Thursday, December 4, 2008

10 easy steps to teaching new skills

It is unfortunately very easy for families to become caught up in the management of the care of a child with special needs and loose sight of the long-term. Now, no one has a crystal ball but the ultimate goal for all adults is that they acquire the skills they need to live as independent and satisfying life as they are able. Parents MUST keep this in mind when teaching their children the skills for independence. We all know it is generally easier to wash, dress and even feed a young child with special needs- BUT this not only removes the multitude of opportunities for learning new skills it also diminishes opportunities for the child to develop a sense of mastery/pride/competence! Children with special needs will require activities broken down for them in order for them to learn BUT that does not mean they can't learn. When in doubt, parents should seek out professionals who know their child and rely on their expertise in behavior modification techniques to teach basic skills that will slowly build towards real independence.

Ten steps for teaching skills to children/teens with special needs.

1. It is important to set a positive, supportive, success oriented tone.
2. Get the buy in - the child has to want to learn this Or at least want the reward.
3. The task to be learned must be clearly defined.
4. The task must be broken down into "bite-sized" pieces.
5. The child's learning style (auditory,visual,modeling?) must be used.
6. Progress must be written down (charted?).
7. The reward/s must be clear and initially immediate.
8. The reward MUST be given if the task is completed EVEN if the child had a poor attitude - next time include a positive attitude in the description - (see step 3).
9. Even VERY young children need to learn to do things for himself - in fact,
the younger you start this the easier, more natural it's going to become.
10. Get HELP! Use the people who work closely with your child, special ed teacher,
OT?, Psychologist - all will have special training in this process.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

High School Graduation - then what?

"The availability of programs after high school was like going from a cruise ship to a dinghy" - Steve Riggio, parent and CEO of Barns & Noble.

No one knows better than the parent of a student in special education the inadequacies of the educational system. Parents often find the need to advocate for their child's support services, speech, OT, etc. - help to educate their child's teacher - and seek out social opportunities that provide enough support and opportunity for their child. Sometimes parents feel the school system is too unresponsive and they seek to have their child "graduate" so they can access adult programming. Unfortunately this is MOST OFTEN a mistake.

As resistant and/or unresponsive the educational system can be the fact of the matter is they are mandated by law to provide a "free and appropriate" education - key word there appropriate NOT optimal, hence the battles. BUT - there are no mandated services for adult life. Once a student graduates from high school either by completing the academic requirements for graduation or by aging out at 21 - the adult with special needs must meet eligibility requirements in order to receive a service. Parents may be thinking well my child has been excluded from many opportunities during his/her years in school - and while that may be true -
schools are mandated to design programming that educates the child in the least restrictive environment. Adult programs are designed to provide a particular service for the people who fall within their guidelines.

Parents may be told that once the teen graduates Voc. Rehab. (VESID) will take over. NOT TRUE! An adult must meet the eligibility criteria for Voc services and only the Voc. Rehab. counselor can make that determination. Just like meeting the requirements for social security or college admission ALL adult services have eligibility requirements that must be met. Each agency/service determines whether or not the adult meets their requirements and can receive services from them.

I often meet with parents who say that their teen would like to enter a particular profession, attend a particular college, do a particular job. NONE of those things are within the parents control! The young adult can access these things ONLY if they meet the requirements for admission.

Let's bust a few myths...

1. There are no set aside jobs for people with special needs - ALL job applicants MUST be able to perform the essential functions of the job
as defined by the employer.
(The ADA mandates this change - more on that in a future blog.)

2. You can not attend college with an IEP diploma. Although there are special/support services available at all colleges these services are for students who met the admissions requirements. (YES, there are college-type programs sometimes on college campuses that accept students with IEP's but these students do NOT traditionally attend regular classes and are not working towards a degree.)

3. Being a special education student in high school does NOT qualify for ANY additional help once you leave high school. You must prove/document your disability in order to obtain any legally required supports.

So what can a parent do...
1. Encourage your child to stay in the school system as long as possible. Even if delaying that final test is necessary so the student
can continue to receive other training/supports.

2. Teach your teen about their special needs so they can explain them to others. Adults must advocate for themselves to receive special supports.

