Tagged with 'SPED Today'

Summer Plans for Our Next Best Academic Year

Summer Plans for Our Next Best Academic Year

By: Dr. Ray Heipp

The Beach Boys gave us an “Endless Summer” almost 40 years ago. While that might be something we could use today, we only have so many weeks for our own transition from the 2023-24 academic year to the 2024-25 academic year. We want to make sure we have some time for ourselves as well as keeping an eye toward the start of the year. What are some of those things that would be helpful to focus upon understanding the current educational environments in which we operate? How can we set ourselves up for a healthy academic year as well as from a mental health standpoint?

Let’s start with you first. The phrase that I have heard and used for most of my academic career is “You don’t understand. I don’t have time for myself.” It is always good to focus on your family or on matters that need to be addressed during the summer. Taking just 15 minutes per day along with finding some time each week to “do you” can lead to a more relaxed and refreshed feeling throughout the summer and into the upcoming school year. “Do you” can be anything you want it to be. I know some folks like to go to the beach and soak up the sun. Others might prefer to go camping or hiking to be closer to nature.  Some might simply want to find a comfortable chair and a good book. Whatever your choice is, do it! Even if you are on a vacation with the family, still find that 15 minutes where you can be by yourself and recharge. By finding this time now in the summer months, you may be able to create a habit that can move with you into the school year.

As you look ahead for your students, here are some themes you might want to consider. The first is the idea of transitioning. How can you begin to look at multiple aspects of your classroom day and create opportunities for transition? One of the tools I always recommend as an important part of training the behavior of transitioning between activities is a Time Timer Visual Timer. Aside from decreasing anxiety through the use of a visual timer, one can also begin to have consistency in transitioning between activities. If you have a Time Timer sitting on a shelf somewhere, bring it down and use it every day. If you don’t have one, consider using a 5-minute timer as it gives a different visual perspective for your students. We are beginning to use their own bodies to train the behavior of a timed transition. We are also teaching them the importance of a schedule moving forward in their lives. Simply putting information on a dry-erase board as to the activities which need to be completed is good in identifying which tasks need to be done. That is like a to-do list. Adding in the visual time aspect is what creates a stronger behavior around completing that transition. Please be aware that having timers with numbers or using an actual clock can only be as effective as the individual’s cognitive ability to process time. The research supporting the use of a visual timer reducing anxiety focuses on the fact that numbers still require math and do not always alleviate feelings around needing to rush through things. A visual timer creates an understanding of the passage of time and a visual cue to understand how much time is left. I even use a visual timer when completing activities as it keeps me more focused.

The second theme focuses on sensory supports and how to use them properly. We have been trained to believe that sensory supports should only be used during escalations or periods of increased emotional response. In fact, when any individual, including those who are neuro-typical, is taught to use socially and environmentally appropriate sensory supports, they can begin to work on self-regulating behaviors which can then transition outside of the classroom. For those who do not look to put items in their mouths or to throw things, products such as a tangle toy, boinks, sensory stones, or a pencil grip can become tools that can be a go-to when feelings of stress or overwhelm begin to arise. Again, this is a strategy that can work for all individuals. I have a “worry stone” that I carry with me and a tangle toy on my office desk. Sensory supports should not be hidden away until certain times. I have even worked with some OTs and some SLPs who give sensory supports to individuals when completing therapy sessions so that those individuals can process their kinetic energy and train themselves to maintain focus on the task at hand.

Another theme is one that I preach on a regular basis. This theme is making any assistive technology inclusive and accessible to many. Again, what devices do you have sitting on shelves because the student who needed them has graduated or transitioned to another building? See how you can repurpose those devices to enhance what goes on in your classroom. I love the example of using TalkingBrix2 to become single message “direction givers” in different parts of the classroom.  Now, your voice can be in multiple places at one time, and you begin to train a behavior around getting directions from auditory and visual prompts as well as getting them from a teacher, therapist, or another adult. Think about when that student might enter the workplace and have to get directions from a training video instead of a person. You have them ready to go!  Other single message communicators can also be placed in different areas to give affirmations or reminders. Be creative with your AAC devices. I always share the example of using a QuickTalker with the Widgit software to create “auditory books.” Take a book like Goodnight Moon and record the pages on your QuickTalker. Use Widgit to create a grid that has a picture of the pages and record what is written on that page. Now, individuals can take the book and the QuickTalker and “read” to themselves without always needing your input. Let them begin to understand the flow of words within reading and get them to enjoy it as they learn how to do it.

