Tag

Special Needs

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.

Resilience, Covid and College Admissions

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC
NESCA Transition Specialist/Counselor

It’s been a year since schools across the nation closed their doors and moved education to the world wide web. Teachers, many of whom have never received training to teach in a virtual format, were now providing lessons remotely. The challenges of teaching remotely highlighted many of the disparities that affect our students. Students did not always have the technology or literal bandwidth to learn from home. Students with learning differences and disabilities faced even more challenges in receiving their support in a format not conducive to their needs. However, there were some silver linings. Students had more opportunities to practice executive function skills and become more familiar with software programs outside of video games, social media and YouTube videos.

As students – and, well, all of us – adjusted to the pandemic and what that meant for our daily lives, mental health concerns increased. Faced with uncertainty, constant changes and fear, anxiety, stress and depression increased among students. In response, they built coping skills.  Not all coping mechanisms are positive, but our kids survived this past year. As we work our way back to some semblance of normalcy, what does that mean for our students who were planning to move on to postsecondary education? Extracurricular activities are considered a relatively important part of the admissions process, but those weren’t available last spring and are barely available now. What should colleges use instead to find students that would be a good fit?

Resilience.

Resilience, the ability to adjust and adapt to changes and adversity, is an important factor necessary to reach goals, especially once a person faces a challenge. We encourage students to build resilience by setting high expectations of them and assisting them in creating challenging goals. We help students process what to do when they reach a roadblock. As students build coping skills and learning strategies, they are building resilience. How does resilience help in college? College is a different environment than high school. Many students experience challenges as they adjust to their newfound freedom and responsibilities. Students now find themselves responsible for scheduling their classes, getting to those classes and figuring out how to manage their schedules.

As colleges receive applications in a year unlike any in recent history, students may want to consider how they can show the colleges how they persevered. Matthew Pietrafetta of Academic Approach suggests students use the college admission essay as an opportunity to present the college with their stories that demonstrate how they became more resilient. Recommendations may also provide another factor for colleges to consider. Teachers and counselors understand the challenges that the student experienced and can share how they overcame adversity. Our students have already overcome additional challenges than many of their general education peers have not. Their past successes are the reason colleges should consider their admission. Test scores and grades are only one part of the picture. The next generation of college students has already built the resilience that will help them succeed. The past year has only exemplified this point further. Our students have proven that they can adapt and meet whatever challenges come their way. What a better way to prove to the colleges that they have what it takes?

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7473764/

https://admissions.usf.edu/blog/do-extracurriculars-matter-in-the-college-admissions-process

https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/views/2021/02/16/covid-19-era-college-admissions-officers-should-pay-attention-resilience?fbclid=IwAR3MNIb9ABfUJgVMZnyuJqKoF0HhBsOmYTB_ms4JZUbExvG9G_BbDUOn-gw

 

About the Author

Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, is an experienced transition evaluator and vocational counselor. While she is well-versed in supporting a wide range of transition-aged youth, she is especially passionate and knowledgeable in helping clients and their families navigate the complex systems of adult services and benefits as well as medical and mental health systems. She is further adept in working individually with students of all abilities to empower self-advocacy and goal achievement.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert transition specialists or 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.

 

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.

Celebrate the Small Wins

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC
NESCA Transition Specialist/Counselor

In the moment, it can be hard to see the change. It can be hard to find the successes. This is true for any improvement we try to do, whether it is trying to have a healthier lifestyle or build the skills needed for postsecondary life. When looking at a student’s vision, it can feel like getting there is an impossible task. Maybe the student is the only one who believes they can get there. Perhaps they don’t understand all the pieces that need to be put in place. When the rest of the IEP team has doubts, those doubts will likely spread to the student. Objectives about SMART Goals might be added to help the student learn how to set realistic goals and build an understanding of setting small goals and determining specific objectives. However, when we look back to where the student was their freshman year or in elementary school, the progress they made may seem massive. Many small wins over time turn into big wins.

