Supporting Our Kids: Special Education 101

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 17 │Supporting Our Kids: Special Education 101

Tuesday, April 14, 2020



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Show Notes

Debra Jennings

The world of special education can be overwhelming for families—especially right now, as families are navigating learning from home. Perhaps you see your child struggling with their school work, but you’re not sure if they qualify, or would even benefit from support services. Maybe your child is in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and you’re worried about how to make sure they receive adequate services during school shutdowns. We talked with expert Debra Jennings, from the Statewide Parent Education Network (SPAN), to address these concerns and more.


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Helen: Welcome back to another episode of Notes from the Backpack a PTA podcast i'm your cohost, Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA. 

[00:00:10] LaWanda: And I'm Lawanda Toney, your cohost and Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA. Today we're going to talk about special education.

[00:00:19] Nearly 7 million students receive special education services, but what do these services actually look like and how do we know if your child needs are qualifies for them? 

[00:00:32] Helen: And as we speak, families everywhere are struggling with homeschooling and distance learning because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

[00:00:41] So these challenges are even harder for families who have children with special needs, many of whom may not even have access to the resources they need because of school closures. Luckily, today's expert guest is going to walk us through the ins and outs of the Special Education System and how families can get the resources they need during Covid-19 

[00:01:03] LaWanda: Today we're welcoming Ms. Debra Jennings to the podcast. Debra serves as the Executive Director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, a nonprofit organization committed to working with parents and professionals to achieve education rights for all children. For more than 15 years. Debra has worked with schools, parents, and communities to develop grass grassroots initiatives.

[00:01:28] Most recently, Debra chaired the Governor's Family Involvement Committee in New Jersey, and she has also participated in numerous child advocacy boards including, the National Center on Special Education Monitoring and Accountability Advisory Board. Debra's leadership has supported grass root parenting advocacy organizations throughout the years with a focus on special education issues.

[00:01:53] Debra is also a mother of two daughters. 

[00:01:56] Helen: Debra, thank you so much for joining us today. 

[00:01:59] Debra Jennings: You're very welcome. 

[00:02:00] Helen: We're interested just to hear a little bit about how you got started in this type of work and what makes you passionate about it. 

[00:02:09] Debra Jennings: Hi, everyone, and I just want to say that I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to this audience because, this is audience is really where I got started.

[00:02:19]Just like many of you, I am a parent, a public school parent. And I guess at this point I should say I was a public school parent and I started in this work because I was concerned about some of the things that were going on with my own child. She was in the second grade, she wasn't reading and I wasn't getting any really good answers. And so, like many of us, I started asking more and more questions and going further and further up. That chain of command to find out what's going on. As I moved up and ask questions of teachers, principals, superintendents, and various directors I found that, in particular for students who were struggling readers, that there wasn't a really good system or a program. Or really good understanding of even what teachers needed. And so I started talking to more parents, finding out that more parents were having the same struggles and started a grassroots organization here in my community. And later on was elected to be the Co-President of our district's PTA council. And, basically was doing then for, for nothing, what I now do for peanuts. I, I joined span, it was 1997, so it's about 20, almost 23 years ago. And since then have had the opportunity to work with, with a lot of parents who are saying, saying similar struggles and a lot of parents who are taking on those leadership roles. And I've really been most gratified in the work that I've done in terms of developing parent leaders at the school level, the district level and the state level and also even at the national level. In my current work, as the Director of the Center for Parent Information and Resources I have the opportunity to work with a network of colleagues from the parent training and information centers and community parent resource centers that are located across the U S and territories and that are serving families of children with disabilities, birth through 26 and also serving youth with disabilities and helping these individuals to navigate through the special education system as well as the general education and health systems. Again, I thank you so much for having me join this podcast. 

[00:05:09] LaWanda: Great. Thank you again for chatting with us. We want to talk a little bit about special education services. Right now with the schools being shut down, special education services may mean a lot of different things to different people, but can we, can you provide us kind of an overview of the different kinds of special education services that are offered?

