44: How to Navigate IEPs in Virtual School | Patty Maxwell

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Some IEPs just don’t translate well to virtual schooling. Patty Maxwell, a licensed behavioral specialist, provides strategies for families to effectively engage the school and get to a solution that works for everybody. 

  • “I think overall, the schools are really trying their best. There are a few bad apples out there or whatever, but I think that the teachers are struggling just like we are.” – Patty Maxwell
  • “Many teachers are parents. They’re living both sides of this equation.” – Emily Melious
  • “If you go right for the jugular, you’re not going to get very far when you’re that parent that is crying and whining and complaining and making a big stink. Usually they kind of write you off.” – Patty Maxwell
  • “I’m always open to consulting with an educational advocate or consulting with an educational lawyer. I think that there’s no harm in that. But as soon as you open the door to them having access to the school districts, that kind of puts up a wall between you, your child, and the school.” – Patty Maxwell
  • “There are statistics out there that are like 40 to 50% of kiddos in school districts are failing at least one class. And that’s insane. And these are kids that have never failed a class in their life.” – Patty Maxwell
  • “The best thing you can do for your child is to talk to them, ask them how they’re feeling. And, you know, after sitting in front of my computer for six to eight hours, the last thing I want to do is sit on the couch and talk about TikTok because that’s what my teenager wants to tell me about. But having that communication, listening, no blaming, no shaming, just listening to what they have to say is huge.” – Patty Maxwell
  • 1:11 – Patty’s experience with virtual schooling
  • 3:35 – Hybrid & virtual schooling with IEPs
  • 6:50 – How to effectively advocate for your child with an IEP
  • 9:45 – When to look for legal help
  • 11:34 – What to do when you think your child should have an IEP but doesn’t
  • 13:41 – Practical strategies to help families find peace and happiness in a post-COVID world
  • 21:24 – How to get in touch with Patty
View Full Transcript

Mothers of Misfits: Welcome to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Join me for conversations about how to advocate for our kids in a one size fits all world. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode.

[00:00:17] Emily Melious: Welcome back to Mothers of Misfits. Today, we’re joined by Patty Maxwell. She is a licensed behavioral specialist and the owner of Engaged Kids. It’s an agency that provides behavioral and developmental services for children, families, and schools. Patty’s mission is to support children and their families so that they can find peace and happiness. And boy, do we all need those two things. Patty, thanks for coming on today.

[00:00:43]Patty Maxwell: Thank you so much, Emily for having me, I’m excited.

[00:00:45]Emily Melious: Me too! You’ve got so much knowledge and helpful tips to share with families, and we’re going to focus a lot on families that have kids with IEPs, and how that really was already difficult and has become even more difficult with COVID and the change of format with our schools. But before we get into that, I’m going to talk about your personal situation. You have a 15 and 13 year old at home. How has virtual schooling been for you and your kids?

[00:01:19] Patty Maxwell: Well, it’s been very creative actually. So in our district, we had the choice of going back in person, doing hybrid or virtual and we did choose to do virtual. So it’s definitely been a learning experience. The kids are synchronous, so they are doing it with their teachers, which has been a huge help back in the spring when everything fell apart. They were just kind of given assignments and it was a free for all. So I like this a lot better because the teachers hold them accountable and it’s made the transition a little bit easier. Having said that, we have definitely had our ups and downs and struggles. My daughter actually has an auditory processing and visual processing disorders. So, that doesn’t make it the easiest thing under the sun either. And I’m also working from home full-time doing virtual therapy, so they’re on their computers, I’m on my computer. It gets a little chaotic, but we are getting through it just like everybody else, and we’re figuring out all the bumps in the roads and trying to come up with different solutions to make them a little bit more successful.

