Sunday, May 15, 2016

Unintentional Intimidation (OR Da Squish Sees an Expert)

The other side of the IEP table is a strange and scary place.

Da Squish (aka Weirdling Two, aka the 16 month old who lives in my house) has a small learning disorder. Or maybe we're calling it a developmental delay because he's so young. There's a lot of words that mean almost the same thing in education. It can get confusing.

It's nothing serious or scary, but it is concerning. I'm not even sure we would have caught it if we weren't teachers. I'm sure it helped, at the least.

My wife had been saying for a few weeks that she was worried about Da Squish. She didn't think he was hearing her. He wasn't responding to his name when she called, she didn't think he was following simple instructions like he ought to have been, and he had no words. None. He wouldn't say anything. He barely points and makes a noise when he wants something. She felt he wasn't trying to communicate in a developmentally appropriate way.

My wife is a special education teacher. Was, and will be again, to be more specific. When Weirdling One was born she left the classroom to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. This is one of the major reasons we live in Oregon now and not in Hawaii. You can barely survive in Hawaii on two teacher salaries. On one, with a baby, you get to make fun choices like should I pay rent or eat this month? And if the car breaks down can I get a bike off Craigslist to get to school on? We moved, she left the classroom, and we suddenly and a little hilariously had a Traditional American Family Situation. I work, she raises the children and cooks. I should make clear that's our choice together, I wouldn't have married someone I could have told, "You're staying home to raise our kids" and she wouldn't have married someone who would have tried that nonsense. (Related- How do dads have the guts to refuse to do diapers? It never even occurred to me to try and get out of diaper duty. That's a crap move*, dads who do that.) I should also make clear that while that's our choice we know that's not everyone's choice or option. We got lucky. She is also the cook because I can't. She will barely let me pour a bowl of cereal for myself. To be fair, I measure the water when I make Cup of Noodles because I'm pretty sure I'll screw them up.

I tell you all that to say that when it comes to our kids' development I 100% trust my wife. She's around them all day. She's smart and well-trained. But I think, and I have no evidence of this, that teachers are overly sensitive to possible education issues with their kids. I feel like I am. I know when they should be reading and what they should be reading and how much we should be counting with them and all that other stuff because I went to school for it and I see the echoes of those things in my classroom all the time. We, she especially as a special education teacher, are extremely keyed in. To the point of noticing every little thing and running it through our Teacher Brains (friends of ours- we do it to your kids too and don't tell you. Sorry. Force of habit).

So while I believed her when she'd tell me what she saw Da Squish doing through the day I also figured it was a combination of her Teacher Sense tingling, her Parent Sense throwing interference at her Teacher Sense, him only being one, and him being different from his older brother. No worries. He's fine, babe. We'll keep an eye on him.

Then I spent a full week at home over Spring Break.

Can't hear you, vacuuming
"Hon, you know how Da Squish never seems to hear when I call him? And he doesn't say anything? Like, at all. And he doesn't do what we ask him to do? Even simple tasks? I think something might be up."

It's funny what you notice when you get to spend a bunch of time with your kids. But that's for the eventual He's the Weird Dad.

With the both of us in agreement we decided to take action. Maybe it's nothing, but better to check now than wait until his year and a half doctor's appointment. If we can catch a problem this early that gives us a jump on treating it. She had already done the research and had the proper number to call. She's on it.

Turns out the people you call when you're concerned about this kind of thing is your local school district, at least in Oregon. They are the people with the early childhood experts on staff. They're the ones who have the tests and give the help. And our local school district is the one I work in.

Which is how I ended up taking half a day off work to go to my district office as a parent for a child four years away from enrolling in kindergarten.

The meeting was as friendly as it could possibly be. It was a crowded room. My wife and I, both boys because where are we going to put Weirdling One for two hours, and three experts from the district. I'll be honest, I don't remember their titles. Early childhood intervention experts. One was a speech pathologist. All three were very nice.

Right away I did the whole, "It's ok, I'm a teacher too. I'm familiar with these kinds of meetings. Hit us with the acronyms. We're ready." Which was basically like a dentist telling his doctor he went to med school too.

Boy did they run with that. In the friendliest, most open, clearest way. But there's something about sitting in a chair when an Expert starts going over the laundry list of tests they're about to perform on your one year old. It's not a new thing to me. I've had these conversations. I've explained tests like this. But wow, to have to hit you is something else entirely.

They weren't trying to lose us. They answered every question we had. They smiled and joked and couldn't have been more personable and friendly. They gave Weirdling One toys to play with so he'd be happy and stay out of the way when they tested his brother. They did a smooth slight of hand where one was interviewing us about what we saw for an assessment, filling in endless bubbles on endless sheets, collecting data, while the other two played games with Da Squish, testing him in all kinds of ways I hadn't known were tests. How do you test a one year old for hearing? He doesn't seem to know his name, how you do say, "Raise your hand when you hear the beep." Turns out you don't, we live in the future now and the hearing tool goes in his ear, makes a noise, then measures how long it takes the noise to bounce back. Or it runs on magic. One of the two.

