Proactive Steps for Transitioning within or between Schools

For parents with school-aged children, the idea of transitioning with or between entirely new schools can be anxiety-producing. How will my child handle the change of environment, schedule, routine and peers? How can I get a head start on making the transition as smooth as possible? What if things do not go smoothly? Who can I turn to for guidance? All of these questions are not only typical, but valid as well. Below are suggestions and ideas for parents whose children are transferring to a different school, or who will be experiencing a major transition within the current school.

Attitude is everything: For children who are just beginning preschool, Pre-K, or kindergarten, the initial transition from home life to school life can be challenging on many different levels. To ease the process right from the start, parents should be cognizant of how they react to the transition, as well as deliberate in how they portray their own attitude towards school. Parents and older siblings should intentionally speak of school as a positive, exciting new experience. A positive attitude towards school promotes the idea that this is a beneficial change in the child’s lifeit allows young children to become excited about the “newness” of the experience, as opposed to becoming frightened of the unknown. Discuss some of the new things that he or she will get to learn and participate in. Talk about the new friends they will make. Shed plenty of light on the great adventures that school providesperhaps start a countdown to encourage excitement about the transition, instead of dread.

Even for older students, attitude is completely contagious. If children and teens sense stress or anxiety coming from you about the school changes, they are certainly more likely to internalize those emotions. Therefore, if your middle or high schooler is experiencing a transfer or major schedule change, their first line of support and initial dose of positivity should come from you, the parents. Validate their concerns by listening and not dismissing their feelings, but be ready to put a positive spin on their concerns and provide solutions to their perceived worries.  

Do your research: To remove the intimidating shroud of the unknown, encourage any orientation, meet-and-greet, playdate, school tour, or mentorship that the new school might offer. For older students, check to see if their clubs, organizations, or extracurricular activities from the previous school exist at the new school. If so, get a jumpstart on registration, forms, and physicals for athletics. If your child or teen functions best when they know what is coming down the pike, ask the school about seeing your child’s class schedule or possibly meeting teachers in advance of the start date.

Guidance counselors are always a go-to for parent support, but networking through the PTA is another great resource. Members of the PTA are obviously involved in the school and in tune with the goings on in the school community. Fundraisers, parent meetings, and social events provide an opportunity for new parents to get involved, ask questions, and thus provide a sense of comfort to their child as “the new kid.” As much as information is power, parents new to a school’s community should be somewhat wary of the rumor mill, as this can paint facets of the school in a negative or incorrect light. Remember that any sort of listserv, blog post, or review could be biased or wholly untrue.

Focus on what’s important: Especially for middle and high schoolers, a transfer or transition to another program or school can mean a sharp learning curve, or even an initial decline in grades. Remind your student that anything new or unfamiliar is going to present its share of challenges, but this should not create discouragement. If grades slip or stress builds, reinforce your teen’s sense of self-worth by placing the focus on their other strengths. Remind him or her that a grade is simply one measure of their learningit is not indicative of one’s intelligence or capabilities.

Set aside time to acknowledge small wins or slight victories as a means of boosting self-esteem. Remind your child of the potential for growth that comes with challenges and obstacles. Then, encourage your teen to put the emphasis on gradual growth and improvementnot a solitary grade or score.   

High School Guidance Counselors and Advisors: Key Questions for Grads, Part II

To continue the suggestions of under-utilized questions for potential college freshman to consider, we must prompt students to think about how campus size will directly affect their experience.

Small fish in a large pond, or large fish in a small pond? Again, heading off to Penn State, I knew the basic population of students on main campus. What I was not fully cognizant of, however, was how the roughly 50,000 students on campus would greatly alter the academic and social setting, thus transforming the whole experience in unanticipated ways. To my own fault, in the pamphlet and at first glance, student enrollment simply seemed like an arbitrary measure. However, upon showing up to my first lecture for a political science introductory course, the true representation of the campus size revealed itself. My 400+ class involved zero peer interaction, discussion, or engagement. There was no attendance or accountabilitywhich meant you could show up or not, as long as you were present for the midterm and final exam. While some students may thrive on the anonymity of such a setting, it wasn’t until I was immersed in it that I realized that it wasn’t for me.