[00:02:28] Emily Melious: Yeah, we’ve definitely all had to become master multitaskers. And I know for a lot of us that doesn’t come naturally. So this is just, it’s just stressful. But to your point, we’re getting through and I admire your optimism through it, cause I know you’ve said just even between your kids as to be expected, they’re not reacting the same to the changes and to this learning style. So that makes it even harder for parents where, you know, one child might be thriving in the new normal, another child might be really struggling. And, you know, what do you do? How do you meet each child’s needs? It’s complicated, and to your point, we’re still trying to do our jobs, and that’s stressful and that’s wrought with change and new expectations. So there’s definitely a lot of adjustment. And I would say we all need to give ourselves some extra grace these days, because this is exhausting.

[00:03:19] Patty Maxwell: I mean, it’s an ongoing, nonstop job even with teenagers. It’s been, you know, difficult. I can’t imagine for families that have school aged children that need a lot more support and help. I don’t know how they’re juggling everything all at the same time.

[00:03:33] Emily Melious: Yeah, me neither. Speaking of other families of different age school kids, you work with a lot of families who have kids with IEPs. What are you hearing from those families in terms of their experience with hybrid or virtual schooling? I’m especially curious to know if the IEP has easily translated to this new format that most families have when it comes to schooling.

[00:03:59] Patty Maxwell: Well, you know, I think overall, the schools are really trying their best. There’s a few bad apples out there or whatever, but I think that the teachers are struggling just like we are. They’re parents, they’re grandparents, you know, they’re scared of COVID just like we are too. So I would like to kind of play devil’s advocate for a second and say, you know, the teachers are in general, trying just as hard as the parents are. So I think is very quick or, we are very quick to sometimes say, well the teachers could be doing more or they should’ve done this, but again, they’ve never had to do this ever in their life. So, everyone is struggling a little bit. So I think like you said, the patients piece is huge, but in general, parents are frustrated with the school systems and especially with the kiddos with IEPs. You know, some IEPs are incredibly intensive, some are just pretty mild. But I know even for my daughter’s IEP, I’ve had to have multiple conversations with teachers. And maybe not even what you might think. I actually had a teacher call me and say, what am I supposed to do with this IEP? It says things need to be read to her. I don’t know how to make this happen. And I said, well, that’s in there as a safety net. I said, I appreciate you reaching out to me. Let’s have her take the exams, just like all the other students and we’ll see what happens. And he was so thankful that I was so open-minded to it. And I was thankful that he reached out to me. And then he told me that he had like 11 other children in the class with IEPs. I believe he told me there were 25 kids in the class. So imagine that. That there were that many kids in the class that he needed to have special attention for. So as parents, I think we need to try and keep that in the back of our heads, but that doesn’t mean that we should just let our kids flounder or let the school districts not support the kids the way that they are legally supposed to be.

[00:05:53] Emily Melious: And you bring up an excellent point. That many teachers are parents. So they’re living both sides of this equation. We actually had a friend of mine on the podcast several episodes ago. She’s a teacher and a mother of, I believe four or five kids, now I’m losing track. And she, at the beginning of this school year, she said, I just don’t know. I don’t know how this is all going to happen. And she felt totally overwhelmed. And she’s also getting a lot of frustrated parents and they’re frustrated for good reason, but I know a lot of that criticism or frustration has been in some ways misplaced on her and she’s just doing the best that she can. So I also couldn’t agree with you more that teachers are in a very difficult spot and they’re being asked to make things work in a situation where, you know, it was never designed this way. But you also bring up a great point that that’s not a good reason to leave our kids in a bad spot. So what do you recommend? I mean, how do we fix this for those parents who are identifying with what you’re saying? They’re home with their kids, either doing a hybrid or virtual schooling situation, they have an IEP that’s not being honored that they can’t just use as a safety net, it’s something that their child needs. How do we as parents, approach the school in an effective way to getting the results that we’re looking for? What actually works for parents to engage the school and get to a solution that works for everybody?

