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Vocational Assessment and Transition Planning

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

Transition planning is a complex process centered around helping students, typically who receive special education services, to set goals for their postsecondary adult lives and to engage in learning, services, and experiences that will help them to ultimately reach those goals. Assessment is a critical aspect of this process, both as a means for collecting baseline information about the student and measuring progress throughout the planning process. While transition planning focuses on outcomes in several key areas (e.g., further education and training, employment, independent living, community engagement, adult service involvement), many families who seek transition assessment and planning help are specifically concerned about employment. What can my child do? What career path is best for my daughter? Will my son be able to support himself? For these families, vocational assessment is a critical piece of the transition planning process. Yet, many families do not have a good understanding of what a vocational evaluation includes and the types of results and recommendations that can come from such evaluation.

Vocational assessment has a relatively simple definition. It is the process of gathering information about a student’s interests, abilities, and aptitudes as they relate to the student’s work potential.[i] However, there is not one universal test or process used to collect this information. In fact, any of the following types of tests might be part of vocational assessment:

  • Record review
  • Informal interview with the student
  • Informal interview with parents, teachers, or other professionals who know the student well
  • Observation of student in current familiar environments
  • Interest inventories (informal or formal)
  • Learning style inventories
  • Self-reported skill, ability and achievement inventories
  • Work preference and motivation assessments
  • Work-related behavior inventories
  • Employability/Life skills assessment
  • Formal aptitude assessment
  • Situational assessment of a student in a controlled work environment
  • Work samples
  • Functional assessment of simulated or real job tasks

Importantly, most students do not need to participate in all of the above types of assessments. In fact, a lot of the best information comes from the first few informal steps of the process, record review (which often includes rich data about a student’s cognitive skills, sensory and motor skills, perceptual skills, and learning style) and interviews with the student and adults familiar with the student. Ultimately, the purpose of vocational assessment is to develop a profile of the student’s interests, skills, and aptitudes and formulate measurable short- and long-term career goals. However, it is important to remember that participation in vocational assessment typically does not, and should not, result in identification of one specific career to pursue. That’s not how any of the tests, or the overall process, is designed. Instead, results of vocational assessment will suggest a variety of careers or career families that a student may be interested in exploring more in depth. It is an important starting point of career exploration, especially for students who are unsure about their career goals. Results can also be helpful for identifying where there is alignment in a student’s aptitudes and interests or where more exposure and instruction may be needed to support a student’s career development. The information that comes out of vocational assessment is an invaluable part of comprehensive transition assessment and planning for students with and without disabilities.

For more information about vocation assessment and transition assessment at NESCA, visit our transition services page and our transition FAQs.

Also, stay tuned for more blogs about vocational assessment this fall as my colleague Tabitha Monahan and I will be specifically breaking down some of the above types of testing in greater detail.

[i] Instructional Materials Laboratory. (1998).  Vocational assessment for students with special needs. Columbia, MO: Author.

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.

Student Involvement in IEPs: Ten Tips to Help Middle School Students Get Started – Part 2

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

As discussed in my previous blog, federal law requires that students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) be invited to attend their transition IEP meetings. In Massachusetts, this means that students approaching the age of 14, often 8th graders, should be invited to attend their IEP meetings to start the process of transition planning if this has not already begun. However, many students are not invited to their team meetings until high school, if at all. Additionally, research has indicated that when students do attend team meetings, they have the lowest level of satisfaction about their IEP meeting of any team member and they feel the least comfortable sharing their thoughts and suggestions in the meeting.[i] Nevertheless, studies across the country have shown that students can learn skills to actively participate in their IEP meetings, especially when they are directly taught terminology, roles, and how to participate, and when team members expect student participation.[ii] In the first part of this blog series, I provided five tips for helping students to become involved in their IEP process: Explicitly learn about the IEP document and process; Talk about strengths; Talk about challenges; Complete interest and preference inventories; and, Talk about the student’s goals for after high school. Today, I am adding five more tips aimed at truly helping the student to be an instrumental part of their team meeting. After all, the student’s voice and their vision are the most important aspects of transition planning and special education.

