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[00:00:00] Dr. Sharp: Hey, y’all. Welcome back to The Testing Psychologist podcast. This is Dr. Jeremy Sharp, and this is the podcast where we talk all about the business and the practice of psychological and neuropsychological assessment.

Glad to have you here today. If it’s your first time welcome. I hope you stick around.

My guest today is Zhanna Shekhtmeyster. Zhanna is a licensed Educational Psychologist and a national certified School Psychologist. She’s practicing in California in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Zhanna has also developed an app for school observations called Behavior Observation Made Easy. Definitely check that out in these show notes.

Zhanna is here today to talk with us all about advocacy and bridging the gap from private practice to schools. We cover things like the Multi-Tiered System of Services in schools or MTSS, RTI, how those are related, 504s, IEPs, how students can get services without either of those things or get accommodations without either of those plans in place, and a number of other things.

Zhanna is clearly very passionate about this topic and all of these things that are related to school advocacy. I hope you will tune in and get as much as I did from this conversation with Zhanna Shekhtmeyster.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of The Testing Psychologist podcast. I am glad to be here with you today. I’m Dr. Jeremy Sharp. And like you [00:02:00] heard in the introduction, my guest today, Zhanna Shekhtmeyster is a school psychologist and she is a licensed educational psychologist in the state of California as well.

Zhanna is going to be talking to us all about bridging the gap with schools, services in schools, IEPs, 504s, community engagement, and advocacy and how we can play a role in that. She, this is my favorite part, developed an app for looking at behavior and recording behaviors for school observations. I love technology and that’s highly interesting to me.

Anyway, before I continue on and just talk us to death, Zhanna, welcome to the podcast. 

Zhanna: Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to the podcast. 

Dr. Sharp: Awesome. Well, as we were talking and trying to plan this out, you primarily came up with a long list of things that we could talk about. So I’m really excited for our conversation. I’m really interested to see where things go. But like I said, I really hope that we can touch on a little bit about school psychology, interventions in the classroom, 504s, IEPs, and the intersection of DSM diagnosis versus educational classification, and then again, that advocacy piece and how we can advocate for kids from a private practice standpoint and help parents advocate for themselves.

Zhanna: Absolutely.

Dr. Sharp: We have a lot going on, but before we jump into all that, I always love to hear, how’d you get where you are today. Why do you care about this stuff? Why is this work important to you? Wherever you would like to start is great.

Zhanna: I received my graduate training at the University of [00:04:00] California, Santa Barbara, with a specialization in Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology.

I got into the field because I wanted to be on the front lines of helping children. And I thought that the school setting is a great place to do that as I get to encounter a lot of children in the public school setting. That’s why I chose the field specifically of school psychology.

I’ve been practicing for about nine years. I began being a preschool school psychologist, but I have been in the middle school setting for the last eight years, and I love preadolescents or adolescents. They’re a great population to work with. So that’s how I got here.

I also work with a lot of community-based providers. I’m out in Santa Monica. We’re a pretty resource-rich community. There are a lot of private psychologists and therapists and a lot of different community agencies. And so, we do a lot of collaboration together and try to find ways to work with one another, as opposed to having these disjointed services that each person is providing. I’ve done this talk about collaborations between community and school-based providers several times, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about it here.

In terms of my app, my app is called the Behavior Observation Made Easy app. I made that because I do a lot of classroom observations and a lot of just different observations of students. I was looking for an effective, structured observation system that I can use, and I just couldn’t find a good one when I was looking for one.

I kept thinking about making an app. I had no idea how to do that, but I had some encouragement. With that encouragement, I started looking more into it and ended up hiring developers and being a project manager for my own app, which I now own.[00:06:00] It’s super easy to use by not only just professionals like us, but also by paraprofessionals like behaviorists, parents, et cetera- anybody who just needs some solid data about a child’s behavior. 

Dr. Sharp: Got you. I was looking around on the app website. I had heard about it it seems like maybe a year ago on the School Psyched Podcast, and was super interested. I could ask a ton of questions about that. Just in case there’s anyone out there who is interested in developing an app as a mental health clinician, can you remember, what was the first step to making that happen? I feel like many of us maybe have an idea but then it’s like, I don’t know how to code. I don’t know who to hire or if I should hire. 

Zhanna: Basically, it went from having this idea in my head to actually laying out a storyboard or maybe a frame of how it will look. That was a lengthy process because we all have a lot of ideas in our minds, but getting it down on paper takes a whole lot of different skills and a lot of time.

After that, I wrote it down one day and had it down on my computer. And then, I went through the process of finding a developer. I found one through word of mouth. I have a lot of friends who are in the tech industry. And so one was able to make a connection for me. I was able to show…

I actually had talked to a lot of developers, but a lot of people I talked to did not really understand my vision. They weren’t really familiar with psychology or why I would be doing these kinds of observations. And then the final person I talked to, he was a mutual friend of someone and one of his close friends [00:08:00] was a behaviorist. So he got the gist of the field to understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, and then we hit it up from there. So I was able to explain the storyboarder and the functionality to him based on his limited knowledge. 

Dr. Sharp: I got you. Very cool. I recognize that that’s a lengthy process, and there’s a lot more that we could say about it, but that’s all I’ll dig into at this point. We’ll link to it in the show notes for sure and make sure that people can check it out. I’ve talked on the podcast before about trying to have some sort of structured system for doing school observations, and I know a lot of folks do school observations. So hopefully people will check it out. 

Zhanna: I’ll make sure I send you a free download code.

Dr. Sharp: Oh, fantastic. I will take it. Let’s see. So you’ve been doing this work in the schools, and like you said, working with community providers for quite a while.

Zhanna: Yeah.