[00:07:34] Patty Maxwell: Well, you know, that’s a great question because I think for myself personally, as a parent, what’s worked for me is kind of backdooring things. Instead of, sending an email that says, you’re not doing this and you’re not following this. I will send an email that states something like, we’ve noticed that she’s struggling and how can we best support you on our end so that she is doing better in school? And when I’ve taken that type of approach, which some people say it’s like going with your tail between your legs or whatever. I’m fine with that as long as my daughter gets what she needs. And throughout the years, she has always gotten what she needs, including during COVID. So, and again, I mean, her situation is a little bit more mild than some, but I watch a girlfriend of mine struggling right now whose son has autism and she’s struggling terribly with the school system. She’s tried emailing, she’s tried phone calls, she’s tried everything and she’s getting nowhere fast. And, you know, I think it’s really a case by case basis, but my first recommendation as a parent and as a professional, because I take the same exact strategies, I guess, as a professional as well. I never go straight for the jugular. I always try and do a backdoor approach with teachers. And I’ve always been very successful as a professional as well. So I would tell families, communication. They have to communicate. They have to communicate with the teachers, with the counselors, with the paraprofessionals if there are some. If they’re not getting anywhere with those people, go to the principal of the school and if they still can’t get anywhere, go to the special education director. But again, if you go right for the juggler, you’re not going to get very far when you’re that parent that is crying and whining and complaining and making a big stink. Usually they kind of write you off. And again, everyone is struggling.

[00:09:26] Emily Melious: Yeah, such a helpful reminder because in the intensity of that, your emotions are high. This is about your child and the mama bear comes out, you’re just trying to get results and get results fast. And we can unintentionally basically shut down the other side and then we hurt the situation even more. But I’m curious to know, in your opinion, is there a time for involving attorneys? I know you’ve worked with families that have chosen that route, but that seems like that might be the going for the juggler that you talked about. What are your thoughts on going to that level in terms of trying to work with the schools?

[00:10:08] Patty Maxwell: You know, I’m always open to consulting with an educational advocate or consulting with an educational lawyer. I think that, there’s no harm in that. But as soon as you open the door to them having access to the school districts, that kind of puts up a wall between you, your child and the school. So if you’re going to take that route, I think you really have to have had exhausted every single avenue possible.

[00:10:36] And again, in this time of COVID everybody’s emotions, like you said, are running high. Patients are like very hard to come by. And so when you are a full-time working parent from home, you have two or three kids running around, you can’t get anywhere with the school. When you go to make that phone call, you’re already going to be on the defensive. So maybe starting with an email. Which be careful with as well, because sometimes emails can be taken the wrong way. So you might put something out there, somebody reads it, gets defensive, and then all of a sudden these defensive emails go back and forth and back and forth. And that’s not helpful. But again, if you’re not getting somewhere with directly a teacher, then go to a counselor. If you’re not getting anywhere there, go to the special ed teacher that you’ve worked with, hopefully for a few years, and then continue on up the chain. And if you still are getting nowhere after going to the principal and the special ed director, I’d say it’s time to call somebody for the big guns.

[00:11:34]Emily Melious: So getting an IEP for your child, for a family that may not have an IEP, but feel that they should have an IEP for their child. What should they do?

[00:11:46]Patty Maxwell: I’ll be honest with you, I’m not even sure at this point in time, how that would work. I think, you know, during normal times, the timeframe for when you put in a request for an IEP until you get one is very long anyway. It certainly can’t hurt to put it out there, but if your child is struggling with virtual learning, it’s different than them having a true disability or a true mental health issue going on. Those are different circumstances. And I’ll be honest, I have seen so many kids right now, typical kids that may never have had issues in the regular learning environment that are struggling right now. And that’s kind of across the board. I mean, there’s statistics out there that are like 40 to 50% of kiddos in school districts that are failing at least one class. And that’s insane. And these are kids that have never failed a class in their life. And that’s very similar to my son. He’s 15, he’s in 10th grade, he is, you know, the ultimate student. He doesn’t study. He barely reads. He gets, you know, A’s and B’s just cause he sneezes and, really, and him switching to virtual has been quite an eye-opener. In fact, we’ve had to put all kinds of different things into place so that he has learned how to be successful because the first marking period was not our best.