  1. If testing is being discussed, make sure that an adult talks about the testing with the student BEFORE the IEP meeting—The ability to use assessment information to develop goals is one of the most important skills a student needs in order to be an active participant in their transition planning process. This means that students need to have access to, and an understanding of, assessment information just like every other member of the team. Professionals and parents all have the right to access evaluation results ahead of a team meeting and traditionally come to the meeting having read the evaluations, often more than once. Moreover, they have typically seen the same tests or similar tests beforehand and usually already have some sense of the student’s learning profile, strengths, and challenges. When the student has undergone evaluations that will inform IEP development, it is critical for the evaluator or another adult who understands the testing well to sit with the student and explain the findings and recommendations from the evaluations in a developmentally appropriate manner. The student needs to know what areas were evaluated, and to have a general sense of the strengths, challenges, interests, and preferences that were highlighted within the testing, in order to be able to participate in a meaningful discussion about their short- and long-term goals and the services that they need. Moreover, they need to have time to process this information, with support, before they are expected to participate in a discussion about what to do with the information.
  2. Give the student options as to how they would like to participate—Just like any other activity, an IEP meeting can be broken down through a task analysis process, and participation in the IEP meeting can be scaffolded, rather than taking an all or nothing approach. There are many actions and “micro-actions” that a student can take to be involved in their team meeting in a way that feels comfortable and satisfying to the student. Certainly, there are the preparatory activities described in my previous blog (e.g., participating in assessment, learning about the IEP, completing a one-pager, etc.). But there are also administrative tasks that the student can participate in, like photocopying materials or sending out invitations or reminders to participants. Students may also want to prepare a script, PowerPoint, video, work portfolio or other materials they can share with the team during the meeting. Also, they may want to share their experience at the meeting with peers afterward or present highlights of the meeting to a staff member or family member who could not attend. There are many examples of ways to participate before, during, and after the team meeting in this great brochure from the I’m Determined project (https://www.imdetermined.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/iep_participation_brochure.pdf). Some students may choose to take a more passive role, but it is important that the student has the opportunity to prepare and to make an informed choice regarding their participation. Over time, students should be building their skills for IEP participation so that they can ultimately lead one or more of their transition IEP meetings (http://www.ciclt.net/ul/mgresa/2.HowtoHelpStudentsLeadIEP.pdf).
  3. Practice!—This tip may seem obvious, but I am taking time to state it because it is often something that is forgotten. Participating in an IEP meeting, especially as the student, is not a normal activity. Sitting in tight quarters with your parents, general educators, special educators, therapists, counselors, and any number of other professionals, who are all talking about you and your challenges is inherently uncomfortable—especially if you have difficulties with language, social cues, anxiety, etc. One way to make the experience “less weird” is to practice. Generally, students will be asked questions about their concerns, strengths, accomplishments, challenges, and goals for the future. It helps to practice answering questions about these areas outside of the IEP meeting and to not be answering these types of questions for the first time in the meeting. An even more useful practice activity is to have a mock IEP meeting. There are plenty of scripts online that follow the typical format of an IEP meeting, such as introductions and attendance, questions and concerns, reports of current performance, transition planning, and IEP development. It is particularly important for the student to be aware of times in the meeting when they will be specifically asked for their contribution (e.g., introductions, student concerns, vision statement, etc.).
  4. Invite preferred staff—Scheduling team meetings is a logistical puzzle, and often not all staff can be present for the whole meeting, if at all. Ask the student who they feel knows them best and who they really want on their team. If you know which teachers are the most motivating for the student, make sure that they are invited. Moreover, when there is a choice related to staff participation, prioritize having the meeting at a time when staff who the student likes and feels comfortable with can be part of the meeting. For student’s who have 1:1 paraprofessional support, it is really important for the paraprofessional to be at the meeting so that the student can have the same level of assistance (and feel the same sense of safety and support) that they do throughout their school day. The student is the most important member of their IEP team, and they will feel most included if they look around the room and see familiar faces of people they know are on their side.
  5. Expect the student to participate!—The  most important thing that adults can do to assist students in participating in their IEP meetings is to make the time and space for the student to participate in the meeting. This may mean requesting a longer meeting than usual so that adults in the meeting can slow down or rephrase language in terms that are accessible for the student and so that the student has time to formulate their thoughts and language in order to participate in the meeting. Whatever accommodations a student needs to participate actively in a classroom discussion should be considered and put in place if they are needed for a student to participate actively in the team meeting discussion. Adults need to be respectful of the student’s voice and to not speak for the student, interrupt the student, talk over the student, or disregard the student’s input. The student’s participation needs to be expected, empowered, and applauded, because, after all, it is their IEP meeting, their education, and their life.

[i] http://www2.ku.edu/~tccop/files/Martins_Perspective.pdf

[ii] http://www2.ku.edu/~tccop/files/Martins_Perspective.pdf

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.

Student Involvement in IEPs: Ten Tips to Help Middle School Students Get Started – Part 1

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

Federal law requires that students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) be invited to attend their transition IEP meetings. In Massachusetts, this means that students approaching the age of 14, often 8th graders, should be invited to attend their IEP meetings to start the process of transition planning if this has not already begun. For many, the idea of a middle school student attending an IEP meeting, an activity that can often be intimidating and upsetting for parents, can initially be overwhelming. And historically research has indicated that when students do attend team meetings, they have the lowest level of satisfaction about their IEP meeting of any team member and they feel the least comfortable sharing their thoughts and suggestions in the meeting.[i] However, research across the country has also shown that students can learn skills to actively participate in their IEP meetings, especially when they are directly taught terminology, roles, and how to participate, and when team members expect student participation.[ii] Student participation in IEPs is not only important because it is federally mandated, it is also essential because the IEP is supposed to be based on the student’s strengths, interests, preferences, and needs as well as the student’s post-high school goals—and because it’s the student’s life! For those reasons, I am choosing to focus this blog (and some future blogs) on tips for helping middle school students to become involved in their IEP processes.

