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[00:00:00] Dr. Sharp: Hello everyone. Welcome to The Testing Psychologist podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Jeremy Sharp, licensed psychologist, group practice owner, and private practice coach.

Many of y’all know that I have been using TherapyNotes as our practice EHR for over 10 years now. I’ve looked at others and I keep coming back to TherapyNotes because they do it all. If you’re interested in an EHR for your practice, you can get two free months of TherapyNotes by going to thetestingpsychologist.com/therapynotes and enter the code “testing”.

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Hey folks, welcome back to the podcast. Today, we are talking all about Advocacy [00:01:00] and School Psychology with April Rehrig.

April is the founder of Rise Educational Advocacy and Consulting. She was a teacher and school psychologist for over 20 years in Los Angeles. April is a Licensed Educational Psychologist, Board Certified Special Education Advocate, Autism Clinical Specialist, and IEP trainer. She shows parents and teachers how to set up education plans using a strength-based approach.

April and I get into many aspects of advocacy. We spend a lot of time on writing strengths-based school psychology assessment reports. There are a lot of parallels in this conversation to the work that we do in private practice. I think there’s a lot to take away from this. April brings a unique perspective having been a school psychologist for a long time and then moving into the advocacy world as well.

A few things we talk about are: April’s [00:02:00] story, of course; how she made that transition, what she saw that inspired that transition. We talk about what she means by strengths-based assessment in the school setting. We dive relatively deeply into how April likes to advocate for and do the work to connect actual assessment results to interventions and goals in IEP meetings. We also talk about how to Approach an IEP meeting and make sure that it is as productive as possible from whatever perspective you may be coming from now.

You’ll hear at the end of the podcast that April has a lot of resources. Make sure to go check those out. We’ll put them all on the show notes, website, or socials. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there that you can access if you are interested in learning more.

Without further ado, let’s get to my conversation with April Rehrig about school psychology and advocacy.

[00:03:10] April. Hey, welcome to the podcast.

April: Hi Jeremy, thanks for having me.

Dr. Sharp: Absolutely. Thanks for being here. I’m excited to chat with you. I haven’t talked with school psychology folks in a while. So this will be a nice opportunity to dip back into that area of practice. I know a lot of folks out there are school psychologists and are going to be interested in this.  And I think we’re talking about generally good principles for writing and pulling reports together. So it’s always interesting to folks.

But I’ll start where I always start, which is this question of why spend your time on this out of all the things that you could do with your life. You’ve done many things with your life, but why focus on this right now?

April: […]. That’s a [00:04:00] great question, Jeremy. This may sound controversial to some of your listeners, but I don’t think it is. I think a lot of school psychologists are naturally an advocate but we don’t think that we are. And so, I focused on being an advocate because I felt like at the table I did so many roles that are so similar to being an advocate.

When I left the field and told my director, “I’m leaving and I’m going to do something else”, she looked at me and said, “So you’re going to be an advocate, right?” I was like, “What?” I’m like, “No, I don’t want to be an advocate”. And she’s like, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I want to help bridge the gap between communication between parents and teachers and schools.” She said, “Well, that’s an advocate, April.” And it dawned on me.

So that’s why I do what I do. It seemed like such a natural progression to me. When I’ve spoken to my school psychology friends, they were like, Oh, no, no, [00:05:00] no, we thought that was always going to be you, but I never foresaw myself as an advocate because what I perceived an advocate was and what I am, it’s different.

Dr. Sharp: I’m glad you said that. I was going to ask a question around that because the role of an advocate is hard to pin down sometimes I think for some of us. I’ve heard the term advocate used for attorneys who specialize in this work and non-attorneys who do this work in different fields. So I don’t know. I’d love to spend maybe just a little time hearing what that looks like for you personally and what that role is.

April: Great question, Jeremy. It’s absolutely true. I did a blog on the difference between an advocate, what’s called an IEP coach; some of your listeners might be familiar with that, and an attorney. [00:06:00] When I was a school psychologist, we would have attorneys come to the meetings, and I was always like, well, I know they’re an attorney, but really, what are they doing differently? And then I would have an advocate come at the meeting, and then I met several IEP coaches, and for the longest time, I’m like, well, what is a coach? How is that different? So there is some nuance.

To put it in a visual perspective, an advocate is the one who interprets the appropriateness of the offer of faith. They look at the accuracy of the IEP document itself, the accuracy of the school psych, or the assessment report. They look at interpretation, they look at accuracy, they look at what’s correct, and whether the child was getting in the offer of faith.

In contrast, someone like an advocate is going to be the liaison. So they’re looking at the [00:07:00] relationship and interpreting the information on the IEP for the parent. An advocate can also help with some proceedings whether it’s mediation. In some states like New York, they can file for due process but in most states, they cannot. They also act as the go-to to facilitate letter-writing skills, and understanding the documents themselves, and they’re there to provide referrals and resources.