[00:05:31] Debra Jennings: So special education services, for students with disabilities are, really they're guided by the individual education program that is developed for each student, and in order to have that program developed, the student would first be identified as having a disability. If the student is struggling in school  the student may have a health challenge or developmental delay. And so first identifying that that student is potentially eligible for special education services. Once they've been identified, then there are serie... There's a series of assessments or evaluations to help to determine what might be the kinds of programs, supports, accommodations and services that might help that student to be successful in, in education. And so after that evaluation, that's when what's called the IEP or individualized, Individual Education Program team gets together and it's through that team that decisions are made about what that student's program should look like. And the most important member of that team is you, the parent. Parents are a member of the IEP team, and the team includes, educators, both general and special educators. A relevant service providers like occupants, occupational therapist or speech therapist or psychologist and other kinds of service providers as well as representatives from the school or district who can... who can make decisions about how the plan is going to actually look and what services will be included. But as I said, the most important member of that team is yourself, as the parent. And also I should note that if a student is old enough, often students are included in those meetings. So in that discussion about, about supports and programs, there are a lot of different types of supports that can be offered to students.

[00:07:48]Special education is specially designed instruction and that's how it, that is how it is noted in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is the federal law that governs special education. And I'm just going to read quickly exactly what it says, 'specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate, to the needs of an eligible child the content methodology or delivery of instruction. First to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child's disability, and secondly, to ensure access of the child to the general education curriculum. So that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.' And so that is basically telling us that these are, these are services, specially designed instruction that will help students to meet the same standards as every other student in the state. So those services might look like they're different kinds of supports in terms of the way that they might look. Sometimes, it can be modifications, which are changes in the way that the instruction is delivered, how students are taught. There may be changes made in terms of what the classroom looks like, or the classwork looks like, or what the routines are because of the student's disability.

[00:09:28] There also may be what are called modifications and modifications are related also to... Those modifications might be related to scheduling in terms of how much time a student has on an assignment. Or taking breaks, say during tests, or actually how much time they have to complete tests. A lot of times, with particularly the state tests, many of the state tests outline what are some of the modifications that students with disabilities can have.

[00:09:59]Another modification might be in terms of the setting, where students can work in sometimes... They maybe work in a small group. Or they might need to work one on one with the teacher. That's another kind of a modification. We also, look for our modifications in terms of the materials. Now, particularly with technology, there is a lot of opportunities for audio books and for print materials being in braille and also digital texts which can actually, which, where the text can be read to the student.  And then, they're also me modifications in terms of instruction, where it may be that there's, that the assignment has to be read to the student, or the assignment has to be changed in terms of the reading level of the student.

[00:10:52] Helen: Hmm. 

[00:10:53] Debra Jennings: And then finally, another modification might be in the way that students provide their responses to the work. Sometimes a student may provide their responses in writing, or they may dictate it. To another, to this, to the teacher. Also now, again with technology, there's the ability to have your oral language translated into written and using those kinds of devices as well. And then often you know, students who, have, hearing impaired might be, provide instruction using sign language. Students who are visually impaired may have instruction using materials that are in braille. And also it should be noted that if a student's native language is not English that the instruction would be provided in their native language because we do have quite a few students who are English language learners and receiving special education services. 

[00:12:00] LaWanda: Right. 

[00:12:00] Helen: Thank you. Thank you for that overview. I... You talked about, Debra, some of the modifications, and we're going to talk a little bit about the front end and what that process looks like. But I want to sort of just ground us in some of the here and now with the pandemic.

[00:12:17] So you're working with probably thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of families who were receiving these modifications prior to school closures. What are you hearing from them now and how are you seeing districts respond, to be able to provide those modifications during closures?

[00:12:36] Debra Jennings: That's a really good question. We have... I'm, I'm actually located in New Jersey and here in New Jersey, we are in year... I'm sor.. not year three... 

[00:12:45] Here in New Jersey we're in week three of school closure or what's called school closure. But education continues and what we are finding, and I have to say that it has gotten... that the, a lot of the issues have been resolved, but there's still a lot of challenges.

[00:13:07]So first of all, what we found was that those modifications and accommodations that students were accustomed to in there face to face educational programs, were either one, not communicated to the parent in a way that the parent could help to support the student and offer the modifications in terms of, you know, setting or reading to them, et cetera. That, or they were... Parents were given written instructions on, and some were given written instructions in English when their native language was not English. We found that the instructions that families were getting were not necessarily in at a, at a reading level that the parents could usually could actually understand. They tended to still be in essentially education speak. And then, the other as... another aspect of special education is what we call related services. You know, so those are those services, like occupational therapy and speech therapy. And, and counseling and in the first weeks...

[00:14:18] Right. 

[00:14:19] Helen: Can those be done remotely or is that something that is on hold with so many people's lives on hold? What are you seeing? 

