Sunday, March 17, 2013

Adolescent special needs: Sometimes Judo works

#1 was on track to give up on mainstream hockey halfway through the season. I'd been using carrot and (proverbial) stick but he was dug in and sullen. It looked like he was going to lose one of his best growth and happiness sources, that he was going to drop out of hockey just as he'd dropped out of baseball last summer.

I was frustrated, but I could see I wasn't going to win. Better to lose this battle than to lose our relationship.

So when he challenged me to bribe him to finish the season I pulled a Judo move. I stepped back.

I sat down with him at a time I chose -- when he was at his best. I said that now that he was almost an adult, he really had to make his own decisions. I told him I thought he'd gain a lot from continuing and that it would make me happy, but it was his decision. There'd be no prize or reward for finishing the season -- just his usual post-hockey chips or soda. There would be no punishment for dropping out ...

Well ... I cheated a bit on the last. I didn't want him substituting iPhone-zombie-time for his hockey. So there'd be no computer/iPhone use during times he would have been at hockey. He could read or do other activities [1].

Of course, as you can guess from the post title, it worked. At first he was uncertain, but one night we walked through the season schedule. He picked one late night practice he'd skip and one he'd miss due to a High School sports conflict. (He ended up missing only one practice when I was out of town and we couldn't bring him.) After that review he was relaxed and enthusiastic.

I don't know if it was my talk that worked, or the support of his coaches who also had Special Hockey experience, or if a girl he liked said something nice about his hockey. At his age I'm only one of a lot of influences, and probably not the biggest one.

I was surprised that he did so well; I don't think this would have worked in the past. His mind is developing -- he's starting to have more of a sense of time and of future events, and he's starting to work with abstractions like "promises" and "obligations" and "duty" and "honesty". He never used to respond to 'negative' feedback [2], but now he seems to consider consequences a wee bit beyond the immediate.

I don't want to overstate the changes. A bird in the hand is still worth a thousand in the bush. There is progress though, and reason to celebrate another victory. [3].

- fn -

[1] We have very limited household television access.
[2] Hence our heavy use of positive incentives and extinction rather than the balanced approaches that work for most children. We have a neurotypical daughter, and she essentially raised herself with a minuscule parental contribution. Our #2 is at the Asperger's end of the spectrum but is super-sensitive to feedback. #1 is different. Yes, we snort milk out our noses when we read conventional parenting books. 
[3] Our philosophy is to celebrate victory often. So every time we can plausibly declare victory, we do. There should be a name for this philosophy; it results in a lifelong string of repeated victories until the game is called.

See also 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Net world and guiding the special needs adolescent - tricky business

#1 is less than two years away from legal adulthood. In his case that will mean guardianship, but more independence nonetheless.

So he gets more freedom, including an iPhone account I can monitor. He doesn't know the account password, I entered that into on his 2nd hand contract-free $10/month Paygo iPhone.

We review his Friend list and activity about 1-2 times a week, and of course I visit his page from my Facebook account and from his account. It's not foolproof of course -- like most 3rd party iPhone apps ignores the iOS Safari setting and allows unfettered web access via embedded Webkit. (Yes, Apple's parental controls are a joke. Android's are even worse.) At his age though, even that backdoor is a bit of a feature. It lets me more or less observe how he handles it.

So far, so good - but there's a twist. He likes to save images he finds on the pages of his High School friends and acquaintances. They are views into a world he cannot join; I grieve for that. I think, in his own way, he grieves as well. The pictures are generally benign, but they are pictures of 15-18 yo boys and girls. He is prone to share them via his iOS Photo Stream to his brother and I.

And that's the twist. Pictures that are reasonably appropriate for the phone of a 16yo boy are not a great idea for the phone of a 50+ yo man. It took a week or two for me to think of this and turn off his photo stream. I'll have to simply review his phone, which is easy to do each night.