Now, if you look at an IEP coach, they’re different from that. I call myself an IEP coach even though I’m trained and board-certified as an advocate. An IEP coach is different in that typically we try to help the parent and empower the parent at the table instead of ghostwriting a letter, which is what a lot of advocates do or doing things for the parent.

An IEP coach will [00:08:00] usually sit there and say, okay, here is what’s usually happening. What do you think, parent? What’s your vision in three years? What do you intend for your child? How can we map that out so that when you get to the meeting, you’re communicating that with the team and you’re telling the team this is what I want, team. Here’s what I want you to do about it and here’s how I’d like to work with you.

So it’s a different style and one style isn’t better than the other. It’s really about, is the parent choosing, okay, what is my intent? How important is this matter to me? So is it important to file due process because the end goal is A, B, and C, or is it important to hire an IEP coach because the end goal is C, D, and E? So when it comes down to it, a parent’s choice and who they choose is based on [00:09:00] individual need, what is important to them, and honestly, a lot of it has to do with financials, because the cost of an attorney is going to be a very different price from someone like an advocate or an IEP coach.

In essence, that’s the differences and nuances between all three of those different roles.

Dr. Sharp: Right. It sounds like there’s a little bit of overlap and some of it depends on how you want to approach each of those roles personally. Maybe the elephant in the room, small elephant in the room is at least for me, many situations where advocates get involved, it’s like immediately conflictual. I don’t know if that’s been your experience. I’m sure you’ve had many positive experiences, but I’m just curious how you navigate that. You’ve been on both sides, right? I’m interested to hear if that’s been your experience or not so much and how [00:10:00] that has worked for you.

April: As a school psychologist, I saw a bunch of different styles of advocates, and that was going to be one of the things I was going to segue into a minute ago is that, for parents, they need to decide what fit they have and then also what style they’re looking for.

Just like hiring someone who’s going to be a personal trainer, hiring someone to be maybe a tutor for your child, you want to find the right fit. There are different styles for advocates. Some advocates reach across the aisle, meaning they’re very collaborative. They tell the families that hire them. Okay. I work in the school district. I have a great relationship. We do this and we do that together. Or I’ve worked at your school all the time.

That is one style that I’ve seen as a school psychologist, but then I also saw many advocates where [00:11:00] I’d never met them before and they would walk in the door, and then immediately they would pitch the parent against the school and they would say, we want this, you want that. They were using what’s more called position-based arguments. The challenge with using that kind of outlook on position-based arguments for advocates and school psychologists is that it pits the parties against each other.

When you think about an IEP meeting under IDA law, we’re supposed to be empowering the parents and working across the aisle. Working across the aisle also means negotiation and negotiation is absolutely part of the IEP process, and that doesn’t get communicated enough. It’s like, oh, well, here’s our offer, and it’s a negotiation. So, having an advocate that reaches across the aisle is a personal choice for parents. I [00:12:00] find as an advocate and as a former school psychologist, that having a collaborative approach is more effective.

For me, as an advocate, I use the collaborative approach because before the meeting, the school and the school psychologist per se know, okay, here’s what the advocate is talking about. Here’s what they’d like us to talk about at the meeting.

It also means that when you use a collaborative approach, meaning most of your work is done before the meeting, then the parents have drafts. The school psychologist has already done their report. They’re always done with their report first, right? We always get done first.

So then we get all of our stuff into the IEP stuff done and then when we show up to the meeting, it’s here’s a summary of the report, let’s say the school psychologist did a report. Here’s a summary. Let’s talk about the IEP now. What are we going to do differently instead of some people who are like, okay we’re going to fight you [00:13:00] at the IEP. We’re not going to tell you what we’re going to talk about. And then they show up to the meeting and it’s a 5-hour IEP and then you have to meet again and again and again.

I personally find a collaborative approach an approach where you tell the school in advance, here’s what we’re concerned about, here’s what we want you to talk about, here’s a parent report or a parent letter of attachment saying what we’d like you to cover. I feel like it gets more productivity at the meeting. It shortens the meeting length. Ultimately, it finishes the case out for the school psychologist.

They’re like, “Come to the meeting”, and they’re like, okay, “we finished it out”. Hopefully, the parent is going to accept the offer. It’s a whole process that improves productivity at the meeting. So, for my personal approach, I feel like Jeremy, reaching across the aisle, asking [00:14:00] questions, telling the schools before what we’re looking for and what the parent would like to review and consider for the team, I feel like that’s more productive. That’s not everyone’s approach, but I feel like for me as an advocate and for me as a former school psychologist, that’s the approach that makes the most sense.

Dr. Sharp: I could get on board with that. I think we’ve all heard stories or been part of these nightmare marathon IEP meetings where folks are just going back and forth and nothing gets accomplished. I think these poor kids are the ones who suffer because of that. So, like anything else, there are all sorts of styles out there. It’s good to know. There are folks. Parents can find the advocates that fit their style and needs. That’s fantastic.