  1. Explicitly learn about the IEP document and process—There are clear rules and vocabulary used to govern the IEP process. However, these are wholly unfamiliar and strange to anyone who has not participated in the process before (and even perplexing for those of us who have a lot of experience at team meetings). Therefore, one of the most critical ways to prepare a student to attend transition IEP meetings and to be a self-directed member of their IEP team is to equip them with knowledge of the vocabulary and rules that govern the process. One organization that has created useful materials for helping to teach students about the IEP process is imdetermined.org which has documents designed to assist students in understanding the IEP (https://imdetermined.org/resource/understanding-my-iep-differentiated/) and preparing for the IEP (https://imdetermined.org/resource/understanding-my-iep-differentiated/), but it may also be important to reference and simplify certain sections of the IEP Process Guide (https://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/iep/proguide.pdf). If students are not ready to review their entire IEP (which many students are not), it may be helpful just to think about the present levels of performance, strengths, or accommodations.
  2. Talk about strengths—While it’s critical that students be able to talk about their strengths and challenges, sometimes it’s easiest to start with strengths. People can have all kinds of strengths, such as character strengths, social strengths, language strengths, academic strengths, technical strengths, extracurricular strengths, and more. For kids who have a hard time with open-ended questions, there are checklists that can be found or completed online, such as character strengths inventories, transferable skills checklists, and strengths worksheets. There are also activities that can be useful for documenting strengths over time, such as this Strengths Chain activity (https://www.understood.org/articles/en/strengths-chain-for-kids), keeping a running list or journal of strengths and accomplishments, or building a deck of strength cards. All students need help learning to describe their strengths, especially the first time. Some students may have a hard time identifying the strengths they see in themselves, but may have an easy time sharing what other people say about them or compliment them on. Talking about strengths is not a one-time activity. Make sure that you are talking about and referring to the student’s strengths often while also highlighting how various members of the household or students in the class have different strengths and skills.
  3. Talk about challenges!—While transition planning is a strengths-based process, an IEP is based on a student needing specialized instruction and related services because the student has a disability and would struggle to make effective progress in school or the general education curriculum without special education. If we are going to ask students to be actively involved in a process of goal-setting based principally on their having a disability and related challenges, it is critical that the student has the opportunity to talk about what is hard for them and what they want to get better at… in their own words. At the same time, it is important to normalize the fact that all people have challenges, learn different information at different rates, and need help (and tools) to function successfully. Ultimately, being able to use a diagnostic label and understand the impact of a diagnosis on functioning is important, but what is more important is being able to describe what is hard on a daily basis and what makes those difficult activities easier. For some students, it is helpful to read a book or watch a television show or movie with characters who face similar struggles and to label similarities between the youth and the character. Some of the same checklists mentioned for documenting strengths can be helpful for identifying areas of challenge or undeveloped skills. It may also be helpful to start filling in a worksheet similar to this one-pager (https://imdetermined.org/resource/one-pager/) or this self-awareness worksheet (https://www.understood.org/articles/en/download-self-awareness-worksheet-for-kids). Just as with strengths, it is important to talk about and refer to specific challenges that each person in the household or class faces.
  4.  Complete interest and preference inventories—Learning to engage in self-assessments and talk about those self-assessments is an important part of transition planning and IEP participation. There are so many fun interest and personality quizzes online that can be taken in minutes. Some examples include these personality tests from National Geographic Kids (https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/games/personality-quizzes), this free personality type explorer (https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test), or even the O*Net Career Interest Profiler (https://www.mynextmove.org/explore/ip). Have the student take the test—and take these tests yourself—and talk about how your results are similar or different and how well the student thinks the results of the assessment capture them. Think about whether there are strengths or challenges to add to their running lists or worksheets based on their experience taking these inventories.
  5. Talk about the student’s goals for after high school—Students have the right to input as much as possible into their postsecondary vision statement, no matter how realistic or unrealistic their input is. The only way that they can be prepared to provide input at a team meeting is if they have spent some time thinking and talking about their post-high school goals and learning about their choices and options. Just recently, my colleague Becki Lauzon wrote a blog with important discussion points for talking about post-high school goals with students, which can be found here. A robust transition planning process should include helping a student to have detailed goals for their future education or training, employment, independent living, and community engagement; however, initial discussions might just include ruling in or out things like obtaining a high school diploma, continuing learning after high school, having a paid job, driving a car, and living with other people. In middle school, the goal of talking with a student about their postsecondary vision is just to help the student learn to comfortably engage in those discussions and to find out where future work needs to be done in order to help the student build a more complete picture of their adult postsecondary life.

Every student is different and is able to engage in the process in different ways and at different times, but I hope that there is at least one tip in these blogs that is useful for you. Next month, I will be writing a second blog with more tips for engaging middle school students in the IEP process.

If you are interested in having your child work with Kelley Challen or another NESCA transition specialist to plan and prepare to be part of their IEP meeting, please fill out an intake for our transition consultation and planning services or our student coaching services today!

[i] http://www2.ku.edu/~tccop/files/Martins_Perspective.pdf

[ii] http://www2.ku.edu/~tccop/files/Martins_Perspective.pdf

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.

Why Work Matters for Teens

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

“The share of teens participating in the labor force peaked 40 years ago and has declined ever since.”[1] There are many reasons why employment rates among teens ages 16-19 have declined, such as increased schoolwork and graduations requirements, summer program and extracurricular opportunities, and work competition. Now, roughly only one-third of youth in this age range are part of the workforce. But research tells us that teens who work during high school, whether during the school year or summer months, are more likely to persevere in college (if they choose this academic route) and also more likely to be hired in adulthood. For teenagers with disabilities, a population of young people who face a high risk for unemployment in adulthood, work experience in high school is even more critical.

Some of the benefits of paid employment for all students include:

  1. A new sense of identity—as a worker
  2. Learning workplace norms and expectations
  3. Developing important executive functioning skills, like time and task management
  4. Building social skills by collaborating and negotiating with other workers and/or customers
  5. Improving self-awareness through receiving coworker and employer feedback
  6. Reading a paycheck and learning to manage earned money
  7. Starting to identify learning and career goals (“I never want to do this again, so I am going to need to get a degree or some training.”) and/or gaining experience in a field of interest

Even failed work experiences—and failed application processes—are extremely valuable tools for learning the above skills as well as building coping and problem-solving skills.

And since it is almost summer and teenagers are finishing, or have finished, their classes for the school year, this is a great time to make a plan for summer employment. Teens can look in traditional places such as grocery stores, retailers, and fast-food restaurants, or may want to pursue something non-traditional like doing yard work, dog walking/pet sitting, cleaning/detailing, or odd jobs for family friends and neighbors. Those 18 and over with driver’s licenses may enjoy the flexibility of working with a delivery service like Instacart or Uber Eats.