What are the small wins? It might be getting a better grade on a test in math. It might be fastening the buttons on a shirt without help. It could be understanding another’s point of view one time.  Maybe it was trying a bite of one new food. Maybe they were able to identify a coping skill that would have helped after having a rough day. By themselves, none of these seems like they will help a person reach success once they leave special education. But small wins build confidence. They build pride. If we celebrate the small wins, not only do we get reminded that progress is possible, but the student knows they accomplished something. An IEP is filled with areas where the student needs help and even at a young age – when the student is getting more help than their peers – they know it. They should know where they are succeeding, too.

So how can we help our student celebrate the small wins?

  • A high five and a “way to go”
  • Help your child create a list of successes and have them add each win to the list
  • Remind them of where they were at the beginning of the year
  • Pick a fun activity as a “reward”
  • Have your child add to one of their favorite hobbies (e.g., a small LEGO set, a new book, trading cards, collectibles, action figures)
  • Frame it! (If it’s not paper, make part of the celebration part art project)

What do you do to celebrate the small wins?

 

About the Author

Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, is an experienced transition evaluator and vocational counselor. While she is well-versed in supporting a wide range of transition-aged youth, she is especially passionate and knowledgeable in helping clients and their families navigate the complex systems of adult services and benefits as well as medical and mental health systems. She is further adept in working individually with students of all abilities to empower self-advocacy and goal achievement.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert transition specialists or 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.

 

Changes in Transitioning from School-based Services to DDS Adult Services during COVID-19

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

Transitioning from public education to adult human service supports is a complicated process that we have covered in several blogs over the years here at NESCA, including the two recent resources linked below:

As with many aspects of life, the existence of a global pandemic has complicated the transition process even more. In Massachusetts, Chapter 688 referrals (the referrals that help adult agencies to request the appropriate amount of funding from the state for supporting students with disabilities after they turn 22) were down by as much as 75% in September 2020. Additionally, referral processes that often were carried out in 2-4 months are taking much longer. In fact, at a team meeting I attended last week, a special education administrator shared that it had taken approximately 9 months to complete a recent referral to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) for a student seeking adult autism services.

[For those unfamiliar with DDS, this is the agency that offers services and supports for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).]

To better support transitioning families, DDS recently developed an information sheet that highlights some of the potential changes and challenges families may experience when preparing for their transition to DDS adult service supports during COVID-19. In addition to modified referral timelines, the information sheet touches on changes in how families learn about day and residential programs (e.g., virtual tours) and the ways in which programs may have changed their approaches to service delivery as a result of COVID-19 (e.g., changes to community employment, remote and in-person offerings, visitor policies, etc.).

This DDS information sheet is helpful for professionals and families and is available in several languages on the state’s web site: https://www.mass.gov/lists/transition-considerations-during-covid-19.

 

For families who are struggling to navigate the transition from high school to adult service support, to understand available resources and benefits during or after public education, to create an effective plan for their child during a lapse in service delivery, or with any other transition planning issues, NESCA transition consultation and planning services are here to support you. Visit our transition services page and our transition FAQs or fill out an Intake Form to schedule an appointment with one of our expert transition specialists today.

 

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.

Developing S-M-A-R-T Goals in 2021

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC
NESCA Transition Specialist/Counselor

Happy New Year! Now two weeks into 2021, maybe it’s time to revisit those New Year Resolutions.  French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” This is true for resolutions, just as it is for any goal. How can we help our young people change their wishes, visions and dreams into goals? We teach them (and maybe ourselves while we’re at it) how to plan. One of my favorite strategies for both teaching and reaching goals is by creating SMART Goals. What is a Smart Goal?

Specific – The goal should be specific. I’ll increase the distance I run is vague. Will you increase the distance by 20 feet, 2 miles? Are you planning for a marathon? Instead, let’s take a look at step 2, making it measurable.

Measurable – There’s a good chance that if your goal is not specific enough, it will be hard to measure if you have succeeded in that goal. So, let’s make our exercise goal both specific and measurable. I’ll increase the distance I run from 1 mile to 3.2 miles (5k).

