Special Education Workshops at the RPL
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Photo credits: Lori Henry
There are many challenges that face parents who have children with special needs face and for many, it can feel like a lonely and confusing journey. Lori Henry, Rutherford resident, certified Special Education teacher, fifteen-year veteran Child Study Case Manager, and Learning Disabilities Teacher-Consultant, will be hosting a number of workshops to assist parents of special needs students who are trying to navigate the educational system. This is Rutherford interviewed Lori to learn more about her expertise, experiences, and these upcoming workshops that will be held at the Rutherford Public Library.
TIR: With all of your vast personal and professional experience working with students, parents, and families of children and young adults with special needs, what are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve found in making sure students get the support they need both at home and at school?
Lori Henry: Some of the biggest hurdles for students getting the support they need at school include:
School budgets and districts are unable to afford all the necessary services with true integrity. Too often districts have a cookie-cutter program in place and it becomes more of a one-size-fits-most scenario. It is a reality in public education and small districts with limited resources.
Another hurdle may be in larger districts where case managers with extremely large caseloads are not able to keep on top of IEP implementation and student progress, and teachers with large class sizes and limited programs. Many larger districts provide an in-class support resource option because they don't have the space or staff to provide small group instruction in a true resource environment with a limited number of students.
Some districts create in-house mental health, behavioral, or autistic programs that do not truly fit the needs of the students. This can happen for several reasons including the expense of out-of-district placements, transportation, and how the community/families view placing their child in a specialized program; there can be a stigma around your child being removed from not just the general education population, but to a different district or school that can be hard on parents.
Some of the biggest hurdles for students getting the support they need at home include:
Parents are not equipped to assist students with special needs because sometimes the content is too hard for them to confidently help their child.
Often times children will behave differently when they are home with their parents and sitting down to do work, getting focused, and being productive can be difficult. Most parents are exhausted by the fighting that ensues with their children.
Some families are single-parent households and that parent works a great deal to provide the basics for their families. Being fully present to meet your child's needs may be really hard, and they rely on the schools and teachers to help their child.
Parents are intimidated by the special ed process, the jargon, processing and grieving a child's disability, and they may have also had a terrible experience as a student themselves.
TIR: You are the founder of Indigo, Parent Support & Advocacy Group, and have been helping families who need guidance when it comes to making sure their children get what they need within the school system. When did you create Indigo PSAG?
LH: This is a very new endeavor for me- officially. I have been getting more texts and emails from family and friends since the Pandemic, with questions about academic regression, developmental delays, and IEP implementation and programming. Parents feel as if their children are not making the progress they should be and the reality is, they probably are not. We are in our third school year of this and we are now beginning to see its impact on student learning, mental health, social-emotional skills, etc. I have spent a lot of time telling parents to just breathe and talking them through different options, scenarios, and services.
TIR: What are some of the ways you have assisted families and students?
LH: I listen to them. Most of the time parents just want to be heard. They want to feel like someone is listening and someone cares about what they are going through.
I read IEPs, Service Plans, 504 Plans, Child Study Team evaluations, and medical/specialist reports that have been written for the students and I sit with parents and explain what is in those documents. These are legal documents and they can appear to be very overwhelming and very intimidating.
I help parents understand their child's strengths and weaknesses, and how those weaknesses and a child's disability may impact their learning.
I answer questions and validate their frustrations and emotions. This is hard stuff.
I inform them of programs, related services, and accommodations/modifications that may be beneficial for their child to be successful in school.
TIR: From October through May, you will be offering free Special Education Parent workshops at the Rutherford Public Library. This will be an incredible opportunity for parents/ guardians to learn more about topics such as Special Ed 101 (10/19), IEP vs. 504 Plan (1/18/23), Transition Basics (3/15), and SEL and Special Ed (5/17). Why have you decided to offer these free workshops to the community?