Guidance counselors and advisors are invaluable resources to help prepare students for the actual experience that a university will present, helping students to better gauge their preferences. Asking questions like, “Do you prefer to fly under the radar of anonymity in class, or are you looking for more personal support from professors and instructors?” “Do you want to see, recognize, and acknowledge classmates as you pass through campus, or do you prefer to encounter, dine with, and meet new people every day?” “Depending on the campus, do you want a quick, walkable commute to your classes, or do you prefer a sprawling walk or bus ride to your lecture halls?” “Do you want to seek out a close-knit group of friends, or do you prefer to fall in naturally with the people that you get to know in the smaller setting?”

All of these questions relate to the day-to-day experiences that students will need to consider before making a decision. Another suggestion, especially with regard to class size, would be to encourage students to sit in on a few classes if possible. A campus tour shows much of the environment, but experiencing classes firsthand allows high schoolers to get a taste of how their education will look. Of course, as students progress and select majors and areas of study, the class sizes will shrink. However, the first 1-2 years of gen eds will reveal the true nature of a large state school versus the small liberal arts environment.

How could you realistically combine your strengths and interests to serve as your leg up in the workforce? This question is difficult for several different reasons. First, it forces students to look critically at their abilities and academic assets. Secondly, this question prompts students to look to the future and anticipate what they might choose as a prospective career, which can be intimidating and stressful. And finally, this question requires students to synthesize two concepts, (strengths and interests), which they may have never thought to combine. The complexity of the question, even if unanswered, helps students to envision how the university will act as a stepping stone toward their development into a self-assured, contributing member of society.

Considering this question also helps students to potentially narrow their post-secondary options. If their strength in math and interest in working with children lead them toward an education major, that student should ensure that their university offers an undergraduate education program. Does the school have a strong math department? Are their teaching internships or volunteer opportunities offered through the university? Would a study abroad program allow for teaching experience overseas? Again, these follow-up questions motivate high schoolers to look more critically at their college options to guarantee that their choices end up checking all of the necessary boxes.

How familiar do you want college to feel? Advisors and guidance counselors will want to ask students about their comfort level regarding the school’s climate, setting, history, demographics, etc. If the school has a reputation for its athletics and Greek life, students may want to consider how much they plan to participate or value those traditions. Are students looking for a serene, lush campus, removed from hustle of the surrounding areas? Or do they prefer a campus immersed in the culture of a thriving city? Do they want to experience cultures, practices, languages, and people outside of their own upbringing? Or do they want to live and study where they feel “at home” and included?

Encourage students to consider which types of school settings and locations will provide them with the most opportunities for growth. Of course, the response will vary from student to student. The goal is for them to envision their ideal college experience and then follow that knowledge.

Finally, not so much a question as it is a consideration: you can always change your mind. Choosing, enrolling, and moving onto campus is not a binding decision. As much as we would like for students to find their niche or match on the first try, this is not always the case. As much as Penn State ended up as a mismatch for me, my time there allowed me to see more clearly what I was looking for in the college experience. Sometimes you have to see what you don’t want before you can realize what you do want. In my case, transferring helped me to appreciate the change of pace, cultural environment, and different class structures that the University of Pittsburgh provided. So as much as we’d like to guide them in the right direction, students should also know that they can always diverge or detour.             

High School Guidance Counselors and Advisors: Key Questions for Grads, Part I

Guidance counselors and advisors at the secondary level have their work cut out for them. Not only are they responsible for the social, emotional, and academic well-being of each child, but their position also requires a great deal of research, recommendations, and paperwork during the college admissions process. I think back to the stress of my own college search, application, and admissions processand let me just say, I would never wish to relive that tumult. Now, think about the fact that, on top of their regular day-to-day roles in schools, guidance counselors also perform that monstrous college application process year after year for hundreds of students at a time.

