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Starting the School Year off Right – Balancing An Adjustment Period with Assessing True Needs

canstockphoto13946484August is here!  Most stores have shelves stocked full with back to school supplies and school employees are beginning to attend meetings and trainings to properly prepare for the 2014-2014 school year. Typically, teachers, parents, and (most) students are thinking ahead, using experiences from last school year in order to make the current school year even better. For most,  the school year ended fairly well this year will likely be a relatively easy adjustment.

But that’s not true for everyone. I feel very fortunate to have licenses in both counseling and school psychology. And it is this time of year that I begin to receive many requests for educational consultation and academic assessment. Parents, eager to start the new year off on the right foot, are looking for input to help their child be more successful at school. Naturally, this is a very individual & personal conversation; however, over the past several years, I’ve come to realize that there is some information that I tend to share on a regular basis.

First, while parents – logically – may want to immediately initiate help for their student who they anticipate may need help, whether that be through school based interventions, formalized testing for special education or some other service, in my experience, most students benefit from an adjustment period, in order to capture the ‘truest’ assessment of school functioning. The only exception to this is: student’s who may have difficulty with the actual transition back into attending school all together. During those first few weeks of school, support staff are on the look out for students struggling in their adjustment – regardless  of their ‘status.’ Naturally, we are aware of the obvious: students entering kindergarten,  freshmen in high school, or a transfer student, etc. If you have suspicions or concerns that your child is going to have difficulty with transitioning back to school, PLEASE contact your school and let them know. Speak to the school psychologist, your child’s teacher, counselor, or even principal. Whomever you feel most comfortable with.

Being on acutely aware and sensitive to the re-adjustment period many, many students seem to experience going back to school leads me to lean towards recommending to both parents and teachers that we hold off a bit prior to embarking on formal assessments beginning at the new school year.  Children in new environments, with are around new classmates and teachers, need time to settle in before we can get ‘the best picture’ of what their functioning at school will be.

Does that mean do not contact your child’s teacher or school psychologist to share your concerns? NO! I would absolutely have that conversation and do so earlier rather than later. The more information you are willing to share with the appropriate school personal, the more apt school personal will be able to better support your student. However, understand that there may be a ‘getting to know you’ period while definitive plans are being set in place.

Next, I’d like to introduce the term Response to Intervention. Any student who struggles – academically or behaviorally – in school is doing so under a unique set of circumstances that involve an interaction between many variables. Sometimes these variables will be transient. For example, starting a new school year may cause much anxiety for some students and throughout the first 4-6 weeks of school, they may require significant support (i.e. checking in with the school psychologist or counselor; being allowed to leave class to go the school RN to call home at lunch, etc.) However, by the 8th week of school, that student may no longer need these interventions. So, in a situation like this, school teams – with parents being a critically important member of that team – are charged with determining what those particular variables are and then designing interventions to address the factors impacting the student’s functioning at the time. When the student no longer requires the intervention, the team then discontinues the intervention when no longer needed.

For some parents, this process may be difficult to swallow initially. Watching their child struggle with academics, or have difficulty with attention or impulsivity, or face social challenges, compels a strong call to action. Designing interventions (based on the presenting problem;  interventions can be academic, behavioral, or social) and then measuring the students response over a set period of time can feel like letting a trickle of water cover a field fire. I encourage parents to speak up and express your sincere opinions regarding the designing of interventions. At the same time, please understand that as school psychologists, special education teachers, teachers specialists, and academic coaches, the training we have received in this specific area over the past 10 years has been EXTENSIVE.

Typically, most districts will have system-wide interventions available that can be easily accessed at the first sign that a student is having difficulty.  Sometimes called Tier 2 Interventions, these are preexisting supports in place that students can easily be transferred into to ‘boost’ academic time in major content areas: reading, math, & often spelling and writing. These can be small reading groups that focus on comprehension or reading fluency (depending on the student’s need), after school tutoring, peer mentoring, one to one coaching by a staff, or any host of other ideas tailored to your child’s needs that can reasonably be provided by the school.

Once general education classroom interventions are put in place, data is collected, recorded systematically and reviewed with the intervention team of which YOU ARE INCLUDED. Said more simply, your child’s Response to the Intervention is monitored. If there is progress, the intervention is successful and we stop there. If the progress is not as fast or to the degree we had hoped, we can either 1. make changes to the current intervention, 2, try a second intervention, or 3. discuss a possible referral to initiate an evaluation for special education.

At this point, because the team has tried interventions in the general education classroom and they have NOT been successful, it is reasonable to suspect that the student may require something more, something ‘special,’ or different from typical instruction. But more on that in another blog on another day!

Make this school year as special as your child is – speak up with your questions and concerns right away with school staff that are trained to provide the answers you seek. Remember, as a staff in a public school, we all work for you and your child! If you don’t understand something, KEEP ASKING…it’s our job to keep explaining until it’s clear to you. The world of education, specifically special education and pre- special education can be a confusing place; remember you don’t have to go it alone. We are here to help!

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