Dr. Sharp: I’m curious. Maybe I’m jumping the gun, but I would really like to leap into that connection between community providers and advocating for services at school. I feel like that’s a really cool process and something that maybe we struggle with a lot. 

Zhanna: So schools can be complicated to navigate. That’s why I really think it’s important to have presentations on this topic. I went to a combined counseling, clinical, and school psychology program. So I had an opportunity to take classes with a lot of different people within the field of psychology. But what I know is that a lot of people in the clinical field don’t necessarily get a lot of training on schools and the systems and the bureaucracy, and it can be really difficult to navigate the supports that are available at schools.

[00:10:00] The idea of response to intervention or multi-tiered systems of support that comes up in schools, and the idea of that is that we want to try to intervene with the majority of the students through general classroom support and accommodations. If done right, that should account for 85% of the students. They should be accessing and doing okay.

About 15% may need a little bit more of an intensive intervention. And what schools should be doing and are doing is providing targeted interventions to students. That may be a reading intervention, a math intervention, a study skills intervention. It could be access to a school counselor. It could be anything that the child needs to access their learning. And that is all a function of general education.

Dr. Sharp: Sorry to interrupt you. Is there a difference between intervention and accommodation? Are you using those as separate terms?

Zhanna: Yes, definitely, because intervention should be targeted based on the child’s individual needs, and they should be working towards a skill or building up some skills. Accommodations are typically minor changes to the curriculum that are done within the general education setting to help the child access. There’s not like an intervention. Other than giving a child extra time or a separate space to take a test, that would be an accommodation. An intervention is really implementing an evidence-based reading intervention and measuring a child’s progress in that intervention.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. Thanks.

Zhanna: Those interventions should account for about 15% of the students. They should help most kids, but they don’t. So about five 5% of the students theoretically would require more intensive [00:12:00] intervention. That’s where we may consider whether a child has a disability if they’re really not responding to the Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions; whether they need special education services, that’s your IEP; or whether they need a 504 plan, which is the accommodation minor modification plan. I’ll talk about each of those as we go forward too. 

Dr. Sharp: Cool. Theoretically, I just want to try to track all this as we go along with all the acronyms and the Tiers and the interventions and whatnot. So theoretically, and you correct me, just jump in whenever you want to, but Tier 1 is the lowest level of accommodation or intervention? 

Zhanna: It’s just classroom-based support done by your regular teacher. They’re maybe doing a little small group that’s targeting a skill, or they may be providing social-emotional learning within the whole entire classroom.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. What’s a good example of a Tier 2 intervention?

Zhanna: At my site, we have a reading intervention for students who are slightly below grade level in their reading. So they go into a reading support class for either a semester or a year in the hopes that they catch up to grade level.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. And that can exist independent of an IEP? 

Zhanna: Yeah. Tier 2, those interventions are completely part of general education. And a lot of schools, that’s what we should be doing is supporting students before they’re so severe that they need special education services.

Dr. Sharp: Sure. And, of course, the hope then is as you move to Tier 2 and maybe beyond, it ameliorates those concerns, and they “get better”. 

Zhanna: And they catch up. [00:14:00] There can be all sorts of reasons why children fall behind. Having a disability is one of those reasons, but there are a lot of environmental things, family factors, and cultural factors that can happen that can cause a child to fall behind and they just need a little bit more and then they’re where they need to be.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. So where do we move from there? What’s a Tier 3 intervention? 

Zhanna: When we look at Tier 3 intervention, at least for the purposes of what I’m saying, some people may say you go through… Tier 3 can also be general education interventions, but I’ll talk about the more intensive interventions here and that will be bringing up section 504 and special education.

Excuse me. What I will start with is section 504 that is based on a Federal Antidiscrimination Law. The purpose of the law is to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities, both public and private, that receive federal financial assistance.

What that means for schools is that we are required to eliminate barriers that would prevent the student from participating fully in their educational program. And basically who is protected is anybody who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Those can be like walking or seeing or breathing, et cetera. But for the school setting, the one that often comes up is learning: It could be speaking. It could be concentrating. Those are the major life activities that are limited. But it could be somebody who is wheelchair bound and doesn’t have mobility like everybody else and therefore they may require a wheelchair ramp.

With a 504 plan, basically, the idea is to educate students as much as possible with non-disabled peers. So that’s [00:16:00] within the regular classroom.

Examples of 504 supports are creating a wheelchair-accessible classroom for somebody who’s not able to be independently mobile. It could be that the child has ADHD and so they have a hard time focusing in the classroom when it comes to testing, especially, and they may need to go into a separate setting to take a test. It could be somebody just has a really slow processing speed and need extra time to complete assignments. It could be preferential seating for somebody who, ADHD may need to sit away from distractions or maybe somebody’s really highly anxious and so sitting near the teacher is high anxiety provoking. So they need to sit near the door where there is an escape.

Those are the minor changes that children receive in their 504 plan. It could be also minor modifications like shortening assignments, like instead of having 20 problems to do for homework, that child may have 10. But it’s not really changing the expectations of the curriculum too much.

Dr. Sharp: Got you.

Zhanna: The main thing in terms of how we can work together and support children through the 504 processes is one, always begin with psychoeducation; the clinician knowing what that is and also educating parents.

The qualification for a 504, having a diagnosis from a clinician and is actually quite helpful. So a child may get let’s say a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and they can come to the school and present that diagnosis. It’s still up to the school to determine the level of impairment, but the diagnosis is the [00:18:00] documented impairment that they have. Does that make sense?

Dr. Sharp:  It does. I wanted to ask about that because I’ve heard, fairly recently, maybe within the last year, that kids no longer have to have a diagnosis to qualify for a 504. Is that true?