With the end of the school year approaching, the nation’s high school graduates will be heading off to prove their college and career readiness in no time. Meanwhile, a whole new crop of high school juniors will be starting the college search and application process, continuing through the revolving door that is their high school’s guidance and advising office. A whole host of questions will be thrown at these young, eager students. However, what piques my interest are the many questions that aren’t typically askedquestions that, while they may be less standard, are very telling when students are in the midst of the college search.

How close is too close? There are pros and cons to looking and staying closer to home when heading off to college. Some students find a sense of comfort knowing that parents and siblings are a short drive away. Some even prefer to live at home and commute to campus for their daily classes. Not only will the comforts of homelike laundry and homecooked mealsbe provided daily, but commuters save thousands of dollars on room and board by living at home.

A drawback to this, of course, is the fact that the “true” college experience becomes sacrificed when students live at home. Dorm life, communal dining, late-night cram sessions, and weekend events are all part of living on campus, especially during freshman year. If students have the option to commute to campus, they may still prefer to forgo their childhood bedroom in favor of the independence that campus life brings. It all depends on the person, but ask them, “What is more important to youmaintaining consistency and familiarity, having family support and saving money, or independence, responsibility, putting yourself out there with new people, and the genuine freshman on campus experience?

What do you like to do on the weekends? This may sound like your typical, run-of-the-mill, “icebreaker” question, but the intent behind it is crucial for students who are on the fence between vastly different post-secondary schools. My own experience at Penn State proved to be defining, and perhaps, had I truly considered what my downtime in college would look like, I likely would have made a different decision. Beyond the course loads, exams, and hours spent studying, college life involves a great deal of downtime, especially for students who have masterfully planned a leisure-conducive course schedule.

With this in mind, students need to be ready to fill their time with activities other than parties and naps. In my own case, once the excitement of Penn State’s football season died down, the once bustling Happy Valley became a pretty bleak, homogeneous cow pasture (in my personal opinion). At that point, due to my own ignorance/naivete, I hadn’t really thought about what life would look like during a never-ending winter in rural Pennsylvania. Of course, campuses offer an endless amount of extracurricular options. From clubs, intramural sports, and philanthropic organizations, to mixers, academic workshops, and hobby groupsthe options are limitless. Students just need to ask themselves, “What do I really like to do?” Then be sure that those interests are well-represented at the universities that they’re eyeing.    

How to Plan for Summer Learning Opportunities—Middle School

Here we arewe find ourselves in the middle of spring, with summer just around the corner! As the school year begins to wind down, summer learning opportunities are likely to be the last thing on a middle school student’s mind. As much as preteens and teens would prefer to set aside the school work for a while, the truth is, summer learning opportunities enrich students’ academics and prevent the typical learning gaps that summer can bring. That said, now is the perfect time to begin to look at options for educational summer plans. Whether debating between formal summer school options, camps, or groups, or if you are looking at less structured options for learning, there are a plethora of options for engaging your middle schooler in some summer learning opportunities!

For students entering middle school, the summer after 5th grade can be the perfect opportunity for students to begin accruing their SSL (Student Service Learning) hours toward their 75hour graduation requirement. Volunteer work, even outside of fulfilling the SSL graduation requirement, allows families to investigate certain needs in their community and reach out to those organizations by volunteering their time. The first step when helping your middle schooler decide how to proceed with their SSL hours is to discuss and identify specific community needs and the service options available to meet those needs. For instance, if your teen is particularly interested in “going green” projects, help him or her explore the local organizations devoted to preservation, recycling, or other green initiatives. Beyond working toward a graduation requirement, through service, middle schoolers begin to develop a sense of independence, responsibility, advocacy, self-worth, cooperation, strategizing, and goal-setting. The service opportunities, especially in our area so close to D.C., are truly limitless.

