“Each state offers opportunities and modifications to help children progress. Special education law is specified at the federal level, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” ~ Heidi Higgins
(Transcript available below)
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Heidi Higgins: Hi there. I'm Heidi Higgins and you are listening to K12 On Learning. When children are not meeting mental, social or physical milestones, or if they're struggling in school, it's important to find out why. It may be that a disability is affecting your child's educational performance. As a parent, it might be hard to know where to turn. When questions like these come up, there's a community of help and support for you. Each state offers opportunities and modifications to help the child progress. Special education law is specified at the federal level with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unfortunately, many of the specifics of the laws are not spelled out for the states. Like for instance, the process of qualification for disability. That is when the states are on their own. As a result, each state has come up with their own laws to help expand on federal statutes. Some states have worked to improve the law by shortening timelines or modifying other federal requirements.
Today, I will introduce you to Becky Pierce. She's an example of the thousands of speech and occupational therapists throughout the country who help this population of families. Becky has devoted her life and her career to serving students within her reach who may be struggling. She partners with traditional and online schools and other support resources within the community to serve families. Becky Pierce, welcome to the podcast. I'm happy to have you here today. Will you please share your background with us, as we delve into a topic that touches many?
Becky Pierce: Well, I'm excited to be here today, Heidi. I've always enjoyed your podcast, so this is fun being part of it. I have a master's degree in speech and language pathology from the University of Northern Colorado. I've been a speech therapist for about 25 years. I also have a bachelor's degree in audiology.
Heidi Higgins: With those degrees, you have created a major practice where you have lots and lots of employees. And tell me a little bit about that.
Becky Pierce: I started speech therapy services in 2006. Before that, I had worked in the public schools, in the hospitals, home health, infant toddler program. So I had a lot of experience to be able to start my own private practice and kind of be able to understand the resources that are out there for our clients. It was something that I wanted to do. There was a large waiting list, because at the time, the hospital was the only resource for speech, occupational, and physical therapy for pediatric. I thought I would start my own clinic and our clinic grew huge in a short amount of time. We are a pediatric rehabilitation facility. We work with children from the ages of birth to 18 years, and we offer an array of speech, occupational, and physical therapy services.
Heidi Higgins: When does a family need a service that you provide?
Becky Pierce: We really encourage families to seek help when they feel that their child might not be meeting some of those important developmental milestones. Like maybe the child isn't talking as much or as well as they should be for their age, or maybe they haven't started walking when other children are walking. So sometimes parents start to compare, even though we don't always recommend that, but they might compare their child to another child. And the other child might be doing a lot more than their child. And so they start thinking, maybe we should look into that. We recommend intervention as soon as they start feeling like their child needs help. And our goal is to help children have better access and be able to participate in their communities.
Heidi Higgins: What kind of other needs do you cover?
Becky Pierce: We see a lot of children who have difficulties focusing in school, so maybe ADHD. We work with the families and the pediatrician to determine if the child needs medication. And also we work with behavioral intervention for children, lots of other agencies outside of us, with children who have developmental disabilities. There are a lot of resources in your communities for these types of services. And we always try to work hand in hand with other people to really focus on the whole child so that we're making sure that children get all of the help that they need.
Heidi Higgins: I have heard that the need for these services has really increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Is that what you have seen? And if so, why do you think that is?
Becky Pierce: Ah, yes. It turned the world upside down, basically. I know our wait list here at our brick and mortar facility has increased tenfold. And I honestly don't know the answer to that question, but I've heard that there's data out there to suggest that children had limited communication with other communication partners, besides their parents, maybe limited physical activity. And basically, they experienced a lack of those life experiences. Those day to day experiences that are critical to child development, like going to the park, visiting with grandparents, cousins, friends out in the community, going out to the grocery store, doing all those kinds of things that children do. First, we were all very fearful and even instructed not to leave our homes. And I speculate that maybe during business shutdowns, parents had more time to think about the services that their children might need, or maybe pediatricians saw a number of children during the pandemic and noticed some other things, some developmental delays that might have needed to be addressed.
Heidi Higgins: Many of the population that listen to this podcast school their families virtually. You have clients that are virtual schools. Can you tell us how you provide services in a virtual setting?
Becky Pierce: Well, first, I want to tell you that in 2010, the K12 Virtual Academy contacted me and they said, "We really need help. We want you to start providing virtual speech therapy." And up to that point, all of the students that were attending virtual schools had to come to our clinic for services. And some were traveling up to an hour, hour and a half away to see us. In September 2010, my IT professional and I went online with my first student and I was extremely nervous, but the IT told me, "Just relax, rely on your therapy skills, and I'll do the rest." And it ended up being a lot of fun and the students were really excited as well. And so now, we treat a lot of online virtual students for speech and occupational therapy. And there's several secure online telepractice platforms that we use. We tend to look at those every year and see which one we think would be the best. We'd have to have a business agreement with that platform to make sure it is secure. And also to make sure that if something does go wrong, we have a point of contact and we can figure out what happens. So it's very secure.