Incorporate switches into your classroom as well. Something as simple as taking a battery interrupter and putting it into a light and then connecting it to a switch can help you to create an “answer button,” a “call button,” a “question button,” or any other type of button you can design as the use of that switch simply turns on the light. Now, many students can communicate that way without the need to shout out loud, raise a hand, or go unnoticed as their hand or voice might not be visible or audible.

Summer is the time where we can create the idea in our minds of how we can utilize the tools that we have to enhance our classroom environments. Dream big and let those dreams come to fruition! Don’t forget to take the time for yourself first. When you are centered and focused, it allows you to be even more focused on those around you, students and family! If you do have some questions about your specific environments, feel free to reach out to me at rheipp@schoolhealth.com and let’s see what we can come up with for you.

May you have an amazing summer and come back ready for an amazing 2024-25 Academic Year!

Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter

Hope: Understanding How We Create It in Ourselves and Our Individuals

Hope: Understanding How We Create It in Ourselves and Our Individuals

By: Dr. Ray Heipp


May is a wonderful month - it is a time when spring has taken root here in the Midwest and hints of summer are in the air. From an academic perspective, it is a time of many transitions. When I was an administrator, it came to signify the end of the current year along with the beginning of the preparation for the new year. Those endings came in the shape of graduations and the movement to the next level of academia or movement into the workplace. In all of this, there was and still is a feeling of hope and excitement for all involved.

But what is hope and why is it so important, especially after the pandemic? Let’s start with the current levels of anxiety and stress in everyone. The pandemic brought about a lot of changes in how we interact with others. It was a traumatic experience which created ripple effects in the way people deal with daily activities. That anxiety has also led to a level of frustration that we see played out in the world around us. Part of what helps us address that anxiety and stress is the hope that things will get better.

The mistake many make is to assume that the ideas of wishing and hoping are the same. It is not a matter of semantics here. Instead, it is a matter of approach to the world that differentiates the two. A wish is a passive idea. “When you wish upon a star….” and other phrases around wishes surrender the idea to the power of someone or something else. A hope, by its very nature, includes some action on our part. Let’s go back to school ourselves. “I hope to play varsity this year.” “I want a lead role in the fall production.” I want to get a 3.0 GPA.” “I want to pass physics.” These are all statements of hope that require us to put in the practice or the work that will help us to get there. Unfortunately, we allow a lack of understanding of the difference between these two ideas to hinder ourselves and our students from perceiving the actions which need to take place.

Think of it this way. “I want to pass Physics” is a statement of hope that includes an awareness that homework needs to be done, tutoring may need to be a part of the plan, and studying will be required. We lose some of that deeper understanding when we say things like “I hope I have Ms. Flabitz and not that crazy Dr. H.” That is not a statement of hope, it is simply a wish which could lead us down a bad path if we end up with that crazy guy.

So how can we grab onto hope and demonstrate it to our students, our colleagues, our families, and our communities? First, we want to understand that we will be taking some action. I have recently had the privilege of taking a course on hope through the work of our owners here at School Health. We aligned ourselves with Kathryn Goetzke and her SHINE Hope Company to take a look at this idea of hope and how we could incorporate it into the workplace. There are also versions for schools. Here, I simply hope to focus on what we can be doing as individuals. We can start by taking a quick survey to determine our “Hope Score” and begin to work from there.  Here is the link for that survey: Measure Your Hope - The Shine Hope Company

From there, we are able to look at our own strengths in this area.  Always focus on your strengths first as that supports us subconsciously. You and your students have amazing strengths that can heighten hope around what you are doing and help get through those difficult times. Once you have taken the survey, you are able to move into the process which entails movement through the idea of SHINE. So how do you SHINE as you seek to increase your hope?

