Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why We’re Choosing Private School for our Son

            For those of you who know me in the real world or who’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that I am a public school educator.  I have been working in the school system- specifically in low-income schools- for the past thirteen years.  I am a big believer in public schools and have a deep sense of pride in the work that we do.
            But my husband and I have decided that public school is no longer the right choice for our son, who will be starting first grade this year.  We didn’t come to this decision lightly nor by ourselves.  We consulted with his team of teachers and support personnel, researched many different options, visited different sites, talked to family, prayed about it, and finally reached our decision.  Suffice it to say that it was not an easy choice to make.  However, in the end, everyone in Ben’s life agreed that the school we chose looks to be the best possible match for him.
            I’m writing to you about this decision not to encourage everyone to leave public schools and pursue private.  I’m writing to say that this decision is as individual as each precious child.  This decision makes sense for our family for these reasons…and many more…

1)   The pace is slower
Public school teachers are bound to standards and pacing guides that clearly lay out the information that needs to be taught in a specific amount of time.   Teachers often feel a push to get it all in.  I see it every day. Private schools have the flexibility to design their own curriculum.  Ben’s school has chosen a curriculum that focuses on teaching through hands-on, multi-sensory learning, and the majority of learning happens in small groups.  Ben is a smart, capable boy, but he had a hard time keeping up with the pace of the curriculum in kindergarten, which led to higher anxiety for him.  His teacher and I both agreed that this would only get harder as he progressed through the grade levels.  We made the decision to make the move now before the struggles became too much.

2)   Less emphasis on testing
Let me say that I am all for assessments and accountability.  I believe that we need to assess children to know their strengths and weaknesses, and to use that information to guide instruction.  However, it had become clear from both Ben’s PreK and Kindergarten year that Ben does not perform well on tests.  He has difficulty focusing, even when he takes the test in a very small group.  Therefore, the results of the test are usually not an accurate picture of his abilities.  Public school uses testing as a measure of so many things and spends so much time in preparation of testing.  His new school will spend much less time on assessments. 

3)   Little to no homework
Again- I am not against homework on principle, but I believe that homework should be a way for the child to practice skills that are taught in class.  I don’t believe it should consume all of the evening hours.  Ben will read with me every night and do a reading log, along with some math games to reinforce what he is learning in math.  That will be it.

4)   Smaller class size
Ben is a child who requires extra assistance, and this is very hard for public school teacher to give (though they certainly do their best!).  Had he remained in public schools, in order to receive a smaller class size with more assistance, he would have had to go to a self-contained classroom that had all students with disabilities.  Ben’s new school has a class of sixteen with one teacher and one full-time teacher assistant who is always in the room.  This will provide him with more adult support while still staying in a class with a mix of children with IEPs and “regular” peer models for him, which he needs.  In addition, it is a multi-age class with both kindergarten and first graders in the room.  I am thrilled about this because it will allow him to revisit some of the foundational pieces of kindergarten that he still needs without him having to repeat kindergarten.  He’ll also have the opportunity to visit other teachers in the school for science, writing, social studies, and Christian virtues in the afternoon as each teacher has one subject in which she is the content area expert.  They also have a social skills curriculum called Super Flex to teach flexible thinking using superheroes.  Such a smart plan!

5)   Time for the “extras”
Sadly, because of the curriculum demands, there is little time for the “extras” in public schools.  Also, because it is a public school, there are certain things, such as religion, that cannot be taught.  Ben’s school is actually one section of a large church (which is one of his favorite parts about it).  It has a huge gymnasium (rare in Florida, by the way) where they often blow up bounce houses and has a rock climbing wall.  Ben will have two recesses, one indoor and one outdoor.  Lunch is thirty minutes and the kids eat with their teachers in the classroom (there’s no cafeteria).  In addition, they have PE twice a week, two days of drama, and one day of Spanish.  All children receive support from the speech and OT teachers who come to the class twice a week.  Friday is more relaxed with learning games in the morning to reinforce concepts learned in the week (remember “Fun Friday?”).  In addition, the class is equipped for children with sensory needs.  It has a trampoline, a chill-out tent for when things get to be too much.  They do brain gym every day to help the body and brain connect.  The kids can sit on wiggle cushions or T stools (a special chair with one leg for kids who need to move while sitting).  Oh, and they take a field trip about once each month.  I could go on and on about all the “extras” that are really what will make the difference in Ben’s learning this year.

