One of the most important parts of the special education process is the annual review, or IEP meeting. I do a lot of them–at least one per student on my caseload, sometimes more. And at times, I attend meetings for former or future students, as I did last week at the local middle school.
Brianna was a third grader when I met her, with coke-bottle glasses and a brilliant white-tooth smile, her hair always pulled back in impeccable cornrows. I come to love all the kids I work with, in one way or another, but warming up to Brianna took less than five seconds: she was, and is, a simply radiant child, all heart and good intentions. Her enthusiasm has always been contagious–even when it’s expressed as, say, running up to the principal and yelling, “Wow–look who’s PREGNANT!” on the first day of school. (She was. And she did, in fact, start showing in mid August. But she hadn’t, er, planned to say anything till Back To School night.)
Brianna had her ups and downs in the years in which I worked with her. She met her nemesis, long division, in the second half of 3rd grade, and wrestled mightily with it throughout her time at Greene Elementary. She bravely confronted her fear of bugs in gardening class, and soon she became the resident bug expert. She struggled at times to find her footing socially, both because of her innate pragmatic difficulties and because she has never toed the line on gender-driven interests: boys didn’t always know what to do with a girl ninja who play fought just as roughly as they did. In the spring of fifth grade, Brianna lost a close family member, and my heart broke at how her literal-mindedness simply rendered all the platitudes useless. Brianna challenged my understandings of autism with her absolute love and her baldfaced compassion. The day Brianna graduated was bittersweet for me.
I’ve followed Brianna’s continued adventures through ongoing contact with Mr. R., who coordinates a program like mine at the middle school level. And last week, I got a chance to see both of them in action, as Brianna conducted her own Student-Centered Planning Meeting, an informal sort of IEP.
Mr. R is one of Teacher Beth’s heroes from way back in the day. We graduated from the same credential program, but at different times, so that I had one foot out the door when he was walking into the building. Still, I remember the stories my professor told: there’s this teacher at an Oakland middle school who was given a severe autism classroom and broke down the walls. Instead of transferring, as I had done, from a special day class to an inclusion position, he simply took the caseload that he had and moved them, bit by bit, into general education classrooms–sweet-talking the teachers, convincing the parents, teaching the students themselves that they could succeed there. I found out that two of my former kindergartners were in his class–the boy who used to yell the Happy Birthday song and spin in circles during tantrums, the boy who hit himself in the head twenty times a day. Now spending a good bit of their days in science lab and PE, known and accepted by their typical peers. I had done my own set of miracles with those guys before he got them, but what Mr. R. accomplished was miraculous as well.
I’d visited Mr. R’s class a couple times since then. He transitioned from working with the most profoundly affected to students whose autism manifested more as Asperger’s–a bit less Happy Birthday and a little more angst. His students, like Brianna, typically have the academic capacity to work within shouting distance of grade level standards, but their behavioral/pragmatic difficulties often make them outliers in the social milieu. He coordinates wrap-around paraprofessional support in their general education classrooms, works with teachers to adapt instruction and monitor progress, and serves as a workshop/home base one period a day, leading lessons in perspective-taking and self-monitoring–everything from how to organize a three-ring binder to why you can’t say penis more than five times in 2 minutes without other people looking at you funny.
And last Tuesday…he lead an IEP I won’t soon forget. Or rather, Brianna led it, while he stood in the back right corner, typing on a laptop, projecting what he typed. Taking notes for Brianna as she conducted the meeting. There were fourteen of us present. Brianna, of course, and Mr. R.. A paraprofessional who had worked with her last year. Another special education teacher. The general education art and English teachers. Her father. The para who supported the program this year. And five classmates–three for whom this was their usual workshop period, two who had finagled their schedules to be there. Four were, if you looked, on the autism spectrum; one had a mild intellectual disability. Those labels were the smallest, least significant part. Brianna got us started as we each entered the room, by giving us a post-it note and pointing to a poster. “While you’re waiting, please write down any hopes and dreams you have for me.”
