Helping Kids Manage The Emotions of the Holidays

By Jennifer B. Theriault, MSW, LCSW                                                                                         CAA Special Education Advocate

The holiday season, more than any other time of year, is filled with expectations of joy, happiness, and excitement.  For some, it is a magical time, but for many children (and adults) the holidays can be difficult; exacerbating an underlying depression, anxiety, or other emotional disturbance.  Most of us can recall a time when we were “supposed” to feel excited and happy but in fact, our internal world did not mirror this ideal.  Not only can children and adolescents with emotional disturbances (ED) feel the pressures of this hectic time in a more profound way, they may lack the emotional reserves and ego strength to manage feelings that are often antithetical to what they imagine they should think and feel. Further, they may not bounce back from these struggles as easily as their typically developing peers due to an already fragile sense of themselves and the world around them.

All children can benefit from structure, predictability, and routine in their daily life.  Most parents can attest to the fact that late bedtimes, ever changing and busy schedules, and the constant excitement and stimulation of family and friends around the holidays, can wreck havoc on the entire family system!   Such changes are inevitable in life, and especially so during the holidays.  Part of our role as parents is to help our children to be able to accommodate to disruptions and changes in routine.  In fact, part of the fun of the holidays for many of us is the sheer mayhem that occurs when we get together with friends and relatives that we may not always see.  These special times can be valuable teaching opportunities to help our kids learn to tolerate and manage change; perhaps, even to look forward to it. But kids with ED need extra attention and guidance along with thoughtful strategies to be put into place during what is often a chaotic time of year.

Children with ED may exhibit obvious expressions of their internal struggles such as increased tantrums, becoming more combative, rigidity and inflexibility, heightened levels of anger and aggression, and the list goes on.  There are more subtle signs as well, such as becoming withdrawn or disconnected, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and becoming tearful and sad.  Parents will need to pay close attention to changes like these and to acknowledge them to the child.  It seems simple enough, but in the midst of holiday parties, family gatherings, and numerous other activities, it can be easy to lose patience with sullen, angry, or acting out children.  The initial reaction may be to ignore such behaviors, assuming that they will self – extinguish or at the very least not get any worse.  Adults, who can open up a dialogue and allow for the expression of feelings in a safe and non-judgmental way, offer a valuable invitation to their children to own, understand, and tolerate feelings that may be painful and uncomfortable.  It further gives the message that your children’s internal world is important to you and should be to them as well.

It is important to remember that the holidays often trigger emotionally charged struggles and responses to our own parents, siblings, and extended family.  An awareness and mindfulness about this can be valuable in keeping emotions in check and clarifying whether ones own issues are being stirred up and addressed or the child’s.   Extended family may not always agree about how best to parent and even well meaning relatives can be insensitive or opinionated about how to handle a child’s emotional issues.  Ignorance and insensitivity about a child’s particular diagnosis can ignite a flame and historical family dynamics can add fuel to the fire.  It is generally better to try and redirect conversations away from these topics in order to avoid unsolicited advice.  A smile and a phrase something like “I appreciate your ideas and I am really going to think about them” will hopefully help to cue people to move the conversation along.  If all else fails, a diplomatic exit – whether it’s to the kitchen or leaving all together – may be the best way to avoid further discomfort.

Some tips to preserve your sanity and to help your children, both those with ED and typically developing, to manage the holidays are:

  1. Share plans, schedule changes, and out of the ordinary events to reduce the stress that can accompany unpredictability.  A family calendar where everyone can see what’s going on is a great tool.  For younger kids, consider a visual schedule of activities that is portable and can be checked off together on long days.
  2. Discuss what is expected in terms of behavior and attitude.  Make a list for review if necessary.  Kids need to be reminded that expectations at Grandma’s may be very different than at home or even at friend’s homes.
  3. Use positive reward programs such as sticker charts to earn small gifts and rewards as incentives.
  4. Write simple social stories to help children understand what might happen and options for coping with stress.  Be sure not to give too much information at once – think about what is developmentally appropriate so that they don’t become more overwhelmed.
  5. Develop cues that your child can use to let you know if he/she is            struggling at a holiday event – maybe a wink, a tap on the shoulder, or a special word that let’s you know your child needs help.  Attending to their needs proactively will help prevent a meltdown, so practice coping strategies in the car or before the situation and remind them again in the moment.
  6.  Model coping strategies such as deep breathing and counting to 10 when stressed out.  Try to understand how your child copes best and give them opportunities for self care such as quiet time, reading, a TV show, physical exercise, singing, etc.
  7. Opt out of some events.  Don’t fall into the trap of needing to do it all.  Events or parties two or more nights in a row, or worse, multiple obligations on the same day are recipes for disaster.  Use your best judgment and take the opportunity to teach your children to have good boundaries for themselves.  It is okay to say no in order to take care of yourself!  This is a lesson we can all learn from!

