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Sue* felt like she had hit a dead-end with her daughter’s school team at a recent parent/teacher conference. Her daughter Kate* had been receiving extra support in reading, but Kate’s teacher didn’t feel that Kate was making any progress; she told Sue that she believed Kate* wasn’t learning because she was choosing to not pay attention and was just "goofing" around.

Sue was stunned and shaken by this teacher’s words; they felt like a gavel coming down in judgment of Kate. She wanted to respond, planning to explain that Kate’s bipolar disorder makes it extremely important to use consistent messages with her and that doing so would help Kate stay focused and on task. Before she could respond, Sue’s emotions came rushing to the surface and she was unable to speak. Once she started crying it was impossible find the words that could help the teacher understand how to help her daughter.

More composed the next morning, Sue followed up with the school’s social worker, who also works individually with Kate. Sue shared that she was really concerned that the teacher didn’t understand how Kate’s bipolar disorder affected Kate’s learning in the classroom, only to have the social worker agree that she also thought Kate was simply choosing not to try. Sue felt like they were writing Kate off, blaming her lack of progress on Kate’s own choice and not considering the role her bipolar disorder was playing.

Now there were two people at the school who just didn’t understand Kate’s needs, and Sue wasn’t able to get through to either of them. She felt trapped and desperate, fearing that her only option was to pull Kate from school, quit her job and home school Kate.

That’s when Sue contacted The Arc.

The Arc’s advocate worked with Sue to determine the best way to work through this issue. Ultimately, Sue and Kate’s school team consulted with Kate’s private psychologist, working together to complete a functional behavior assessment that might provide some insight into Kate’s challenges and the most effective ways to work with her in the classroom. This process helped the school team see how literal Kate can be, and how vital it was to her classroom experience that all people who interact with her use the same wording and be consistent in their messages. The teacher and social worker had been nervous about collaborating with the private therapist, but they learned that this kind of partnering can be a positive experience for everyone involved.

The team worked together to create a plan that would ensure consistent messaging and clear work expectations at school and home, as well as continued collaboration with Kate’s private psychologist. Within six weeks, Kate was showing progress in her reading skills, proving that the underlying issue was not a matter of “choosing” not to do the work.

In addition to helping Sue navigate this specific concern, The Arc advocate also took the time to help Sue understand how the IEP process works, and to understand that it’s not a perfect process. By learning more about special education and the parent’s role in the IEP process, Sue understood that she had valuable information about Kate that could help the team to better meet Kate’s educational needs.

As a result of working with The Arc’s educational advocate, Sue became a more effective advocate for Kate. Sue began preparing for meetings by writing down the things she thought would be most valuable for the school team, and this insight proved really helpful for the team. With their lines of communication repaired and their relationship strengthened, Sue and her daughter’s school team are working together to help Kate do her best at school.

To learn more about educational advocacy at The Arc, click here.

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