3. Do your homework...learn about all possible options within your school system. I am often amazed at the array of services SOME students receive. HOW? Network, talk with other parents - participate in your PTSA and seek out the professionals who work with your child.

4. AND, educate yourself as to what is available for your child once they leave the school setting. What will your child qualify for based on his documented disability not on what you may believe he/she can do.

I'd love to hear your experiences with transition and what you have found worked so I can share it with others.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Person Centered Parenting

Person Centered is a term that is used a lot in adult services.
Basically all it means is that the person is a part of decisions that affect his/her life.

"Nothing about me without me" - is the mantra of this philosophy.

It makes a lot of sense. As adults we need to know how to choose what is right for us in many different situations. We need to make informed choices to keep ourselves safe as well as to be productive members of society.

People with special needs also must participate in the decisions that affect their lives. While it may be easier for parents to make decisions for their child in the short run, in the long run they may be short changing the child from learning essential adult life skills. Taking the time to allow the older child/teen to choose between a menu of acceptable options reinforces his sense of himself and empowers him to stand up for what he wants/needs.

Even young children can be offered the opportunity to choose between a couple of different sets of clothing to wear or what to eat for breakfast from two or three different cereals. Making these small choices reinforces the child's developing self esteem.

While choosing routine items is a good start it is important that the parent include the older child/teen in the larger decisions that affect his life - whether or not to go on to college if that is a realistic option, what courses to take in high school, or even as simple as when to call a friend on the phone. This is not to say the child gets to choose to stay home from school for example or watch TV all night - but rather the child is offered choices that are reasonable and within his level of understanding. Does he want to finish his homework before he goes out to play - or play for an hour before starting his homework. If he chooses the later he MUST be able to re-focus on home work. If the parent knows the child is not ready for this decision then don't offer it as an option.

Ultimately we want our children to become adults who understand themselves and feel empowered to make decisions that are in their best interest. Beginning this process in childhood is essential particularly for the child with special needs.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tools for Parents

Parents of teens with special needs face a unique conundrum...

How do I encourage independence and keep my child safe?

There are a number of skills your teen must know in order to safely use the community.

1. Management of personal behavior - your teen MUST be able to control themselves and handle life's little frustrations in a socially acceptable way. Yes, I understand that your teen has special needs - but guess what? - the world doesn't care...If he doesn't know how to speak, maintain personal space, and even look at others in ways that are typical then he/she will easily
be targeted by strangers.

2. Speaking of strangers - your child MUST know who to trust - essentially NO ONE who you do not know. My rule of thumb for my students is - do NOT get into a car or go anywhere with anyone who doesn't know your parents. Do NOT believe anyone who tells you they know your parents if you do not recognize them. This brings us to # 3 - when in doubt call!

3. Carry and use a cell phone - Your child MUST have a cell phone that works were he will be (in the mall/at a park/sporting event). He/she must know how to use the phone and you or whomever you have designated must be around to receive that call. Bottom line you want your teen to reach for the phone and call you whenever they are faced with the unknown - when they are unsure of what to do next.

4. It is essential that your teen spends time at a variety of community businesses with you in order for you to teach him/her what will be expected. I urge you to set up practice trips in which the goal is to learn community behavior NOT to accomplish a chore or make a purchase. When your child (I've switched to child as this is optimally occuring at 6-8-10 years of age - but it is NEVER too late) is comfortable walking around a business without touching, running, knocking into people or requiring you to hold their hand THEN together you two can decide to make a purchase on the next outing. This is a GREAT time to incorporate earning money by completing a chore at home to have the money for a desired purchase...but more on that on the next posting.

Today in the grocery store I witnessed one of the things I hope this blog will allow parents to avoid. An older woman was carefully shopping with a younger woman. They were deciding which type of bread to purchase. I only noticed them because the store was so crowded and I was trying navigate around them BUT when they finished choosing the older woman took the younger woman's hand and "pulled" her down the aisle. (Please note in 20 years it will be a younger person holding onto that same woman who will now be the older one!) This young woman needs to be taught how to walk in a store, stay with another person, avoid hazards, etc. - NOT to be led around by her hand even if it's done gently.