[00:14:28] Debra Jennings: So what are, what we're saying there is that I think many of the States and the Districts are really trying to get organized around how to provide those services virtually.  There are some States that already had some infrastructure in place for that. And... But in other States, things like telehealth or teleservices, you know, done virtually. Were actually specifically not recognized as being a replacement for the service, for the related services under an IEP. And so we found that States are really scurrying to put into place the, the kinds of, you know, regulations and guidance that districts need in order to implement those related services. So here we are in week three, and we are starting to see that, those related services implemented. But it's still very spotty and here in New Jersey, we have almost 700 school districts. And a very small percentage have really gotten those related services in place. Another piece is that many of our students have paraprofessionals who will work with them throughout the day. And so, school districts are trying to figure out how to organize that parent, that paraprofessional work so that students are getting some support from the paraprofessional even in this virtual environment. Some of that's happening through paraprofessionals making phone calls, being a part of the, of the class realms that are happening. 

[00:16:25] As you can imagine, even in terms of what instruction looks like, it's different from district to district because some, some schools are offering virtual instruction, which is live. Where you, you know, you're sitting in a class with the teacher on the screen. But many are being instructed through Google classroom or other kinds of platforms where the student arrives in there course and then they have materials that they review and they have videos of the teaching to look at. But it's really done without that direct interaction. 

[00:17:09] I think many of the districts are getting better in terms of the direction that they're getting teachers as far as communicating with students about assignments, checking in on students to see if they're having any challenges and really making that a part of the delivery of instruction. It's not, teachers are not... Are being held accountable for not only making sure that there are course modules in these virtual classrooms, but also for providing support to students live through phone calls or video chats. So it's a really, it's a very interesting time. 

[00:17:54] LaWanda: Yeah. I think with a lot of schools having to close, suddenly there... Like you said, we're in week three and they're starting to gear back up. For parents who have kids who were on a IEP, but their school hasn't yet reached out to them about their particular services. Should they be reaching out to the school? What kind of things can they do to support their child while they're at home?

[00:18:20] Debra Jennings: Absolutely. A... Going from a classroom, a live classroom setting to a virtual classroom, even without talking about how we, about the related services, et cetera. But going from that setting of the live classroom into the virtual classroom. That it would be considered to be a change in placement. And under IDA when there is a change of placement that requires an IEP team conversation. So we are encouraging families to request IEP meetings, IEP team meetings, and many of the school districts getting guidance from their state that says that yes, even though schools are closed, you are required to respond as to whether or not, an IEP meeting is needed or required. So we are really encouraging families to request those IEP meetings.

[00:19:31] There are places where those IEP meetings have begun to be offered virtually. And so, you know, it's important for families to, you know, to be prepared to, to participate virtually. Either through conference calls or through web based meetings on some, on the various platforms that are available.

[00:19:56]But those IEP meetings should be occurring. You know, just to talk about what's happening in terms of placement, to talk about what needs to happen as far as modifications and accommodations and, and also to talk about getting some of those tele or virtual related services and what those may look like and what will be their effectiveness for their students.

[00:20:26] LaWanda: Right. 

[00:20:26] Helen: Hmm. Thank you. That's very good advice that, don't necessarily wait for the district to, to get to you. If you haven't heard, go ahead and make that request for a meeting and you're entitled to it. That's very good. 

[00:20:39] I want to, sort of shift gears a little bit to sort of the maybe beginning of the process, we're talking about the experience of families who already have some of these services in place and you mentioned Debra even from your own experience realizing that your child wasn't necessarily reading on level and starting to ask questions. And I think now with many families playing the role of teacher, crisis teacher at home, they might be seeing or wondering things about how their kids are learning that they wouldn't have necessarily seen before.

[00:21:11] Could you tell us a little bit about what families should be looking for, if they think that their child might benefit from special education services? 

[00:21:22] Debra Jennings: That's, you know, there's always some thing that is good. iI everything that seems to be really kind of terrible and torubling. And one of the things that I so recognized early on was, that as much of a change and as much of a disruption as this is that the opportunity to be your child's teacher and to see what kind of work they're doing in school is, it really means that process so much more transparent than than we're.. Than we're accustomed to. 