A big part of this, we jumped on here to talk about more [00:15:00] helpful reports. I would love to hear a little bit of your story. I think the audience would benefit from that as well as how you came to see the report and the style within the report as a bit of advocacy for kids. Would you be willing to dive into the background a little bit and then we’ll get into the actual report style?

April: Yeah. I think what spurred me is probably what spurs a lot of your school psychologists is that when we’re trained as school psychologists to write reports, at least back when I was trained many, many years ago, we were trained to write very lengthy, jargony reports using lots and lots of text. And so, I would pride myself when I was an intern and a new school psychologist to write 30, 40, 50-page reports.

I absolutely loved it [00:16:00] but my husband at the time would look at me and be like, I don’t understand this report, April. And I was like, “Oh, well, you’re not in the field”. And he’s like, “But how are parents and teachers supposed to understand this report? That’s weird”. I laughed at him, Jeremy, but honestly, he was correct. And so I started to question things.

When I was a school psychologist, I’d sit in the meetings and they would look at me and say, “Okay, April, you have five minutes to present because we’ve got all this stuff to cover.” And then I finished my report and they said, “Okay, great, now we’re going to craft the IEP” and my report would sit on the side. I started to realize, what I’m saying sounds great. What I’m saying makes me feel good. Is this helping the consumer?

As a mom of three neurodiverse kids, I sat on the parent side at IEP meetings, I became the consumer and I started to look at the [00:17:00] language we were using in a report, the way we were talking and what we were saying about our kids, and I realized, I think we can do things differently here.

As a school psychologist, we can write great reports that are legally compliant, but we need to look at the big picture; how we’re communicating, the language we’re using, and how we incorporate more than standardized texts on our reports to embed that into the IEP and ultimately craft consumer-friendly strength-based reports. That’s how it started is this idea as a psychologist and then it moved into practicality and then really what’s the big picture here?

Dr. Sharp: I love that. Let’s zone in on this strengths-based style. I feel like people talk about doing strengths-based reports often, but it’s sort of ill-defined [00:18:00] and I would love to hear how you would describe a strengths-based assessment. 

April: If you think about writing a report, any special educational report, it does not have to be a school psychology report, when it comes to developing an IEP, and an IEP is essentially a blueprint: What are we doing now? How are we going to do things differently? What are the right setups? That’s what an IEP is. That’s all it is.

When it comes to the assessment, the findings of the assessment are the ground blower. They form that blueprint for the IEP, and they form the foundation that we craft the entire IEP. 

If you’re going to write an assessment that focuses on deficits, let’s say the child has a specific learning disability, and the way that I was trained to write a report is, Hey, we identify the deficits, and then we talk about eligibility and we’re writing the [00:19:00] report to talk about eligibility and recommendation, that’s not going to develop an IEP that meets all the criteria; that’s compliant. The bigger issue is it’s not going to show what setups are needed to get the child where they need to go. It just says what’s wrong.

We all know that in the reality of situations, when we order a package from Amazon, we don’t look at what went wrong with the delivery, we’re like, what went right and why is Amazon successful? Amazon is successful. It’s because they know it’s easy to find. You can get the product you need, you can get it quickly, and then if there’s an issue, you can resolve it. So it’s all about capitalizing on what’s right and then getting it to where it needs to go, and if there’s an issue, we can get that quality control in there.

When you switch that and you think about an assessment, when you look at present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, which is what they call PLAAFP in the [00:20:00] IEP, that’s where our assessment needs to go. When we focus on only the deficit, it tells us what’s wrong and not what we’re going to do differently.

With a strength-based report, what you want to look for is what can the child do; that would be their strength, what they already know; that would be found in the accommodations, the supplemental of that stuff, all the setups; and then how we structure the how-tos, and then what are their unique learning needs; that would be their weaknesses also known as the present level of academic achievement and functional performance what they don’t know. And then we look for opportunities for learning in our report: What are we going to do differently using what they know and what they don’t know? And then lastly, we look at the barriers for learning- the impact of the disability.

So when you structure your report in those four quadrants, also known as the SWOT [00:21:00] analysis in the business world, strengths, opportunities for learning, and the threats, I call them the barriers, that is a different mindset for formulating our reports. And then we can use those four quadrants to streamline developing the IEP because when you write your report, you’re supposed to embed that into the IEP, but none of us likes are taught well, how do we choose the accommodations? How do we choose the gold? How do we embed the accommodation into the goals to get the right setups that are strength-based and get the child to where they need to go?

So it’s not just using the data from your report, but extrapolating the data in a way that’s using strength-based language, capitalizing what the kids understand now and what they need to do differently and then giving them [00:22:00] the tools, which is all the setups in the IEP to achieve the goals that the team is going to offer.

Dr. Sharp: Yes. I love the description. It sounds great in theory. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, I feel like I have this experience a lot where I get IEP reports and that information might be in there, it may even be in that format or in that breakdown or classification, but I just cannot find it. I don’t know if it’s just the software that our districts use. Maybe every district across the country uses. I don’t know. But these IEP reports are so dense and hard to sort through and find all of these things that it’s easier to honestly, flip around, try to find some [00:23:00] scores and then go from there. And that’s not doing anybody any favors. So I don’t know. Am I off base on this? Or is this just like a problem across the country with IEP reports being pretty dense and hard to sort through?

