Navy households with particular schooling wants had been left alone; a brand new program goals to assist
(Tribune News Service) – Moving to Hampton Roads wasn’t that easy for the Bernabe family, and it got worse when their twin son and daughter virtually started kindergarten in September 2020.
“Within 20 minutes of his first virtual session, there was a loud noise. That was because another student’s speaker system was not properly calibrated and it was very high, and he covered his ears and hit the floor, ”remembers Tosha Bernabe.
“He just melted down completely, he freaked out screaming, kicking screaming. It was the first time he got violent towards me when he started beating me to pull my hair out. “
Although it took virtual school lessons every day – a tantrum lasted three hours – it wasn’t until October when their son started in class twice a week with only six kids that others got a close look at what the Bernabes saw each day.
Even when school staff sees children with special needs, getting the services they need can be difficult, especially for Navy families who move frequently and, like the Bernabes, often find themselves in posts remote from family and support networks.
The Navy’s Extraordinary Family Membership Program has launched a pilot program at Hampton Roads to help families through the maze of securing special education services, said Doug Morfeld, regional work and family life coordinator for the Naval Mid-Atlantic Naval Region’s Fleet and Family Support Program.
The pilot program connects families with the special education teacher Erica Leidel – who helps families to cope with the bureaucratic processes in order to make use of special education services – and the lawyer Alexandra Little.
Services can be difficult to get even for families with some experience in special education.
Mary and Ryan Forry’s daughter Annabelle had received special needs help with language, behavior, and reading problems from preschool through most of the first grade.
“But in March (2020) when the school went virtual, they called and said they weren’t seeing these issues anymore,” said Mary Forry.
The Forrys did, however. Annabelle continued to struggle with reading. When a task didn’t go the way she wanted it to, frustration could turn into a tantrum.
Second grade – virtual, thanks to the pandemic – gave them a clearer sense of what would help. A neighbor, an experienced teacher, offered to help.
She set up a “classroom” in her house a few doors down from the Forrys, and the face-to-face conversation between the teacher and the little girl showed helpful strategies.
“She gave us a whole list; a rest period, redirection when she was frustrated and stuck, special reading aid, ”Forry said.
But the Forrys got stuck trying to tell the school.
“It would be argumentative,” said Forry. “It was like they were teaming up with us, they didn’t hear what we were saying.”
The Bernabes felt that their son had special needs, especially after Kevin was first used shortly after they arrived. But the GP said the tantrums and public breakdowns were just the child’s way of testing their limits – and that they would grow out of them.
“He was extremely afraid to leave the house, to go, to do grocery shopping himself was almost impossible … I had to give up shopping carts that were full because he would collapse completely in the middle of a grocery store,” remembers Tosha Bernabe.
“You are one person and you have two children who are exactly the same age and they are both in a shopping cart and you have to try to juggle one that is literally like an octopus that everyone is moaning?” across the square and then still try to keep the other person safe while you drive through a parking lot. “
It wasn’t until her son started personal kindergarten classes in October 2020 that people outside the family began to see the problem as well – but help still seemed unavailable.
The class only met twice a week with only six children each, but their son couldn’t make it all day and spent most of the time outside the classroom with the career counselor, school nurse, or headmaster.
“She called me almost every day or every day he was in school … sometimes I could hear him screaming hysterically in the background,” Bernabe said. “And I literally went to his school when they called me a couple of times to come and get him, where he was being held by the security guard and the school nurse for attacking the principal.”
At that point, she took her son to a specialist, received an official diagnosis of autism and ADHD.
“But what a lot of people don’t understand or know because I didn’t know is that medicine and school are separate. Although my child has been diagnosed by a doctor as having autism, ADHD, and anxiety, that’s not enough to just say OK, this is your special school, ”said Bernabe.
“I’m at a Zoom conference with … like nine other people … You are standing in front of all these highly intelligent and trained people who are trained in these areas and know 100% what they are doing and you sit there and have to say ‘Oh, but wait’. “
“I felt really overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed … by the terms they used. I was a little confused and had a lot of questions to ask and just didn’t feel appropriate to fight for my child. It’s a terrible feeling. “
During the spring break of this year, the Forrys found out about the new special school pilot at the Navy Exceptional Family Member Program program.
“In our first zoom with Erica, she said you’ve been around for so long, we need to bring Alex (the attorney) in,” said Mary Forry.
In two more Zoom calls, they devised a strategy – including an approach the Forrys hadn’t thought of.
Instead of the individualized education program at the center of most special education discussions, which requires formal diagnosis, detailed assessment plans, and a lot of bureaucracy, Little suggested the lesser-known “504” plan.
Unlike the IEP, a 504 does not focus on detailing specialized education and related services. Rather, it is about finding ways to meet a child’s special needs.
For the Forry’s daughter, this meant her place was close to the teacher, which helped to distract and decrease attention.
It meant letting the teacher know to watch out for the times when the frustration was about to get out of hand and step in to divert the little girl’s attention – a popular way to suggest one is to her Taking a break to draw something before returning to class. Work at hand.
Sometimes a rest period was beneficial. Sometimes a visit to the career counselor. A reading specialist helps her catch up with her classmates.
“When we met at school, with Alex there, the tone changed,” Forry said.
“She kept us all very quietly on course.”
For the Bernabes, their son’s diagnosis opened up access to a range of services from the Exceptional Family Member Program, as well as insurance coverage for Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy, which many parents of children with autism have found transformative.
Bernabe wondered if EFMP could help in school – especially at the time when the special education pilot was getting underway.
She was hoping for a separate, special education classroom for her son – that means a smaller group than the 18 in a normal first grade and a teacher and assistant who has experience working with children with autism.
“That’s where Erica came in,” said Bernabe. “She actually did [the kindergarten teacher’s] daily log that would document his behavior. … we had weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks with daily problems, all from him trying to literally escape from the school yard, where you know he could have run into a street or something. “
Her son is thriving in this classroom now, she said.
“I finally felt like, oh my god, I have someone on my team,” said Bernabe. “It was definitely a game changer and made me feel kind of hopeless and overwhelmed and feel okay. Not only do I have someone to support me, but I also have a source of information. “
© 2021 Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia).
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Joseph Clarke of Poulsbo, Washington, plays in a bouncy castle during the Exceptional Family Member Program’s family picnic at Camp McKean in Bremerton, Washington, in August 2015. (Seth Coulter / US Navy)
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