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Archive for the ‘Learning Disabilities’ Category

The rise of autism poses one of the biggest current challenges facing North American families and school systems everywhere. The latest education jurisdiction to step into the breach was the Canadian province of Ontario. In response to the mounting pressures for expanding services, the Ontario government announced a new $333 million, five-year autism program initiative packaged as good news.

AutismAndraFelsmanSonRiellySudburyInstead of being welcomed by parents of autistic kids, the move sparked a firestorm of provincial and local community protests. Hundreds of parents descended upon the Ontario Legislature to protest on April 12 and, three days later, local groups carrying signs reading “Autism Does Not End at Age Five” rallied in more than half a dozen smaller centres, including Ottawa, Kitchener, Aurora, Sudbury, Mississauga,and Waterdown, near Hamilton.

Young children with autism spectrum disorder in Ontario were promised shorter wait times for intensive therapy covered by the province, but those ages 5 and up will no longer be eligible as part of a revamped Ontario system. The New Ontario program aimed to cut wait times in half for Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) within two years, and then down to six months by 2021, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

The decision meant that 2,200 children ages 2 to 4 would be removed from wait lists over the next two years, while some 1,378 in treatment after age five, over half of the 2,000 currently served, would be transitioned out with an $8,000 grant intended to subsidize the less intensive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy.  Denying access to children over age five left many near desperate parents completely “heartbroken” and some totally outraged over being denied the needed services.

Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, Tracy MacCharles, broke into tears when faced with the barrage of opposition, and Irwin Elman, the provincial Child and Youth Advocate, sided with the aggrieved parents, urging the government to postpone its plans. “The debate is not about waitlists,” He added. “It’s about children. It’s about people, and it is about their possibility and futures.”

Addressing the growing incidence of children with autism is now such a critical public policy issue that it recently attracted the attention of The Economist, one of the world’s most widely read business magazines. Since 2000, the share of eight-year-olds diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger Syndrome, has doubled to one in every 68 children or 15 in every 1,000 kids.
AutismIncidence2000to2012Autism affects different people in different ways, ranging from severe communications impairment and compulsive repetitive movements to milder forms of social anxieties with a few intense, almost obsessive interests.  School can be extremely difficult for autistic children, and they are three times more likely to be bullied or ostracized by peers, and many withdraw before graduation.
In Canada, the United States and Britain, they tend to be educated in mainstream classrooms with Special Education supports, which is considered less expensive than providing intensive programs. Regular classroom teachers in all three countries regularly report that they lack the training and resources to properly serve children with autism.

The Canadian province of Alberta stands out as an exception.  Since the mid-1990s, Alberta Education has embraced more school choice, especially in special education services.  Alberta’s direct funding system provides grant support for kids with developmental disabilities, based on each child’s needs, to pay for whatever services suit them best. Options include special needs schools, a range of behavioural, speech and occupational therapies, respite care, camps, and personal support workers to accompany children to recreational activities.

Children are assessed through the Family Support for Children with Disabilities program, which determines the amount. Wait times are minimal. Parents have choices, unlike in Ontario, where IBI is the only sustained treatment covered by the province. While Nova Scotia has a Tuition Support Program, it is limited to children with diagnosed SLD attending three designated schools enrolling fewer than 230 students. Financial support to attend specialized programs is extremely rare elsewhere in Canada.

One example of such a school program is Janus Academy, a Calgary, Alberta, school for children with autism. It’s a specialized private school where parents pay $12,000 in tuition each year for a program that costs $40,000 per student to operate. In other words, providing access to a specialized IBI program at a quarter of what parents would pay in Ontario.

Teaching autistic children using IBI can be expensive, but it can produce noticeable gains., especially if started in the early years. The Alberta government underwrites most of the difference, and the school also fundraises to support the tuition subsidies. “We don’t have to fight the schools (for what the children need), they’re partners with us. And I know they are learning,” reports Janus Academy parent Tim Ingram, formerly of London, Ontario.  The intensive and wrap-around support, he adds, helps the whole family function, but it takes some extra effort to secure a place in such a school.

School can be tough for autistic children and teens, but many have a worse time once they leave the system. A study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia found that only 19% of American autistic people in their early 20’s lived independently, away from their parents. Wherever they live many are isolated: one in four said that they had not seen friends or received invitations to social events in the past year. Some autistic people prefer their own company, but many are unhappy.

Preparing and training autistic young people for the workforce is emerging as a priority in the new economy.  While academic studies on global employment rates for adults with autism are rare, the UN estimates that 80% do not work. A survey by Britain’s National Autistic Society, a charity, suggests that only 12% of higher-functioning autistic adults work full time. For those with more challenging forms of autism, only 2% have jobs.