[00:13:05] Emily Melious: I have not heard that statistic about 40 to 50%. Wow. That is just a punch in the gut. Oh my goodness. And to me, that’s totally unacceptable. I mean, something’s got to give. We can’t let this happen to our kids. Oh wow, that’s incredible. So a large portion of our kids are really struggling and that’s not even speaking to those that might be performing, but at what extra costs? And that’s just reflected in what parents and families are saying. I know you’re hearing it, I’m hearing it. So going back to what I said at the beginning, that your mission is to help families find peace and happiness. What are some practical strategies for us to do that in a post-COVID world?

[00:13:55] Patty Maxwell: Well, I think that consistency is huge. I can’t tell you how many families I’ve talked to and even myself where I’ve joked that I think I’ve developed ADHD through all of this, because I’m constantly like going this way and that way. And everybody’s kind of feeling that kind of chaos as well. So if you can get consistency in your home, and you can do that by doing schedules. And when I say a schedule, you know, a schedule of their classes, a schedule of their day, a schedule of your day specifically. Little things like getting the kids up on time, making sure they’re eating, making sure you’re checking in on their grades. And this is for little ones and older ones. I know that we had to implement a daily chart for both of my kids where after each class, they have to write in if they have homework or no homework so that when the day is over, they can go back and look at it and see, because by the end of the day, after what, six hours of sitting in front of the screen, they are fried. And in the beginning they weren’t remembering what work they had. So that’s something you could try. Also, something that’s really worked for us for accountability’s sake, is that at the end of each week on Fridays, before my kids are allowed to get on electronics or talk to friends, they need to go in, write down every single one of their class grades. So where they are, and then we compare them to where they were the Friday before. And if there is a decrease in percentages, we talk about it. What happened? What did you miss? And then we look at their grades. Did they miss a homework assignment? Did they bomb a test? Something like that. And then, especially with my son, we’ve learned how to email teachers, how to be accountable, how to, kind of go with your tail between your legs and say, I must not have been paying attention. I missed that assignment. Can I redo it? And it’s amazing when these kids are reaching out to the teachers, showing some accountability, showing that they maybe work paying attention when they should have been, that these teachers are actually allowing them some extra leeway there. And also like I was saying with the schedules, I think that kids need that structure. When they’re in school, there’s total structure. And we’re only talking about kids that are synchronous right now with the teachers. There’s a huge chunk of kids that the kids are asynchronous. They’re given this work and they’re told, have at it. Those kids need structure too. It really needs to happen. And the teachers are too overwhelmed to sit down and say, here Joey, try doing this and try this. And that’s actually very frustrating and something I have run into with families, is they’ll say to me, well, why haven’t the teachers come up with this? You know, why isn’t the counselor suggesting this? And they’re not because they’re overwhelmed also. Or maybe the communication hasn’t been there enough with the parents and with the kids, so they don’t even realize the type of struggles that are happening at home.

[00:16:52] Emily Melious: Well it puts it in perspective, when you say that that one teacher has 25 students and 11 of them have IEPs. I’m feeling much more sympathetic towards what that individual is going through, and yeah, how overwhelming that is. The other thing I keep hearing you say, as a theme in this conversation is communication, communication, communication. Parents communicating with the school at all levels and roles that impact your child. Parents communicating with children. You’re so right, we need to be checking into their progress and grades more than we’re used to. Kids communicating with teachers. And I love that your son is actually learning some great life skills. That’s wonderful, not only the humility of asking for help and asking for some grace, but also just the great skills of writing a good email and communicating with an authority figure. That’s going to translate well in several years down the road to communicating with a boss or a colleague. I love that that’s a great blessing that’s coming out of this and maybe something he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn otherwise. But I just keep coming back to that word communication, and how that really seems to be the first answer, if not the best answer in all of these issues that keep coming up for families.

