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language disorder

MCAS Round 2: A Letter

MCAS round 2 begins tomorrow.

I am dreading every minute of it.

I hate MCAS for all kids, but I REALLY hate it it for our special ed kids.

(I know, I’ve already written about this.

I’m going to write about it again.

It’s that’s important.)

So I need to talk to you about it.


Dear parent/out of district coordinator/service provider/person across from me at the table in a meeting:

I know what you were going to say before you said it. You looked at last year’s MCAS scores listed in the IEP, and I saw you stiffen and swallow and open your mouth to speak. And I know exactly what you’re going to say, and you do:

“So I’m a little concerned about Student’s MCAS scores. Scores are low/the same as last year/show regression/don’t show improvement/are still in the Warning range.”

We sit and nod, because we see the scores. We aren’t shocked. We aren’t surprised. So you look around at us some more, adjust your papers, and go on.

“I’m very concerned about this. We need to talk about why Student is not improving in their scores.”

This is the part where I sit up straighter, clear my throat, and begin to speak. And even though I want to shout from the rooftops, I calmly say my piece. I tell you that MCAS is a long, exhausting test. I tell you that yes, of course we provide the accommodations given to Student in their IEP. I explain that usually Student puts forth 100% effort on the first part. But there are multiple parts. And it’s exhausting. And so effort falls to the wayside. And also, Student is still in elementary/middle school. And we’ve told Student that on MCAS their job is just to try.”

And then you nod, and agree, and sometimes move on and sometimes ask more questions.

But what I REALLY want to tell you, what I REALLY want to say, is this:

MCAS is a grade-level test. Student cannot read grade-level material or comprehend grade-level material. In fact, Student cannot access grade-level material without significant modifications and language-based teaching, repetition, spiraling, and breaking down concepts. Student has sensory processing difficulties, attentional difficulties, and executive function challenges. All of which make even modified material challenging. That’s why Student is at our school, and why Student is successfully learning at our school.

Yes, we provide Student with their accommodations. But having extra time, being allowed to type their answers, and being given access to spell check are not going to magically make them able to complete grade-level material, are not going to make their attention, anxiety, or executive function issues disappear. Oh, I wish I had that magic wand, but I don’t.  And so, of course, their scores are low.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. You know that I adore this child. SO much. But I adore this child for who they are, and where they are. And where they are is not on grade-level. I am not a professional tennis player, and so I would not be able to win a professional tennis match. I know a few French words but I can’t hold a conversation in French. Despite any modifications I may be granted. But maybe some day I could. Right now your child’s MCAS scores are low. Maybe they’ll improve some day. In fact, I have high hopes that they will. Because I am good at my job, and my colleagues are good at my job, and we work with students to make miracles happen at this place.

But here’s the thing. You are looking at a number, which tells you nothing helpful about Student. And so, please, let me tell you about Student. Student has been raising their hand. Volunteering. Taking learning risks in class. Volunteering to read out loud, even when they stumble over words. Student is sitting with others at lunch time. Having conversations. Accepting help to problem-solve social situations. Student is more positive, happier, and more relaxed. Student is remembering what they learned in previous days. Student is starting to recall strategies. Starting to apply them. Accepting help. Taking feedback. Student is funny, and always makes others laugh. Student is energetic and sweet and puts a smile on everyone’s face. Student said to me the other day, “I don’t hate going to school anymore.”

That’s what you need to know about Student. Student is going to be just fine, and accomplish great things in this life – whatever the right things for them end up being. Maybe Student will go to a 4-year college. Maybe take classes at community college. Maybe do a vocational/transitional program. Maybe Student will work in retail, or with animals, or in a cafeteria.  Maybe Student will live at home, or alone, or get married, or live in a group home. We don’t know yet, and MCAS scores don’t give us the answer. And also, Student is still in elementary/middle school. I sure didn’t know the answer to those questions at that age, and I scored proficient on MCAS.

So what you need to know now, is: Student is a brilliant, incredible human being. One that I am privileged to work with. One who will make this world a better place. One who, with your help, and with all of our support, is going to be just fine.

And that’s what you need to know. That’s what we should focus on.

All my best,
Jen

Winning materials

[Ed. note: While these are both affiliate links (meaning if you purchase them from Amazon, using this link – I will receive a very tiny referral fee), this is not a sponsored post. Just sharing some truly wonderful materials!]