Tricky business being a special needs parent in the net age.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Special education in Minnesota - The MinnPost series on costs and funding

In the 1960s Minnesota education was a mess. It was funded entirely by property taxes; those who had the least need got the most funding, those with the greatest need got the least. [1] The disparities were egregious. Then, in 1971, came the "Minnesota Miracle". Education was increasingly funded through state taxes.
This worked very well for Minnesota, until, in 2002, Minnesotans elected GOP governor Tim Pawlenty and a Republican legislature. They reduced state funding and shifted overall funding back to property taxes; this benefitted their base and harmed the state.
Now, 11 years later, education in Minnesota is struggling. Not surprisingly, the effects are being felt most strongly in the funding of special needs education. MinnPost, a digital only nonprofit [2], has put a series together on the topic:
The Star Tribune has a also published a related article: Rising special ed cases are huge cost to Minnesota schools.
There's a lot of material in the articles. A few key takeaways, with the caveat that the articles are sometimes more anecdote than science:
  • Some of the cost increases may be related to the education and support of students who, as recently as 10 years ago, might have been institutionalized. As we've learned more about educating special needs students, we're also handling more difficult challenges.
  • There are three regional school districts that focus on special needs education, including New Hope's North Education Center in District 287. They serve about 3,600 students, of which 2,000 were referred in from a home district which pays the bill.
  • The average MN student costs $11K/year to educate, the average special ed student costs about $20K/year to educate [2], and the students in the North Education Center supposedly cost $70K/year. [3]
  • A "large" percentage of St Paul's severe EBD students are African-American and only 30% are ever in a regular classroom [4]. There is significant pressure to at least partly mainstream these students.
  • St Paul's special education district spent @98 million on special education, but only received $62 million in state funding. In other words, special education services are an underfunded state mandate [8]. The remaining $36 million came from other educational programs; the term "cross subsidy" is sometimes used to describe this funds transfer [5].
  • Obsolete rules mandating particular adaptive technologies waste money; iPads are much less expensive and much more desirable. [6] 
  • The sequester will cut $7 million in Title I funds [7] and 9.2 million in federal special ed funding.
  • The special-ed population has risen from 13-15% of the state's student body over the past 10 years. [9]
It's challenging to interpret these articles because, as my footnotes attest, there's a lot of missing data. My sense is that the overall demand is stable or slightly up, but that we are educating children who once received little education. Most of all, we are living with the damage done by Tim Pawlenty and his GOP legislature, and their reversal of the "Minnesota Miracle" educational funding system. That damage has been compounded by the Great Recession, demographic trends, and a shift from public to private/charter schools.
On the bright side, we are emerging from the Great Recession, the GOP are out of power for the moment, and the Accountable Care Act's mental health funding may allow schools to offload some of their services to the healthcare sector. From our experience, there are ways to improve the quality of special care education while also reducing the costs -- though they may require some 'no-child-left-behind' reforms. We can certainly change laws that mandate use of expensive and obsolete technologies.
There are issues here, but they aren't insurmountable.
- fn -
[1] American public education is often funded through taxes on property. Most nations think this is insane, and a major contributor to America's socioeconomic distress. Most nations are correct.
[2] We donate.
[3] We have two children in special ed. #1 is in a modified track, # in an adapted track. It would be interesting to see where the extra 10K goes; I suspect it's partly for speech and occupational therapy. There's also a lot of administrative overhead in managing special ed students.
[4] How large? No data. 
[5] The 2007-2008 budget was 630 million. Assuming it's now about 660 million, the cross-subsidy would be very roughly a 7% "tax" on other programs but in some articles this is described as 20%. The descriptions of what is meant by "cross subsidy" are not always clear.
[6] I've read that elsewhere. The rules require the devices be single purpose, that rules out modern adaptive devices.
[7] Poverty focused funding, but that includes many special ed students.
[8] Unfunded mandates are a common political vice.
[9] We don't know how much of this arose because of shifts of students out of public schools to private schools, or if this number counts charter schools. Given "wealthy flight" in MN over the past decade this might be little true change.