Critical Conversations: Advocating for Early Intervention

Critical Conversations: Advocating for Early Intervention
Jamie Williamson, Head of The Windward School

According to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education, about 4 million students enter kindergarten each year, and the unfortunate reality is that many of those students are not equipped with the necessary skills to succeed in school; moreover, thousands of those students will struggle to learn to read. I began my career in education as a school psychologist, and my perspective on education continues to be informed by this training. Though my place in the educational landscape has changed, I believe that my primary purpose in this work is to be an advocate for students and their families. 

Early on, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on the role that I wanted to fulfill in schools, and I consistently pursued opportunities that I felt aligned with my goals and expanded the impact I could have on students. While the focus for most school psychologists primarily involves assessment around special education eligibility determination, there are myriad other ways to expand the role. I came to believe that it was crucial for me not only to help students proactively access appropriate services but also to educate and build parents and guardians’ skills so that they can, in turn, be stronger, more well-informed advocates for their children and thoughtful consumers of educational services.   

How Delaying Intervention Impacts Our Children 

An effect of my evolving mindset over the years was that I often wrestled with the “wait and see” or “you’ll love the teacher next year” model of service. Perhaps it is my inherent impatience, but I have never found the strategy of waiting until next year while implementing the same, ineffective interventions to be particularly useful. The fact is, when we wait for students to fail, we lose valuable time to address their learning disabilities early—when the science says students have the best opportunities for remediation. Furthermore, allowing children to struggle without hope for success stifles their growing sense of independence, diminishes their confidence, and injures their sense of self-worth at a critical period of emotional and social development. Do we teach children how to swim by simply throwing them into the deep end and seeing what happens? Do we think, “Surely they’ll learn how to tread water by watching the swimmers around them”? Or do we just hope that the new lifeguard will know the right instructions to offer from the chair while the child struggles in the water? Of course, we do not; that approach seems absurd—dangerous, even. Yet, many educators support struggling young students with strategies just as flawed. 

It is unfortunate, but regulations at the state and federal levels that determine funding for intervention often result in initial rejections for services, requiring additional proof, more data, and more time, which can be a persistent, frustrating cycle for parents and guardians’ and their already vulnerable children. This common experience is especially troubling when one considers that the data on the positive impact of early intervention is well documented. A multitude of studies have demonstrated that the gains students receive from early, targeted interventions are significant (Blackman et al., 1999; Foorman et al., 1998). Still, too many schools fail to or provide or even recommend targeted interventions to students in kindergarten or first grade, and parents and guardians are often at a loss as to how best to proceed. I cannot count the number of times I have heard families express an incredible sense of helplessness as their cries for support are met with indifference, passivity, or at times, firm resistance by school officials. As a result of our failures to address student learning challenges early with teachers trained in research-based methodologies, children in the United States get off to a poor start in reading, they rarely catch up (National Reading Panel, 2000). 

Breaking the Wait to Fail Cycle 

For educators, parents, guardians, and advocates, the solution must be to keep the student at the center of the conversation. This requires strong relationships and engagement on all levels: consistent support and accompanying infrastructure from the administration, clear communication and documentation between teachers and parents/guardians, and a safe environment in which the student may express unique challenges and concerns without judgment.  

This model creates a natural collaboration among educators, parents, guardians, and students. With everyone working together in a collegial and cooperative manner, so-called past failures transform into puzzles to solve. Through open communication, parents and guardians share important insights with teachers who interact with children during a finite window of each day, which enables educators to serve each student’s specific needs, and ultimately foster successful outcomes.   

The National Center on Improving Literacy has created a framework for parent, guardians, and educators to use in assessing literacy needs, which is a beneficial tool to initiate conversations about intervention (Christman, J. & Sayko, S., 2017).   

Review, Record, Request, Refer 

Review: The first step parents and guardians can take when reviewing a school is to perform good research on behalf of their child. Adopting a curious mindset and asking questions can often reveal possible gaps in the school’s approach to learning disabilities which can prove overwhelming to address if identified too late. 

The following are useful springboards for discussion: 

  • Tell me about the district’s approach to teaching reading. 

  • How do you incorporate direct, research-based phonics instruction? 

  • What core reading program are you using? 

  • What tools do you use to identify students at risk? 

  • Does the district have a universal screening process? 

  • Is there a formalized reading intervention program? 

  • How do you monitor progress? If so, how frequently do you collect data? 

  • How is this information communicated to parents/guardians?           

The hope is that through this dialogue, parents and guardians can gain a better understanding of the school’s or district’s approach to teaching reading. There are a number of red flags that parents and guardians should listen for throughout this process. For example, when a school or district does not have a clearly defined approach to teaching reading or protocols for screening to identify students who are not progressing, they are going to struggle to be responsive to a student’s needs. Further, if a parent or guardian does not see or hear any evidence that the district or school has adopted a strong research- and phonics-based approach, then the district may be using an approach that is not grounded in good research.  Additionally, it is important for parents, guardians, and teachers to establish and understand where the child fits into the school’s or district’s structure for determining intervention services. If the student already has an intervention plan, it helps to request the records and recommendations for further action. Parents and guardians should also be aware of their rights and responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  

Record: Documentation is a critical piece of the process. Therefore, copious notes on the part of parents, guardians, and educators can be an invaluable tool. This includes recording daily observations, noting conditions where the child is successful and conditions where the child struggles. Further, it can be very helpful for parents and guardians to recount their child’s progress toward developmental milestones and markers. Family history can also be informative; for example, there is a strong genetic link for dyslexia through a complex set of interactions across multiple genes (Dorta, 2018). Parents and guardians should be encouraged to share these insights with teachers, as well as with the larger academic team, and document those conversations and requests for help along the way.   

Request: Often, it can be overwhelming for parents and guardians to navigate the seemingly countless online resources about intervention. Asking for help can facilitate a shift toward targeted efforts that are more likely to result in successful outcomes. Speaking to other families, connecting with families that have accessed district services, and asking educators directly for more information about reading development and research-based practices can save time and frustration. Parents and guardians can also meet with a knowledgeable advocate about their parental rights. Finally, the state’s procedural safeguards summary can be a useful resource as well (see Resources below for a link to states’ guidelines).  

Refer: For many parents and guardians, a key step is requesting a school evaluation or pursuing a private evaluation. For students in kindergarten and first grade, diagnosis can be a challenging pursuit and is often inconclusive. The skill gap is not as pronounced in this age group. If that is the case, the focus should be on identifying at-risk areas, not on definitive diagnoses. It can be helpful to view early assessment from a public health perspective. A good comparison here would be screening for heart disease While this process certainly involves looking for active issues, it also includes trying to identify those at risk of developing heart disease and then mapping possible treatments before it becomes a bigger issue. Reading is an essential skill for life, and it is imperative to think about intervention as proactively as possible. If a parent/guardian or teacher struggles with gaining traction, they can seek outside support in the form of tutoring, special education advocates, and psychologists. 

In an ideal school setting, all of these factors work together in the interest of the individual student. The approach at The Windward School is to utilize all the resources at our disposal to develop a path to success for each student. Waiting to intervene until significant problems reveal themselves has historically resulted in negative outcomes: academically, socially, and psychologically (Schatschneider & Torgeson, 2004). As educators, parents, guardians, and student advocates, we have the responsibility to demonstrate a willingness and an eagerness to “show up” for each child—to listen to their concerns, to implement solutions, and to celebrate successes. Anything less is our failure, not theirs.