LH: This past year I moved into a position as an SEL Facilitator in my district, and I was lucky enough to participate in a program for SEL Leadership and earn my 200-hour yoga teacher certification. In that training, community and being of service were emphasized. I realized, as a parent who still navigates these waters, how hard this process is. I have worked most of my career in special education, yet I still had to fight and advocate for my own children - and I have a plethora of knowledge. The documents, the verbiage, the signatures, the tears, it all takes a toll. I have had to work really hard to get parents to trust me as a case manager because they have been so traumatized by the process. My motto this year is to "leave people better than you found them" and offering these workshops is a way for me to do that while being of service in our community.
TIR: Can you tell us more about these workshops?
LH: These will be 90-minute workshops with me providing an overview of information, terms, and resources, along with personal experience to provide a comfort level for participants to know that they are not in this alone. I will ask participants to partake in activities to dive into their personal relationship with each topic and then offer time for a Q & A at the end. I like to provide people with tangible material so I will either provide my slides or resources via hard copy or share a link for easy access (depending on the size of the group).
Special Ed 101 (10/19- 6:00 pm until 7:30 pm)
This session will include the basic terms/acronyms of special ed., exactly what special ed is and is not, the classification categories, the process (initial referrals to annual reviews to re-evaluations), descriptions of different programs, related services at different levels, basics of an IEP and tracking progress. To register for this first workshop, Special Ed 101, click here.
IEP vs. 504 Plan (1/18/23)
Many parents, especially in NJ think an IEP rules all, but some students don't actually need an IEP but can benefit from a 504 Plan. I will talk about the difference between the two and the benefits of each. I will also discuss ways to monitor an IEP and 504 Plan so that it is implemented properly.
Transition Basics (3/15)
I am currently at this stage in the process. I will share resources, options, a heartfelt discussion about post-secondary goals, and setting realistic, attainable goals for our children with disabilities.
SEL and Special Ed (5/17)
SEL plays a HUGE role in all education, not just special education, but some students need targeted instruction in social-emotional learning. I will touch upon what SEL is, what parents can do to implement certain strategies to improve their child's SEL, and demystify this (at times) controversial topic.
TIR: Currently, you are working in a large school district as a certified Social Emotional Learning Facilitator, can you tell us more about that role and what you are responsible for as the SEL facilitator?
LH: This position has been a dream come true for me. SEL was a passion project for me that I incorporated into my case management for years. Our district decided that SEL was a necessary component of our school community and we have a Student Wellness Center that I run and develop programming for. I use an MTSS (Multitiered System of Support) and focus mostly on assisting teachers with Tier 1 implementation. I also host classes in the Wellness Center to teach mindfulness, breathing techniques, mindful movement, and stress management. Our Tier 2 approach targets small groups based on trends we see and data collected in a student needs analysis. These programs include topics such as (just a few examples):
-Digital Addiction and Managing Social Media
-The Art of Communication (based on the Non-Violent Communication format)
-Supporting the Student-Athlete
-Consent and Boundaries
-Restorative Intervention Workshops
-Start with Hello (A Sandy Hook Promise program to combat social isolation)
Our Tier 3 included individual appointments with students to allow them a safe space to come and discuss something that may be bothering them. I am not a counselor, so they may be referred for school counseling, but I often have students just stop by to talk about relationships, temporary family situations, the stress of college planning and academics, etc.
I also run book clubs, professional development, restorative circles, and wellness challenges for staff.
TIR: You are currently a Rutherford resident. How long have you lived in Rutherford?
LH: I grew up in Rutherford, left for a few years (college, early adulthood), and returned when we bought our home in 2011. I am a true Rutherfordian.
TIR: What do you enjoy about living in Rutherford?
LH: I love the small-town feel of Rutherford, but the convenience and accessibility to everything in the Tri-State area is a huge draw for me. I feel safe here and I enjoy that I can walk anywhere in town. A few of my favorite things are the small businesses, the character of older homes, and the beautiful trees in the fall.