Ms. Theriault is a special education advocate, as well as a licensed clinical social worker with significant experience working with children, adolescents and families with mental health issues.

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Help us help you! Working collaboratively with your advocate…

Last week, we shared with you some tips to get off to a great start for your child’s school year. There are also ways that you can help us, as advocates, better support you in your meetings and with your questions/concerns throughout the upcoming year.

First off, double check your child’s annual goals and objectives. Are they data driven? Are they specific enough? Do you know what your child is supposed to be learning based on the goal/objective and what the educator responsible for instruction of the goal will be doing with your child? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then you need to speak with your child’s case manager for some clarification. Ask that goals be data driven – using pre and post line data. Then, ask for baseline data of the goals to be given to you by the end of September. Ask for information to be sent home so you can reinforce learning after school hours.

Next, be sure that we have a copy of your child’s most recent IEP and evaluations. Let us know if you have any questions regarding your child’s IEP that we can help you better understand or any concerns that might need to be addressed right from the start. Schedule a consultation with us to review your child’s current IEP to see if there are any gaps that we should address sooner, rather than later.

Email us questions and concerns as they arise. Yes, the kids are still settling into their programs and everyone is “getting to know each other”, but children with special learning needs are always starting off the school year behind. They need direct, immediate and consistent instruction to ensure that they will perform with their typical peers and, in many cases, catch up with their peers. So, if reading class hasn’t started into the second week of school because schedules are being ironed out, email the team and ask to discuss this concern. Be on top of what is happening within your child’s program, and let us know when you are having trouble getting through to your team. We’ll do our best to support you through it so that issues are ironed out before they become problems.

Do get in touch with us a few weeks prior to your child’s ppt meeting. Especially as we head into spring, things get very busy. Do your best to get in touch with us early so that your child’s meetings are on our schedules. Also, we generally like to meet with you to plan prior to the ppt, so be sure to factor that into your schedule.

We look forward to continuing our work with you in the upcoming school year. Together, we can help support our children’s learning needs!

Jill Chuckas, MSW
Special Education Advocate

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Back to school time…and some tips to start the year off right!

Back to school is often an exciting – and nerve racking – time in both parent’s and children’s lives. So much anticipation goes into this time of year – the right clothes, back packs, school supplies. Will he get the right teacher for him? Will she have friends in her class? Will I be able to manage volunteering in class this year? For those of you with children who have special learning needs, the questions are much more intense. Will I be arguing with the team again this year? Will the school provide the reading support that my son so desperately needs? What will happen when she acts out again? Who will make sure that she has the behavioral intervention and support that is appropriate? The questions and concerns can be endless.

As with all new beginnings, it is imperative to start the school year off “on the right foot”. Careful planning and being proactive will go a long way in making sure that your child has appropriate supports in place this school year. Here is a list of a few things that we, as advocates, have found to be particularly helpful for our families.

1. Reach out to your child’s teacher(s) early. This will mean stopping in the classroom and sending emails from day one. Make sure that the primary people working with your child has your contact information and knows that it is your expectation that you will be working together to help your child have a positive year. If you are to get daily or weekly information home, remind the group of this and let them know how best to communicate with you.
2. Set up team meetings now. Yes, it is only the first week of school, but get those team meetings on the calendar now. For those of you who have regular meetings (monthly, every 6 weeks, quarterly), you will sit easier knowing that you have a time and place to discuss concerns and issues. At your first team meeting, be sure to review page 8 of your child’s IEP with the school team. Discuss the modifications and accommodations that your child needs to properly access his education and how each member of the team will work together to ensure consistent implementation of these modifications/accommodations.
3. Ask for your child’s schedule. If your child has many different support services, it is often helpful for you to have the weekly schedule. This will also give you the opportunity to compare the schedule to the agreed upon service time on your child’s IEP to make sure that all service time is as it should be from the start.
4. Re-read your child’s IEP. You are and always will be your child’s strongest advocate. You need to be clear on what is documented and agreed upon in your child’s educational plan. You may need to work with your child’s new team to better understand his/her specific learning needs.
5. Make a list of your child’s 5 greatest strengths and 5 biggest concerns. Share this information with your child’s teacher as a means to help him/her better understand your child and your needs for your child within the school environment.