As I’m sure nearly every single one of you SLPs can agree with, when a child is motivated by a game, a book, or any sort of material, sessions are infinitely more successful and productive.

So far this year, the two most popular (and most frequently asked for by kids) products have been:

Tell Tale (<–click on link)

bo047

Tell Tale is a game created by Blue Orange, the company who also makes Spot It. There are probably 50 or so cards, and each card is double-sided with two random pictures. A princess, a moon, a pig, a city, a hospital, etc. We play it as a story-telling game. Each player gets 5 (or however many) cards, and one person chooses one of her cards to start the story (e.g., Once upon a time, there was a princess named Jen). The next person chooses any of their cards to add on to the story (e.g., She had a pet pig named Snorty). We go on and on until all cards are done.

There are endless ways to play this game, and endless targets. I use it for articulation, fluency (clear speech, using speech strategies), story-telling, grammar (past tense, future tense), turn-taking (even if you have a great card, it’s not your turn yet), flexibility (hmm, that wasn’t what you wanted to happen in the story, but we are working as a team and he had a different thought in his brain), and the list goes and on and on. (We have also played where one person has to create a story with their five cards; where we put random cards out and then create a story and retell it; we have written out the narrative that we’ve told using story elements; etc.)

The kids are obsessed. I can pretty much motivate them to do anything throughout the period as long as we leave 5-10 minutes for a quick game of Tell Tale at the end of class.

I can’t even stress it enough – this is a MUST HAVE in your bag of tricks, and for such a cheap price, you will not regret it.

The Froggy Books (<–each word is a separate link)

$_35

When you work with little ones who beg to be read to (and who have reading and language disabilities, so you will happily indulge them in being read to), you are constantly on the lookout for books.

The Froggy books, by Jonathan London, are fantastic. They have that repetition and rhythmic sound about them as I read them, and they are also a wonderful balance between predictable (Froggy’s mom always yells, “Frrrooooogggggyyy!!”) and surprising. They hold kids’ attention and the illustrations are interesting enough that even kids who can’t read can practice telling or re-telling the story from the pictures alone. My 8-year-olds loved these books so much that I just ordered three more. We work on story elements, retelling, inferencing, answering WH questions, predicting, and good old reading aloud.

Again – a must, at least one of them!

What are your gold-star materials these days? What motivates your kids at all costs?

Bio Poems

I was out sick yesterday, and another therapist worked with many of my therapy groups. She did a fun, creative, describing activity, called “Bio Poems” – and reading them warmed my heart so much that I just had to share. These are all done by 6-8th graders, all with language and learning disabilities. They did a few pre-writing steps with writing templates and prompts for each line, but otherwise? These are their own ideas, their own words, with nothing changed (except names!). I laughed, teared up, and had my heart melted as I read these – it’s such a powerful experience to see how these incredible kids view themselves, and what their inner workings are like. I hope you enjoy.

Miranda
Who is creative, kind, and smart
Who enjoys Max Ride, math, YouTube,One Direction, tv, iPad, iPhone, pools beaches
Who is able to flexible thumbs, swim really fast, sing, act, dance
Who feels joyful playing on my iPad and happy reading my book
Who wonders what will happen next
Who fears when my mom is mad and the dark
Who cares about family, friends,cats school, books, stuff animals, necklace
Who dreams of being a famous vet/mom and meeting 1D

Ally
Who is Smart , Talkitive , Sweet
Who enjoys Playing sports , Playing with Sibilings , Drawing and
Coloring
Who is able to play soccer , Draw and Color
Who feels happy when I play with my brother
Who wonders what is out there in space
Who fears Thunderstorms
Who cares about Faimly and pets
Who dreams of About being a baker or a cook

Doug
Who is cool, kind, smart
Who enjoys video games
Who is able to beat video games easily
Who feels lazy when playing with friends
Who wonders how we got here
Who fears the end of the world
Who cares about the world of nature
Who dreams of being really cool

Nellie
Nice, fun, pretty
Who enjoys playing Minecraft
Who is able to do gymnastics
Who feels happy when I play Minecraft
Who fears big scary sharks
Who care about my family and friends
Who dreams of flying in the sky

Caitlin
Who is athletic, creative, nice
Who enjoys six flags, friends, drawing
Who is able to watch movies, go to school, play basketball
Who feels happy, loving, funny
Who wonders what I’m going to do when I grow up
Who fears spiders, reading in front of people, the dark
Who care about friends and family and animals
Who dreams to have a great rest of my life!