Heidi Higgins: You keep records of the students and the interactions that you have with them. What kind of records do you keep and who has access to them?
Becky Pierce: Well, we do evaluations and write reports for each student, depending on the need. And we meet with the school staff and parents to update the therapy goals on the IEP at least once a year for each student. Most of the students that we work with have an IEP, an individual education program. And then, we also have to write daily progress notes to show that the student is making progress. Parents and administrators have access to those records at any time.
Heidi Higgins: Is there ever a time when a student, if they're not making progress, do you reconfigure what's happening? What's that like?
Becky Pierce: Yes. At that time, we have to think about, did we write the goals that were maybe a little too lofty? And so the child wasn't able to meet those at that time. So then we go back and sometimes we have to do an addendum on the IEP and talk to the families. And that's really important. The family, the parents, are a key component to the IEP process. And so we talk to them and we include them in everything that we do to make sure that what we're doing is something that they actually want us to be doing too.
Heidi Higgins: You talked about IEP, individual education program, and a 504 plan. How do these differ, and how do they benefit the student's education experience?
Becky Pierce: The IEP is meant to create an opportunity for a team. So teachers, parents, school administrators, related service personnel, which would be speech, OT, and PT, and maybe the nurse, and the school psychologist, and also the student. So especially older students that we can work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities. The IEP is really considered the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability. I like the IEPs when they include important educational goals, as well as self-advocacy goals, like having the child be able to ask for help when they need it.
A 504 is developed to ensure that a child who has a disability that's identified under the law, and the child's attending elementary or secondary education, that they receive accommodations that will support their academic success and access in the learning environment. And it could be something as simple as the student will be given extra time to take tests, extra time to complete assignments, or maybe the teacher needs to make sure that the student is provided with optimal seating in the classroom in order to be able to hear and understand what the teacher's saying, and not all students need that specialized instruction that an IEP offers. And so sometimes we use a 504 plan instead.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you for distinguishing those. I really do appreciate it. What can a parent do when they realize that their child might need some extra help?
Becky Pierce: At our clinic, the first step that we recommend is to visit with the pediatrician and that person should be your first point of contact. And from there, they have the community resources and they can align the child with those resources. Sometimes the pediatrician will refer a child to us and say, "We really aren't sure what's going on with this child. Can you evaluate and treat and see what you think?" Then, the pediatrician might say, "I see some tendencies of autism, but I'm not really sure. We think that you guys would be able to tease that out for us." So sometimes that happens. And in the schools, if you aren't sure about how to go about getting help and maybe getting an IEP for your child, you can always contact your school administrators as your point of contact, and then they'll guide you as to what you need.
Heidi Higgins: A family starts a school and they have these concerns in the past, where their child is new to this school. They should bring their concerns up right away.
Becky Pierce: They should. It's a process and it takes a little bit of time. And so, go right in at the beginning of the school year and start working on that and get your child's name on the list to be tested, or whatever service they might need.
Heidi Higgins: When a student is needing your services, do you find also that parents are needing some support as well?
Becky Pierce: We absolutely offer support to parents. We always welcome and include parents in our sessions, both face to face and online. And this is really important, because the parents are really the ones who are with their children and can practice at home day to day, the important things that their children need to practice. Really, the bond between a therapist and a parent becomes very strong, and we ourselves get very attached to our students and their families. As a parent and grandparent, sometimes you just need another person's professional opinion and help. I myself have an older grandchild with autism and our family is so grateful to all those professionals that have been there along the way and continue to be there.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you for sharing that, Becky. Do you have any final thoughts or suggestions that you can make for listeners who might be curious about what services will be available? And of course, every school will offer their own. If they're concerned about their student, what might be some final thoughts you would offer?
Becky Pierce: We recommend that if you think your child is having any type of learning difficulty or developmental delay, start with your points of contact, the pediatrician, the school administrator. We never recommend a wait and see approach. We always recommend that the earlier a child gets help, the better. By starting earlier, you are not going to hurt anything. By waiting, the child could possibly experience more delays than necessary. At speech therapy services, we feel like we change lives and we have a lot of fun in the process.
Heidi Higgins: Becky Pierce, I want to thank you for joining us today and sharing your knowledge with us, and thanks also for being a listener of the podcast. And now I need to thank some people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to bring the podcast to you every week. Autumn Schiff is our overseer and producer. Jennifer Kornberger helps edit and checks our search engine optimization. Sarah Allison helps support us with graphics. These three work hard to bring the podcast to you, and I could not be more grateful for their efforts. So until next week, keep on learning.
Thank you for listening to K12 On Learning, sponsored by Stride. To learn more about online public schools powered by Stride K12, Stride career prep programs that foster lifelong learning, or any of the private school or individual course offerings, please go to stridelearning.com or k12.com. Special thanks to [inaudible 00:13:19] Studios for providing the music for us. Remember to subscribe to this podcast and feel free to leave us a good review. We hope you'll join us next time for K12 On Learning.
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