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All right, let’s get back to the podcast.

April: You and I both know there’s different styles, Jeremy, for writing reports. Some people go by content, some people go by structure, and then some people will say, okay, well, I’m in it. The way I was trained to write reports is, you write the reason for referral, and then you talk about the history, then you go into cognition, academics, processing. Well, the challenge with writing it that way is then you have to decide, where am I going to do my interpretation and where am I going to do my summary, and then what does this all mean?

That’s one of the big questions I’ll ask school psychologists. They’ll say, well, here’s the data. I’m like, okay, cool. What does this mean? I don’t know, because honestly, they don’t know. And it’s not their fault. It’s that a lot of them aren’t teachers, but the bigger issue is we’re not [00:26:00] trained as school psychologists to interpret. We’re told, okay, well, we have to use the test scores.

So when you look at the structure of the report, what’s an easier way to do it is how I was trained to read reports. I was trained to read reports from the back to the front. What I mean is, when I would jump into a 504 meeting or someone’s like, Hey, April, come to this meeting. Here’s an outside report or here’s the prior psych report, I’d always look at that. Always start at the end because at the end is recommendations. And so I was like, what’s up here? What’s going on? Where’s the summary? And a lot of times I would find what you’re talking about. I would find either no summary or here’s the IQ, here’s the academics. They qualify. They don’t qualify. It’s up to the team. And I was like, okay, well, what does this mean?

What I tell a lot of school psychologists now, and what I did myself as a school psychologist is, I changed the structure of my report [00:27:00] and I would embed the interpretation in the report. So what that would mean is, when I would look at the ed history, I would say, okay, here’s what I was seeing the past three years in the report card and this is the theme I’m seeing. And then I would come to the observations and I would start that cross-validation there. I’m observing in the school in the classroom where they’re doing really well, here’s their strengths. I’m observing in the classroom where they’re not doing well, here’s their weaknesses, and when I interviewed the child, here’s what they said they were good at, they weren’t good at, they needed to learn their barriers to learning. So there’s that SWOT analysis again.

So it’s kind of like that cross-validation that we’re taught to do and then also that two-factor kind of looking through. You see it in the text here. It plays out here in the classroom. The student is saying it and the teacher is saying it. So you’re doing that a little bit of interpretation.

Then when you get to the summary, you’re using the [00:28:00] summary, and I used to take my summary and directly paste it into the pleasant level section of the IEP, and so then you’re saying, IQ is here, it’s a range, right? I would always use range. I would never say the exact score. It’s a range, and this is what it means, and here’s where it plays out in the classroom. The teacher is saying this, the parent is saying that, what I observed happened here, and here are the supports and tools that the child needs to be successful in meeting accommodations, goals suggested, and service suggested.

So I’m basically taking the summary from my report, Jeremy, and I’m layering in the mastery levels, independence, the performance conditions, the setups of the IEP, and I’m putting that from my psychological report in the summary into the IEP itself. And then when it gets to, okay, April, you’re the school psychologist, you talked about that they would need help with counseling, [00:29:00] I already put in my present level section what areas they would need help with, Jeremy in terms of supports, and then I suggested accommodations in there. And then when it comes to that part of the IEP, it’s already in the present level. So it’s easy to extrapolate that and push that into the rest of the IEP document itself.

Dr. Sharp: I hear you. The work that you’re describing or the level of interpretation and layering, like you said, and pulling all this together, sounds amazing and hard. That’s what I hear. It’s like, this sounds hard. This sounds like, not too much work. I’m so aware of like how school psychologists, it seems like even more than those of us in private practice, are completely overworked and overburdened. The process you’re describing sounds incredible and time-consuming. Maybe that’s not true, [00:30:00] but I would like to hear your perspective

April: It’s not true. One of the things that I noticed is that school psychologists are often taught to do more is better, meaning we got to do tons of tests here, or we got to give all this stuff. Yes, you want to cover all the areas on the assessment plan but when I work with a family…

When I was a school psychologist, and again, it does depend on how much time you have, but in my last 10 years, I was blessed. I would only have like two assignments. So I felt like that was better than a lot of school psychologists who have a different school every day. But if I had an initial, for example, or even a try, I would call the parent before issuing the assessment plan and either hopefully, I went to the 504 meeting before the SST or the intervention meeting before, and I would ask them, what are you concerned about? What are your child’s unique learning needs? What are you suspecting? What’s a disability you suspect? And they’re like, What? No one’s ever asked me [00:31:00] that. And so then I would have that conversation and I’d say okay, I’m thinking of these areas. Do you want me to look into this?