Gabi
Who is happy, kind, creative
Who enjoys tennis, yoga, baking
Who is able to biking, swimming, yoga
Who feels nervous, happy, shy
Who wonders what I am going to do as a future job
Who fears presenting in front of the class
Who cares about family, friends
Who dreams of to be famous some day

What he says vs. what he means

Joey came into camp a few days ago, dressed in his normal shorts and t-shirt. It was “Superhero” day at camp, and many campers and staff were wearing various superhero shirts or capes. Theme days are not Joey’s thing, nor have they ever been. He observed what everyone was wearing, and told me, “I didn’t wear a superhero shirt.” I nodded, and reminded him that was okay.

He looked around, and then came back to me, saying, “People who didn’t wear superhero clothes are stupid.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Are you kind of wishing you had worn a superhero shirt?”

“Yes.” he nodded.

“So, you could say, ‘I’m a little disappointed I didn’t dress up today.'” I offered.

“Yeah,” he replied, and went up to his group leader, saying, “I kinda wish I had dressed up today.”


Two kids in Joey’s group hadn’t arrived yet. Joey asked me where they were and I told him they weren’t there yet.

“They’re sick.” He stated. “They got hit by a car. They’re dead. I hate them anyway.”

“Do you feel nervous because you’re not sure where they are?” I asked.

He nodded.

Later, once they had shown up, he told them, “I didn’t know where you were! Are you sick?”


Two options are present during free time after lunch. Part of the group is playing a soccer game and part is batting a beach ball back and forth. Joey is deciding what to do. He chooses soccer, then beach ball, and finally decides on soccer.

“Besides,” he tells me, “Beach ball is dumb anyway. I hate it. So it’s fine to choose soccer. Because people who play beach ball are dumb losers.”

“You know what? It’s okay to like both, and just pick one. Because another day, you could play beach ball. You can like both things.” I suggested.

“True,” he nodded. He ran over to the group. “I’m going to play soccer today and beach ball another day!”


The thing is, I know Joey really well. I can predict his every move, and I know exactly what he is thinking and when there is a disconnect between his thoughts and the words that come out of his mouth. It’s not always that easy, especially when it’s a new kid that we’re working with.

But the idea remains the same. That words are not always reliable for our kids – special ed kids, kids on the spectrum, kids with ADHD, kids with language disorders. Especially in an emotional moment, not all words are accessible. Have you ever been so mad that you just freeze because you can’t even get any words out of your mouth?

Sometimes when kids say one thing, they’re trying to tell us something else. Sometimes when a kid looks like they’re being rude, disobedient, or defiant, they’re really feeling a myriad of other emotions and don’t have access to those concepts to tell us. And yes – sometimes kids are being those things. But the idea is that we don’t jump to that conclusion right away. We think through the options first. We consider their profile, their neurology, their diagnoses. We wonder if their behavior is telling us something. We wonder if they are using those words as a placeholder to convey something else. We check in with them. We offer them language and see if they take it. More often than not, you’d be surprised – a kid will take the words you give them if they match, and won’t take them if they are an inaccurate portrayal of what they’re feeling.

If I had handled any of those 3 situations by telling Joey, “That is unacceptable behavior, you need a time out, you can’t say things like that,” nothing would have been accomplished. And of course – we still do process and explain. We give him friendly words to say instead of unfriendly/mean ones. We explain, “When you say ‘I hate them anyway’ it makes me think you’re trying to be mean. Are you?” If a mean comment is directed towards a kid, we explain to him why he needs to apologize, and what it might make the other kid think when he says mean words. We process, over and over again, the different ways to express feelings and thoughts, trying to build new neurologic and linguistic connections.

But we don’t punish. Because what’s the point? When the reason for the seemingly hurtful words is actually a lack of ability to express oneself, we need to teach strategies for accessing those words and concepts. And appreciate that they are even attempting to communicate in the first place.