Zhanna: Yeah, they don’t necessarily need a diagnosis for a 504, but we do have a duty to demonstrate that a child has, or they don’t need to have a clinical diagnosis, but the school does have a duty to demonstrate that there is a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities.

Dr. Sharp: So theoretically, if they did not have a diagnosis, a situation that comes up in my practice here and there is maybe a younger kiddo, I’m trying to think of a good example. They don’t quite reach the criteria for a learning disorder. Maybe their teacher is not reporting enough ADHD symptoms to make a formal diagnosis of ADHD, but it seems pretty clear that they’re having trouble in the school environment. It’s maybe just not to a clinical level. How can we then coach the parents to approach a 504?

Zhanna: Well, the key pieces, both for 504 and IEP processes, a child has a disability and the disability is so severe that they’re not accessing their learning environment. So if they don’t meet criteria for a disability, then they wouldn’t necessarily need a 504 plan or special education services, but the schools do have something that I think most people aren’t familiar with, which is called a student success team. Have you ever heard of that? 

Dr. Sharp: I’ve heard them. I’m not sure exactly what they do. 

[00:20:00] Zhanna: In different states and different schools, it’s called something different. It could be called a child study team, but on my side, it’s called student success team. So I’ll refer to it as that.

Basically, it is a group of individuals who get together and develop a support system for the student. For example, on my part of the student success team, I’m involved in that. We have an administrator involved. I have a counselor. I have a local community service provider who’s involved in that. We can invite other community service providers to the meeting. We have community liaisons there. We also invite the parent and the child, if they’re able to participate.

What we do is we get together. It doesn’t matter diagnosis. No diagnosis has nothing to do with that. We get together and we talk about where the child’s at, what’s working, what are some of the interventions that teachers have tried to help them be successful and generate a list of other ideas that can be used to help the child.

We do this through collaboration with one another and have a multidisciplinary team of individuals. And from there, we determine and make some recommendations. The recommendations could be like, if it’s mental health-related stuff, we could refer them to our local community mental health agency that we work very closely with.

If we believe they need more intensive, targeted intervention, then that’s how they get into that reading support class. Or there’s another type. We have a wide range of different supports they can go in. Or it may lead to an evaluation for special education services or a 504 determination meeting.

When working with parents, I think one of the best things to do is really advocate for them to advocate to meet with a student success team and figure out what’s going on because the teachers are at the table too. The parent can express their concerns and the teachers can see say what’s going on in the classroom for [00:22:00] them.

Dr. Sharp: That makes sense. So is that a nice intermediate step or beginning step even? So if we see a kiddo and we’re like, they probably need some help here but not exactly sure which direction to go?

Zhanna: Exactly.

Dr. Sharp: So those exist at every school in some form or fashion? 

Zhanna: They should. I believe the majority of schools do have them. The specific title might be slightly different.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. Nice. Okay.

Zhanna: It allows teachers to, our teachers, at least at my side, keep a lot of data. There’s a lot of reading and math data that they collect about how the student is doing. So they’re bringing that data to the table as well. So you can really get a starting understanding of what’s going on. 

Dr. Sharp: That makes sense. Cool. I interrupted you way back when you were talking about 504 plans and needing a diagnosis. Anyway, let’s continue.

Zhanna: I just want to go, because one of the things you wanted me to talk about is how to bring it back and how clinicians and schools can work together. If you’re assessing a child or if anybody is providing services to the child, and it seems like they’re not accessing their learning and they might benefit from a 504 plan, that diagnosis written down can definitely help the school team determine the impairment, and then they go ahead and determine the level of need at the school site.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. I might be leaping ahead, but tell me to table this if we need to. In your experience, I know it’s hard to generalize, how do school personnel, I mean, how familiar are they with certain diagnoses and what that means in the educational environment, and how that might translate, if we diagnose a kid with generalized anxiety disorder, [00:24:00] for example? 

Zhanna: The level of familiarity of school personnel is varied because there’s so many different individuals that work within our schools. Do general education teachers get training on mental health diagnoses? I don’t think they do. I could be wrong. I don’t want to misspeak.

There are some diagnoses that they may have more familiarity with. Generalized anxiety disorder is one that comes up a lot. So they may have encountered it. It’s also just out in the media. We learn a lot about it. Especially the less common ones, they likely don’t know. And it’s really a good opportunity during that student success team meeting, which you can also attend, to educate the teachers and the entire school staff what that condition is and how it can impair someone’s functioning.

Dr. Sharp: I got you. If we’re not invited to the student success team meeting, can we invite ourselves? 

Zhanna: The parents can invite you.

Dr. Sharp: Okay. Great.

Zhanna: The parents always have the right to invite you to any of the meetings. 

Dr. Sharp: Okay. Cool. I just wanted to make sure.

That’s a common theme with anyone that I’ve talked to in the school environment on the podcast is, as a private clinician, we love to see you show up and be part of this process. Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t want to step on any toes or invite myself to things where I shouldn’t be, and so forth.

Zhanna: Especially at my site, we really appreciate the perspective of the community or private clinicians that come in. We appreciate the mental health perspective and just knowing what are the services that [00:26:00] the child is receiving outside of school. 

Dr. Sharp: Okay. That’s helpful. Great. As the parent or clinician, we’ve made this diagnosis, one thing that I really wrestle with is how much to firmly recommend an intervention at school, either an SST meeting or a 504 or an IEP. It seems like parents want a lot of direction with that, and I’m often, like, I’m not sure exactly what would be most helpful or what the school might do, but here’s how you at least get the ball rolling. So, I’m really curious about that and how you might advise talking with parents. 