[00:22:00] Parents are learning a lot about what their child is being taught and also about what their child knows. You know I think that one thing is to, in terms of looking at, first of all the work that their child is being assigned. And comparing it to what the, your States standards are. If you don't... If you, you know, you can find your state standards for every grade, for all of the major subject areas on your state's website. And we're essentially at the end of the year, right? So if your child is in third grade. And in third grade, you, you go and you find the third grade expectations. Your child should pretty much be there by, you know,  by April. They should be meeting those expectations by April. Around, you know, what, you know, what they should be doing in terms of a reading and where are they should be in terms of, you know, phonemic awareness and in terms of reading comprehension. And so you can, you know, you'll be able to look at not only the assignments that they have. But also how well they're doing on those assignments. If, and if you see that your child is struggling. Then that's... The first thing that you do, is to reach out to the teacher. One of the things that I am reminding our partners who are educators and school districts, and even our state directors, is that this is actually one of the best times to engage parents in their student's learning. So let's take advantage of that and make sure that we're communicating. Two way communication as it's, as it is outlined in the PTA standards. But make sure that we have that two way communication going on. 

[00:24:02] So reach out to the teacher first and ask them, how is my child doing and where are they in terms of meeting those standards and what are we, that's the teacher and the parent. What do we need to do in order for them to achieve those standards?

[00:24:23] Now, the teacher may have noticed some things themselves and maybe hadn't brought them up. And you know, particularly in terms of reading, you know, it could be that there is a need for the child to be tested or evaluated because they may have... They may have dyslexia or they may have another disability that is interfering with their being able to not only de-code... Interfering with their phonemic awareness, awareness and also interfering with their actual reading competent, comprehension. And so I think the teacher is sort of the best first source because once you notice something, the teacher is the best person to ask. And then if the teacher's response is, well, we're going to need to do, we're going to need to provide the student with a lot more intensive instruction. Then that should give us a little bit of an indication of maybe we should ask for the evaluation. And you can write to your Director of Special Education or even the Principal and request an evaluation for eligibility for special education services. And they will... That, that will start the communication and that'll start the teamwork. And that'll start those conversations. That you can have about what needs to be evaluated, what needs to be... Once the evaluations are done, what we need to do in terms of putting the services in place.

[00:26:01] LaWanda: So, Ms. Jennings, I had a similar situation where you were talking about, starting the process. My son goes to public school, he's in the first grade, and I just noticed he had some fluency issues starting maybe a year or two before he was having a hard time getting words out, stumbling a bit. And, we talked about going to a speech pathologist and read some things about, you know, it may be because he's young, you know, it'll, he'll grow out of it. But once I noticed once he was in the first grade, it was still present. I reached out to the school, actually just sent a note to the principal saying, Hey, do you have access to a speech pathologist? I was just curious more than anything. And he was like, yeah, we have one on site. And then I explained the situation with Caleb and he said, let's set up a IEP meeting. But when he said that I was like, Oh no, I don't want a bunch of people. I don't know if this is, you know, I don't want to make a big deal out of it.

[00:27:03] But he and the Vice Principal really calmed me and said, no, this is a part of the process. And we sat in a room, my husband and I with Caleb's teacher, with the Speech Pathologist and the Vice Principal and the counselor. And it gave us a full picture of, of his classroom and what he's been doing because the first thing they wanted to know, or wanted us to figure out together was, is his fluency, preventing him to reach certain milestones in the classroom? And I. It was the best meeting that I ever had because it gave me such a sense of what he's doing in the classroom. How it's affecting our not affecting his day to day life. And we were able... And being there, they asked me a lot of questions that I didn't even know I had the answer to about how I wanted him treated during this process. And the things that I told them were like. I don't want this to disrupt his free time. I don't want him to feel like recess is taken away from him to do that, because I don't want the things that he enjoys to be taken away to do this. And they were very receptive to that and open and created a plan that we all felt good about. So I would just say definitely reach out, like you said. Talk to the teacher. Find out what resources are available and what that means. So, I agree with everything that you said and I hope that more parents take notice, like you said, during this process, while you're home to see what the differences are and evaluate certain things and now maybe a perfect opportunity to have those one on one conversations that you may not have the time and ability to have, prior to the crisis. 

[00:28:55] Debra Jennings: And Lawanda that's exactly the, almost exactly the experience that I have with my second daughter. And just so that you know, she graduated with a great, like over a 3.5 GPA from the University of Delaware. And she's now in a master's program and she started out in I think it was, she also started out in second grade with an IEP in second grade and with speech services and you know, we were able to help her to... The big thing is the confidence, you know, because if you're struggling and you don't address it by the time a child is about eight years old, then that often that learning challenge turns into a behavior challenge. And once it turns into a behavior challege it's so much more difficult to address. 