Because work—whether a summer, part-time, traditional or non-traditional job—is such a critical aspect of transition planning, my colleague here at NESCA, Transition Specialist Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, will be authoring a series of blogs focusing on career planning and counseling beginning this summer and continuing into the fall. Be on the lookout for her blogs. In the meantime, get out there and work!

Reference:

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/06/why-so-few-teenagers-have-jobs-anymore.html

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.

Why Taking Competency Tests, like the MCAS, can be Critical for Transition and College Planning

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

Most states require some form of competency testing for students, particularly students who will graduate with a state standard diploma. But in the past year, standardized competency testing has become more complicated, if not impossible, to carry out.

In Massachusetts, graduation requirements have been altered for several grades of students. Students graduating in 2021-2023 are being offered alternative options for meeting state competency determination in one or more of the required subject areas (e.g., science and technology/engineering, mathematics, English Language Arts). For more details about those alternatives, see MA Graduation Requirements and Related Guidance on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website.

The opportunity for students in the Class of 2022 to graduate without ever sitting for 10th grade MCAS is something that many students, parents, and teachers are excited about. While I understand, and even agree with, criticisms of standardized testing, there are also many reasons that I am disappointed for the students who are missing out on the opportunity to sit for this testing. These students, especially those with disabilities, are missing out on a vital transition planning activity.

Preparing for, and sitting for, (and coping with,) high stakes tests is an important part of life. Whether you pass or fail, being able to show up and perform your best in a high-pressure situation is a valuable life skill. Moreover, being able to demonstrate competency in a test situation is a reasonable and necessary college and career skill.

Additionally, standardized tests like MCAS provide objective feedback regarding the student’s level of achievement with high school material. Grades can be tremendously subjective, and are highly dependent on the teachers and types of classes that the student is exposed to during high school. In contrast, students participating in honors, college prep, and functional math classes all sit for the same standardized math tests. This is especially important when students in all three of those classes are interested in heading off to college after high school, and when we want to get a sense of their readiness for handling college coursework. Generally, students who do not earn passing scores (i.e., students who score in the “Needs Improvement” or “Partially Meeting Expectations” categories) on the MCAS, especially by 12th grade, will struggle with college placement exams, such as the Accuplacer, and may end up needing to take remedial coursework at the start of college. Students have a right to know how ready they are for the academic rigors of college as they are making their college plans, and standardized testing results can be helpful information (although they are by no means the whole picture).

With the new competency determination options, many students in Massachusetts view sitting for MCAS as something that is only worth doing if they are possible candidates for the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship (a merit-based state scholarship program). However, I hope students will also consider the other positive reasons I have listed above when deciding whether to sit for the test. For college-bound students who do choose not to sit for MCAS, I strongly recommend sitting for other standardized exams during high school, such as SAT, ACT, Accuplacer, etc. These experiences are important opportunities to build confidence in high stakes situations, to assess college readiness skills, and to identify skill gaps that may need shoring up.

Certainly, there are many legitimate concerns about standardized test contents and validity, including significant equity issues. I also believe that competency tests and college placement tests provide important information for many college-bound students. They are one metric, among many, that are worth having for transition and college planning.

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Diplomas, Graduation Dates and IEP Transition Services Revisited

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Assistant Director, NESCA

Three years ago, on March 26, 2019, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) sent out an important administrative advisory regarding transition services and graduating with a high school diploma (Administrative Advisory SPED 2018-2: Secondary Transition Services and Graduation with a High School Diploma). At the time, I wrote a blog about the advisory, wanting to bring attention to the much-needed guidance clarifying when and how students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) should be issued a high school diploma.

Today, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, seems like a very important time to revisit what it means for a student on an IEP to be ready to graduate high school with a diploma this June. Given the lengthy school shutdown in Spring 2020—followed by ongoing limitations in social contact, community engagement, employment opportunities, and more—many students and their families are questioning whether they are ready for graduation. In fact, I sat in a team meeting last week where a special educator asked an adult student whether they would like to take their diploma or “refuse” their diploma in June. [This phrasing, “refusing” or “rejecting” a diploma, is often used but is inaccurate as a student is not refusing to take their diploma. Rather, the team is instead delaying or deferring graduation in certain circumstances.]

As a parent and professional regularly involved in the IEP process, a comfort throughout this pandemic is that while education has been reinvented several times, and community safety and engagement is highly variable, special education laws (including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, which outlines the requirement for school districts to provide transition services) remain the same. The decision for a student receiving special education services to take a diploma, or defer taking a diploma, continues to be based primarily on the same variables:

  1. Meeting local graduation requirements;
  2. Passing the state Competency Determination (CD); and
  3. Receiving Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that includes secondary transition services based on age-appropriate transition assessment.

Prior to COVID-19, passing the state CD in Massachusetts typically involved passing on-demand tests in English Language Arts (ELA), Mathematics and Science or successfully completing an alternate assessment competency portfolio. For students who have an anticipated graduation date prior to October 1, 2021 (as noted in their most recent signed IEP), something that has changed during the pandemic is that there are now Modified CD requirements that allow for CD in ELA and mathematics to be awarded upon district certification that the student earned full credit for a relevant course aligned to the curriculum framework in the subject matter and demonstrated competency in that subject. A similar Modified CD requirement for science is also available for students graduating in classes of 2021-2023. Therefore, a student who did not pass on-demand MCAS testing in 2019 may be eligible to graduate with a diploma using the Modified CD requirements.