As I filled out my post-it, I took in the conversations and activities around me. A classmate of Brianna’s monologues about cell biology–organelles and cytoplasm and other words I didn’t catch. The para working with her interjects, building on her comment, and the student expresses absolute delight at their shared understanding; another adult, present for just the meeting, chuckles softly. Immediately, the student bristles: “Why is she laughing?” The para smooths things over: “She’s appreciating the conversation.” The adult nods, praises Isabel for what she knows about science. “Oh”, she says. “I thought I was being teased.”
In the background, sounds fly out from across the hallway where the class is for severe disabilities–a child is vocalizing, loudly, in protest. The boy two seats behind Isabel spins pencils while he waits. We put aside our post-its as Brianna chairs the meeting, shifting her gaze between the people in the room and the paper in her hands.
“Ahem. Thank you all for coming. Today we’ll be talking about my plans for the future and how to help me really become a young adult. When you get this talking piece, please share your answers to the questions I will ask.” Brianna holds up a plastic spider. “It’s special for Halloween.”
Solemnly, she begins, and the spider makes its rounds. “Question one. Who are you, and how do you know me?” We make our introductions: I’m her teacher. I’m her dad. The spider goes from parent to para to me, and then I pass it on to the student sitting to my left. He introduces himself, then stands up. Goes to the couch behind my chair, where a classmate is sprawled with a comic book in his hands, having not looked away from his couch since he got there. I suddenly realize that all three adults could have passed the spider to this boy, but all of us assumed he wasn’t part of the meeting–we may have assumed that he simply couldn’t speak. The boy looks up. “I met Brianna two years ago, and I’m very happy to help my friend find her hopes and dreams when she grows up.” I’ll give that kid the spider for the rest of the meeting. Each time, he’ll blow me away with the insight he shows.
“Describe who I am. Make comments about me.” The words come from middle-aged women and 13 year old boys, from her father and her classmate and the teacher down the hall. I recognize, in all of them, the things I have appreciated for years about Brianna, and the things that we all believe will help her, moving forth. Grace and dignity; determination. How caring she is. Her mind, “completely filled with wonderful thoughts”. How Brianna doesn’t hesitate to say how she feels. She sets a really good example for those around her. A girl takes the spider and is initially distracted by it, commenting on the bend of the legs before asking, “Shouldn’t we say something about how you’re good at ninjas and martial arts things? Cuz you said something about ninjas in the meeting last year.”
“Talk for a minute about your hopes and dreams for me.” The Kleenex starts to come out, as each of us shares a vision for her future. I talk, generically, about how I want Brianna to continue learning and growing; others are more specific. Go to college. Be an artist. One child’s quote is so precious I write it in my notes verbatim: “That you be a good friend to everyone, and also get better at video games while you’re doing that.” Earnestly, the art teacher talks about the possibility of some day going to the doctor’s office, and finding that Brianna’s a nurse there. “I can’t wait to see where you go, when you grow up.”
The spider returns to Brianna, and she introduces the next question. “Now, write on a Post-It about your fears and worries–what you don’t want to have happen to me.” We don’t say those aloud: it’s painful, even, to write them. I sugar-coat mine six ways from Sunday, couch it in terms of “how can we help?” Remembering the hard conversation I had with Mr. R last year about how Brianna’s academics remained below grade level, I wrote about the need to prioritize the key learning to keep her moving forward. Knowing that the outside world is a less kind place than the community Mr. R has built within his classroom, I wondered in my Post-It “how can we all help you stay strong when others don’t treat you right?” Others were less delicate, more honest, more real. “I worry that someone may try to hurt you.” “I don’t want you to drop out of school.” Brianna, herself, wrote a Post-It: “I don’t want to let high school change who I am and I am worried that it might happen.” We wrote, also, about the supports that could help her–talking to Mr. R., continuing to have understanding general ed teachers, maybe a bit of tutoring after school.
“What motivates me?” The group talked about how responsive Brianna is to praise and encouragement, how just ‘seeing people smile’ makes her want to do her best. The child on the couch is stimming with a wooden carving, flicking it repetitively with quick, slender fingers; I pass him the spider anyway. “What motivates you is you are determined, yourself, to do stuff.” In that sentence, he honors something about Brianna that the rest of us glossed over–that she is her own greatest motivator.