Job training, life-skills coaching and psychotherapy could really help in tackling the problem. An American study found that 87% of autistic youngsters who were given assistance to find a job, got one. Only 6% who did not receive support were successful. But in most countries, services disappear the moment autistic people finish full-time education.

There is hope that the life prospects for those with autism will improve in the future. More progressive business leaders and enterprises, as reported in The Economist, are stepping-up and providing more flexible employment arrangements to take fuller advantage of the truly unique skills and aptitudes of autistic people. Providing early treatment and effective intensive behavioural intervention is where it has to start.

Why is autism considered one of the biggest school challenges of our time? Why is Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) so much in demand– and so rationed in our public school systems?  What’s standing in the way of provinces and states adopting the Alberta model of school choice and tuition support for intensive programs? What more can be done to properly “transition” autistic students into the workplace?  

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British educator Katie Ashford, the spunky curator of Tabula Rasa Blog, is stirring-up much needed education reform thinking.  “Education in the UK isn’t always good enough,” she says in her first “Why I Blog” post. “Far too many children pass through the doors of our schools into the real world knowing little, unable to read, and incapable of expressing themselves. To me, this is a tragedy. Our education system is flawed and we need to do something about it urgently.”

StrugglingTeenReaderThat commitment to raising educational standards and sense of urgency certainly shines through in her most recent commentary, “Please teach my daughter to read,” posted January 17, 2016, and now generating quite an online reaction. In it, Katie utilizes the case of a British teen’s amazing turnaround in reading fluency over 18 months to demonstrate that “correct methods” can work apparent wonders in making Special Education Needs (SEN) all but disappear.

She certainly spins a compelling story. As Assistant Head at Michaela Community School, in the Wembley District of London, Ashford reports that the student’s father enrolled “Georgia” in her school convinced that her academic struggles, entering secondary level, stemmed from not being able to read. Without promising miracles, she took on the project based upon her “hunch” that Georgia was “yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes” and, rather than having a “cognitive disability,” simply needed to be taught to read through proven, research-based methods.

Her “hunch” was borne out by Georgia’s experience. Eighteen months later, Ashford reported that “Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousnds of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age (level) has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress.”

Ashford and her Tabla Rasa Education blog are, as expected, drawing flack from ‘diehard’ progressive educators either wedded to “whole word” approaches or simply hostile to academy schools such as Michaela with its explicit KIPP educational philosophy.  Resorting to such criticisms is revealing because it attacks the institution without really confronting the evidence of success.

Hunches about the impact of early reading failure on the rising incidence of SEN coded or designated students are well-founded and supported by mounds of research findings. Since the mid-1990s reading research has tended to show that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. The poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time.

The recognized pioneer in the field is Canadian researcher, Dr. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritas at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thirty years ago, Stanovich pointed out in his well-known paper (1986) on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) that failure to acquire early word reading skills has lasting consequences ranging from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).

“Catch Them Before They Fall” is the key message conveyed by Joseph K. Torgesen, Jamie Metsala and other leading reading research specialists.  “It is a tragedy of the first order,” according to Torgeson,” that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.”

Early reading failure is now recognized as a critical factor contributing to the burgeoning numbers of Special Needs students not only in Britain but elsewhere. The Reading Reform Foundation has led the charge in the U.K. and one of the best articles making the connection is Dr. John Marks piece “Special Need or Can’t Read?” published in the May 2001 RRF Newsletter.  In it, he expressed alarm that the U.K. had ten times as many pupils with ‘Special Educational Needs’ than in 1980 and over a million and a half pupils in total.

Across Britain, Marks reported in 2001 that more than one in five of all pupils were on ‘Special Needs’ registers – and in some schools the figure was as high as a staggering 55% or more.  The numbers of SEN children with “statements” of severe disabilities stood at 2 to 3 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of SEN students were what was described as “soft” with, at best, moderate or undiagnosed learning disabilities. He then posed the fundamental question: “Is the explosion in ‘Special Needs’ real? Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly – and to teach reading in particular.”

A recent shift in British SEN policy is beginning to address the problem identified a decade ago.  In September 2014, Special Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms to the Children and Families Act were introduced to better track and properly designate students by their SEN provision.  Since then, the total number of SEN students has dropped from 1.49 to 1.3 million, while the number with a clear SEN “statement” stands at 2.8%, a slight increase over the past year.  This was consistent with a 2010 Ofsted Study that found about one-quarter of all children labelled with SEN and as many as half of those on “School Action” lists, did not actually have SEN.