However, as students, their parents, and their education teams ponder June 2021 graduation dates, it is important to keep focus on the same variables that we have always used for considering whether a student is ready to accept a local diploma. Here are some questions that may help when considering these variables.

  1. Has the student met all local graduation requirements? Did they complete the core courses required by the district? Or, were they given credit for courses/activities that varied greatly from courses that general education students completed? What about attendance requirements? Did the student stop attending classes or have a significantly lower rate of attendance than general education peers in the past year? Did the student meet requirements for community service hours or a capstone project if those were required of general education students?
  2. Did the student pass the state Competency Determination? Did the student have the opportunity to participate in MCAS on-demand testing? If they did not, did the student have a track record of passing MCAS tests? Was the student scheduled to graduate this June or did someone from the school district propose changing the student’s graduation date to take advantage of the Modified CD requirements currently being used by the department of education due to COVID-19?
  3. Did the student receive FAPE including secondary transition services based on age-appropriate transition assessment while in high school? Is there a Transition Planning Form (28M/9) that the team has been updating annually? Are there appropriate measurable postsecondary goals in the student’s IEP vision statement that are based on transition assessment (PLEASE remember that interview is an important assessment tool for many students)? Was the student’s voice part of team meetings where transition services were discussed? Does the student’s IEP have measurable goals that will reasonably help the student to progress toward their IEP vision statement? Has the student made effective progress on the goals outlined in the IEP over the past year? Has the student been able to engage in transition services that were described in the IEP? Was the student’s graduation date supposed to be this June or was it “TBD”? And, if appropriate, was a representative of an adult human service agency (e.g., Department of Mental Health, Department of Developmental Services, Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) involved in one or more IEP meetings?

Having missed out on school and community-based activities in the past year can create an immediate concern that a student needs to hang on to their special education protections and should not graduate this June. But the truth is that the pandemic created opportunities for students to generalize skills and practice functional skills, and some students are more ready than ever to move on from special education. And, as I stated in my previous blog, there is no universal set of skills or level of knowledge that deems a student on an IEP “ready” to graduate. In fact, students on IEPs, just as with mainstream students, graduate all the time without being ready for many adult activities (e.g., apartment hunting, changing jobs, applying for a bank loan, comparing health insurance plans).

When you are considering whether the student has received FAPE, it is important to remember that every student missed some typical high school planning steps over the past year. When school buildings closed down and community engagement came to a halt, educators and special educators had to pivot many times. Transition planning steps may have been missed or services may not have been delivered in originally anticipated ways without any clear fault or person to blame. If a student’s progress towards their measurable postsecondary goals was substantially halted, this might be important for the team to discuss. But there are many circumstances where students continued to make progress in spite of the missed opportunities. Perhaps the pandemic even created new opportunities for progress that would not typically be available until a student exits high school (e.g., a paid job, increased self-direction through participation in remote learning, easier access to pre-employment transition services, increased communication with peers through technology, etc.).

Regardless, as you are thinking about graduation, please remember that the most important question to ask is not, “Is my child/student ready to graduate?” Instead, the critical question to ask when a student approaches their graduation date is, “Has the student received a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)?” If the answer is “yes,” it is vital to give the student the opportunity to step into adult postsecondary life and begin applying the skills they have learned through their education and special education. Although the pandemic has created a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, let’s not fall victim to a pattern of rejecting IEPs (essentially rejecting/refusing diplomas) out of fear.

If you are interested in working with a transition specialist at NESCA for consultation, planning, or evaluation, please complete our online intake form: https://nesca-newton.com/intake-form/.

Resources:

Transition Resources and Advisories from MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education:

While this blog includes some specific content that applies only to families of students in IEPs in Massachusetts, the requirement to deliver transition services for students on IEP is a federal mandate and impacts graduation in all states.

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Counseling/Therapy: So Many Types and Approaches…Which One Should I Choose?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS
Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

Many adults, teens and children struggle with a myriad of challenges from everyday stressors, feelings of worthlessness and insecurities to official diagnoses of anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, OCD, addiction, and more. Deciding how to grow and change and alleviate the pain and suffering can be daunting. There are so many different ways to address psychological pain. Psychological, medical, behavioral, psychopharmacological, complementary (e.g., acupuncture), and educational treatments, among others, are possible choices and can assist in lessening an individual’s anguish. How do I decide which one(s) to try? Usually, treatment involves more than one of these, so the decisions may not be as difficult as you think. The first step is recognizing that you, your child, your marriage or family needs help and taking a step to get help.

Psychological treatments include many options: psychotherapy (i.e., “talk therapy or insight-based therapy”), psychoeducational counseling, biofeedback, social training, behavior therapy, mindfulness, stress management, anger management and so many more. Therapy can be individual, group, family or couples work, and there is no single approach that works for everyone. It often depends on the referral question and complaint. Counseling is typically provided by a psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor, marriage and family counselor, expressive therapist, psychiatrist and/or psychiatric nurse. Many factors go into making psychological treatment decisions (i.e., referring question/complaint, cost, location, approach, etc.). When it comes to therapy, it is most important to have “goodness of fit” between the clinician and the client. The client needs to have a connection with and feel valued, supported and understood by their practitioner. This allows whatever treatment approach or method to be more readily accepted by the client.

Reviewing the differences between treatment approaches may help with the decision-making process beyond “the goodness of fit.” Psychotherapy involves talking with a clinician to address emotional, psychological and behavioral challenges that can be both conscious and unconscious. The client’s past experiences, perceptions and history may play an important role in psychotherapy. The client “tells a story” that helps the clinician understand their life experiences through their eyes, therefore allowing treatment to be tailored to that client’s personal experience. By working through one’s thoughts, past experiences and stressors with a caring clinician, the client is able to gain insight and perspective, reduce symptoms, change behavior, learn strategies to lighten the load and improve quality of life. Often psychotherapy is long-term and involves good communication/language skills as well as higher level of thinking, often abstractly, and insight capacity.