And so as Ben gets ready to enter his new school, he is sad to be leaving his old friends and teachers behind but excited for his new adventure.  After Open House, he told me that I had found the perfect school for him.  That he matches his school like puzzle pieces fit together.  I hope he is right.  We did our best.  I told him that there will always be challenges that come up.  “But now I’ll know what to do when I am frustrated.  I have a tent,” he told me.  And so, I am cautiously optimistic at the start of this new school year.  We’ll miss his friends and teachers at his old school and we are grateful for all they have given him.  They set him on the right path and we appreciate everyone’s support as we begin this journey into the private school world.  I’ll keep you posted as we continue on this journey.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Creating a Back to School Plan for your Sensory Child

Back to school can be a difficult time, especially for a child with sensory needs.  I still can’t believe that my son Ben will be a first grader this year! 

When he was in PreK, I underestimated the challenges his sensory needs would bring to the classroom.  In kinder, I was more prepared for what his needs would be and scheduled a meeting with his teacher at the start of the year to discuss these challenges as well as his strengths. 

Now, as he enters first grade, we have had two years to learn about what works for him in the classroom and what doesn’t.  Ben has come a long way, and things that used to challenge him (cutting with scissors, transitioning from one task to another) aren’t as big of a deal. 

And so, as Ben gets ready to enter first grade, it’s time for me to sit down with his new teacher.  I am thrilled that Ben’s OT will also be joining the conversation this year.   

What follows is part of a packet that I will give Ben’s teacher when we meet later this week.   Of course, your child is different from mine, but hopefully this will give you a starting point when thinking about how to approach a similar conversation with your child’s teacher and make a plan for your own child.  Feel free to use any parts of this that apply to your child. 

Classroom Environment (Setting)

The ideal classroom for Ben is set up to minimize distractions and promote learning with…

-Clearly defined spaces/areas within the classroom
(i.e. stations/centers, carpet area, student work area, class library, etc). Ben does best when he clearly knows the function of each area and the “rules” for using it.  For example, if the center is closed, a small sign saying “closed” is more helpful than someone saying the area is off limits.

-Daily schedule is posted, referred to often, and consistently followed.
(Ben may need his personal copy of the schedule for his table area, though his teacher said he functioned fine without one last year.  He likes to know what is coming next- and how much time a task will take (“How many minutes until…?”)

-Predictable routines and procedures. 
If a schedule is going to change, Ben does best when he is giving a forewarning about it.  Of course, this is not always possible.

-Consistent rules and expectations
(Gives clarity on how to do things).  Ben is a rule follower and does best when the rules are clearly explained.  He wants to please and will be very remorseful if he thinks he let you down.  Be clear on your expectations for him up front- with visuals if possible- and make sure the task and demands are reasonable for him.  If so, he will be eager to carry out the task.

-Calm, organized environment with a reduction of visual distractions. 
Ben gets overwhelmed in a “busy” classroom.  He does best in a quiet space without a lot of stimulation.  His anxiety rises in a chaotic environment.

-Cool-down area for sensory breaks. 
It would be helpful to teach Ben to use a “I need a break” card to give you when he is feeling overwhelmed.  This will allow him to go to a “cool down” spot in the class.  Give him a few to use throughout the day so he can learn to self-regulate or teach him a signal to show you when he needs to take a break.  Ben needs lots of opportunities for movement throughout the day!  5 minute energizers and “brain breaks” work great for him!

-Calm lighting and a soothing environment during work time. 
Ben prefers quiet.  J


Ben works well with a teacher who…

-Is kind, firm, and consistent. 
Ben has a gentle disposition and usually a clear warning is all he needs.  Time outs work will for him- with talk after about why he was in time out and what to do differently next time.

-Is experienced…
Has some background in children with special needs (if possible)


-Is willing to learn and grow
Ben does best with a teacher who is the lead learner.  She is always open to new ideas and welcomes input from parents.  She seeks out professional development in order to grow and meet the needs of all her learners.

-Maintains clear and consistent expectations.

-Has clear and concise teaching points
This teacher keeps the lesson brief and to the point.  She isn’t the one doing most of the talking.  She uses visuals along with verbal directions.   She uses nonverbal cues to remind Ben of the rules and expectations.  Coming up with a “secret signal” works well for him.

-Is calm
She does not get “ruffled” easily.   She recognizes that all behavior is communication and does not take student behaviors personally.

-Holds kids accountable academically and behaviorally.  
Students know exactly what to expect. There is no “gray” area.

-Has high expectations…
but also differentiates for the needs of all learners.  She recognizes the difference between having high expectations and making the work too hard for the child.  She recognizes the value of adding supports for her students so that they can access the material and succeed.  She knows what is developmentally appropriate for the ages and stages of her learners.