So I’m covering all the areas on the assessment plan, but I’m gearing and catering to the test. You’re individualizing the test. You’re not necessarily giving more, but you’re covering the areas of need. So instead of giving every processing test under the sun, if it’s an initial, I cover my basis for auditory, visual, and fine motor, but then perhaps with the rating scales, I’m giving certain rating scales based on those areas of need and then giving the broad and the narrow band measures without giving a thousand tests, and then I’m working on the interpretation. 

I test at the end, I do the observations first, I get all the teacher info first, and then I develop that hypothesis in your head which all school psychologists have, where like, I think it’s this, but I don’t know, and then as you’re testing, you’re checking, okay, [00:32:00] wow, this is what I was expecting, it isn’t.

And then I prep the parent before 5 minutes. We chat before the IEP, not 5 minutes before the meeting, but we chat like, okay, I’m just letting you know, I’m super excited. Your child’s going to qualify. I just want to prep you. Let’s spend 5 minutes going over the psychological report. I’m just going to summarize. And then it was so much better. And then the parent knew either going into the meeting for an initial, okay. My child is going to qualify. This is great. I didn’t get everything before the meeting, but I got the psychological report. I got the draft. So I’m trying to know.

Or my child is doing well. We’re not sure if they’re going to qualify. It’s really up to the team because actually, it’s not up to the school psychologist if they qualify. It’s the team’s decision, but then I feel comfortable as the parent going into the meeting because I talked to the school psychologists. I met the school psychologist.

So it doesn’t necessarily mean Jeremy that I spend hours extra. It means that I’m systematic and specific when I [00:33:00] talk to the parent and it also means I talk to the parent. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had as an advocate the parents never met the school psychologists. They got forms. They never met them before the initial eval, they never sat down with them and they got a 50-page report. How is that helpful? It isn’t.

Honestly, any parent would just be overwhelmed. So, yes, it’s easier that way, but is it going to come back to spike the school psychologist? Probably.

Dr. Sharp: Right. Well, the piece that I’m zoning in on out of all of that is that it sounds like you are choosing quality over quantity approach where you’re being very deliberate about not over-testing and using that trade-off in time that you might spend doing extra tests to do this more layered complex interpretation and [00:34:00] contact with the parents. Is that fair?

April: Yeah. For example, when I worked at a high school, they would have maybe three tries before they would come to my job being the school psychologist. I would talk to the parent, and let’s say the student had a learning disability, before I would talk to the parent, I would look at all the prior psychological reports. I’d print them all out and then I would be like, okay I’m thinking perhaps a record review, we call them record review, so it would be like no IQ testing, but we’re cross-validating things, I’d call the parent and I would always tell them, “I’m thinking they we don’t need to retest IQ. This has been really stable. What are your concerns? What are you thinking?”

And then that way I would cover IQ on the assessment report. You always cover it even if it’s not checked, but I would say, parents agree that we don’t have to redo IQ. The initial said this, the first try said that, that’s the second try, based on a review of existing data continues to exhibit blah, blah, blah. And then [00:35:00] I focus the assessment on the area of need to reestablish the disability and to rule in or rule out maybe other areas that haven’t been explored. So it’s tightening up your report. It’s looking at the prior history and then determining where we go with this instead of they referred for a try, they’re still qualified for a try. That’s it.

Dr. Sharp: Right. I love this approach. I love it. It seems like a much more personalized approach that takes the individual child’s profile into account. That’s super valuable. Again, I’ve read a lot of IP reports that are just data more than anything else. It’s just scores. Then we make determinations from that. 

I would love to hear more if you’re willing to dive into it a little bit more just how you connect [00:36:00] the results of the individual characteristics of the kid to those interventions and goals that are so important. Can you speak to that a bit?

April: Yeah. So I go back to the strength-based perspective. Let’s say we have, and this happened at the time when I was a school psychologist, I would test a student and they would be an initial, or I would call them a re-eval, because perhaps many times before they had been assessed. And so the reason for referral was the first step. And so I would look at why are they being referred. A reason for referral is not going to be an initial that’s not a referral. A reason for referral is not “academics”. The reason for the referral is, what is the suspected disability? What are the suspected unique learning needs? What do I think they may exhibit? And what am I looking for in the assessment report? And then I would take that and be like, okay, how are we going to play [00:37:00] that out?

A lot of times, a student would be referred to me and the reason for her would be behavior. At the high school, a lot of times you had students who’d been failing classes for years, but they were called, they were deemed as twice exceptional. They were very smart, but they were failing. And so everyone’s like, well, it’s because of their behavior, or it’s because there’s something going on in the home. And I was like, I don’t know about that.

I would observe them in the classroom and sure enough their test scores were amazing, but they were not turning in their assignments. They weren’t turning in things on time. And so there’s, it’s layering history and you’re seeing these characteristics of ADHD, but it had never been diagnosed. And then I would go to observe them in the classroom. I’d do the same thing. It’s like not motivated, highly skilled in certain things, not in others, paying attention to everything, but selecting their focus.