Attainable – Attainable is the hard one for many students who are still building awareness of their strengths and challenges. Let’s say a person who has never run wants to run in the Boston Marathon. This is likely not an attainable goal, even if it is specific and measurable. Couch to 5k training exists; I have not seen the couch to marathon training program. Having measurable steps also helps break down the goal into smaller pieces, which will be further discussed later.

Relevant – If I am trying to increase my social circle and group leisure skills, running is unlikely to get me there. However, if, like many people, we’re trying to improve our health in 2021 (or take off some of those quarantine pounds), increasing the distance we run certainly will get us there. Many young adults may need to bounce ideas off someone to ensure the goal is relevant to the area at hand.

Time-bound – Attainable and time-based work tightly together. If you do not give yourself a deadline, the goal may still be there come December 2021. Humans work best with deadlines. We need the motivation to complete a plan, and often motivation needs a sense of urgency.

Okay, so what does our SMART goal look like for increased health and wellness? I will increase the distance I run from 1 mile to 3.2 miles (5k) in ¼ mile increments by June 30, 2021.

We have all the pieces. It is specific, and we know precisely what the end goal will be and how we will get there. It’s measurable; there is something we can check off as complete, like a to-do list. It’s attainable and seems realistic. We are not trying to run the Boston Marathon course after only running a mile. We will start as a beginner runner and work towards a 5k, and we are not trying to do it tomorrow with no steps in between. It’s relevant; we are working on bettering our health in 2021. And it is time-based. We want to meet our goal by the end of June.

Now that we’ve refreshed our minds on SMART goals, how do we build these skills in transition-aged youth? Ask them. Ask your child, your students, your clients what they want for themselves in education, employment and independent living. We already have the starting points. We have their vision. We have the IEP TEAM’s goals and objectives.

The youth may have a far-reaching (and maybe seemingly unattainable) goal. Help them break that big goal down into smaller parts and work backward. Do they want to be an engineer? Engineers need a college degree. What does the student need to do to graduate college? They need to get into college. How do they get into college? They need to apply and graduate from high school. What do they need to do to graduate high school? They need to pass their science class. That seems like a reasonable starting place, and it is still related to the vision. What might a SMART goal look like for that student? I will receive a passing grade on my final exam by answering the end of chapter questions each week and asking for clarification from my teacher for any questions I got wrong by the end of the spring semester.

But how do we support them when they aren’t making progress? Many people have a hard time adjusting once they have made a plan. Whenever we set a goal, we need to look at our progress periodically. We need to check that the goal is still attainable by the deadline we gave ourselves. Are we making progress? If we are still running only a mile and it’s March, what adjustments do we need to make? Suppose a student is not finding answering the end of chapter questions helpful in confirming their knowledge of the material. What changes can they make to increase their understanding of the material? Maybe the student asks the teacher if they can work one-on-one twice a week to increase understanding? Frustration, when the plan doesn’t work, makes many give up on the goal. Learning how to adapt is just as essential as learning how to make a goal.

A person who has practiced SMART goals is a person who will have an increased understanding of the objectives and smaller steps they need to reach their vision. They will have more confidence in their abilities and more awareness of their challenges. A person who has goal-setting skills is a person who has control of their own life. What are your SMART goals for 2021?

 

About the Author

Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, is an experienced transition evaluator and vocational counselor. While she is well-versed in supporting a wide range of transition-aged youth, she is especially passionate and knowledgeable in helping clients and their families navigate the complex systems of adult services and benefits as well as medical and mental health systems. She is further adept in working individually with students of all abilities to empower self-advocacy and goal achievement.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert transition specialists or 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.

 

The Intention to Thrive

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

As I reflect on the year that we have all come through, my overwhelming emotion (aside from exhaustion) is pride in the NESCA team for working together in an extraordinary manner under incredibly challenging circumstances. Just before closing the doors at NESCA in mid-March, I wrote to all staff:

NESCA is going to not only survive through this pandemic but we are going to thrive as an organization and show leadership in the special education community. The needs of our clients have not gone away; in fact, they are likely increasing.  School systems are scrambling to meet their obligations for students with special needs. We will continue to do the work we have always done, albeit in a somewhat modified fashion. 

