Tag

pediatric neuropsychology

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.

Dealing with End of the School Year Uncertainty

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

The end of the school year can bring a lot of emotions, such as excitement for summer activities, sadness about closing relationships, and anxiety related to change. Often, children are experiencing these mixed emotions without truly understanding them. The end of this particular school year may bring some unique emotions, as it is the second consecutive ending that “looks different,” be it because students were remote for all or some of the year, class parties and field days are not happening, or children cannot give their teacher an end of the year hug. The loss of such traditions may cause kids to feel a lack of closure. Further, this transition is happening at a time when the world is starting to change again. While the loosening of restrictions and return to a semblance of “normal” may be positive for most, children may not know how to cope with all of this simultaneous change.

Here are some tips for things that adults can do to help children cope with what may be a difficult or uncertain end to the current school year:

  • Watch for signs that your child may be struggling with this transition. This may include new sleep difficulties, low frustration tolerance, heightened emotions, meltdowns, reduced appetite, loss of interest, etc.
  • Talk about their feelings related to the end of the year in an open and responsive manner, validating their emotions (e.g., “I can see why that would make you feel sad,” rather than accidentally dismissing them (e.g., “Don’t worry.”).
  • Help provide some closure with their teacher, such as writing a card or letter about what they enjoyed, learned, or overcame together this year.
  • Using artwork or journaling, help your child reflect on their development, accomplishments, and experiences this past year.
  • Create a plan for how they can stay in touch with friends over the summer and schedule some specific playdates or events to reduce worry about losing touch.
  • Maintain your basic schedule, such as morning and bedtime routines.
  • To reduce worry related to uncertainty, provide some age-appropriate opportunities to feel a sense of control, such as allowing your child to design a new daily schedule for “home days,” choose individual or family activities, etc.

The end of any school year provides a great opportunity to teach children about transition and change. We can teach them that it is okay to celebrate their accomplishment while also simultaneously feeling discomfort about what is to come and sadness about saying goodbye. Particularly during a year that has been marked by adversity, learning how to recognize, “sit with,” and manage these mixed emotions will help to build resiliency for the future.

 

About the Author

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.

 

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

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.

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 Kids Need to Outdoor Free Play

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

One of the best ways to make the most of your summer is to get outside and engage in lots of outdoor play. We live in a society where we tend to over-schedule ourselves and our children. Particularly during the school year, this makes it very difficult for children to get the amount of free play that they require. With this, I’m going to tell you five great reasons why you should throw away your schedule, put down the tablet, and get outside.

The first reason is probably the most obvious. Outdoor play provides great benefits to physical development. It improves motor coordination, strength, and balance, and it puts kids in an overall healthier position.

The next reason to play outside is that there are benefits for internal regulation. Not only does it make kids sleep better at night, but there is research to show that it aids attentional control and stress reduction. Being outdoors also provides kids with different sensory experiences – such as feeling the texture of sand and mud, or feeling the wind blow on your face – which will help to build children’s sensory tolerance.

The next reason to get outside is to improve cognitive development. Being outdoors provides a lot of opportunities to make observations, draw conclusions about things, see cause and effect, and be imaginative.

Next, playing outside aids emotional development. When we are over-scheduled, children do not have the opportunity to feel confident in their ability to step outside of their comfort zone or take risks. Experimenting and taking risks during outdoor play can help children understand that they have some control over what they can do within their environment, as well as begin to recognize boundaries.

Finally, the last reason to get outside is that it really bolsters social development. When there is no structure or there are no rules to follow, kids have to learn how to initiate their interactions, engage in conversation with each other, communicate, problem solve, and find ways to along, even when others have different ideas.

With all of the above benefits, outdoor free play is one of the best things you can give to your child. So as the weather is getting nicer and summer is fast approaching, if you are looking for something to do, sometimes it is best to just put down your schedule, get outside, and get dirty.

 

About the Author

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.

 

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

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.

Neuropsychological Evaluation Results: What, When and How to Share with Children and Teens

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

During intake and feedback meetings with families, I find the same question comes up often from parents: what do I tell my child about all of this? NESCA’s Dr. Erin Gibbons gracefully tackled how to prepare your child for their neuropsychological evaluation. After an evaluation is done, you as a parent now have more than 20 pages of historical information, test descriptions, tables, summaries, and recommendations. How do you translate that information into something a child or teen will actually understand? It does not need to be a secret code or a hidden message. Feedback about a child’s strengths and weakness can be an incredibly powerful intervention.