Psychoeducational treatment is somewhat different than psychotherapy. Education is central to treatment and is a more directive approach. It can have very specific goals and may be short-term. The past is not actively addressed; rather, the purpose is to teach the client to acknowledge, accept and understand their disability and/or mental health condition and provide ways to support growth, change and meet goals. Psychoeducational treatment can be provided to individuals, groups, families, couples, employers and others and may include reading informational text, video analysis, homework, data collection, biofeedback, journal writing and more.

Some of the goals of both treatment approaches may be to:

  • connect how thoughts, feelings and behavior are intertwined;
  • improve coping and problem-solving skills to better deal with life’s stressors;
  • increase positive self-regard; and
  • recognize and better deal with strong emotions.

Many clinicians have training in specific techniques and some use a combination of approaches and philosophies. Psychotherapy typically falls into broad categories: Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic, Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Therapy, Humanistic Therapy and Integrative or Holistic Therapy.  Sometimes a specific approach may be the best method of choice given a specific condition or specific goal of the client. Some techniques have been researched on large samples of people and proven to yield positive results with certain diagnoses; while others are newer, less researched (yet are still effective).

In determining what technique is most appropriate, consider the age, diagnosis, goal of treatment, efficacy of the treatment, as well as the personality, cognitive and language capacity, cultural/family background, location, cost, etc. Many treatment approaches share common techniques, but some techniques are better suited with certain conditions/diagnoses. There are upwards of 100 different types of psychotherapeutic approaches, so knowing which one works with what conditions, resonates with you as the client and can meet the needs/goals.

Another option is online treatment. In recent years, many in-person practices and newer standalone online treatment options have emerged. Often these are for mild depression and anxiety. As you search out any treatment, ask for references and reviews and assess treatment efficacy. Some online sites include Talkspace, TeenCounsleing and more. There are also online apps to help with stress management, anxiety, depression and more, such as Moodfit, HeadSpace for Kids, MindShift, Inner Balance, and so many more. Needless to say, online therapy and apps are not the same as in-person therapy but may augment and be helpful in some situations.

Many clients at NESCA present with learning differences, anxiety, OCD, depression, trauma, addiction, ASD, and more. The following partial list includes just some of the treatment approaches recommended by many of NESCA’s neuropsychologists. At NESCA, we currently offer a psychoeducational approach to psychological treatment and short-term pandemic related issues of anxiety and depression. If interested in learning more, please visit: https://nesca-newton.com/integrativetherapeutic/.

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Attachment-based Therapy
  • Animal-assisted Therapy
  • Bibliotherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy
  • Expressive Therapy (art, music, drama, etc.)
  • Family Systems Therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Narrative Therapy
  • Positive Psychology
  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
  • Play Therapy
  • Psychoeducational Counseling
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Additional information about treatment approaches can be found at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/types-of-therapy.

https://www.nami.org/learn-more/treatment/psychotherapy

https://apa.org/topics/psychotehrpay/approaches

https://talkspace.com/blog/different-types-therapy-psychotherapy-best/

https://verywellmind.com

 

About the Author

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.

 

To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Autism Awareness Month

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS
Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

So what? What does it really mean to have an awareness month and a designated day? April is Autism Awareness month, and this year April 2 was World Autism Awareness Day, established by the United Nations (UN) in 2008. In general, these designations are meant to bring awareness to ”causes.” You will see a lot of blue in April as blue is the color of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) awareness. There will likely be many federal, state and local municipal buildings, private homes, as well as national and international monuments bathed in blue lights. People will wear blue, there will be blue autism products to buy, and our air waves will be flooded with autism awareness commercials. In a typical year, many commemorative and educational events would be held. It is usually a time of celebration for people with autism as well as their families and friends everywhere. For instance, in pre-pandemic years, sports teams, movie theatres, museums, Broadway and other venues would host ASD-friendly days. Autism Speaks has its “Light it Up Blue” initiative and is celebrating this year specifically with its #LightUpWithKindness campaign. The United Nations (UN) has a different theme every year, and this year’s theme is The Transition to Adulthood.

When the United Nations established April 2 as Autism Awareness Day, it had high hopes.

In 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities entered into force, reaffirming the fundamental principle of universal human rights for all. Its purpose is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. It is a vital tool to foster an inclusive and caring society for all and to ensure that all children and adults with autism can lead full and meaningful lives.”

Well said…but far from the reality of many individuals with autism and their families. If only our schools, communities and societies were as inclusive, respectful and welcoming as this statement. If it were today’s reality, many people diagnosed with ASD and their families wouldn’t have to struggle as much as they do on a day to day basis with stigmatization, discrimination and a lack of respect and inclusive opportunities.

Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that originates in childhood, and its presentation changes over time. Autism is a spectrum with social, communication, sensory and behavioral differences manifested uniquely in each individual. While we have come a long way in understanding autism, recognizing the breadth and diversity of those with it; embracing their talents, unique abilities and strengths; and addressing the day to day challenges that autistic people face. The UN’s vision is still far from a reality, and there is still much work to do.