Each of the NESCA staff—clinical and administrative—immediately rose to the occasion to help me realize this vision for navigating the pandemic. We increased the frequency our blog posts and introduced regular webinars, gearing them towards the needs of parents facing the challenges of the pandemic and increased our social media following from 4,000 to more than 40,000 by offering supportive and helpful content. NESCA clinicians offered multiple, free online support groups for parents and professionals related to topics they were now experiencing due to COVID-19. We acknowledged and addressed the unprecedented COVID-19-related concerns and challenges professionals and educators who support those with autism were experiencing through our free Autism Educator Hangouts.

After a great deal of research and discussion about how to conduct evaluations in a manner that ensured the safety of staff and clients while producing valid results, we settled on our “two office model,” renovating our space with plexiglass panes so that clients and clinicians would be able to work together in separate but adjoining offices. We collaborated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), The Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN) and the Massachusetts Urban Project, Inc., providing information about assessments and other services during the pandemic.

NESCA grew by adding new staff and service offerings this past year. We welcomed Dr. Moira Creedon to our pediatric neuropsychology staff. Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, and Becki Lauzon, M.A., CRC, both joined NESCA’s Transition Services team. Julie Robinson, OT, joined NESCA in September with three occupational therapists to offer insurance-based, sensory-motor therapy. Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP, also joined at that time to offer insurance-based speech/language and feeding therapy at NESCA. These staff have been incredibly innovative in their use of teletherapy to continue providing services to clients remotely.  And, they and their clients have experienced some surprising benefits stemming from the delivery of services via telehealth. 2020 also saw the introduction of NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic, helping families to diagnose children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as early as possible so they may gain access to critically important interventions.

Over the last decade, NESCA has had a strong commitment to international work, seeing clients for evaluation and consultation in the NESCA offices as well as abroad. With travel severely limited by the pandemic, we have instituted teletherapy for international work and are pleased to continue to assist  families abroad. NESCA was honored to be a Gold Sponsor for the annual SENIA conference (Special Education Network & Inclusion Association) that was held virtually. I was pleased to present about the differences between testing and assessment with professionals from schools all over Asia.

In the midst of the global pandemic, we continued to do the work that we have always done. We continued to support each other and became even more closely bonded as a team. We contributed to the community. No matter how challenging it has been, we are motivated by the knowledge that children with special needs and their parents need our support now more than ever.

 

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.

Transition Assessment: What is it anyway? How is it different from neuropsychological evaluation?

By | NESCA Notes 2020

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

If you have a child who receives special education services or work in education, you are likely familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004). This is the law that guarantees students with disabilities the right to free appropriate public education (FAPE) and that dictates that the purpose of special education and related services is to prepare students with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living.

IDEA 2004 mandates that students have measurable postsecondary goals written in their individualized educational programs (IEPs), that describe the outcomes that a team expects for the student to achieve after exiting public education and that these goals must be “based upon age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and where appropriate, independent living skills.”[1] But, IDEA 2004 does not specifically define transition assessment.

Instead, the best and most commonly accepted definition for transition assessment comes from the Division on Career Development and Transition (DCDT). DCDT defines transition assessment as an “…ongoing process of collecting data on the individual’s needs, preferences, and interests as they relate to the demands of current and future working, educational, living, and personal and social environments.”[2]

Transition assessment can include formal testing, such as a standardized, published tests that compare students to others by age or grade or informal activities, such as interviewing or observing a student. Most students who are transition-aged (i.e., 14 or older in Massachusetts; 16 by federal law) have already had some assessments that will inform their transition planning, such as school evaluations, private evaluations, standardized academic testing, report cards, or even activities that happen within their guidance curriculum (e.g., assessment of strengths, learning style, personality type, career interests). But often, there will still be some testing needed to help better determine a student’s strengths and aptitudes, their preferences and interests for postsecondary adult life, and the gaps between their current knowledge and abilities and the requirements of the living, learning, and working environments in which they plan to function when they exit high school.