Zhanna: I think it starts, and I haven’t covered special education and IEPs quite yet, but it really starts with just having a thorough understanding of the difference between a 504 and what that provides for a child versus an IEP and what that provides for a child.

Also being familiar with the schools in your community and what are the supports that they offer because then you’re better able to advise a parent on what to seek. But when in doubt and you’re just not sure, you’re working with a new community, referring to that student success team is your go-to, and really coming to the team meeting then and learning about all the supports that are available within this particular school site or district.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. Okay. Let’s dive into the IEP- the Special Ed realm and that’ll be some groundwork, I think.

Zhanna: Yeah, definitely. I talked about 504s and 504s are functional for general education. And then we have individuals with [00:28:00] disability education act, which is a federal law whose purpose is to ensure free and appropriate public education and services for children with disabilities. That’s the law that sets the foundation for special education in IEPs or individualized education plans.

Basically, who’s protected by an IEP or by special education? It could be any child between the ages of 3 and 22 who qualifies for special education services and requires those supports to access their learning environment.

Just so you know, school districts, we have an affirmative of duty to locate and identify children in need of special education services; that includes children who attend our public schools as well as those kids who don’t. That’s our child find obligation. There are certain students who are very disabled and we find that they don’t attend school at all, and we have to seek out and find those students and offer them support.

Dr. Sharp: Does that include homeschool students?

Zhanna: Yes. If it’s a homeschool and it’s not part of another public school, because we sometimes run into that where I live, but if it’s a private type of homeschool, then yes. 

Dr. Sharp: Okay. Can you talk about that a little more when you say a private homeschool versus the…?

Zhanna: Sometimes public schools have a homeschool component.

Dr. Sharp: Oh, I see. 

Zhanna: So then if a child is enrolled in a public school but is receiving their education at home, then that particular public school is responsible for whatever supports a child needs. But if it’s a private homeschool, or they’re not even enrolled in a school, they’re just homeschooling, then they would fall [00:30:00] under this child find law. 

Dr. Sharp: Got you. Fair enough. Just out of curiosity. How do you become aware of those kids needing services if they’re homeschooled and their parents don’t reach out or let you know somehow?

Zhanna: That’s a really good question. We make our best effort to reach out to pediatricians in the area, especially for the kiddos who are younger. They’re familiar with our school sites. We send out pamphlets about what we offer and what Child Find is. Sometimes it’s very random and through word of mouth and you hear about a child. Or sometimes even a neighbor calls and they’re like, there’s this kid and they’re at home and they look like they’re struggling. So it could be through those kinds of means. 

Dr. Sharp: Got you. Fair enough.

Zhanna: But the pediatricians and doctors are your go-to if parents are going to. And this is why psychoeducation for the medical staff is also really important. 

Dr. Sharp: Sure. Nice. 

Zhanna: In terms of qualification for special education services, what’s required is a multidisciplinary evaluation that examines the child’s disability. We have to assess all areas of suspected disability. After we complete the evaluation, we get together at an IEP meeting and as a team determines three things:

1) Does the child show a disability as it’s defined by the California education?

2) Does the disability have a significant adverse academic impact? And if so,

3) Do they require specially designated instruction, i.e. special education services to access their learning?

[00:32:00] At that team, we make an eligibility. As a school psychologist, I do the majority of the evaluation and I make a recommendation to the team, but ultimately the final determination of eligibility need is made by the IEP team. And then we, as a team, create the individualized education plan. Always in the back of our minds is how can we best serve this child in the least restrictive environment. 

Dr. Sharp: What does that mean exactly? I hear that term all the time. What is least restrictive environment? 

Zhanna: The least restrictive environment for any child in a school is 100% of their time in general education. That means you’re being taught along with your typical peers and you’re in there 100% of the time. And so, when a child has a 504 plan, typically, they’re in general education 100% of the time.

When we start getting into the special education realm and the special education services, that’s where they are receiving a certain number of minutes per day away from their typical peers. That may be a pullout service where a child goes and works with a teacher for a certain number of minutes. At the middle school setting, it could be a whole period. So if you have a deficit in math and it’s so severe that you can’t be in general ed math, then you go into a special education math class.

The most restrictive environment a child can be in is special education 100% of the day.

Dr. Sharp: I see. Thanks.

Zhanna: One of the things that I want to hit on is the difference between special education eligibility and the DSM diagnosis.

Basically, when we look at special education eligibility, we do not use the DSM manual. [00:34:00] We rely on the California education code, or I’m sorry, just the education code. I rely on California education code, but that’s very similar to the federal education code, to determine whether a student meets the criteria for a disability.

So, if a child has, for example, say a diagnosis, we’ll speak to generalized anxiety disorder, and it’s so severe that we’re assessing for special education services, the eligibility criteria I’d be looking at would be emotional disturbance. And that’s what it’s called in California. In some states, I believe it’s called emotional behavioral disorder, and I’ve seen emotional disability, but here in California, it’s emotional disturbance. And I may also look at other health impairment because they have a hard time with their ability to attend to their learning environment, their strength and vitality, and it’s explained by a health condition. Does that make sense? 

Dr. Sharp: It does because I’m familiar with the classifications. Admittedly, I don’t know how you, well, let me back up. In our state at least, or in our district, I’ll put it that way, and the neighboring district, we run into a lot of conflict between what is an emotional disability versus other health impairment. Because at least around here, that difference seems to play a big role in how kids are treated and stigma and whatnot. So I’m less clear on how you make that distinction between an emotional disability or disturbance and an other health impairment. If you can speak to that.