For some outofthebox learning opportunities for your middle schooler, check out Montgomery County Recreation and Parks Summer Guide for 2018. There you will find summer camps for all ages and interests. For children on the younger side of middle school with a culinary interest, options such as Baking Boot Camp, Cook Offs, and Food & Fitness are great programs to get them learning all about their culinary talents. For older middle schoolers with a tech savvy spark, MoCo offers camps for robotics, game development, filmmaking, lego engineering, Youtubing, and a long list of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) camps. For your active middle schooler always on the go, check out the many sports and outdoor camps, which offer everything from kayaking, lacrosse, karate, and flag football, to horseback riding, archaeology, and ultimate frisbee.    

If you are in need of activities that are even more subtle in terms of instruction, below are a few options and ideas that are less structured than camps or courses, but still allow for some learning in disguise.

When planning a vacation or long weekend over the summer, allow your middle schooler to complete a little research of the location. Depending on what they are able to find, perhaps have them plan an activity or select a “hot spot” for the family to check out during the trip. This subtle activity allows middle schoolers to put their research skills to the test for a real-world purpose.

Provide tokens or incentives for middle schoolers to try out new chores or ways of helping around the house. For instance, teach your teen how to mow the lawn and monitor his lawn mowing skills until he’s mastered the routine. Challenge your child to a laundry competition, in which you race to sort or fold laundry. Plan a sibling versus sibling cook-off, with each parent acting as the sous chef or supervisor of the cooking battle. Subtle challenges such as these allow preteens and teens to attempt new skills or tasks without the pressure of outright school work.

Select a series of movies versus books to read and binge watch together during the rainy summer days/nights. Read and watch together as a family, then discuss which version was better and why. Talk about how the characters either did or did not represent what each person had imagined in their head. Were there any glaring differences between the book and the movie?

How to Plan for Summer Learning Opportunities—High School

For most high school students, there is nothing more exciting than the approaching summer months. At this point in the school year, much of the attention is focused on the freedom, leisure, and flexibility that starts as soon as that final school bell rings. Consequently, as the school year begins to wind down, summer learning opportunities are hardly even a consideration for high school students. They are more concerned about having a break from learning and school work. That said, there are ways that parents can promote various essential learning opportunities for high schoolers over the summer.

An obvious item on the to-do list is for high schoolers to explore their college and university preferences. Besides the thousands of books, websites, information sessions, and other resources that students can consult, summer provides high schoolers with the luxury to actually visit the schools that have piqued their interests. Depending on a high schoolers age, financial and academic options, and overall plans for the future, parents will want to encourage a various range of college visits over the summer. Parents should also encourage high schoolers to visit more schools than they anticipate applying for. The more campuses, schools, and programs that students are exposed to, the better prepared they will be when decision time comes. Additionally, high school students will want to visit schools on alternate ends of the “spectrum.” For instance, students should get the feel for a small liberal arts college versus a larger state school, a school within a closer proximity to home versus one that is farther away, schools with a heavy Greek or athletic following versus schools with a more academic focus.

For students nearing graduation, the summer months may be the final opportunity for students to accrue their remaining SSL (Student Service Learning) hours toward their 75hour graduation requirement. At this stage in the game, admissions officers will look for trends in service and community outreach to get a better idea of the student as a whole. Encourage your high school student to think about programs, foundations, or charities that connect to their future career goals or specific strengths. Again, these service hours contribute to the holistic picture that a high school graduate’s application will paint.

Encourage your high schooler to look into part-time summer employment. More than the extra cash that he or she will pocket, the vital lessons that a first job can provide are truly priceless. The résumé, application, and interview process alone can give high schoolers a real taste of what college and career readiness looks like. Additionally, a summer job, no matter how small, prepares students for adulthood by providing practice of major life skills. Time management, listening skills, following instructions, communication skills, and working in a team or collaborative setting are just a few of the things that I learned from my part-time summer jobs in high school. Furthermore, no matter the job, the employment itself shows admissions officers and hiring managers that this person is reliable, can handle responsibility, and can multitask while taking direction. If nothing else, the summer job provides your high schooler with a sense of independence and self-worth—there is nothing like the satisfaction that comes with that first earned paycheck! (A professional reference never hurts either!)