Next week, we’ll have some more tips on ways you can “help us help you” (to quote Jerry MacGuire!).

Always know that we are here to help support and guide you so that your child has an appropriate educational program and is able access learning. We consider working with each of you our daily gift and pleasure.

Happy Back to School!

Jill Chuckas, MSW
Special Education Advocate

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Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Know If My Child is Making Progress?

We are often asked by the families we work with: How do I know if my child is making progress with their Individualized Education Program (IEP) ?

The Answer:    It starts with writing discrete measurable goals that set out the criteria for measuring progress. The goals and objectives must define what it is a child will know, do or be, in order to demonstrate progress. They should also not be considered mastered until they can be demonstrated across settings and people.

On the Page 7 of your IEP, at the bottom, there is a section called Evaluation Procedures. It is from this list of possible procedures that the PPT selects which will be used to assess progress for each individual Goal and Objective stated for the student.

We routinely request that the school use Evaluation Procedure #3: Pre and Post Base Line Data. This ensures that the school will gather baseline data on all the objectives at the start of the IEP and we request a date by when that data will be sent home. Then each progress monitoring period, a report on the progress over baseline should be sent home.

This enables us to monitor progress and decide if any adjustments to instruction, services or program may be necessary and it gives us a very good idea if the current program is working and if your child is making measurable progress.

It is also important to consider using both curriculum-based assessments such as DRA’s , writing prompts and classroom tests, to measure progress, as well as requesting some key standardized tests being repeated though out the year . These would include reading, writing and math standardized assessments.

In the case of more behavioral goals, the data can be gathered and graphed to show improvement.

Data can be collected for all types of goals and it needs to be reviewed and analyzed throughout the school year by the family and the school team.

– Noreen J. O’Mahoney, C.S.W., S.D.A., President of CAA


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Special Ed Law/Regulations Update

By Jill Chuckas, MSW, Special Education Advocate, CAA

     My work as a special education advocate is busy, invigorating, inspiring, stressful and a series of teachable moments and lessons learned.  It involves understanding and navigating through a variety of different school systems, educational programs, learning profiles, specialized learning needs and sorting through many other varied sources of information.  On a daily basis, I support families and children, work with teachers and administrators and try to effectively build and maintain appropriate educational services for children with many different learning needs.  I must be educated as to what is available within districts and the state and have a clear understanding as to how these issues affect programs and available services for special education.  Perhaps most important, I must be a good listener and have an innate ability to effectively advocate for my client’s needs.

     Federal and state education laws directly influence my work as a special education advocate.  As many of you are aware, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary legislation that guides special education within our country.  The State Department of Education interprets the IDEA and issues regulations based on their interpretation. 

     Traditionally, Connecticut has held its towns and municipalities to standards at or above the federal guidelines outlined in IDEA.  In recent years, though, there has been much discussion as to the appropriateness of these standards and rumblings of changes to lower the state’s expectations and guidelines it issues to local education agencies (LEAs). 

     As the legislative “short” session convenes over the next few months, the Governor has submitted SB24 as his solution to the concerns regarding the public school system in CT.  While he outlines many ideas for school improvements, there is not much content in terms of special education concerns.  The focus appears to be on the achievement gap and overall school improvement.  Most certainly important issues facing Connecticut, but there are concerns regarding where this leaves our special education students.

     The reality is that children with disabilities lag behind their peers in both reading and math.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, only 48% of children with disabilities scored at or above basic level in 8th grade math as compared to 79% of students without disabilities.  The gap is as wide when it comes to reading, with only 55% of children with disabilities scoring at or above basic level in 8th grade as compared to 87% of students without disabilities.  If Connecticut’s goal is to improve educational outcomes for all children, it must look closely at reducing the achievement gap for children with disabilities.  While these facts are hard to ignore, very little attention is being focused at the present time on closing the achievement gap for children with special learning needs.