It is my hope that during Autism Awareness Month, you become more aware. If you support the “cause” and buy a shirt, bracelet or puzzle piece and shine a blue light on your porch, that’s great – spread the word.  Take the Autism Speaks #LightUpWithKindness” campaign to heart do something to create a world that is kinder, gentler, more respectful and inclusive of autistic people with autism. Watch a movie about ASD, read a book by an autistic author, take the time to educate yourself and your children. If your child has autism, educate your child’s classmates, neighbors, family members and community members. If a child with autism is in your child’s class or school, connect with them and their parents. You are modeling for your own kids and those around you, so spread kindness, acceptance and inclusiveness. If you are an employer, connect with your local school district and offer to partner with them to provide internships for transition-aged youth with autism and maybe even hire them as employees! While this is a financially challenging time for so many, if you do have the means, donate and give to an ASD agency (whether it be locally-, nationally-, medically- or research-based, etc.) – whatever brings you joy. Donate your time at an autism support center.  There are so many ways to recognize Autism Awareness Month that go beyond the color blue – choose something that resonates with you and be the light! Be the light that goes beyond Autism Awareness to Autism Action, Autism Acceptance, Autism Access and Autism Advancement.

 

About the Author

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.

 

To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

College Transition – Important Considerations for Students with Disabilities who are Making a Final Decision

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Assistant Director, NESCA

May 1st is often referred to as “College Decision Day,” the deadline by which students must submit their deposit and commit to enrolling at the college of their choice. Given that students are applying to an increasing number of colleges, with multiple “safety schools” on their application lists, students are often still comparing and contrasting several prospective college choices during the winter and spring months of their senior year. Moreover, this year, due to the pandemic students may be choosing among colleges they have never visited or making first-time visits to colleges during spring vacation weeks.

There are some common variables that students learn to compare when researching and visiting colleges:

  • Location
  • Cost
  • Scholarships and Financial Aid
  • Size (campus size, number of undergraduate students, class sizes, etc.)
  • Strength and Availability of Majors
  • Retention and Graduation Rates
  • Internships
  • Gut feelings

But, for students with disabilities, there is often additional information that can be useful in making a decision to commit to a particular college. Here are five tips that can be helpful when researching, communicating with, and visiting colleges in order to make a final selection, if not earlier in the college application process:

  • Book an appointment with Disability Support Services (often called Student Accessibility Services). While it is important to ask questions about accommodations offered to students, the process of qualifying for accommodations and/or assistive technology devices/services on campus, it is also important to think about how accessible the services will be for you. Where is the office located on campus? Do you feel comfortable talking with the director and staff? Is the website easy to find and navigate? How easy was it to book the appointment in the first place?
  • Research foreign language requirements. Having a foreign language waiver in high school does not mean that you will qualify for a waiver in college. In fact, having any accommodation or service in high school will not automatically qualify a student for the same support in college. As such, it is important to understand the foreign language requirements of the college and to ask whether the college will allow course substitutions or other accommodations (e.g., pass/fail grading, adjustments to the class participation requirement, etc.). It is important to realize that even colleges that allow substitutions may not be able to do so if the language is central to the student’s chosen major/course of study. If substitutions are not allowed, it is useful to ask about foreign language faculty on campus and to look for foreign languages that may be easier to learn, such as Latin or Greek, which are not spoken.
  • Contact the Office of Residential Life. Not all dorm life is created equal, especially for students with disabilities who require accommodations in college. Ask questions about the leadership structure within the dorms, the training/qualifications for residential directors and residential assistants in the freshman housing, how social relationships are fostered and facilitated within the dorm environment, and how dorm conflicts are resolved. For students who require a medical single (e.g., a single dorm room on the basis of documented social or emotional difficulties, allergies, etc.), elevator access, or a service/support animal, make sure that you confirm not only that these accommodations are available, but also where that housing is available on campus. For instance, single dorm rooms are sometimes only available within dorms or housing complexes that are traditionally reserved for upperclass students, reducing the opportunity for freshman bonding.
  • Research student clubs and organizations. Student participation in clubs and campus activities is known to contribute to the student’s retention, persistence, and success in college. Therefore, researching student groups should be an important aspect of the college selection process for every college student. However, for students with social, emotional, or other disabilities that impact communication and connection with others, participation in student clubs and organizations can also provide exactly the structure needed to assist the student in forging both initial and lasting relationships in college. Therefore, it’s important to research ahead of time and ensure that there are structured groups on campus you can see yourself being part of.
  • Research the college’s Covid-19 plan from this year and for next. For students with disabilities, understanding the impact of Covid-19 on the academics – as well as the social and daily life of the college – is particularly important. How did the college respond when the pandemic first hit? What proportion of classes were they able to offer in person this school year, and what safety precautions were put in place? What was the structure (e.g., synchronous, asynchronous, reverse classroom, etc.) and size of remote classes? Is the college planning to continue offering courses remotely in the fall? If so, what proportion of classes and for which students (e.g., Freshmen? Certain majors?)? Has the college retained most or all of its staff, or has there been a substantial amount of turnover? How available are professors when they are not on campus? Has the college added any additional counseling or mental health supports for students?

Certainly, the college search and selection processes are different for each student, both with and without disabilities. But my hope is that this list of considerations helps to make this difficult decision-making process easier. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that there is not just one perfect school for a student. There are lots of places where you can be successful and happy, and your job is just to make the best decision you can for yourself.

 

About the Author:

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Media’s Portrayal of our Differences

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS
Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

Media has portrayed all aspects of society’s strengths, as well as its ugliness, the diversities of its peoples and cultures, political topics, events in history and so much more for as long as television and movies have existed. Often, television and movies try to stay within norms, while, at other times, they push boundaries or raise controversial topics.