How to Plan for Summer Learning Opportunities—Elementary

As the school year begins to wind down, summer learning opportunities may be the last thing on a child’s mind. However, now is the perfect time to begin to look at options for educational summer plans. Whether debating between formal summer school options, camps, or groups, or if you are looking at less structured options for learning, we have plenty ideas for your elementary schooler!

For students entering kindergarten, first, or second grade, Montgomery County Public Schools offers additional instruction and enrichment focused primarily on literacy and math skills. This free, fiveweek summer program is offered at over 20 elementary schools around the county. The typical 4-hour session has been extended to 6.5 hours and will include additional instruction involving the arts and sciences. The Extended Learning OpportunitySummer Adventures in Learning (ELO SAIL) provides free bus transportation to and from the elementary school from various neighborhood stops. The program also provides students with breakfast and lunch during the duration of the program. Parents can find out more about the ELO SAIL program and how to register through the MCPS website.

A similar program, ELO STEP, Summer Title I Enrichment Program, provides learning and enrichment opportunities in programming and advanced mathematics for students in grades 3, 4, and 5 who are enrolled in a Title I school. While selection is limited to a specific criteria of students, the free 5-week program offers rigorous instruction focused around critical thinking skills, advanced mathematical concepts, and hands-on learning experiences for elementary schoolers. Visit the MCPS website or call 240-740-4600 to obtain additional information.

A less structured summer learning opportunity for elementary schoolers might involve planning for Student Service Learning (SSL) hours. While students cannot begin to accrue SSL hours until they have exited grade 5 and begun middle school, the summer months offer great opportunities to get your elementary schooler thinking about what type of service projects he or she might be interested in for the upcoming school year. Volunteer work, even outside of fulfilling the SSL graduation requirement, allows families to investigate certain needs in their community and reach out to those organizations by offering or volunteering their time. If your elementary schooler is an animal lover or avid nature-seeker, consider contacting a local shelter, veterinary clinic, state park, or community group to see how your child could begin volunteering, even if on a casual basis. The key here is to allow your elementary schoolers to begin to seek out activities, causes, and needs that interest them. Once they reach middle school, and these hours begin to work towards their graduation requirement, children will have already had the experience of joining a new group, working with others for a common goal, and socializing with people of different age ranges and backgrounds.

Consider using chores or allowances as opportunities for older elementary schoolers to learn about financial responsibility, budgeting, and money management. Instead of simply handing over the cash or “prize” for completing their weekly chore chart, talk with your children about why they earned what they did. Talk about what actions it may take to earn more or what might cause them to earn less money. Then, ask them if there is something specific that they would like to save for. Help them plan out a saving schedule or system that helps them to accumulate their earnings toward that goal. Help them track their saving and spending so that they begin to understand how to plan for money coming in and money going out. Additionally, talk about how to keep track of or store cash. Where should your child not take cash? How should cash be handled or not handled? These informal financial lessons disguise summer learning while providing real-world applications and skills.

Teaching Self-Advocacy at Home Pt. II

In part I, we discussed how parents can introduce the concept of self-advocacy with the use of sentence frames, conversation pointers, and self-reflection. Once children begin to understand their needs at home and school, self-advocating becomes much easier.

  • Self-advocacy is all about speaking up; however, listening is also a primary part of getting the information that you need. Therefore, when instructing children on how to voice their needs, parents should be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Whenever children ask a question, voice a concern, or seek a response, they must be prepared to listen and absorb the information that they receive. Parents can discuss how eye contact allows other people to recognize that they have your attention. Additionally, body position and nodding are obvious cues that you are engaged and listening. All of these practices demonstrate active listening skills and help children fully absorb or comprehend the response or information that they are getting. When children ask a question, they should be able to paraphrase the response and formulate a follow-up or clarifying question if necessary. This demonstrates whether or not they were actively listening.

  • As young learners, children are just beginning to understand themselves as students, which means that their learning needs are somewhat unknown to them. Parents can ask questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” and “When do you think that learning is the most difficult?” Answers to these questions will vary and change as children develop skills for managing their academic progress, but the ability to self-reflect is an essential component of self-advocacy.