[00:29:53] Helen: But you know, both of you, I'm listening and just hearing that... Like you, you maybe were a little hesitant at first, but you went with the process. And I think this brings up such an interesting point about sort of the stigma of special education or having a quote unquote disability.

[00:30:10] What, Deborah, would you say to parents who might be like, I don't want my child to be labeled. 

[00:30:15] Debra Jennings: You know that, I mean, that is, that is real. And the, I think part of it is that there's a perception that students with disabilities are there, that all students with disabilities tend to have the same disabilities.

[00:30:34] Most people, no idea of the, the app... The huge range, what we call disabilities. We- that are eligible for students to receive services. And the, the numbers of students who receive special education services that are not necessarily obvious, I'll put it that way. That are not in the segregated self contained classrooms, that are not in the segregated schools. That are just are traveling through their school day and maybe four 15 minutes or a period getting services in a resource room or getting services in the speech department. There are, there's such a individualization that happens in special education, especially if the parent is get, make sure that they're knowledgeable.

[00:31:36] And is very participatory in the process because as I said, the parent is a member of the IEP team and has the say in terms of what that child's program is going to look alike. If you think of the IEP process is something that they're going to do to you or do to your child, then yeah, that's, that's hard to really,you know, that's, that's really hard to swallow.

[00:32:03] But if you think of yourself as part of the team, and as Lawanda said, that I'm going to, yeah, I'm going to learn a lot about what is available. I'm going to get some information about how our process works and you know, the things that I should be asking for.  Well, it makes, it puts a whole different spin on having a child identified as special education services.

[00:32:30] LaWanda: Yeah. I think a lot of parents need to hear that, that it's about how you participate in the process. I think that that helps to make it less overwhelming and less scary. Cause I think that's what it is. Just the fear of the unknown. 

[00:32:45] Ms. Jennings you shared so much great information with us. So much valuable information that I hope will help a lot of parents that are home. And then after this will end, this will be over, the crisis will be over, and then we're back to school as normal. And I hope that these tips and resources and things that you provided will be an additional help to them once kids return back to school. 

[00:33:10] So thank you for joining us today. So are there any resources available for parents that you might suggest.

[00:33:16] Debra Jennings: Yes, I would suggest that parents visit our website for the center for parent information and resources. And that web address is and you'll find there... First of all, we've put together a great collection of resources around the coronavirus and working with your schools. And then we also have a lot of resources that can help you in terms of navigating the special education process, even in our normal, context. 

[00:33:54] So I really encourage you to, to stop by and you can take a look there and you can also follow us on social media and, and you can post questions there too. And we'll have one of our staff get back to you. Or we'll share with you information about parent training and information center that serves your state and your community. 

[00:34:16] LaWanda: That's great. What are your social media handles and where can listeners go to learn more about you and your work? 

[00:34:22]Debra Jennings: Our social media handles for Facebook and Twitter. It is @parentcenter.

[00:34:31]LaWanda:  Great, one last question before we leave. 

[00:34:33] What is one thing parents should take away from today's conversation? Maybe it's something that they can start applying today. 

[00:34:40] Debra Jennings: Well, my one, I will share that one. No, I'm sorry. Let me start over. I was going to say my one, my one monitor is easy... My, it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission but that's probably not appropriate for this, for this conversation.

[00:34:55]Helen: That's appropriate for everything in life. 

[00:34:57] Debra Jennings: Right. I would... 

[00:34:59] I want to just reiterate that parents are a member of the education team for their child, and we as parents are the most important partners in our child's education.

[00:35:19] It doesn't matter our race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education attainment. We are still the best people because we know our child and we know our communities. And we know what we expect from not only our children, but also from our schools, and we should have high expectations for both the schools and our children.

[00:35:46] Helen: Wow. Awesome. Thank you so much there. I think that's a good note to end on. It's like we are so important as parents and especially during this difficult time and so thank you for reminding us of that. And thank you for joining us today. 

[00:36:00] Debra Jennings: You're very welcome. Thank you. 

[00:36:03] Helen: So everyone, that concludes today's episode of Notes from the Backpack.

[00:36:07]But before you go, please be sure to check out our website and use the social media tag #backpacknotes to stay in the know. 

[00:36:18] Thanks again for tuning in!



Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.