Let’s take a page from Carol Dweck’s work and use a growth mindset to frame the experience. A growth mindset tells us that skills can be learned and neural connections can be strengthened. I advise parents to tell children and teens that testing is a chance for a “healthy check-up” for our brain and our learning, just the same way that the pediatrician performs a yearly healthy check-up for our bodies. The same way that a doctor pays attention to how all of our systems grow and interact with each other, a neuropsychologist can see how a child or teen is growing and how parts of the brain can talk to each other. I shape the dialogue right away that this kind of evaluation can tell us how strong some of the parts of our learning are, like a super strong muscle that has been exercised and practiced with gusto. The evaluation can also tell us what muscles or parts of our learning are a little weaker and need some more “exercise.” Pulling in a growth mindset, we can set the frame that any weakness can be made stronger if we have the right types of exercise, the right amount of practice, the right coaches, and a willingness to work hard. Most children and teens are pretty savvy and can often predict what their weak muscles are (e.g., “math is so hard!”; “I can’t spell!”; or “I can’t pay attention in school and I’m always in trouble for getting out of my seat!”).

Now, back to those 20-plus pages of dense text. It’s rarely helpful for a child or teen to read each page. There are parts of the normal curve, standard scores, confidence intervals, on and on that children and teens have not even learned yet! Those scores are an incredibly important source of information for schools, pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists, and other neuropsychologists. They are not nearly as helpful when sharing information with children and teens, so do not stress about trying to translate it for kids. It is also not as helpful to have this conversation with your children when you are late for a meeting or they cannot find a soccer cleat on the way to practice. Plan your conversation for a time when your stress level is low as a parent and your child or teen is also more relaxed.

Your neuropsychologist can help you in your personal feedback meeting to identify a few important strengths to share with your child or teen – from your child’s positive attitude, to their strong decoding of new words, to their memory for things they see, to their ability to make and keep friends. With a sense of confidence about their strengths, I share what the “weaker muscle” is using language like, “I can see that word problems can be harder for you,” or “Keeping your anxious thoughts quiet when you are at school so you can concentrate on schoolwork is really hard.” Most of the time, children and teens find this validating rather than shaming – finally someone sees that their struggle is not their fault, not because their brain is wrong or bad, not because they are not trying hard enough. They just need more of the right kind of practice.

Knowing their strengths and their weaknesses, it is much easier to shape the game plan for the future. I tell children and teens that the good news is that we know what strategies can help make that weaker area even stronger. So choose your metaphor: coaches have different plays or practices, music teachers have different pieces for someone to play, artists can try out a new medium or set of supplies, or gamers practice different strategies and read tips and tricks from other gamers. By choosing a relatable experience for your child or teen in that moment, we can make the information both relevant and accessible. Your neuropsychologist can speak with you about how you as a parent can share this information with your child, or they can arrange a time to share the information directly from neuropsychologist to client. It is helpful for you to listen, too, so you can hear the language used by the neuropsychologist. Be prepared that these meetings are not very long to suit a child or teen’s attention span. Children and teens need time to process the information the same way adults do. You might expect a child to return to you a few days later with questions, or for the topic to more organically arise when your teen faces a challenge. Feedback is a unique chance for your child to feel validated, encouraged, and empowered!

 

About the Author

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and 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.

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.

Looking for Answers? Ask the Right Questions.

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Ann Helmus, Ph.D.
NESCA Founder/Director; Clinical Neuropsychologist

Many parents have met with me concerned that, “We had a full evaluation and got a lot of scores and a diagnosis but we still don’t understand why our child has this problem and what we can do about it.” This outcome can be avoided if parents and the evaluator are both clear on why the child is being evaluated, have laid out specific questions to be answered and what kinds of recommendations are being sought. Determining the referral question(s) should be a key goal of the intake session.

During the intake meeting, the evaluator can help the parent to shape their concerns into a specific referral question that can be addressed effectively through the process of neuropsychological evaluation. The evaluator can manage parental expectations in this process so there is not disappointment with evaluation results that don’t answer the parents’ questions. For example, I’ve had parents request an evaluation because they want to know if their fifth grader will get into Harvard or their child with high-functioning ASD (autism spectrum disorder) will get married. These questions can’t be addressed through a neuropsychological evaluation, but they can be re-worked into answerable questions. A neuropsychological evaluation can tell us if a child’s cognitive and academic skills are in the range of students who attend the most competitive colleges. However, there are many other factors that influence the college acceptance process. In this case, the referral question might be revised into “assess the child’s potential for academic success in a rigorous academic setting.” Similarly, it is beyond the scope of a neuropsychologist to determine if anyone will get married, but through the evaluation process we can assess the child’s current social and emotional functioning and offer some predictions about their likely developmental trajectory in the social domain.

While the previous examples of referral questions are too broad or abstract, I am also often confronted with referral questions that are too narrow, such as, “Does this child have ADHD?”.  In this case, I would work with the parents to reframe the referral question to, “Why does this child appear to have difficulty paying attention in school?” This referral question recognizes the fact that there are many reasons that a child may have difficulty concentrating or appear distractible – ADHD being only one of the possibilities.