Additional Supports

-Another consideration is how to integrate all of the support teachers (speech, OT, paras, etc) into the structures for the day.  These key members of the team need to coordinate schedules effectively.  Ideally, they offer supports within the classroom and provide techniques that can be utilized throughout the day, not just when they are in the class providing services.

-When “Big Events” occur at school, sensory strategies are provided during and after
*Ben gets very excited during these events.  Keep in mind it will take Ben time to “come down” after the event ends.  The more stimulating the event, the longer it will take him to return to a calm state for learning.  Doing some heavy work tasks after the event will help.  The OT can help with this.

Ben’s Needs

Ben’s brain has difficulty taking in all of the sensory input from around him (visual, auditory, etc) and keeping himself calm and regulated.   This makes his behavior appear to be unpredictable and he may seem to be frustrated at the tiniest of things.   He also may seem to be calm one moment but agitated the next.  Without sensory strategies in place, he has difficulty maintaining a calm state where he is ready to learn.

Strategies that help Ben:
-Predictability is calming to him.  When he is unsure of what’s coming next, he becomes anxious.  This is why visual schedules and consistent routines are helpful.
-When Ben starts becoming anxious, he needs sensory strategies BEFORE he melts down.  He needs to be taught techniques to help him self-calm.  Ben has told me that he prefers a big hug when he is feeling anxious.

-Sensory techniques (see below) are very effective for Ben, but they must be repeated every few hours as they “wear off”.  These techniques allow him to be able to relax, focus, and learn.  Activities involving pushing, pulling, lifting, and carrying are best.
*Heavy work tasks help bring calm and stability (i.e. carrying a note to another class with a heavy backpack, wall push-ups, squeeze ball, bear crawl, kneading Play-Doh, weighted vest during class, wiping tables, etc)
*Stimulating the vestibular system also helps (swinging, jumping on trampoline, monkey bars, running, rocking chair, spinning around…)


Emotional Regulation-
When Ben becomes frustrated, overwhelmed, or upset, he will sometimes cry.  Again, this may seem to be for “little problems” that happen, such as if he were to spill a box of crayons, lose a favorite pencil, or be picked last to get a drink of water.

Strategies that help Ben:
-Explaining a task clearly, telling Ben exactly what is expected of him, and providing a visual example.

- “If…then…” statements work well for him
(Example:  “If you finish this page of work, then you can get a drink”)

-Rewards and motivators (sticker charts) also work well for him.

-Social stories (talking through what is going to happen) help him to stay calm and anticipate a change to his routine.

-Waiting his turn is hard for Ben.  Using “Wait cards” or other visual cues are very helpful.  He also has difficulty being at the end of the line (He’s a “Z” in the alphabet and is usually last to do pretty much everything.)

-Consequences are effective if they are given immediately and connect to the situation.  Restitution works well (cleaning up a spill, etc).  Explain to Ben exactly what to do next time in the situation so the incident has less likelihood of being repeated.  It helps to read social stories and act out appropriate responses also.

-If Ben is overwhelmed, he needs time to cool down.  If he is pushed to “work through” these emotions, he will become more stressed and anxious, and his behaviors will escalate.  Reducing the demands and placing him in a calm environment will help his body and brain to “reset”.

Ben may appear unfocused in class.  This could be due to a wide variety of causes.  Because he has a hard time filtering out extraneous sensory information, he can be distracted by background sounds/visual information around him.  However, he often recalls details even when he does not appear to be listening because he processes information differently than most learners.  Make sure to have Ben’s full attention before giving him directions.  Having him repeat back the steps is also helpful.


Social Skills-
Ben is working on his peer interaction skills.  He made so many friends in kindergarten and loves his friends!  He does need help knowing how to initiate interactions with peers and will need encouragement to “stay with” his friends. Ben has a strong vocabulary but has difficulty with the pragmatic (social) aspect of language. 

Strategies that help Ben:
-Practicing how to initiate and take turns during conversations
-Playing games or doing collaborative group activities where everyone has a role (Ben loves board games and is very good at Monopoly, Sorry, etc)
-Encouraging peer interaction, especially during non-academic times such as specials, lunch, recess, etc.
-How to use language to talk through problems when difficulties arise with friends


I hope this list helps spark ideas of ways you can open conversations with your child’s teacher and his support team.  Schedule a time to talk to your child’s teacher when you can talk uninterrupted by distractions.  Back-to-school night is not ideal for this sort of conversation!

In my experience, keeping open, positive communication with a spirit of helping each other to help your child yields the best results.  Remember- you know your child best, but also that your child may present different behaviors at school than he does at home.  Hearing from everyone who works with your child should help provide different perspectives that will help to create strategies that will best meet your child’s needs.   Good luck!
Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!