[00:18:16] Patty Maxwell: You’d be surprised in all the work that I do, communication really is one of the key elements, because it’s amazing how many families don’t communicate, even in general within their own household. So communication is a skill that needs to be taught to kids. It needs to be a reminder for parents. You know, there’s always that joke of the wife saying, well, you know, telling their husband, you didn’t do this. Well husband saying, well, you didn’t tell me to. And the wife says, well why do I have to tell you, you should just know. Well, how are they supposed to know? You know, it’s a communication error. We need to communicate and positive communication is the key. If you go, like again, go to somebody and start yelling and screaming and swearing, they are not going to take you seriously. And they are not going to listen or help.

[00:19:04] Emily Melious: And it’s important to remember to communicate not just on your child’s progress, but also on how they’re feeling. We know a lot of kids are struggling with mental health right now, more so than ever. And there are more resources, at least what I’m hearing is that there are resources available to them, but parents need to be checking in on how their kids are doing, how they’re handling the stress, the tension, how they’re feeling, because that needs to be talked about too. And those are tricky subjects. And if we don’t bring it up with them, they might not be the first to bring it up with us.

[00:19:39] Patty Maxwell: No. And you know, you’re right that it is higher now than it has ever been. I actually talked to a school district last week and she told me that they have made more mental health referrals at this time of year than they have made throughout an entire year in the past, which is ridiculous because we’re only a few months into school at this point. So, communication with your child is super important also because, yes, there are other services out there, but they are struggling too. The mental health services right now, the wait lists are pretty phenomenal and the therapists are overwhelmed very much like the healthcare workers. So, the best thing you can do for your child is to talk to them, ask them how they’re feeling. And, you know, after sitting in front of my computer for six to eight hours, the last thing I want to do is sit on the couch and talk about TikTok because that’s what my teenager wants to tell me about. But having that communication, listening, no blaming, no shaming, just listening to what they have to say is huge. Be there in their space with them. Turn your electronics off, shut your phone off. Ten minutes is huge for your teenager, for your little ones all across the board, because the little ones are struggling just as much as the older ones. Everyone is struggling, everyone really is.

[00:21:01]Emily Melious: That’s such an important reminder. Ten minutes, we can all do that, even though it’s crazy right now, we can all find ten minutes and being vulnerable with our kids too, that we are struggling right along with them, that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have it all together right now. And that, you know, we’re working through it as well. And we’re growing in these difficult experiences, right alongside them. So Patty, if folks want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

[00:21:29]Patty Maxwell: You can visit my website at engagedkids.com. I do have a newsletter that goes out every month and I’m also doing some different kinds of trainings. One specifically on autism. That’s going to be starting in January and it goes for the next six months. It’s through Familylinks Training Institute. 

[00:21:48] Emily Melious: I’ll have to check that out. We’ll make sure to put links to all of that on your episode page. As a reminder to everyone listening, we feature every guest on their very own episode page on mothersofmisfits.com. And then we also go a little deeper dive into their personal and professional life on our newsletters. So you can sign up to receive those, they’re called episode insiders also at mothersandmisfits.com. You’re missing out if you don’t get that so be sure to sign up. Patty, thank you so much for your time, your wisdom today, and that incredibly important reminder that communication is key.

[00:22:26] Patty Maxwell: Yeah, thank you, Emily. I really appreciate being on here and I hope that this helps some families out a little bit and, you know, hang in there. The struggle is real, but we will all eventually get through it and be better off in the long run too.

[00:22:40] Mothers of Misfits: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. We also invite you to visit us at MothersOfMisfits.com.


Emily Melious

Emily Melious

Talent Management Consultant | Career Coach | Podcast Host

Patty Maxwell

Patty Maxwell

Licensed Behavioral Specialist and Owner of Engage Kidz


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