At the end of an hour of interviews and tests-disguised-as-play the three ladies left the room to confab and do their data alchemy. We hung out, the baby nursed, and Weirdling One played on his tablet. He has this space dog game where you can fly a dog around outer space and when you park it by things a little animation happens. It's cute. There's a farting planet that farts for as long as you leave the dog near it. It's the funniest thing in the world to him. And his parents.

I figured the problem stemmed from Da Squish's hearing. I knew he could hear some things. He likes to dance to music, Shake It Off and Uptown Funk are particular favorites around our house, but that was my Occam's Razor for the whole problem. His language seems delayed. He doesn't respond to his name. Must be a hearing issue. Probably fluid in his ears. Trust me, I'm a teacher, I can tell these things.

Nope. Hearing is great. Their magic Hearometer** detected no problems.

They did confirm what we were seeing, though. That was nice to hear. I'd never compare my child to my car, but you know how sometimes your car*** makes a weird noise so you decide to take it into the shop and as soon as you get there it stops making the noise and the mechanic thinks you're just a tattooed, blue-haired dope who doesn't know anything about cars and is wasting his time for fun? Doesn't that feeling suck? So it was good to hear that they saw what we saw.

According to their data alchemy our concerns were justified. He is below the normal range, dipping into the range of concern, for both receptive and expressive language.

One of his scores was right on the line of what he needed to score to qualify for early intervention and the other was just below. Not as far below as it felt to us, but parents probably almost always make it worse than it is. Together the scores qualified him to receive interventions. The lady in charge of the meeting even said, "He's right on the edge, but I'm allowed to use my professional judgement in these cases and I say that if we did this test five times he'd for sure qualify four of those times." Hey, someone who knows that what a kid is like today might not be what he's exactly like tomorrow! As a teacher it was pretty cool to see another teacher-like person be allowed to take data and add her own observation and judgement to it to make a decision. I've been in IEPs where we've had to turn a kid down because the numbers didn't shake out, no matter what we thought.

So now we're being referred somewhere else, and those people have already called us to set up a meeting so we can plan as a team the best days and times to get Da Squish the help he needs. Hopefully by catching this as early as we did he won't fall too far behind and by the time he's two he'll be hitting all the benchmarks he needs to be.

I think about this entire process and it strikes me that, as friendly as it was, it still wasn't the easiest thing. Not the the district made it difficult, far from. But think about the steps-

- We had to notice that he was behind (and I give my wife all the credit for making the right call so quickly), which means we needed to be aware of where he should have been. Lots of parents have the books but we had the extra advantage of her being a pre-school special education teacher. And even then she didn't fully trust her judgement because what if she's just being an over-reactive parent?

We read! I swear!
- We had to figure out who to call and have the confidence and courage to make that call. I don't say that to pound my chest but to acknowledge how bad experiences in and fear of the system might stop a lot of parents. Will this label their kid? Can they trust these people? What preconceptions are the Experts coming into the meeting with? Might it hurt as much as help? My wife and I know that we didn't to cause this. He gets lots of language interaction at home (that was my other guess for why he doesn't talk much- his brother never stops talking). But at the same time we still wonder if it's something we did or didn't do. And if we make the meeting what if we go in and the experts say it is our fault? Will they judge us for being bad parents? We're doing our best. Again, we're not far off being well-trained ourselves in this field and we still have these fears.

- Then we have to go to a meeting and sit in a room with Experts who, as friendly as they seem, are really smart. And smart is scary, Look at all those forms they have. And so many questions. What if I answer the questions wrong? That's a lot of tests. Tests with weird names. What are they looking for? Are they trying to find something wrong with my kid? I work in this business and there was a lot of words being tossed around I wasn't sure I knew. I spent half the meeting thinking about what it would be like for a non-native English speaker. Even if they had a great translator, that adds one more layer of removal, one more barrier to understanding.

- And now someone else, another Expert, is going to come to our house to help our kid. A stranger in our home. It's nice that we don't have to come to them, but our house is kind of an explosion. We try, but we have two insane children and four sets of grandparents who love giving toys. Don't judge me.

The process reminded me of taking the Oregon tests which transferred my teaching license from Hawaii to Oregon. That experience, which you can read about here, completely changed how I give tests in my class. I gained a level of empathy with my students I hadn't previously had. This experience taught me a similar lesson. I knew, intellectually, that it must be hard for the parent on the other side of the desk. The only time I'd actually been on that side was when I was in school. It was for speech- For years I talked like Elmer Fudd, all my Rs were Ws. Still happens sometimes. But I can't remember specifics of the meeting other than struggling to stifle a yawn. Now I've been the parent. Now I have the specific experience, an empathy that can only be gained one way. This doesn't mean that I used to be a heartless jerk to the parents in my IEP meetings. I understood what they were going through. But I didn't know.