“Now, talk a little bit about my challenges and struggles.” As we go through our responses to this question it hits me, all at once. The absolute courage that it takes to be this child, standing in the front of the room, asking everyone she cares about to talk about what’s hard for her. I don’t think I could do it; I doubt many of us could do it. Brianna, at five, was diagnosed with a severe developmental disability, compounded by years of neglect and abuse at the hands of her mentally ill mother before her father gained custody: she was described in the report as rocking in the corner and repeating lines from Disney movies as her kindergarten teacher worked with the rest of the class. The psychologist was not convinced she’d ever speak in full, coherent, original sentences. That was the child who stands here, right now.
The paraprofessional observes, “I’ve seen you struggle with math.” Brianna nods: “It’s true.” Other little things come up–sometimes, it can be hard to find the main idea when she’s given a lot of written information. Finishing projects on time is a challenge. “It can be hard for you to, well, not be hard on yourself.” The spider is passed to a chubby 8th grade boy in sweatpants, seated uneasily in a wheeled office chair. “I really don’t know what you struggle with. I think you’re perfect”.
We move, now, to the goal-setting part of the meeting: Mr. R. takes the spider and tells us that the next step is to think of 2 or 3 specific goals we’d like Brianna to work on. The humanities teacher suggests that Brianna do an art project for English class, to creatively explore a novel that they’re reading. I suggest, given the recurring them of being hard on herself that came up during the ‘challenges’ part, she develop a list of kind things she would say to a friend, and practice saying them to herself when things aren’t going well for her. The spider goes to her father, who says, “My goal for you is that you feel like you can come to me with anything that’s on your mind.” Everyone in the room wipes their glasses at once.
Brianna ends the meeting with everyone given a chance to share something they liked about it. I honestly don’t hear most of the other folks in the room, because I am so busy dwelling on how very much I liked all of it–how Mr. R’s trust in his students and this process allowed something this beautiful to happen for us all. I have written, before in this space, about my need for control and how anxious I get when complicated social dynamics are at play: IEP meetings disquiet me at times because so many strong emotions come up, and I can never guarantee that people won’t upset each other. I can’t imagine myself doing what Mr. R. did–letting, nay requiring, his students to grapple in this public way with their needs and limitations and plans for next year. The honest truth is that I’m scared to do that–I want so very badly to protect my students and their families from uncertainty, disappointment, and risk that I sometimes avoid things I really should address. I am a damn fine teacher of elementary aged children–and I teach this age on purpose. Every time I do an IEP, I am silently grateful that I don’t have to answer the hard questions on the document–what will the transition plan look like, is this child in line for a diploma or not. As my students grow and age, they confront realities I wish I could shield them from, forever. But I can’t; it’s not necessarily always healthy to try.
My students, in elementary school, are not ready for, exactly, this kind of meeting. But watching Mr. R. and Brianna inspires me to take steps with them–at the very least, to check in with families, even in kindergarten, about whether their child knows about the meeting. And if they do, to ask if it’s all right for the child to be present for a part of it, even if it’s just to welcome all the ‘guests’. From there, year by year, perhaps I can build student participation in the IEP process, to bring more student voice into the goals that we set. It was an amazing thing, to watch Brianna and her friends partnering with the adults in describing her strengths, being honest about her challenges, and making plans for how she can continue to grow in her community. Student-centered planning meetings may seem like risky business, but today made me certain that they are worth the risk.
As I finished reflecting, internally, on what the meeting meant for me, the spider was passed to Isabel, the classmate who thought she was being teased for her interest in biology. “I thought the meeting was great, but I have a suggestion.” Mr. R. allowed her to continue, and she did: “I think, Brianna, you should stop worrying so much about the future. Because the future is supposed to be like a surprise. Let it be like a birthday present; let it come to you.” Her statement completed, she resumed braiding her hair, most likely completely unaware of how much the rest of us, just as much as Brianna, needed to hear that.
The rest of us (Isabel’s camera-shy) took a picture of everyone with Brianna, standing in front of the posters we’d made with the Post-Its we filled out. We’d come together to help Brianna and Mr. R. make a plan–they’d created for us a chance to remember how powerful a community can be for a child. The future’s uncertain for all of our young people, with and without special needs. Last week, though, reminded me: we can handle it together, and we take it year by year.