Zhanna: Well, there’s a lot of overlap, at times, not always, but in some cases, there’s a good amount of overlap. One of the things I want to point out, at least what happens where I work, I can’t speak to everywhere, is we don’t have categorical placement. Our students, when they qualify for [00:36:00] a special education service, regardless of the category, can get the support and the services they need based on their needs. It’s not based on their disability criteria.

So there really shouldn’t be a difference in services. It’s all contingent on where they’re at. In terms of stigma, of course, we don’t want there to be a stigma, but I can’t speak to each person’s perception of what they think. 

Other health impairment, the criteria is actually, let me just pull it up so I don’t misspeak.

Dr. Sharp: Of course.

Zhanna: When we look at other health impairments, we look at whether the student has limited strength, vitality, or alertness including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli that’s occurring because of some kind of chronic or acute health problem.

Let’s say we take somebody who has anxiety and that anxiety manifests as they are sitting in the classroom and they just don’t have the strength to be there. Or they’re really school-avoidant. They don’t have the vitality. They’re so stressed out and nervous, but it’s more of an internalizing type of nervousness that they’re not accessing their learning. In that case, I would strongly consider the other health impairment criteria.

But when we get into the emotional disturbance criteria, what we’re looking at is, you’re looking at a variety of characteristics that have occurred over a long period of time to mark degree and adversely affect a child’s educational performance.

That includes an inability to learn that can’t be explained by intellectual health or sensory [00:38:00] factors. So that means they’re falling apart in school, they’re not doing well, and there’s not a cognitive or a processing or a health reason for it. It could be that they have an inability to build or maintain satisfactory in or personal relations with peers and teachers. It could be inappropriate types of behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances.

In that case, I’m looking at if someone has a lot of suicidality; they’re engaging in suicidal ideation or have engaged in an attempt to take their lives, are they externalizing to the point where they’re a danger to themselves or others? That might fall in that category.

The next one is having a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. So anytime a child has a diagnosis of anything to do with depression, we have to look at emotional disturbance because of the way the criteria reads.

And then the last one is a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal and school problems. Students with anxiety, we have to examine that part of the emotional disturbance category. 

Dr. Sharp: Okay. That’s helpful to make that distinction.

Zhanna: Yeah.

Dr. Sharp: Cool.

Zhanna: It’s really contingent. The difference is contingent of how their symptoms have their behavior manifests itself within the school setting. 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I think that’s the tricky part. That’s where I don’t envy y’all’s positions is trying to make those distinctions between when an emotional issue is somehow independent of cognition and health. That seems really hard. 

Zhanna: Yeah. We’re always looking at that and making a determination. And also, one of the things… The key piece about school-based services is the disability needs to have a significant adverse impact on a child’s educational functioning.

There are many children [00:40:00] who have clinical diagnoses and are falling apart at home and they come to school and they really do a great job of keeping it together because the environment is really different. School can be a lot more structured. There are a variety of different opportunities for them. And so sometimes children with different diagnoses don’t even need 504 special education services if they’re doing really well in school. 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah, definitely run into that. That’s very interesting.

I seem to run into that most with autism oddly where kids, or maybe you see this a lot too, but kids are clearly on the spectrum but they’re doing fine at school. Like maybe they’re relatively high functioning. They get good grades. They have 1 or 2 other quirky friends. And so it’s not super obvious. They’re not disruptive and then they end up without… it’s not like they’re not getting that educational classification. 

Zhanna: I think when we look at what a significant adverse academic impact is, we shouldn’t be looking just at a child’s grades.

So grades are one thing that we look at: how they’re doing in the classroom, testing, homework, and how they’re performing on say tests and grades, but we should also be looking at their social functioning; how they’re functioning socially, along with peers, with adults, in the overall classroom, and as well as their emotional functioning; their emotion regulation, whether they’re internalizing their emotion, externalizing their emotions. We should be looking at all of those factors when we determine adverse educational impact. 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah, of course.

Zhanna: And something else, something you mentioned. There are kids on the spectrum who are really high functioning, they have a group of friends and they’re doing socially okay. They may not need special education services. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a general education [00:42:00] social skills group that they can’t access. At my side, our counselors run general education social skills groups, and they run them at times where the kids are not missing a lot of academic instruction because that child might be so high functioning.  It’s really important for them to stay in class. But there’s definitely opportunities for children to get support in schools without special education. 

Dr. Sharp: I’m glad that you keep coming back to that. That’s such a good point that it’s not an all-or-nothing kind of deal.

Zhanna: Exactly. 

Dr. Sharp: Cool. So when parents, actually a follow up to that, when parents are maybe requesting those services, and that’s a question in itself, can they request them? Can we send a parent from our office and say, go in and see if they just have a general ed social skills group? Can parents initiate that process?

Zhanna: Absolutely. I’m at the middle school level, so we have grade-level counselors. Elementary might be somebody else. But they definitely should talk to the school staff and figure out what supports are available for their kids on their campus. With us, it’s the counselors who are in charge of those types of social-emotional interventions. 

Dr. Sharp: Nice. Can I ask you to dial way back and clarify the difference between a 504 and an IEP in a very practical sense? What would we see? I think you outline 504 pretty well. What would we see on an IEP that’s different from a 504 plan in terms of intervention?

Zhanna: 504 is accommodations and modifications. The child is in general education 100% of the time and the teacher is making some slight adjustments to help the child [00:44:00] access to learning environment.

When you get to an IEP, it’s a change in content delivery or methodology. So the child is not receiving the same type of education as their typical peers. They might be in a different setting. They might be getting differentiated instruction. It may be moving at a slower pace. But it’s contingent on their disability and their needs. So they would not be in general education 100% of the time.

Dr. Sharp: Got you.

Zhanna: Sometimes, the special education services like speech services, some kids have a speech impairment and they need speech services or some children need psychological services, but then they’re pulled out of general education to receive those special education services.