[00:38:00] And then when I would tell them, amazing IQ, even profile, which is very characteristic of ADHD. And then the special education teacher would do the academic testing and they would test out. They would be at the top of the month and other school psychologists I talked to would say, oh, well, that means they don’t qualify. And I say, actually, no, that’s not what it means. Because the academic test scores are not aligned with the curriculum. It doesn’t talk about motivation. It doesn’t talk about organization. And so they were not able to access the curriculum, not because they couldn’t perform, but it was because they didn’t have the right setups in the classroom in order to make progress.

So they would qualify under other health impairments, and that would be the findings of my report, and then I would take the areas of strength. So perhaps the child was a very visual learner, which a lot of kids with ADHD are, or they’re amazing with Minecraft or different [00:39:00] games, or perhaps they’re incredible developing YouTube videos, and then I would say, okay, here’s the area of strength. Here’s what they told me they’re good at in the interview. Here’s what the teachers were saying they were skilled at on the observation form. Here’s what I noticed when I observed them during testing, what they were good at, and then in my summary of findings, Jeremy, I would talk about, okay, I’m seeing this here. I’m seeing this here. And then the top thing we’re seeing these areas of deficit, but with these right setups, they’re successful.

Then when it would come to the IEP, I would draw on those strengths and say, let’s look at the accommodations here. We’re not going to say, well, all kids need extended time because they have ADHD because that’s a myth, but also that’s not individualized. We’re saying, we’re going to choose the accommodation that they get using graphic highlighters and that using the graphic highlighters or having the teacher give [00:40:00] natural style prompting is a strength for them. So those are the accommodations we’re going to choose because when I was observing that kid in the classroom, that’s what they responded to. Or when I interviewed them, Jeremy in my psychological eval, that’s what they responded to. So I’m individualizing those accommodations.

And then in the goals, when we talk about the goals, we’ll say, okay, well, they’re going to turn in their homework this amount of time, blah, blah, blah, using A, B, and C type of prompts with those setups and the accommodations that we chose so they can achieve the goal. So I’m taking the test data, but I’m going beyond the standardized test, and I’m using functional academics, which is part of IDA law that I saw in my observation, teacher reports, parent interview, school psychological observation, and I’m layering that to develop the IEP with the T.

[00:41:00] Dr. Sharp: Right.

April: So, it’s different. Standardized tests are not going to help you. That’s the problem with standardized tests, and that’s why they miss the mark, is that they don’t tell you about performance conditions, mastery, or incidental learning. They tell you about how the student performs at this time. That’s what they tell you. That’s why a lot of school psychologists struggle because we aren’t trained about how to use all those other aspects that are happening in the classroom every day to write the IEP because the standardized tests can’t show that. And that’s where I feel like the standardized tests falter and that we struggle as school psychologists because they’re like, well, I don’t know what to do with it and you’re absolutely right.

Dr. Sharp: Right. This is validating, right? If y’all are struggling with it, I’ll just think about all the private practitioners out there who are even another step removed or 3 steps removed, maybe [00:42:00] from the academic environment. We’re trying to do these evals and all and in a lot of cases, we mostly have test scores, a sterile private practice office environment. We might be doing school observations. We might be interviewing the teachers, but it’s not that close contact that you’ll have as school psychologists.

I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of private practice reports, right? I don’t know. This is a little bit of a sidebar outside the school psychology realm specifically, but like I said, I know you’ve seen a lot of reports. I’m curious what you might say to private practitioners who are trying to maybe write individualized recommendations or accommodations, but may not have the full picture from being so embedded in the school. Do you have any idea how we might bridge that gap a little bit?

April: That’s a great question, Jeremy. I do encounter this all the [00:43:00] time. One thing I’m noticing that’s a trend happening, at least in California, is that a lot of schools will hear, oh, okay, there’s going to be an IEE done or there’s a private assessment done, and so, they try to, and I don’t think it’s nefarious, but they try to make it difficult for that private assessor to get rating skills to come in and observe.

For many years when I was a school psychologist, we would have this underlying rule, and it was in every district. Okay, well, if someone’s coming to observe including the parent, we’re going to give them 20 minutes to observe. I understand they want to be careful, but when you think about it as a school psychologist, if you’re observing for 20 minutes and you don’t have a say in where you’re observing, maybe they might give you recess, and maybe they might give you this. What if the kid is absent? You go to test, oh my gosh, I have the IEP tomorrow. I’ve got 20 minutes. You never know what you’re going to get.

So I feel like as an outside person trying to [00:44:00] do an assessment, having access to talking with the teachers, it doesn’t have to be crazy, but maybe an observation forum, maybe some rating skills, I really feel like observing in the classroom is helpful. So from a school’s perspective, allowing an outside assessor to come on campus to observe, yes, you can have someone sitting next to them, and I understand a lot of schools require that they need to have someone supervising to make sure there’s nothing nefarious going on. That’s okay, but not allowing outside assessors to access rating scales, get forms back, or make it difficult; a lot of families will say, the school says, no, I have to go back here. I have to go back there. That’s not helpful to the outside assessor. It’s the school against the parents and then ultimately who wins? Nobody. And the child loses out.