  • Again, practicing sentence frames and hypothetical scenarios can help put children at ease when it comes time for them to advocate for themselves when their parents are not there to speak for them. Remind children that they can and should ask questions when they are confused about something, especially at school. Parents can also coach children on how to ask direct and specific questions. As opposed to, “Is this good?” or “Is this right?” Children should practice zoning in on concepts that are true roadblocks. In narrowing in on the specific question or need, children will obtain a more specific and helpful response.

  • Parents should encourage children to vocalize their confusion, stress, worries, or desire for help readily. The whole purpose of school is to seek and gain knowledge and experiences that propel them forward. In this sense, the more children ask, the more they will know. Explain to them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For exceptionally shy children, encourage them to speak to the teacher or adult off to the side or one-on-one, instead of in front of the whole class. This will ease them into the concept of self-advocacy by removing the peer attention and anxiety that speaking up in a full classroom may bring.

  • For children with IEP or 504 accommodations, parents should be especially clear with children about requesting their accommodations and supplementary aides. Of course, this comes with practice and familiarity with their own educational plan, however children with specific learning needs benefit greatly from their ability to take an active role in vocalizing these needs.

Teaching Self-Advocacy at Home Pt. I

Self-advocacy is an essential skill for children to master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. Parents can help children foster this necessary life skill by providing them with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood—and the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing. For the major part of many children’s lives, parents accommodate a child’s every need. Often times, parents are there to swoop in to the rescue before their children even know that they need something. To begin teaching self-advocacy, parents will want to introduce the concept in small steps by encouraging children to first recognize then vocalize their needs.

Ask your child if he or she knows or recognizes the sensation of hunger or thirst. What does it feel like if you are starting to get hungry or thirsty? Do you hear your grumbling tummy? Do you feel agitated or restless? If you’re hungry, but I haven’t offered you a snack, what can you do to make sure that you get what you need? Similarly, ask your child to describe what it feels like when they are too hot, too cold, or need to go to the bathroom. Do you see goosebumps? Do you start to feel clammy or sweaty? Does your skin pigment, fingertips, lips change color? Does your tummy hurt or feel funny? Do you get jumpy or distracted?

These questions may seem overly simplistic; however, the idea behind such basic conversations is that your child begins to actively recognize what his or her body needs and when. These types of questions are especially important for children with autism because of the tendency to struggle to make observations. Children on the spectrum may find it difficult to sense time or communicate frustration or other emotions. They may also experience an inability to perceive unsafe or harmful situations, which makes it difficult for them to distinguish their wants from their needs. Therefore, when children are aware of their needs, they can begin to vocalize them. This is especially important when children head to school and no longer have a parent to accommodate their every need at the drop of a hat.

Parents can then begin to instruct children on how to appropriately ask for what they need. Practice using sentence frames for different scenarios and discuss the difference between “I want” and “I need.”  Talk about how to distinguish between an emergency or an immediate need and something that can be met or accomplished later or eventually. Discuss instances in which your child should politely say “no thank you” versus vehemently saying “no!” Instruct your child about the appropriate occasions and means of getting someone’s attention, interrupting a conversation, or asking a personal question. By role-playing certain scenarios or conversations, parents can begin to prepare their children with positive communication skills and self-advocacy tools.

Teaching Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

As teachers, we aim for our students to become more autonomous and confident as the year progresses. In addition to the content area that we are instructing and the academic skills they will need moving forward, educators also focus a great deal of instruction on essential life-long learning skills. Self-advocacy is one of these essential skills that students must master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. In addition to parents working to build self-advocacy skills at home, teachers can assist in that development as well by providing students with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood. And the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing. For some students, especially younger or inherently shy children, asking a teacher for help can be intimidating. Because of this, educators should equip students with multiple methods and strategies to foster self-advocacy and decision-making skills.

