Arlington Special Education PTA
January 2018 Monthly Meeting
Syphax Education Center
2110 Washington Blvd, Rooms 101/103
Arlington, VA 22204
Report from the Treasurer:
- Total paid membership is below target
- Former SEPTA President Nick Walkosak and current President Caroline Levy noted several perks of membership (list serve, website, exclusive access to certain content on website such as video of past Unstuck and On Target program).
Nick Walkosak shared information relating to the Arlington Public Schools’ Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI). The School Board mandates a body to assess different aspects of instruction and provide recommendations. One rep from each elementary school and two reps from each middle and high school contribute to subcommittees (e.g., math, social studies, special education, etc.). There is also parent involvement. Committees meet throughout the year and come up with recommendations for each area of focus. They provide recommendations to the School Board, and then the School Board can act on any or all of them. Nick is seeking feedback from SEPTA memberships on the rubric. The areas are assessed with reference to various objectives including student achievement, consistency across APS, budget, etc. The process helps the School Board focus its resources. There are fourteen recommendations total; Nick has distributed the reports and summaries to the list serve, and is seeking feedback from everyone – as much or as little as people have.
An example of a recommendation, for science, calls for additional staffing and opportunities for older students to visit the Outdoor Lab. Currently only elementary school students have regular visits to the Outdoor Lab.
Caroline Levy gave a preview of future SEPTA meetings, including a session on anxiety in February and a summer activities fair on a weekend in February.
Presentation from Professor Linda Gulyn on Bullying:
Professor Gulyn has four boys, three in high school at Yorktown and one in the Multi-Intervention for Students with Autism (MIPA) program at Wakefield. She has done a lot of research on psychology and special needs, social aspects of autism, etc. Tonight’s topic is bullying and special needs. She is interested in our perspectives and experiences. She started by asking the audience, which types of children with special needs are most likely to be targets of bullying. Answers proposed by audience: immigrants, children with intellectual disabilities, children with down syndrome; all ages, 8-12, middle school, high school.
According to Professor Gulyn, bullying typically begins when kids become less self-centered and start engaging in social comparisons, plus when there is less supervision of them. The development of aggression against kids who are different peaks in 6th, 7th, 8th grade but it can start much earlier. The peer dimension to bullying – others joining in or encouraging taunting and teasing – adds to it. Peers can cultivate it, but they can also be one of the biggest solutions.
Research shows that the students with special needs who are at the highest risk are those on the autism spectrum, particularly the high end of the spectrum. (Although this is hard to research, because it is operating at the peer level among kids.) Children with autism are integrated with the general community a lot more. They have a hard time picking up on cues from their peers. Her son really likes to talk about birthdays. He likes to ask everyone about their birthdays and will remember everyone’s birthday. She thinks it’s cute, but many 17 year olds don’t think it’s cool. He will not pick up on it when people don’t want to hear about it any more. Children on the spectrum also often have no filter, so they might say whatever pops into their heads.
There are several students with high-functioning autism at Marymount. She has observed other students pointing and laughing at college-age students with autism. Social skills get worse as the demands for using inferences and picking up on social cues increase. There are high degrees of self-consciousness, and everyone’s bodies are changing. Low tolerance for frustration along with poor self-regulation skills also add to the problem – children on the spectrum might have unusual reactions to something frustrating. Other students might assume that because a child is intelligent and “typical” in some areas, then his or her unusual behavior is a choice. When kids don’t “look” like they have special needs, they just seem weird.
Also, other students are not well educated on disabilities. There is an inconsistency in the level of education people have about disabilities, particularly the subtle ones that are not immediately obvious. They may be inclined to please other kids, and be susceptible to attempts to get them to give lunch money, dessert, etc., or to engage in inappropriate behavior and get in trouble. The child with special needs might not know how to get help or advocate for him or herself. Some kids do not even realize they are being bullied, or do not report it. In social skills class, students will often practice things like asking each other, “what kind of ice cream do you like?” A better topic might be practicing self-advocacy: “I don’t like that.”
Q from audience: where is the line between “normal” taunting and teasing and bullying. Response: many psychologists are interested in that, and there is a lot of research. Some kids with disabilities spend a lot of time alone, e.g., in their rooms or at a table in the cafeteria. Ask why. Is it because they want to be alone or it is part of the disability, or is it because they are afraid, anxious, depressed? You know your kid. Not wanting to go to school, spending more time than usual alone, changes in diet or energy level, etc. Look at aspects of mental health to help assess. Are there changes in behavior?
Q: how do we assess whether there is bullying when our child sometimes has a hard time articulating what happened? (the “unreliable narrator” problem) The word “bullying” is used a lot, and may need to be defined. Bullying is persistent, threatening, fearful behavior that interferes with the child’s enjoyment of life, vs. the occasional “you’re weird” comment.