Dr. Sharp: Okay. Thank you. Some people may be really familiar with this, but I just want to try to define things as best as possible. 

Zhanna: Absolutely. 

Dr. Sharp: All right. Let’s see. You said something just a bit ago that I wanted to really follow up on. And that piece was determination of eligibility for special education. You framed it in the context of y’all doing the evaluation at school. So where does a private evaluation fit into that process because this happens a lot in my practice? 

Zhanna: Regardless of whether a child has had a private evaluation, for special education purposes, we need to conduct our own evaluation. The law basically states that we need to consider the private evaluation, but we don’t have to use it. We don’t have to go with a recommendations. We just need to [00:46:00] consider them.

Sometimes when a child has had a private evaluation and it’s super recent and they just did a cognitive and I trust the clinician, I say, okay, I don’t need to give them a cognitive because here are the scores. I’ll rely on that person’s. But regardless, we still have to do our own comprehensive assessments. And that’s not the case with 504 though. So your documentation and evaluation can be used as evidence of a disability for the 504 plan.

Dr. Sharp: That’s fair. So even if a kid does a pretty thorough private evaluation, you still have to do some amount of assessment at the school?

Zhanna: Yeah. What constitutes assessment is different for different people, but yeah, we still need to conduct our own multidisciplinary evaluation. 

Dr. Sharp: I understand that. I see. That’s one thing that folks get stuck on sometimes is the consideration versus use, I think of a private evaluation. A lot of parents come our direction and want to get an evaluation to take to the school, but it’s not an imperative that the school will incorporate all those things by any means.

Zhanna: Yeah. With the providers in our community that do private assessments, some parents still choose to pursue a private evaluation and that’s their right. Things that help is when the recommendation:

One, if the private assessor has gone to the school, has gathered teacher feedback and has really observed in the classroom, then their recommendations end up being more targeted and really valuable. I’ve seen private evaluations and they’ve given 5 or 6 really solid recommendations, and I’ve looked at them and thought, [00:48:00] these are very appropriate for the child.

But I’ve also seen private evaluations and they give six pages of every accommodation known to man that could be there. And so as a school, we have to consider them, but the child may not really require all those accommodations. In some cases, I’ve seen evaluations and in my head I’m like, “You just listed any kind of accommodation you can think of, or intervention you can think of.”

So when they’re targeted, when they’re specific, and when there’s a feasible amount, the school will be more likely to implement them.

Dr. Sharp: Got you. That sounds good. That’s a theme with all the school folks I spoke to. I talked with the School Psyched host, and that was one thing that really jumped out. They said, just make targeted recommendations. Don’t do a shot approach. And try to make sure that these are realistic and actually valuable.

Zhanna: Exactly. And really a way to see if they’re realistic is to come in and observe within the school setting to know what the classroom looks like, what the environment looks like, how the child compares to a random peer in the room are random peers. By seeing that, you’re able to give valuable insights. 

Dr. Sharp: Yes. That totally makes sense. Thanks. So let’s see, we figured out 504 versus IEP role of the private evaluation. What else can we cover that is important in this process? There’s certainly that advocacy piece and helping. For me, coaching parents through that process and how to help them and everything.

Zhanna: I think [00:50:00] that’s so important that you brought that up because when we as clinicians can educate the parents of what’s available, how to advocate for their child themselves, we’re really giving them a lot of tools and promoting independence. And that may be you coming with them to a meeting, but really having the parent take the stage and speak for themselves really gives them a lot of power as opposed to us as private clinicians speaking for them. Because what happens is once you’re no longer there, if they don’t have the tools themselves, then they don’t know what to do. 

Dr. Sharp: Sure. I think you’re right on. So the education piece is huge. This I think is helpful. And a lot of clinicians are pretty knowledgeable as well.

Zhanna: Yeah. I’m going to send you a handout from the National Association of School Psychologists that you can post. That is a tool for parents to understand and navigate the special education process. 

Dr. Sharp: That’s great. We can definitely post that as well in the show notes and have that as a download.

Zhanna: Great.

Dr. Sharp: I run into a lot of parents who granted, I don’t know the other side of these stories, but they certainly have the perception that the school is not being helpful. They’re running into a brick wall. They can’t get what they’re looking for. How could we navigate those situations diplomatically and effectively?

Zhanna: That’s a really good question. Obviously, it depends on what the parent is asking for, but I would say the key pieces is to put everything in writing. In special education we say, for us, if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen. And that’s for me. I [00:52:00] need to write down and document every phone call I make, every response to a parent, everything I do, because there are certain things that come into place legally with special education. The same thing goes both ways.

So if parents are requesting a meeting, whether it’s a 504 meeting or a student success team meeting or requesting a special education evaluation, put the request in writing and deliver it to certain individuals that are knowledgeable in that area. For 504 maybe the 504 coordinator could be the principal at the school. Whoever is the professional overseeing that area. So that’s one thing.

I could give you more advice if you give me specific information about what roadblock they’re hitting. 

Dr. Sharp: Well, let’s see. So hypothetical that comes up fairly frequently is parent has, let’s say they’ve requested a special education evaluation, the school has considered that but declined to evaluate, and then they end up privately and we find something. Let’s just say it’s ADHD. Then they go back to the school and they’re having trouble moving forward with a 504 plan. 

Zhanna: In this case, they’re requesting a 504 plan meeting and the school is denying them that meeting?

Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Let’s say that.

Zhanna:  Okay. In that case, certain protections come in place where the parents can ask for mediation or due process. Each state and each school is going to have specific criteria of how to do that based on whether it’s 504 special [00:54:00] education.