  • Teachers may choose to explicitly instruct students about what it means to be your own advocate. Depending on the age and needs of the students, the talking points could vary from classroom to classroom, but the take-away is the same: self-advocacy is all about speaking up for what you need and finding ways to obtain those needs with or without someone’s help.

  • Teachers should also be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Yes, self-advocates are expected to speak up; however, they are also expected to listen to the answer or response that they are seeking. Talk about how eye contact, body position, nodding, etc. are practices to enhance and demonstrate active listening skills. Remind students that, if listening attentively, they should be able to summarize or paraphrase what the other person just said.

  • For students to become strong self-advocates, they must be able to reflect and self-assess. Teachers should prompt students to consider their strengths and weaknesses as learners. The answers to questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” allow students to see themselves as learners in progress. This self-reflection also encourages students to recognize in which scenarios they will need to stretch their self-advocacy muscle by asking for assistance.

  • Students can also learn a great deal about how to advocate for themselves as learners by looking at their likes and dislikes in school. Ask students to not only list their likes and dislikes, but explain why they feel that way about certain activities. A student who admittedly hates reading because he struggles to remember what he read will begin to understand that comprehension, summarizing, and recall are skills that he may need help developing.

  • For students that are exceptionally shy or hesitant to speak up, self-advocacy can be a challenging practice. Encourage these reluctant students by providing alternative options for them to voice their questions, concerns, and comments. With the help of technology, teachers are able to poll students digitally and see their responses in real time. Teachers can also provide students with a question or suggestion box, in which students can convey their needs in writing without getting the whole class involved. Teachers can also help students begin to feel more at ease about speaking up for themselves by creating small group activities, partnered work, academic language frames, sentence starters, and call-and-response practices. These types of activities remove the intimidation factor and allow the more reserved students the opportunity to practice self-advocacy.

504 vs. IEP for Parents

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and 504 Plans, while similar in that they support students’ needs, are also quite different when it comes to how they support students and how they are implemented within the school system. Below is a useful outline to help parents, educators, and children differentiate between the two services.

EXPLANATION 504 IEP
In simple terms, what is each plan? An educational outline designed to help students access their learning in school An educational outline designed to map out a student’s special education experiences throughout their schooling
How does each plan work? For students with disabilities or major health impairments, a 504 provides specific modifications or accommodations so that learning is not impeded or interfered with For students with at least one of the specific learning disabilities listed in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP guarantees specialized modifications, accommodations, and instructional services so that learning obstacles are removed
Who qualifies according to the law? A child with a disability, health condition, or medical need that substantially limits or interferes with a student’s daily life functioning qualifies for a 504 under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act A child with a specific learning disability listed in IDEA, including attention difficulties, is affected to the point that their learning needs cannot be met in the general education system alone. A student qualifies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
How does the evaluation work in schools? Students must be evaluated and diagnosed by a professional, but parents typically must acquire the diagnosis on their own Students must be evaluated and diagnosed with a documented learning disability that affects their success in a general education classroom. Students can be evaluated by the school’s psychologist or request a private, outside evaluation
Who has a hand in the creation of each plan? The guidelines for the 504 are less restrictive; typically the parents, teachers, any special educators who are familiar with the child, administration create the plan Legally, the creation of an IEP is more specific, and usually includes the parents, one or more of the child’s general education teachers, a school psychologist or private specialist at the request of the parents, the child’s special education case manager, and usually the schools special education department head
What are the key aspects of each plan? Again, a 504 plan is the less restrictive of the two; it will typically include a list of accommodations, classroom or instructional modifications, health care instructions or details, and how teachers and other school personnel will implement and track the student’s progress Since the IEP is a signed, legal document, it is more extensive; it will include past and current academic data points, test scores, evaluation findings, and any other cognitive, behavioral, or social test results. Based on these score reports and teacher reports, the IEP team will draft academic, social, and/or behavioral goals for the student to work towards. The plan will also include how the progress will be measured/assessed, which instructional and testing accommodations will be used, and supplementary aides and services that the school will provide with the help of the special education department. Finally, the IEP plan will include details about the frequency of the accommodations and how the student will participate in standardized testing.