  • In 1952 on the “I Love Lucy” show, the episode, “Lucy is Enceinte,” aired in which Lucy learned she was pregnant. But the show never uttered the word, “pregnant,” and then she had the first child brought into a family on TV.
  • Prior to 1965, black actors did not have leading roles and were not portrayed favorably, until “I Spy” starred a black actor in a leading part.
  • Interracial relationships did not appear until 1968 when “Star Trek” aired the first interracial kiss.
  • In 1971, “All in the Family” had the first disclaimer for mature audiences due to its content and language.
  • In the 1950-60s, gays were portrayed in films but again not favorably. It wasn’t until after the Stonewall Riots in 1970 where “The Boys in the Band” depicted gay people in a more honest light. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres announced on her sitcom, “Ellen,” that she was gay, making it the first prime time major TV sitcom with an openly gay lead character.

Did these shows “get it right?” Did they represent the people, cultural mores, times and issues accurately? You can be the judge. We each judge the shows we watch, and many of us have different criteria for what is right, good, funny, truthful, accurate, scary, etc. Media’s representation of society’s peoples is hard-pressed to “get it right” when it comes to portraying social groups, including most marginalized people (i.e., people with disabilities, races, genders, ethnic groups, LGBTQ, etc.). It is hard to get it right as we are not a monolith. So, even after research is done, movie producers, writers, directors, actors and actresses can still not quite get it right. When portraying a member of any of these groups, they often miss the mark by over-generalizing, simplifying, sugar-coating, missing the point or highlighting things that we wouldn’t highlight about ourselves. When weaving these characters into media, many factors play their own role in the plot – political climate, story line, social norms and monetary ratios, etc. Even with the best of intentions, movies and shows still miss the mark and offend.

Media has often portrayed these groups through stereotypical eyes, not capturing the depth and diversity within each group – even with the right due diligence in depicting these characters. So, how do they portray the breadth of us in ways that satisfy all of us with accurate representations – when each one of us is so uniquely different?

In 1990, on the series “Life Goes On,” Chris Burke, who has Down Syndrome, played the character Corky. He was the first person with Down Syndrome in a leading role. In 2018, Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky – both autistic actors – were featured in a full-length feature called “Keep the Change.”

Over the years many actors/actresses have portrayed people whom they are not – it is what actors do as their job. In “Rainman,” Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant. Did he get it right? Did he miss the mark? Did he act in ways that offended some and not others? The answer to these questions is yes and no. This has been happening for years – as long as TV and movies have existed. They portray gay people when they are straight, abused people when they have not been abused, killers when they are kind and gentle people.

Likewise, portrayals of people with disabilities have changed over the years, just like other aspects of our society. Historically, portrayals have often included characters who are one-dimensional, stereotypical and pity-provoking. Disability rights activists often use phrases like “inspirational-porn,” “super-crip,” or “cripping-up” to describe the attempts at representing them in media. Autism, like most disabilities, is challenging to portray. Over the years, representation has changed, but it may still be perceived as exaggerated, stereotyped or unrealistic (i.e., “Good Doctor,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Rainman,” etc.).

“Music,” a new movie about an autistic girl (not played by an autistic person) was recently released, sparking outrage among many people, especially within the autism community (Full disclosure – I have not seen the movie yet). The criticisms are that the character is one-dimensional, the girl is not played by an autistic person and there is the use of restraint to deal with aberrant behavior. No one movie or TV show can represent the breadth of those who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Autism is a spectrum, and a movie character will not be able to hold the diversity of the population; just like a gay character portrayal cannot tell the whole gay experience. Perhaps even if an autistic person played the role, there might still be controversy. Just like when Chris Burke played Corky, there were people who praised the show and others who disliked it because it wasn’t their experience with Down Syndrome.

We have a long way to go in our society regarding equality, acceptance and inclusion of neurodiverse, racial, ethnic, sexual topics and people. So why do we expect movies and TV shows to be different? Our movie and television history demonstrates that we’ve come a long way, change can happen and media does “tackle” issues of the times. Is change slow? Yes, it is. Do we have a long way to go? You bet, especially when it comes to portrayal of people with disabilities and their inclusion in movies as actors and actresses.

I like to approach watching movies about these issues with a wide-angle lens and limited expectations. I view them as being made to inform; enlighten; open the door to others asking questions; promote thinking, awareness, inclusion, acceptance; mirrors to see ourselves in characters – fictional or otherwise; increase understanding and empathy; or share a perspective or different point of view. I also think that the intentions of most directors, actors/actresses, screen writers, etc. are coming from the right place (even if flawed). They are trying to make movies that make a point, share a perspective, increase awareness, promote inclusion, comfort, knowledge, etc. Movies that highlight sensitive topics, controversial topics and marginalized groups are good for us whether we agree with the portrayal or not. If we are outraged and we begin talking and sharing our opinions, especially our first-person opinions, we broaden awareness and knowledge. So even if you strongly dislike a movie, something good may come from it. By my writing this blog and mentioning the movie “Music,” my guess is I have piqued your curiosity if you didn’t know about it. And maybe you might check it out on Google, read the reviews and learn about the controversy. What’s wrong with that? If you do explore it, wherever you land – liking or disliking it – I’m glad you took the time to think about it, asked yourself questions, felt emotions and hopefully will continue to think about how marginalized groups are portrayed in movies.

References


https://www.insider.com/kate-hudson-responds-to-sia-music-movie-casting-criticism-2021-2
https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/51253/1/autistic-person-responds-sia-film-music-maddie-ziegler-autism-speaks
https://www.teenvogue.com/story/trailer-for-sias-music-hurts-autistic-girls

 

About the Author

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.

 

To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.