Thursday, April 22, 2010

Time and SPED Continuum

My son recently completed a vocational assessment that includes (among a myriad of metrics and clusters) a series of IEP ("individualized learning plan") templates for transitioning to adulthood.

The templates form the basis of goals, outcomes, and the actors and actions that bridge them together. The "actor" factoring is a goal in itself -- an elusive one at that. Why is this?

Other than the as-needed conferral no formal roles or responsibilities have been tasked to his high school. As a result my son is as far along in his transition plan as the school is in figuring out how to offer one.

The biggest obstacle to his ultimate goal -- living independently -- is not that he's incapable of achieving it, he can't learn how, or refuses any help. It's that his brain is a sieve. His powers of retention on matters of real world practicality are a great challenge to him. He operates under the use-it (or lose-it) dictum. A week of driver's ed could be undone by the following week of not driving.

The other (and more daunting) challenge is that he can't generalize what he learns, a.k.a. sensory integration. This is the whatever-happens-in-Vegas rule of learning disabilities. What he learns in one place remains tethered to the place in which he learns it. For example, he's a gifted writer. He's in touch with his feelings and his writing ability gives him an extraordinary command of expression.

So what would I or any proud parent wish from this -- that he brings home a Pulitzer? No, it's much simpler than that. I just want to see a sample or two of the writing from his Journalism Two class. However, it would never occur to him to use his Yahoo account to email me the files from the school computer. Absolutely no pathways between these two black holes in space.

The other roadblock around sensory integration is that the repetition becomes its own reward. For example, he attended Tae Kwon Do classes twice a week for over three years and advanced one belt. He tried out for the high school play in ninth grade. The cycle has repeated without any new skills or challenges to augment his experience or test his potential for drama, music, dance, etc. He is justifiably proud of his work with the school but is either too afraid or oblivious to take the next steps.

He tried a week of musical theater summer camp and loved it. Then he insisted on going to the same camp, attending the same program, and the same weekly session the following summer. Any guesses what he's decided the highlight of this year's summer will be? Ironically, he was given the chance to go for two weeks. That offer was not greeted with double the pleasure but triple the trauma. The formula had been messed with. There were no lines to remember. We had gone off script. It was worse than not going at all.

When someone instinctively sees two possibilities and creates two separate piles, how do you teach them to put two and two together? It's counter-intuitive (and frankly, infuriating) that this vocational assessment recommended picking between academics and vocations. This fork in the road wasn't determined by scope of need but by scarcity of time.

I reject this. He doesn't have all the time in the world. But he shall have all the time he needs -- and that vacuum will be filled by projects that address the three major pathways where all transition plans converge:

- academics
- social skills
- vocational plans

In each of the three templates we will begin in one and bridge over to the others -- not because he needs support in all three (he does) but because the crossing over these arbitrary boundaries is the key. That's how we push beyond brute force repetition so that he can rely on more than memorization for leaving his comfort zone -- his ticket to independence.

#1 Developing his story: Origination -- Academics

My son will take a high school English class. The literature will include stories where the main characters struggle with transitions to adulthood. He will be challenged to debate and discuss the motivations and frameworks referenced by each character in their relationships with adults and their peers. In terms of social skills he will use his PDA to schedule non-class time to discuss these works (or other coming-of-age concerns) with his peers. Vocationally he will script and tell "his" story to potential employers through the counseling he receives from Mass Rehab and the Franklin Hampshire Career Center.

#2 Producing his story: Origination -- Vocational Plans

My son will volunteer to do storytelling and character readings at local libraries, nursing homes, and other community gatherings. In terms of life skills he will plan his route to these venues via mass transit, car, or both. He will buy appropriate dress for these appearances. Academically he will work on augmenting his theatricality with dance or video production courses at school. He will use these new skills to showcase his talents through choreography and/or shooting/editing a production of his performance.

#3 Working in a group: Origination -- Life Skill

The life skill here is practical number-crunching or what the IEP calls "consumer math." This is not about the hypothetical word problems that seem to end in the number of miles a car travels based on the size of its gas tank. This is about "his" money and where it travels in transactions and how to plan these travels, a.k.a. budgeting. Fundraising is where my son meets the financial road. It's not only problem-solving. It's social. It's academic -- certainly in terms of keeping school programs afloat. It's something he cares about.

Once he's introduced to fiscal spreadsheet logic he will need to plan an event around raising money for a school-related cause; let's say a dance to raise money for the theater program. The vocational piece is to create a web page on Face Book that drums up awareness of the $ need and creates buzz around the dance: who's going, what the deejay will be spinning, dancing-with-the-stars prizes, etc.

The academic part of this comparing the initial fundraising goal with how well the event plays out. What adjustments will he make for next time? How does this help him to plan his own financial goals or career assets -- especially if he decides to work in social services where funding and fundraising go hand in hand.

* * *

The IEP meeting is next week. Let's hope that a little cross-over thinking will help learners like my son to learn both on the job and integrate the learning that lies ahead.

I know it sounds like I'm pushing my son and pushy parents are reprehensible. But I don't wish him to become anything other than a soul who finds his own way while he's here. Perhaps I'm trying to pull him. That may well be true. Either way I'm certainly not the only one pulling for my son.

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