But going back to collaboration and collaborative problem solving, if they could get back to the table and talk about how to best support the child, what’s going on, express their concerns and the school is still saying no and the parents are still in disagreement, then you evoke some of those, what’s the word I’m looking for, dispute strategies. We’re always looking for…

The go-to before you go anywhere before you start saying I’m getting an attorney or I’m getting my advocate is try to do some dispute resolution. Try to get to the table. Try to talk about what the parents are seeing at home and also hearing what the teachers are seeing at school because if the school is denying the child special education and 504, is it possible that the child doesn’t need it at school?

Dr. Sharp: Yeah, it’s very possible.

Zhanna: And if they do need it in school and the school is denying them, then that’s something completely different. 

Dr. Sharp: Sure. Maybe that’s the question to think about is maybe we have data. There’s a difference of opinion. The school is saying, we don’t think the kid needs anything, but then let’s just complicate it a little further, but the teacher checklist that we give out in private evaluation come back pretty elevated. And we’re like, what’s that about? 

Zhanna: That’s what I’m thinking. If this teacher checklist like the Conners or the BASC is coming out elevated, clearly the school is seeing a need. So how can they say there isn’t a need? But if the teacher checklist is coming out as no concerns and the concerns are at home, like for ADHD, [00:56:00] how is it occurring in two different settings? 

Dr. Sharp: That’s a good question. 

Zhanna: Ultimately, at least in my experience, if the teachers are endorsing a lot of concerns and they’re coming out elevated for ADHD and they’re not doing well, and they have a diagnosis, oftentimes they do require some support to access their learning.

Dr. Sharp: Right. You would think. In our district, there’s a district employee who is a parent advocate. Do y’all have a similar thing or similar position? 

Zhanna: District employee who’s a parent advocate? A community liaison is what we would call it here.

Dr. Sharp: Okay. I would imagine that a lot of districts have something similar where the parent can have some extra support but it’s not like bringing in an advocate or an attorney where it can get a little more adversarial. Hopefully, there’s someone in the district that parents can connect with that can play both sides equally.

Zhanna: Well, we have what we call alternative dispute resolution, and that’s a process to discuss concern and have a neutral party address the concerns. It’s actually not a district employee. It’s an employee of our local education plan agency. They’re outside of the district so they’re really actually neutral altogether.

Dr. Sharp: That’s fantastic. 

Zhanna: And there’s also nothing wrong with bringing advocates to meetings. They’re an advocate to help you navigate these really complicated resources. I sit in meetings with advocates all the time. As long as they’re engaging in collaborative advocacy, as long as they’re respectful to school staff, then we’re all going to work together towards a common goal. It’s when it gets adversarial and [00:58:00] there’s name calling and people are losing their tempers, that’s where the meeting terminates and you need to reconvene. 

Dr. Sharp: Sure. Anything we can do to avoid that? 

Zhanna: Yeah.

Dr. Sharp: I wanted to at least touch on a little bit the idea of school and community provider collaboration. I’m not sure what kind of work you have done with that, but I would love to hear about it because I think a lot of us would love to do more work with the schools and have more of a partnership. I’m curious what that looks like for you. 

Zhanna: We, at my side are really into developing collaborative partnerships with the agencies in our community. They’re pivotal to the success of our students. We have professionals from different agencies come to our staff meetings and present on different topics that may be relevant.

For example, one that was recently presented to us was about trauma and how trauma manifests itself as behavior in schools. It can look like attention issues but the root causes trauma. And that was really meaningful for teachers. I was part of the meeting, but it was really for teachers and other school staff. And they really got to look at it from a different lens, a lens they’re not really used to. So things like that are pivotal.

We work with an agency in our community that does substance abuse counseling. And so, if children get caught with substances on campus, or if they’re heavy users, even if they’re not getting caught, we can refer them to this local agency. And then they provide a certain number of hours of counseling. How we know about it is because these agencies come in, [01:00:00] they talk to us and they present to our staff.

We have another local agency that we work with that has to do with grief. And so, if somebody has recently lost a close, either a family member or a friend or whatever that may be, they’re available right there in the community to provide grief counseling.

This trauma work, the substance use work, the grief, even psychosis, you had a guest talking about psychosis, and nearby UCLA, there’s a prodromal system of support. Children who are showing prodromal symptoms, they can reach out to this agency in our community over at UCLA. 

So these are the supports that we as school-based professionals is just not our area of expertise. And also, it’s a good idea for our students to get these services maybe right after school, later in the evening, not during the school day.

Actually, for the kids who are really falling apart, we have a community agency- a hospital we partner with. Their clinicians come onto our campus and they provide counseling services to those students on our campus. We have an agreement with them. I believe we pay them. The educational impact needs to be there because it’s a big deal for a child to miss an hour of class to go get mental health services during the day.

That’s a kind of collaboration I’m talking about that I like to see with our community. We have close relationships with these providers. Something to keep in mind and always get ahead of is get releases of information signed when you see a parent because sometimes it could be so hard to track a parent down later and you might all be providing services, but you just can’t communicate with each other. [01:02:00] So that release of information is pivotal.

As private providers, asking to see the psychoeducational evaluations that were completed. Special education IEP can also give you a lot of insight into the child’s needs. Coming to 504 student success team meetings and IEP meetings is really important. And just sharing with us.

If a private provider does come to the meeting, I have some tips. I just presented on this the other day. But basically, when you come in, introduce yourself, and provide information of how you know the child and how long you’ve been working with them. 

Beforehand, discuss with a parent what sensitive information they’re comfortable with you sharing because you may know a lot of sensitive information, and the parents may not want you to share it all, but if you’re at the meeting and you indicate you know something and then you’re like but I can’t share that with you, you really don’t seem like a team member. So just figure that out in advance and if you can’t share it, just don’t bring it up.