     An issue currently at the focus of the CT Department of Education is that of Response to Intervention (RTI) or Scientifically Research Based Interventions (SRBI).  A result of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA), renamed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, RTIs or SRBIs are a general education initiative meant to provide data driven interventions to better support struggling students.  The concept and inception of RTIs is a good one.  Many districts across the country and within CT have developed fully operational general education initiatives that include RTI.  Although CT issued a framework for RTI in August of 2008, there is much variation in regards to how LEAs within the state interpreted and implemented their individual RTI programs.  There has also been little regulatory oversight in terms of the effectiveness of these programs within individual districts and even amongst schools within those districts. 

     At the last CT State Board of Education meeting, there were extensive questions from Board members regarding the implementation of RTI/ SRBI to staff members within the State Department of Education.  Questions focused around how many LEAs are effectively utilizing RTI, what sort of data is being taken regarding its effectiveness, and how the RTI process is being utilized within the special education eligibility determination process. 

     One issue that was vocalized during the meeting involved a concern that the RTI process is serving as a means to delay identification for special education services.  Indeed, guidance has been issued previously from the US Department of Education to State Directors of Special Education specifically instructing that RTI/ SRBI can be utilized as part of the identification process, but must not “delay or deny a timely initial evaluation to determine if a child is a child with a disability and, therefore eligible for special education and related services pursuant to an individualized education program.” (OSEP MemorandumJanuary 21, 2010).  While the RTI process is data driven and an excellent way to gather information regarding children’s learning styles, the Congressional intent of the process was never to delay identification for special education.  In fact, it was meant to help close the achievement gap and provide specialized instruction for students who may be struggling due to teaching styles and interventions that did not work for his/her individual learning style.

     Currently, the State Board of Education has requested additional information and supporting data regarding the status of RTI/SRBI throughout the state from the State Department of Education.  The state legislature is not expected to address issues related to RTI in this session, but the state Board of Education is expected to continue the discussion at an upcoming Board meeting, date yet to be determined.  Stakeholders are encouraged to submit their issues and concerns regarding RTI – and any other special education related concerns – directly to the State Board of Education (

     As these and other issues relating to special education services within our state are addressed by the federal and state legislature and the State Department of Education, I intend to be an active participant in the discussion – both by providing direct input to our members in government and the department of education, as well as by sharing information with families.  Knowledge is an important component to effective advocacy.  Working together, empowering each other, all children can have access to a free, appropriate educational program.

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Welcome to the CAA Blog

     Welcome to the CAA Blog, written by the special education advocates of Collaborative Advocacy Associates (CAA), a group of professionals based in Fairfield County, CT.  Having just celebrated our tenth anniversary of providing support to families of children with special learning needs, we have made it our mission to help families ensure that their children are being provided with an educational program that is not just appropriate, but that truly meets his or her individualized needs.

     In support of that mission, we will periodically comment on some of the many topics associated with the world of special education in hopes of providing you with valuable insights and knowledge you can use in your efforts on behalf of your special needs child. 

     Whether it be updates on changes to special education laws and regulations; tips for ensuring your child’s program is being implemented properly; or answers to some of the most commonly asked questions from the nearly 2,000 families we have had the privilege to serve, our goal is to make this a resource for you in support of your special child.

     When I set out on this journey more than ten years ago, I was probably just like you: a parent trying to get my child the help he needed to be successful in school. Even though I had been working in the field of disabilities for my entire professional career, discovering what it took to make the educational system work so that my son could get the help he needed was truly an eye-opener !

     It may not have been designed that way, but the special education system is a maze that most people need help navigating. Once I learned enough to help my son, I discovered
just how great and growing the need was among others facing similar challenges with their own children, and how much they needed the knowledge and experience I had developed.

     Seeing the opportunity to be of real service to families with children who have learning needs, I decided to become a special education advocate. I read all the major books on special education and advocacy, took every formal advocacy training course available,  and sought additional knowledge from numerous experts in the field. Along the way, I have accompanied parents to many thousands of PPTs, team meetings and mediations. 

     Today, this work has truly become my passion! I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to know that we can have an impact in the life of a child with special needs. And in numerous cases, helping those children get the support they need, has helped entire families better manage life with a child with a disability.

      As my colleagues and I enter our second decade, we are more energized than ever about helping many more thousands of children and families. May God Bless and protect all children, especially those with special needs. 

               –  Noreen J. O’Mahoney, C.S.W., S.D.A. , President, CAA


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