So I feel like from a school’s perspective if you have [00:45:00] school psychologists and you know an outside assessor is coming to observe, let them come and observe. Sure you can sit next to them and follow all the rules and procedures your district requires, but allowing them access to the same information that you have, you’re not doing anything that’s against the school and it’s only promoting more information and more collaboration. That’s where I go back to reaching across the aisle and working with the advocates. It doesn’t mean you’re viewed as weak or not a good school psychologist. It means you’re trying to work with everybody and again, you’re going back into that advocacy role of helping the parents and the child thrive in what they have going on and their unique learning.

Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I want to go back and focus on one thing that you said quickly just for my own edification, I suppose. We’ve heard this before. We have to [00:46:00] be accompanied through the classroom and supervised or we need somebody there. Theoretically, I understand the reason for that, but you use the word nefarious. School staff wants to make sure nothing nefarious is going on. So tell me, what are some examples of nefarious activity that you may have seen from private practitioners, or is this hypothetical that schools are protecting themselves against?

April: So when I was the school psychologist, we had, and this happened many times, and it wasn’t in one certain type of the neighborhood and not another, we would have private practitioners who would come and do an observation. And if someone from the district wasn’t accompanied by them, they would say all this stuff happened and they would say, I saw someone hitting someone else, or I saw a child being brutally victimized. And [00:47:00] then we get to this meeting and we’re like, wait. The teacher was like, that didn’t happen. I’m telling you. I didn’t see that. And so we have seen it where there’s been a question in terms of the legitimacy of what someone saw in an observation.

I’ve also seen where people have said certain things that hated the parents against the school or the outside assessor said well I did this and you didn’t do that. We’ve also seen it where the person wasn’t able to observe and then they said, made statements about something that maybe an administrator said, and it wasn’t true.

I’m not blaming the outside assessors. I’m not saying any of that. We’re humans. Everybody has their way of working and everybody has great days and bad days, but I think having someone next to the outside assessor when they’re observing. It comes from that thinking that we [00:48:00] want to protect ourselves at the same time, there shouldn’t be anything to hide.

So just like when I was a school psychologist, every year or every other year we had to get evaluated. Sometimes I would have supervisors who would come in during my IEPs and observe me. I didn’t have anything to hide. They were coming in to look and see how I’m doing. I didn’t feel like it was nefarious. They just wanted to see what was happening.

So I feel like, again, going to work across the aisle, having someone there to supervise, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as that outside assessor is kept up to date with what’s going on and they feel like, okay, I can communicate and complete my evaluation here. You’re not going to block me from doing what I’ve been paid to do by this family.

Dr. Sharp: Yes. That is very reasonable. I’m so naive and just assume the best in people. I’m like, oh my gosh, [00:49:00] they wouldn’t make things up, but I’m sure it happens. Of course, it happens. A lot of us do it like…

April: Haven’t you met school psychologists that did that? I met some school psychologists that did that and I’m not blaming any one person. It’s like, just like there’s great teachers and bad teachers, you meet a few school psychologists and you’re like, okay, I don’t think they actually tested someone, but I’m not going to say anything. We’re human and so stuff like this happens and that’s part of life is learning things.

Dr. Sharp: Yes, exactly. Well, I know that, gosh, our time is flying, but I know we’re getting down to time to almost wrap up, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about ways, flipping back to the advocacy side, how you approach these meetings, how you see meetings [00:50:00] going well, how we as practitioners and especially school psychologists can facilitate the best meetings that we can in the interest of the kids.

April: That’s a great question. Many of your school psychologists will be nodding their heads as I say this but for the most part most IEP meetings and even 504 meetings, it’s the same thing, they’re not productive. The reason why they’re not productive is that we don’t communicate across the aisle and we don’t document kids’ needs. Sure we write reports, but we don’t document the needs in terms of talking about what are we talking about here and how are we going to craft a plan that makes sense.

So if we want to have a better meeting and all of us are sitting in IEPs all the time, I used to go to them as a psychologist, one, two, three days a week, we’re doing the same thing and it’s not working, why are we doing. If [00:51:00] we’re sitting in a 3-hour IEP and they’re like that every time with your team, you need to rehash what’s going on.

So the first thing is, how are you working with all the other team members? When I would have IEPs, I would try to, of course, work with the team before, meaning before the assessment plan is assigned, I’m talking to the parent, I’m talking about the tests I might be using or the areas I’m exploring in my report. And then right at the beginning, when it gets assigned, the case carrier, that’s the academic teacher is going to be doing the testing, I’m prepping them before, I’m giving in the paperwork. Maybe I’m giving them copies of the child’s transcript. That takes a little more time. But then the academic teacher knows like, Oh, I know the reason for referral. I know what to test for here. And then getting all of the stuff back from the teachers: the observation forums, the rating scales Yes, it’s a hustle. We’re always chiming in but giving it maybe online, making the [00:52:00] forms easier, giving little visual cues and reminders, that saves time.

