent in the general education classroom.  This is something that many of us parent struggle with.  There are several studies that do not support this type of academic setting.  Children need to be included with their typically developing peers — this is to the benefit of BOTH those who have special needs and those typically developing kiddos.  However, there are some parents who know that their child will thrive if the majority of their time is spent in this type of setting.  

Then there are the in-betweens - also referred as mainstreaming or partial inclusion — spending most of the time in the general education classroom with “pull outs” into a resource room or the spec ed classroom for more 1:1 teaching on specific subjects.  i. e. “Sally will spend x minutes in the general education classroom with pull outs for Math”.  Or you can have the opposite where the majority of the time, the child is in a special education classroom and is “pushed in” the general education classroom for certain subjects.  For instance, “Ellie will spend most of her time in her Functional Academic Classroom [FAC - spec ed classroom] with push-ins for art, music, social studies, and science.”  When she is pushed in, she will have an aide accompany her for added support.  

I will always fight for my little Bear.  

I know that many of you reading this have an idea on what educational setting that I described above is ideal for your child and some of you are not sure - either way, that is okay!  Just please, this is NOT about the school system and these different classrooms or what the school is/isn't providing your child— like I said, that is a whole other blog post.  It is how the parents behave towards other parents.  It is about needing to support each other as we try to navigate the complex maze of the school system in working towards enabling our children to learn in the best way possible while developing healthy peer relationships.

There are SO MANY ways to help a child reach her maximum potential.  Each child is an individual and as such there is no “magic” school setting that is best for every single child.  Rather, the setting must be adapted for each child; catering to her strengths, weakness, and learning style.  What am I saying here?  Let us stop belittling parents for the choices they make.  Let us stop shaming parents when they decide they need to go up against the school and fight for what their child needs — whether it be full inclusion, full seclusion, going to their home school, or going to a “better” school 20 minutes away.  Let us no longer tell a parent that they are “not doing enough” or that they are “setting their child up for failure”  or that they are "being unrealistic" because their child’s education plan doesn’t match your child’s or is what your idea of a perfect IEP is. They are doing the best that they can.  They want the same thing as you — what is best for their child. Instead, can we all just support each other?  Say “I have been through this too and it is exhausting and draining.  You need to do what is best for your child individually and I will support you.”

So, what happened in Ellie's IEP meeting? The one that I didn't post about on Facebook because I "just didn't want to deal with the drama"?  It went well.  I was all prepared for a battle, but I didn't need to be.  We all went in knowing how Ellie learns best, her strengths, and her weaknesses.  Where her challenges lie and what she excells at.  We have opted to have Ellie attend a school outside her home school about 20 minutes away.  This school has a more inclusive environment in which she will be "pushed in" for art, science, social studies, lunch, recess, and music - pushed into the general education kindergarten.  For the remainder of the time, she will receive more 1:1 instruction in the FAC classroom which has 8 kiddos with special needs, ranging from grades K-5 and reverse inclusion for reading and adaptive PE.  This is what we wanted for her.  We want Ellie to have interactions with typical developing peers, yet we know that she gets overwhelmed in large classroom settings.  She freezes up and then acts out, unable to learn.  We know how her ADHD drives her.  Full inclusion would not be a good fit for her, but full seclusion wouldn't be either.  We needed something in the middle and we are excited for what lies ahead. 


A mask for kids with Down syndrome

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