But now I know that fear and intimidation in a much more real way. I know how it felt as a native English speaker, college graduate, and professional educator. How must it feel to the parents in my class? How can I make it easier?

*get it?

**probably not the official title

***didn't say anything about comparing him to your car

I wrote a Update to the post.


  1. As a teacher AND a parent of two children (of three) on the autism spectrum, I remember taking our middle child to be evaluated for her language at age 2(ish) because she spoke what my husband and I lovingly called "baby gibberish." I spoke with my pediatrician, expressed our concerns, got the eval recommendation and showed up at my local school for a speech eval. My middle child walked into the room, smiled sweetly at the speech language pathologist, pointed to a knickknack, and stated, "THAT is a merry go round. It is also called a carousel. The horses go up and down..." and proceeded to give a five minute diatribe on the knickknack, its purpose and describe it in vivid detail. The speech language pathologist looked at me like I was certifiable, stated that there was no language delay, and glared at me for basically wasting her time (it was summer after all). As soon as my child and I hit the sidewalk to walk the 1/4 mile home, the baby gibberish began again, and I had a VERY strong desire to return to the school, point to my child and say, "I'm NOT crazy! Listen to this!" The child wasn't diagnosed on the spectrum for another five years; the second child was diagnosed with eighteen months after the first. It took years of me repeating over and over that there was something not quite right for someone to listen and it nearly killed middle child's desire to attend school... but that is a post for another day.
    My point? Thank goodness you listened to your inner voice and so did your wife and you acted now. I'm glad your Weirdling #2 is getting the help that is needed and the interventions.

    1. Thank you for sharing, this is a wonderful comment and look at the other side. I'm sorry it took so long to get the help your kids needed. I had the same worry going in.

  2. Thank you so much for humanizing this dilemna. I have never had to be on "the other side of the table" but knowing you, and knowing your weirdly awesome teaching skills, it makes it clear to me that our super-spidey teacher senses are wonderful for helping to understand, but not enough to know. I will bring another level of empathy with me at the next IEP meeting I conduct.

    1. It's so weird that you think you have empathy, and then you realize you still don't know.

  3. We kept waiting for "things" to shake out for our younger son. They didn't. We spent a few years trying to find the best way to help him. We couldn't. Once he was diagnosed with a learning disability...and he may be dyslexic, they said...we thought we were done with all of that. Nope. As a teenager he experienced depression and such anxiety that he's been diagnosed with OCD. Today he is a working adult. Happy, healthy. Better adjusted than I. He knows who he is. He loves who he is. Having that sweet boy in my life has not only made me a better teacher - it's made me a better person. I listen to parents ...and what they're not saying. I pay close attention to kids. The other side of the desk is scary - but all of my "big learns" have been scary at first too. Well done, both of your for listening to your hearts and your heads. ❤️

  4. Being a parent and teacher, sometimes it's hard to know if what we are seeing is really what we are seeing because, well, we see a lot and it's hard to know if this is just something that is a hangover from being with students all day long. Our 4th daughter and 4th son -( we have eight in total - 4 girls followed by 4 boys) - are both speech delayed. It took us a long time to get a diagnosis for our daughter, Central Auditory Processing Delay is what I think is the official diagnosis. With my son, it's only been speech delays and issues but now there is concern about his reading, which is somewhat ironically since all 7 of his siblings are readers, my wife and I read but he's "not making the standard progress" which is somewhat hysterical because he can tell stories like a darn, draws, builds robots from all sorts of items, adds and does math like a boss and, well, I digress.
    For years my wife, who is a French Immersion Special Education Teacher, and I had to work at making sure there were supports for our daughter that were followed up on - she doesn't track well from board to paper, so note-taking was an issue and her fine-motor skills were weak thus, in combination with the tracking issue, meant that her notes were more like a horror story than anything resembling notes. We had to insist that she not be made to stay in at recess to finish notes and other things. In the end, with a great deal of consistent insistence, she graduated with honours but it required a number of "accommodations" and an insistence that there are many ways to show what you know and to demonstrate understanding.
    As an administrator who has sat in on many IEP meetings, my experience has been very helpful in being able to discuss different/difficult situations with parents, especially some parents who were reluctant or weren't ready for the process and has helped me to be more aware of the myriad of differences and their implications for children and their learning.
    In the end, it's about doing what's best for the child and my experience is that most parents just want what's best and, if we work cooperatively, seeking to do what is best, it's much easier to make progress. I know that this experience will help you in ways you haven't even begun to consider, that was my experience anyway. Best of luck to you and your family - enjoy your journey, it's an amazing wondrous adventure!