And then before the meeting, a big one is sharing drafts, there’s so much myth when it comes to drafts where I got told as a psychologist That’s predetermined placement. We shouldn’t be getting the psych reports before because that’s […]. I argue the latter because when we don’t share things before that might mean the special ed teacher doesn’t do their stuff in the IEP form. It might mean the occupational therapist doesn’t do the goals. You’re spending your entire time at the meeting going over assessment reports and five minutes going over the IEP. Can’t get it done.

The better way to do it is to share the drafts with the parent as long as the parent understands their drafts and it won’t [00:53:00] predetermine placement and you say it’s a draft, then it’s all it is. It’s a draft. So you’re sharing drafts of the psych report, you’re sharing drafts of the present level, giving progress reports, if it’s a try, suggested goal areas and asking the parent, what do you suggest? And then when you come to the meeting, all the data is out there, then you can put that data into the IQ together.

Oh, mom. You saw that. We talked about maybe this goal. What do you think? Oh, okay, teacher. I see you already put in your present levels in your suggested goal area. How can we tweak this?

You’re spending a majority of the meeting developing the IEP and not all the other stuff that you would normally do. So that’s pretty much the focus of the meeting is that you focus on doing things before and the purpose of the IEP is to finish it out, not to do every single thing during the actual meeting.

Dr. Sharp: That sounds good. Again, [00:54:00] not rocket science necessarily, but gosh, something that a lot of us forget. I definitely I’ve forgotten that or just don’t do it. It’s just that extra. I keep coming back to time. How do you have the time to do this? How do you make the time to do it? How do you have the time to do it? Software or accountability or whatever it is, whatever system to make sure that you check all these boxes. It’s the icing on the cake that makes it all the better.

April: You did stuff before and then it makes your meeting more productive and then you have less work on the backend. So it’s just restructuring your time. We’re doing the work yet. It’s not changing the work. It’s just changing when and how you do the work. So it’s more productive.

Dr. Sharp: Absolutely. I love these ideas. I know this whole topic of strengths-based assessment and even running better meetings and many [00:55:00] things that we’ve talked about could go deep on this stuff for a long, long time, and appreciate that you are willing to come in and chat through it for at least an hour. It gives us folks a little taste of what this could look like, but you do a lot of work in this area, right? So if folks want to learn more, either about you or what you do, what’s the best way to do that?

April: They can follow me on Instagram at riseadvocacy, where I do weekly reels and give out tips and resources. 

On my website, riseeducationaladvocacy.com I have do-it-yourself workshops, and many of the workshops are structured actually for teachers and school psychologists. I have a workshop on understanding reports that teaches how to write strength-based reports, and how to consider the parent as part of the process. And then I have all those other workshops. I have [00:56:00] blogs and other easy-to-use how-to guides as well as the Teachers Pay Teachers store that has templates showing you what to do and how to do it easier.

Dr. Sharp: That sounds great. I haven’t highlighted Teachers Pay Teachers on here before, but just want to give a shout-out to that platform. It’s gained a lot of popularity over the recent years and is such a cool thing.

April: And there’s a lot of stuff on there. There’s other school psychologists who have Teachers Pay Teacher stores that have guides, teachers observational forms, and all the stuff that we use all the time. It’s such a great platform. So I highly suggest checking it out. There’s a lot of great stuff.

Dr. Sharp: Nice. I know you are super active on social media. You’ve got a lot of good stuff out there. So we’ll make sure that folks can access all of that. We’ll put the links in the show notes and make sure people can find you. It’s good stuff. 

[00:57:00] Thank you for being here and talking about strengths-based assessment, school psychology, advocacy, and all the important things for our kiddos.

April: Welcome, Jeremy. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Sharp: All right. Y’all. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. Always grateful to have you here. I hope that you take away some information that you can implement in your practice and in your life. Any resources that we mentioned during the episode will be listed in the show notes. So make sure to check those out.

If you like what you hear on the podcast, I would be so grateful if you left a review on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcast.

If you’re a practice owner or aspiring practice owner, I’d invite you to check out The Testing Psychologist Mastermind groups. I have mastermind groups at every stage of practice development: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. We have homework, we have accountability, we have support, we have resources. These groups are amazing. We do a lot of work and a lot of [00:58:00] connecting. If that sounds interesting to you, you can check out the details at thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting. You can sign up for a pre group phone call and we will chat and figure out if a group could be a good fit for you. Thanks so much.

Dr. Sharp: The information contained in this podcast and on The Testing Psychologist website are intended for informational and educational purposes only. Nothing in this podcast or on the website is intended to be a substitute for professional psychological, psychiatric, or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Please note that no doctor-patient relationship is formed here, and similarly, no supervisory [00:59:00] or consultative relationship is formed between the host or guests of this podcast and listeners of this podcast. If you need the qualified advice of any mental health practitioner or medical provider, please seek one in your area. Similarly, if you need supervision on clinical matters, please find a supervisor with expertise that fits your needs.

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