At NESCA, transition assessment is a highly individualized process that is designed to get a better sense of a student’s postsecondary living, learning, social, and vocational goals, to determine the strengths the student has that will help them reach those goals as well as the skills a student needs to develop to get there. While it is rare for two students to have the same assessment battery, transition assessment at NESCA often evaluates abilities, such as self-care, self-direction, self-advocacy, career interests, career aptitudes, communication, community use, functional academics, health and safety, domestic skills, leisure, readiness for college or other forms of postsecondary learning and training, transferrable work skills and readiness for employment. Once the student’s profile is understood, specific recommendations, aimed at readying that student for transition from high school to the next phase of life, are provided.

Often parents of transition-aged students are familiar with the term “neuropsychological evaluation“ and a student may have even had this type of private evaluation. But there can be some confusion regarding the difference between these two types of comprehensive testing. Neuropsychological evaluation focuses primarily on a student’s learning profile and the fit of that learner within their current academic setting. A good neuropsychological evaluation is a comprehensive assessment of a child’s functioning in many domains, including communication, visual-spatial ability, problem solving, memory, attention, social skills, and emotional status. The assessment of these functions is based upon information obtained from the child’s history, clinical observations, and testing results. Moreover, one of the most important aspects of a neuropsychological evaluation is the integration of all the information about a child into a meaningful profile of functioning that describes “The Whole Child.”

In contrast, a transition assessment evaluates the fit between a student and their future preferred learning, living, and employment activities and environments. While information from a neuropsychological evaluation about a student’s learning profile is greatly informative, a transition assessment gives equal weight to a student’s daily living skills, social skills, coping skills, pre-vocational skills, career interests and preferences, and self-advocacy skills. While transition assessments provide detailed recommendations related to current educational programming and transition services, a strong focus of transition assessment is an emphasis on what will be needed now, and in the near future, to assist a student in functioning, and, actually being successful and satisfied, in their postsecondary adult life.

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

[1] 34 CFR § 300.320(b)

[2] Division on Career Development and Transition (DCDT) of the Council for Exceptional Children, 1997, p. 70-71

 

 

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.

Building Gratitude in our Kids

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC
NESCA Transition Specialist/Counselor

Would it be November without a blog post about gratitude? Gratitude feels both more important and harder to come by this year with the slew of events bombarding people’s personal lives and something different appearing what feels like every news cycle. But there must be something to all this gratitude if everyone from Forbes Magazine to Psychology Today is writing about it?

So what does the science say?

Basically, gratitude makes us happier and healthier. Being grateful and expressing gratitude can increase our social circle and have others be more willing to seek you out. Gratitude also seems to improve not only mental health but physical health as well. Studies show that grateful people take care of themselves better. They are more likely to exercise and more likely to follow up with medical personal. Studies show that writing in a gratitude journal before bed can even help you sleep better! (Morin, n.d.)

How can I help my child build gratitude?

Young people with disabilities, especially speech and language challenges, may have a hard time sharing their experiences at the end of the school day. Before my students left for the day, I would always ask them to go around the room and share one thing they enjoyed during their day. This way, no matter how challenging the day was, they ended it on a good note. Over time, the students began to look forward to sharing a positive experience from their day. Whether it was getting a compliment at their worksite or overcoming a challenge, they began to go looking for the positives.

Another wonderful way to build gratitude is to turn it into a scavenger hunt. Give each day a topic and share your gratitude topic at dinner. 

While we often think of a gratitude journal as something written, it doesn’t have to be. Have fun with it! Instead of writing down what you are thankful for today, take a picture with your phone or have your child make a drawing relating to the topic. Pinterest is full of great ideas, like the image below. Doing this for a month may turn you and your child a little more gleeful and find a brighter outlook on tomorrow.

Image Credit: Woman of Purpose (thepurposedwomanmag.com)

What are you grateful for today?

 

About the Author

Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, is an experienced transition evaluator and vocational counselor. While she is well-versed in supporting a wide range of transition-aged youth, she is especially passionate and knowledgeable in helping clients and their families navigate the complex systems of adult services and benefits as well as medical and mental health systems. She is further adept in working individually with students of all abilities to empower self-advocacy and goal achievement.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert transition specialists or 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.