The best story ever

I just have to share this with you all, because I love every single thing about it.
In speech/language therapy, some of my kids have been working on story elements – characters, setting, problem, solution. Last week and this week, they planned out their own story or comic, and then turned their story elements into an actual story. The goal of this activity was not to have perfect grammar or punctuation or spelling; we were focused on including salient story elements. Consequently, one of my fourth-grade kids wrote an amazing story, in which his own adorably unique use of words, grammar, and syntax, shined through. He wrote it as a “Flow Map” (step-by-step boxes) but it isn’t uploading well so I’m just going to type it into 6 small paragraphs.

Enjoy :)

The Story
Once upon a time in N.O.L.A. there are a family “lets meet the fam they are awesome the firt one is the twins Lucas and Joe they love to hang out with me.” “then there is that girl named Amanda she loves to play ball with me”. The mom and the dad and the cat. The Dad’s name is Ethan the mom’s name is Jenny and the cat’s name is Mazie. The cat Mazie is mi hermano.

When they woke up this morning there is some wind blowing hard and there is making a lot of storms. Baton Rouge is starting to flood. And Mike and Mazie have superpowers, and they can save the day. And then they can solve it.

During the hurricane we are outside to try to stop the hurricane but suddenly we heard an evil laugh. It was Schweinstiger the evil cat who makes storms and hurricanes. Schweinsteiger says “we are going to make the lower southeast region ruined!! hahahaha!!”

They said “never!!” And then Schweinsteiger was trying to attack them with his storm powers. Then they are dodging. Suddenly Mazie the cat got hurt by this lightning. Mike said “Are you okay?” Mazie said “is this god?” Mike said “No it’s me Mike! We need to stop Schweinsteiger making hurricanes to make the Gulf of Mexico have no more hurricanes!” And then they went back home quickly and tried to get them into their superpowers.

They are trying to stop them and then Schweinsteiger has really good dodging! They were trying to attack him and his health is 92…80…75…62…55…48…30…27…18…1…then Schweinsteiger is dead! But then there is still wind going on. How are we supposed to stop the wind? Our house is about to flood. And we have no power! Mike has magic and he made the weather sunny to make it warm and replace it and the rains are going back p to the sky and the floods are going back up to the sky and then they put it on the newspaper. The newspaper is called Hero Dog and then everyone was cheering and has pictures and some viral videos of it. And that’s the end of the story! No more hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The End.

Credits:
George Lopez as Mike the Dog
Jennifer Lopez as Mazie the Cat
Kiefer Sutherland ais Schweinsteiger the Evil Cat
Meghan Trainor as Jenny (mom)
Nick Jonas is Ethan (dad)
Ariana Grande is Amanda (daughter)
Chris Brown is Lucas (brother)
Jason Derulo is Joe (brother)

The contraction “let’s”

One of my 4th grade groups is learning about contractions. They all know what they are, but one very rigid, very anxious student refuses to use them in writing (and often in speaking), just because he likes saying both words better. And another misuses them, saying “I’m” instead of “I’ve”. So it was time for a re-teach and review.

We went through what each contraction stands for, we practiced taking each one apart and putting it together, and everyone was getting the hang of things (despite my anxious little guy, constantly checking, “But I do not have to use contractions, right???”). Then we got to the contraction let’s. We talked about how it stands for let us, but how most people say Let’s because Let us go play on the swings or Let us play a game sounds kind of strange, and it sounds more regular to say Let’s go play on the swings or Let’s play a game.

One of the students raised his hand. “This is kind of off topic, but…. [the number of times I hear that statement in a day…!] well, it’s kind of on topic. It’s about the contraction let’s.” I told him to go ahead and share.

“Well, you know how we just learned that it stands for let us?” he began. “So that means it’s what more than one person is doing, not just one person. But sometimes people use it wrong. And, I’m not trying to be rude or disrespectful. But teachers use it wrong all of the time.”

I was intrigued and asked him what he meant.

“Well, when a kid forgets to take out a pencil, teachers always say Let’s get out pencils now when it’s not the teacher that has to get one out, it’s just the kid. Or if a kid is having a hard time, the teacher says Let’s take some deep breaths even though the teacher doesn’t need to take deep breaths. You guys always say stuff like that. And I think I know why. It’s because it makes a kid feel better. If you tell them You need to get a pencil out or You need to take a deep breath it can sound kind of rude, you know? Like you’re singling the kid out. But when you use let’s, it makes everyone feel better, cause it makes them feel like they’re not the only one. It’s like everyone’s on a team and all working on things together. And so I think it’s a good thing you do that. Because it’s much nicer.”