Dr. Sharp: That’s a good idea.

Zhanna: Just provide some general information about the child’s mental health, what their diagnosis is, and if you’re seeing them for services, how they’re making progress with you or lack of progress. If there’s a lot of discussion about the child’s behavior and you think that behavior may be a function of their disability, it’s very appropriate for you to talk about that. Discuss it. 

Like the child may be losing their cool and running out of their classroom, but they may have a diagnosis of anxiety and their anxiety is getting so high that that’s maybe why they’re running out. And so offer that perspective because it will allow the school staff to look at the child from just another perspective, another lens.

Dr. Sharp: Sure. [01:04:00] This is great.

Zhanna: I would say other things, get familiar with, I already mentioned this earlier, but familiarize yourself with the school community, what services are offered, but understand that when you’re coming into the school as a mental health provider or private assessor, you’re usually there to talk about the child’s mental health. And it’s really important to let the school offer the services. You may ask about certain services. You may ask the school to speak about, can you talk about this special education class and what it looks like. But the offer of a free and appropriate public education really needs to come from the school.

Zhanna: Got you. Important to know. Very cool. Can I backtrack and ask?

Zhanna: Yeah.

Zhanna: All those ways that you talked about collaborating with community folks was really remarkable. I found myself thinking I would like to be doing that with some of the schools around here. So did y’all reach out to the community practitioners or did they reach out to you? How can we facilitate some of that? I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. 

Zhanna: I think it goes both ways. Some of those relationships have been in place before I got here. Some of them have been… I’m a member of the community I work in so just knowing people in the key stakeholders in the community is helpful. The longer you’re around, the more people you end up knowing.

But a lot of individuals reach out to us. And the way they start is like, Hey, here’s some information for you about what we offer. I get information about like social skills groups that somebody locally might be offering. Well, I could pass that information on to the parents. Or some agencies reach out and say, Hey, can I come present [01:06:00] to your staff about this topic?

So we’re always looking for different professional development opportunities. Those are good ways to reach out. And then one thing we didn’t talk about is independent educational evaluations. Are you familiar with what that is? 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’ve done a few of those. I’d love to hear anything you have to say about it.  

Zhanna: There are times when schools will pay private clinicians to conduct independent educational evaluations. There may be all sorts of reasons for that. I won’t go into that. But the way to get onto the list of providers that we may recommend for an independent educational evaluation is to really develop these collaborative relationships with schools.

So being part of IEPs, collaborating, being part of the process, being a part of looking for the solution to ultimately help the child, but doing it in a way that’s professional and collaborative versus adversarial will help schools refer the children to you. 

Dr. Sharp: It comes back to relationships. That’s a theme throughout our podcast as well. So just doing good work, making yourself known, getting to the school, being kind, all those things. Just fostering relationships. 

Zhanna: Exactly. Relationships are key. 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah. This’s been great. My gosh, our time is flying. For anyone who might be curious about resources around these topics, where to learn more about special ed or collaborating with schools, do you have any thoughts or ideas around those kinds of resources? 

Zhanna: Yeah. Two good resources because there’s a lot of information online. You could do a Google search and you’ll get all sorts of information, but the accuracy of the information is questionable.

[01:08:00] Understood.org is a great resource for people to use. I actually look at it for information myself and sometimes pull handouts for families from there because it helps with all sorts of stuff, but as well as navigating the school system in layman’s terms, but it’s accurate layman’s terms.

Wrightslaw is a good one. I believe that Wrightslaw is good, but it’s not as simple. It may be a little bit more complicated to navigate than understood.org. There’s a lot of valuable information for professionals there. 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah, it’s a little clunkier, a little less user-friendly.

Zhanna:  Yeah, exactly. But for us who want more thorough information, it is a good resource to go to. 

Dr. Sharp: Great. And if people want to reach out and get ahold of you for any reason to follow up or learn more about your app or whatever it may be, what’s the best way to reach you?

Zhanna: Would you like to post my email maybe?

Dr. Sharp: If that’s the best way to get in touch with you and you’re okay with that, I can do that. If there’s another way, I’m happy to put that as well.

Zhanna: Well, the website for my app is behaviormadeeasy.com and it’s available for both Apple and Android devices if people are interested in checking it out. We can post my email. That’s fine. I’ll give that to you to share. 

Dr. Sharp: Okay, great. We can get that offline and I’ll make sure and put it in the show notes.

Zhanna: Yeah.

Dr. Sharp: Awesome. Well, this has been great. Thank you for doing a deep dive into these special education topics. It’s nice to have all this information laid out pretty clearly for those of us that work with schools. 

Zhanna: Thank you for having me.

[01:10:00] Dr. Sharp: Hey everyone. Thanks for tuning in to my conversation with Zhanna Shekhtmeyster. As you can tell, Zhanna has a lot to say, and a lot of knowledge around the topics of school integration, services in the schools and advocacy in the schools. I hope you enjoyed it. Definitely check out her app- Behavior Observation Made Easy. It’s great. For any of you who do school observations, I think it can be a really useful tool. Pretty cool. Again, that’s in the show notes. So check that out.

If you have not subscribed to the podcast, I would love for you to do that. You can do that easily in whatever app you’re listening to the podcast. It should be a big subscribe button. In Spotify, I think it’s follow. So check that out and do that if you could. And if you would like to leave a rating or a review, that always helps as well. So thank you for that.

All right, stay tuned. If you do subscribe, you will make sure not to miss any of the upcoming episodes. There are some good ones. I’ve had a really good run of interviews lately, and there are just more to come. So thanks for listening. Catch you next time.

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