Literacy levels are now considered to be a major contributing factor perpetuating economic inequality.  A 2014 report of the National Literacy Trust and commissioned by Save the Children has now sparked the publication ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’ produced by the Read On. Get On. coalition. That U.K. campaign brings together teachers and other professionals, charities, businesses, publishers and local communities pursuing the lofty goal of all children reading well by the age of 11 by 2025. Much like Katie Ashfield, they see the potential for all children learning to read if taught by more effective methods and fully embraced by the school system.

How many of our Special Education Needs (SEN) population are actually casualties of ineffective early reading instruction? Why are education reformers questioning the incidence of SEN student numbers often labelled as hard-nosed or unsympathetic to students? Which early reading interventions work best in producing fluent readers?  If we were to “catch them early,” what would SEN programs look like and would we actually be serving those who need intensive support much better? 

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Two years ago, Korey Breen’s son, was struggling in elementary school and suffering from three debilitating conditions —fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. The clouds lifted when the Moncton mother of three found an educational lifeline in a tiny, home-like school established to serve kids with severe learning challenges. There he finally felt safe, accepted and at  home. RiverbendAwardDay Finding a place like Riverbend Community School was a godsend, but only the beginning of that struggle to turn her son’s life around. “Raising a child with special needs and severe learning disabilities and no financial support,” she confesses, “has been extremely difficult and takes everything we have.”

Struggling students in Moncton, New Brunswick, have very few options outside the regular mainstream public school system. For elementary students with severe learning challenges and their families, Riverbend Community School is really the only option, and, even then, only viable when you can scrape together the money to pay its hefty $11,500 tuition fees. For hundreds of families this is simply beyond reach.

My latest research report, published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), demonstrates that a gaping hole exists in New Brunswick’s Special Education safety net. Since 2004, that gap has been closed in Nova Scotia with the adopting and expansion of that province’s unique Tuition Support Program, designed to meet the needs of Korey’s son and hundreds of others struggling on the margins of the regular school system.

New Brunswick now has a school providing a beacon of hope that could easily serve as a pilot school for a completely new approach embracing the full continuum of special education support services. Since its inception as a Day School in September 2013, a small but growing number of families are discovering Riverbend, attracted by the passion of its youthful Co-Director, Rebecca Bulmer, and often desperate for a special program specifically designed to respond to their children with such complex needs. “If you have a struggling and confused child in your life,” Bulmer says, “we can help. We can replace fear and anxiety with pride and success” That is also the key message of her recent CBC Moncton Information Morning series called “Learning Outside the Box,” explaining the world of learning disabilities to a new audience.

The Moncton school for high risk students is filling a gaping hole in the system. Struggling students and their parents are finding the Riverbend Community School completely on their own because it flies below the radar and is funded entirely by fee-paying parents. Like most such independent ventures, it exists because of the sheer dedication and commitment of its founders, Rebecca and Jordan Halliday, and Rebecca’s mother, Priscilla Wilson, the retired school teacher who first saw the need and, back in 2008, opened her own Moncton tutoring centre.

Out of that little project emerged today’s Riverbend School, a growing presence with 10 day students and some 40 students enrolled in its after-school tutoring programs in reading and mathematics. All are attracted by the simple commitment to “discover the potential” in each child and to provide “the proper intervention” needed to strengthen their “resilience” and give them back the feeling of success. For many families, it’s a financial struggle to keep the children there.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, is providing the bridge for many families without the financial means to pay much in the way of tuition fees. The TSP exists to be that lifeline for severely learning challenged kids who cannot be served at their local public school. It was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system.

The TSP funding covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) in Nova Scotia. At a cost of $2.5 million a year, it currently serves some 225 students attending three designated schools, in six locations across Nova Scotia.

Since my initial AIMS report, A Provincial Lifeline, three years ago, the TSP has been sustained and further improved in Nova Scotia, but has yet to appear in either New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. Consistent and reliable support from the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has been of great help to families that are in –or near — crisis. Since February 2012, it’s easier to qualify and parents now have more secure support, a blessing for those desperately in need of financial assistance to pay the tuition fees.

Specialized learning disabilities schools like Moncton’s Riverbend deserve that opportunity to be recognized and extending similar tuition support would certainly help broaden accessibility in N.B., a province where an estimated 1,000 children suffer from these challenges. Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children and youth simply makes common sense all around for students, families, and the province. It not only helps to reduce potential long-term social and economic costs, but in Nova Scotia is already helping to producing happier families and more productive young citizens.

Why are Special Needs Kids falling between the cracks in New Brunswick’s school system?  What impact has the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program had on access to specialized support services? What can New Brunswick and PEI learn from Nova Scotia’s TSP experience?  Will the AIMS report provide the nudge needed to close the gaping hole in the NB system?

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