I was speechless. “Wow,” I told him. “You are so right. Teachers absolutely do that, and I am so impressed that you were able to figure out why. I’m so glad it makes you feel better when teachers say that.”

“And,” he continued. “Well, you know how I love Minecraft and I have my own server? Well, sometimes players break the rules or something. They might swear or do something not good. So I tried using that. And I tell them Let’s not use swears. And it works! And I think they listen way better than they would if I told them You can’t swear.”

At that point I had to move on, because one student had started singing a Maroon 5 song, another one was humming the Mario theme song, and the third was increasingly unhappy that we were slightly off topic. You know, the usual.

But three days later, I can’t stop thinking about that incredible, amazing exchange.

Last week’s IEP meeting

Last week we had an annual review IEP meeting for one of our 8th grade students. Because he is now 14, he came to the meeting for a few minutes, to discuss his transition plan. This boy is one of the most empathetic students I have. He carries a tremendous amount of anxiety, which I am willing to bet has to do with his diagnoses and learning challenges, but also with trying to figure out how to be such a sensitive soul in this world.

He walked into the room, and took a seat. He looked around the table and said “hi” to his mom, and then quickly addressed every single person at the table and said “hi” to them, too. Our IEP team facilitator greeted him, told him that we would all love to hear a bit about what’s going well for him.

“So, maybe tell us, what’s your favorite class?” she asked him.

“Oh, uh…Science.” he replied. Then, scanning the room, realizing that several of his teachers were there, but not his science teacher, he quickly added, “But, uh, I love Math too. And Reading is okay. And Language Arts. And hey Jen, I like Speech, too.” There were a few smiles, but I felt myself getting teary. I totally got what he was doing. He was terrified of offending one of us. So much so, that, his math teacher responded, “It’s okay. I know you don’t love math. And I would never be upset with you for saying so.”

Our team facilitator moved on. “You and your counselor met to talk about what you’d like to do in the future. You mentioned that you would love to stay at [our school] for high school, and that after high school maybe you would work with computers or animals.”

His counselor jumped in. “Yup, and we talked about way down the road, where you might like to live. Remember, you told me that one day you would like to live on your own, and not with your parents?” he nodded, agreeing with her, and then caught his mom’s eye and froze. Oh no, I could imagine him thinking. What is Mom going to think to hear that I don’t want to live with her? 

“Uh, Mom…” he tried to explain. “I was just thinking that one day I’d like to have an apartment. But, uh, it’s not that I don’t love you. Because I do. You and Dad have been really good to me. But it’s just…” his voice trailed off as his eyes quickly darted from person to person.

His mom smiled, and gave a kind laugh. “It’s okay, buddy. I would hope you want to live on your own some day!”

After talking a bit about his career aspirations, and his love for computers and cartoons, his counselor sensed his mounting anxiety and backed up a little bit. “Now, all of this is going to be a long time from now. And we’re talking about things that might happen. But is it okay if your ideas change?”

“Uh…I guess so…” he said.

“Will anyone be upset with you if you change your mind about what you want to do or where you want to live?”

“Uh…I guess not…”

“Right. Because we’re just thinking. None of these are decisions that we have to follow. We’re just imagining. But just because we’re imagining does it mean you have to do these things?”

“Uh…no?”

“No, it doesn’t. And we don’t even have to worry about those things. Those are your long-term plans, but right now, our main focus is that you’re going to finish 8th grade and then go to 9th grade.”

“Um. Okay. Yes.”

He headed out of the meeting then, after saying goodbye to every single one of us, and giving his mom a hug.

I think we were all overcome with emotion. And I totally got it – I understand that desperate need to please everyone, the fear of what people will think of you if you don’t give equal attention or love or praise. For the rest of the meeting, we talked through his IEP goals, but we kept coming back to his sensitivities and anxieties. Because among his autism, among his language and learning disabilities, sensitivity and anxiety are at his core. They affect every part of what he does every day. And the same is true for so many of our kids. I truly believe – there are times when noncompliance or overreactions, or other behaviors, are just a mask for that panic inside. And I am not autistic. I don’t have a language disorder. And it’s taken a long time for me to be able to identify my anxiety and sensitivity and put it into words. So I can only imagine what it’s like for our kids. And I feel really blessed to get to help them do just that.

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