When I train neuropsychologists, I emphasize the importance of understanding “Why now?”. What is it that motivated the parent or school team to seek evaluation at this point in time as they work to frame the referral question with parents? Common reasons include: concern about how the child will manage an upcoming transition (e.g., to middle school), sudden appearance of a problem, obvious widening of the gap between a child and peers, inability to meet increased developmental demands, lack of response to interventions, change in emotional status, or deterioration in academic performance.

It is extremely helpful when parents and/or school teams prepare for the intake meeting by brainstorming what they are seeking from the evaluation, questions they hope will be answered, issues to be assessed, and specific guidance that is being requested. The evaluator can then work with the parents or school team to fashion these into a referral question that is specific and relevant to the child so that all parties are “on the same page” as they undertake the evaluation process.

 

About the Author
NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

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

The Uncertainty, Stress and Anxiety About What School Will Look Like

By | NESCA Notes 2020

*This blog post was originally published prior to the start of in-person school last fall for some. While many students have returned to their school buildings, many others are just now returning or will be in the coming weeks. 

By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist Fellow and Therapist

Much of adjusting to the world in the midst of a global pandemic has been learning to live with nearly constant uncertainty. Undoubtedly, this pandemic and ensuing uncertainty has caused significant stress for youth and their families. The experience of persistent stress can result in increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression. Symptoms may become magnified in those who already faced mental health challenges. There is little doubt that there will be increases in mental and behavior health problems for children and families both in anticipating the re-opening of schools, and when schools reopen their physical buildings.

We all wonder what school will look like in the fall. The anticipation of returning to school can be especially stressful, and will likely be so for most youth. Given that students will not have been in schools with their peers for several months, it can be anticipated that they might feel a heighted sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Even in “normal times,” returning to the complex social and educational environment of school can be worrisome for many children and adolescents.

Each individual child will have had their own experiences while schools were closed. Some children and/or staff members may have been impacted by COVID-19 and some families and/or staff may be experiencing financial hardship due to parental unemployment or loss of household income. It is important to realize that regardless of their experience, each individual will have a unique response. It is helpful to recognize the signs of stress and help children learn positive ways of coping with it.

Signs of stress in preschool children include, but are not limited to, anger, nervousness, eating and sleeping problems (including nightmares), fear of being alone, irritability and uncontrollable crying.

In elementary age children, stress may manifest as increased complaining of headaches and stomachaches, feeling insecure, reduced appetite and difficulty sleeping, withdrawal and worrying about the future.

Signs of stress in pre-teens and teens may include anger, disillusionment, distrust of the world, low self-esteem, stomachaches and headaches, panic attacks and rebellious behavior.

As each person works through this very challenging situation, it is more important than ever to adopt a position of acceptance, as we never truly know what another person is experiencing or has experienced. The following are offered as suggestions on how to help children and teens cope with stress.

  • Help them identify how they are feeling and acknowledge and validate those feelings.
  • Encourage them to talk about what is bothering them.
  • Share strategies you use to cope with stress.
  • Talk openly and, as appropriate, share stories about stress in your day.
  • Find a physical activity and/or hobby that they enjoy and encourage them to participate.
  • Encourage them to eat healthy foods and emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle, especially as it relates to stress.
  • Make sure they get plenty of sleep.
  • Set clear expectations, without being overly rigid, and allow for “down” time.
  • Spend time outdoors, encourage them to do something they love – read a book, ride their bike, bake, etc.
  • Learn and teach your children relaxation skills, such as breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, meditating, yoga, drawing or writing.

Our world will have changed by the time children re-enter their classrooms. No matter what happens in the fall, when it is time for school to start, it will inevitably be stressful. Learning to cope with and manage stress is important for physical and emotional health. However, if you are concerned about your child or are struggling yourself, seek help and support for yourself, your child or anyone in your family who is struggling.

Below are some helpful resources:

https://www.apa.org/topics/children-teens-stress

https://nesca-newton.com/helping-your-anxious-child-through-covid-19/

https://childmind.org/article/how-to-ask-what-kids-are-feeling-during-stressful-times/

https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/health-encyclopedia/he.stress-in-children-and-teens.ug1832

 

About the Author

Dr. Cynthia Hess recently graduated from Rivier University with a PsyD in Counseling and School Psychology. Previously, she earned an M.A. from Antioch New England in Applied Psychology. She also worked as an elementary school counselor and school psychologist for 15 years before embarking on her doctorate. During her doctorate, she did her pre-doctoral internship with RIT in Rochester, N.Y. where she worked with youth ages 5-17 who had experienced complex developmental trauma. Dr. Hess’s first post-doctoral fellowship was with The Counseling Center of New England where she provided psychotherapy and family therapy to children ages 5-18, their families and young adults. She also trained part-time with a pediatric neuropsychologist conducting neuropsychological evaluations. Currently, Dr. Hess is a second-year post-doctoral fellow in pediatric neuropsychological assessment, working with NESCA Londonderry’s Dr. Angela Currie.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and 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.