Relational aggression is when kids ostracize other kids (kids don’t sit with them, or reject them on the playground). If a child is walking around by himself – is it because he has autism and likes to be alone, or is it because he has autism and is being ostracized? Another example is when aggressive kids will trigger a meltdown. They know where the sensitivities are, and will trigger a meltdown. For example, taking a child’s clarinet so that he will freak out, and then laughing at him.
Another example: her son loves to dance, and one time the family went to McDonalds. They were playing music and he was dancing in the middle of the dining room, having a great time. Some other kids videotaped him and put it up on Snapchat. He was mocked for doing that, and she only found out because her other son in 8th grade happened to see kids watching the video. Being exploited for simply being yourself is bullying, in her book. Stuff like this – cyberbullying – happens in the general ed community, too. It is hard for parents to even notice or be aware of it.
When girls start getting interested in boys, they might go online and say they love someone, and then they’ll be mocked for that. That is another possible example of cyber bullying.
Kids need to have the language to stick up for themselves. Programs targeted to kids with social competence problems, where they have pals/allies/fellow kids who can help them, would be helpful. Peers could often be the ones to identify when bullying happens (e.g., in the locker room). Best Buddies is one possibility. She thinks there needs to be an army of kids who are present and acting as advocates and ambassadors right there in the peer level, where we as adults cannot be.
She helps her son avoid certain behaviors that could be targeted – e.g., blurting things out without thinking – and also encourages her other kids to be advocates among their peers. There is sometimes a dynamic where a higher functioning kid will be extra critical of a lower functioning kid – they are recognizing something in others that they see themselves, and projecting it out onto someone else.
An audience member shared that she has a child in first grade who has been beat up by third graders; he has allergies and other kids will sit at the allergy table and try to get him to eat things he is allergic to. He sometimes has a jumbled linear memory so that he can’t accurately report on the date something happened, but she doesn’t think he could make it up out of whole cloth. You know something is happening, but it is hard to say exactly what or when enough to get the school to do something about it.
Another audience member said his son had had something happen to him – he had his jacket taken off and dragged in the mud, and ultimately one of the extended day staff had the other child apologize.
Some people have had experiences with children being bullied as early as preschool. It is important to get adults and other children involved as much as possible, and also to get help for the child who is doing the bullying – because that child may have his or her own issues that are driving the behavior, and addressing those issues could help alleviate the behavior.
Follow-up after the crisis is over doesn’t always happen, but it can be very helpful. Professor Gulyn doesn’t recommend necessarily reacting in dramatic ways – e.g., pulling a child out of school altogether. Children need to be taught the skills they will need to advocate for themselves throughout life. Nick Walkosak suggested that one possibility, if your child knows who the other child is, can be to talk with the school to see if the other parents are willing to talk about it to see if we can get a better understanding of what was going on.
Peers are tough, but they can also rescue each other.
Caroline Levy suggested that parents need to be educated, as well, on how to combat bullying. A parent in one of her groups talked about her child who had a playdate, and the parent of the friend later told her she didn’t want her son to play with her child because the child still watched babyish videos. How can we make sure other parents are educated on how to encourage their children to be inclusive and tolerant?
Kathleen Donovan and Kelly Mountain from the APS Parent Resource Center (PRC) gave a brief summary of the PRC, and offered up the PRC as a resource to find solutions, meet one on one, attend workshops, and read the materials they have in their library. There is a series called Mind in the Making coming up, which is focused on teaching essential skills to foster executive functioning. One important skill in combating bullying is perspective taking, and that will be one of the topics. Family and community engagement is important to this community, and can be a way to celebrate successes and also to raise concerns.
APS Special Education Director, Paul Jamelske, thanked Dr. Gulyn for being here and sharing insights and perspectives, along with audience members for sharing experiences. APS does have a bullying policy, but one of the hardest things to navigate is what is the difference between unkind or “not nice” behavior versus bullying. There is a continuum; there are gray areas; and then there are some behaviors that are very obviously one or the other. If there are face to face or social media occurrences taking place, if they are taking place outside the school, there is a limit to how far the school can go in terms of assigning consequences. If something is disrupting the school environment or having an impact on the child’s ability to access the school environment, that’s one thing; but if it happens entirely outside the school, there can be limitations on what the school can do. Open lines of communication are one of the best ways to try to work through difficult situations. Trying to get a clear idea from your child as to what really happened can be challenging for children with special needs. Trying to maintain communication, cultivate ways of talking with children to make them feel safe and comfortable talking to a trusted adult – we want at least one safe trusted adult at a child’s school that they should be able to talk to.
Staff members can often identify unstructured times of the day – for example, lunch, recess, between classes – times when there is a lot of activity and movement – when issues are more likely to come up because it might be chaotic with less direct supervision. If someone believes that their child might be vulnerable during these times, they may raise the possibility of having more supervision for a particular student, and perhaps apply a structure for that child even though other children might not need a structure during that same time. An audience member suggested that it could be written into an IEP that a student can take a break at any time with a trusted person at the school when the child feels afraid or overwhelmed.