We start by looking at the ways in which we can address our stress. Stress Skills make up the “S” in SHINE. These are skills that most of us will recognize and can probably even identify why they are important. These are not extensive skills which require hours of study or practice. Simple ideas like controlled breathing, walking, exercise, listening to soothing music, and counting to 10 are all examples of how we can act when dealing with stress. The more that we can utilize skills that reduce stress the better the opportunity we have for increasing hope.

The “H” brings us to Happiness Habits. What are those activities that both make us happy and can create a positive sensation (for which there is a physiological reason!) within us. These habits include things like listening to music, being in nature, practicing affirmations, and playing games. Those are some of the activities one might expect. There are others though that focus on our health, like getting the proper sleep, eating in a healthy manner (yes, it is okay to have a cheat day!), and practicing affirmations. There are also a few habits which may surprise you.  These are habits like donating time, talent, and treasure to groups in need, giving a hug, and smiling. All of these help produce chemicals in the brain which add to our happiness and well-being.

Next, we move into taking Inspired Actions. Basically, think of this as setting goals for yourself that can help you navigate the challenges of any given day. Many of you have heard me speak of SMART goals before and those fit quite well into bringing hope to your life. SMART goals are those which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. Set these goals for all aspects of your life and look to help students understand how goal setting works. Don’t be afraid to set some short-term goals to achieve levels of success leading up to your long-term goals.

The “N” refers to Nourishing Networks. Who is it you spend your time around? What are they inspiring you to do? It is a researched fact that spending time with a set group of people acclimates you into feeling, believing, and reaching similar levels as those in the group. If you are around positive people who are focused on making life better, you will tend to do the same. However, if you are around negative people or people who chose the couch over other activities, you will tend to act in the same way. For those of us who have children, think of the warnings we may have given to our children when it came to their friend groups. Hope is achieved through positive action and the belief that there is another level for you to reach. Hanging around the right people reinforces your belief in yourself and gives you the potential for a support team as you move forward.

Finally, the “E” represents Eliminating Challenges. The greatest challenge many face is limiting beliefs around what they can become. Believe in yourself, work to enhance your strengths, and then address areas for improvement. When you see something you believe in, go after it and do not let naysayers hold you back.

This post is not long enough to take your completely through the process of using hope to achieve your goals and to bring you through the challenges of each day as unscathed as possible. Should you have more questions about hope, this program for your school or students, please feel free to reach out to me.

Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter

Making 2024 the Best Year Ever for All

Making 2024 the Best Year Ever for All

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp


So, I realize that the title of this blog sounds a little cliché! We tend to hear statements like that every year from pundits trying to cash in on the “new year, new you” ideology and the promotion of “New Year’s Resolutions.” Keeping that in mind as well as trying to stave off another purchase of a stationary bike which becomes a clothes hangar by April, we will take a look at ways that we can inspire the individuals with whom we work to have “Best Me Ever” plans along with some insights into the ending of ESSER III funding and how we can utilize it for the benefit of both current and future students.

Why “Best Me Ever” plans? When we analyze the idea of New Year’s Resolutions as neurotypical adults, we can distinguish that these resolutions are for our own benefit and are ways of tweaking how we approach aspects of our lives. Whether it is looking at habits like smoking cessation, being nice, and diet and exercise to lose a few pounds’ or something more detailed like changing lifestyles to protect again significant health concerns, we can come at these resolutions knowing that it is for our benefit that we are doing these activities. For our individuals, levels of cognitive awareness might not be there to understand the idea behind “resolutions,” thus creating a feeling of inadequacy or lack. We do not want them to approach these plans from the negative. By having them focus on the positive effects of activities that will help to create “Best Me Ever” plans, we encourage them to stay with it and look forward to it as well.

What might these plans include? Let’s look at some common issues our individuals face and see how we can help to create a positive mindset around them. Our first issue surrounds the need to lose weight. When I speak of weight loss with them, I am looking at those individuals who may need to lose 20 or more lbs. for their health and well-being. I have seen too often the idea of promoting weight loss to someone who might not be overweight by a great extent. However, weight loss for them can become an unhealthy fixation which causes significant drops and improper focus. The first thing we should determine if weight loss is something to be added is why the weight is on in the first place. Is the additional weight due to improper eating habits? What if they are due to anxiety or lack of exercise as opposed to eating habits? These questions will help to point us toward the proper approach to take. For example, if there are improper eating habits like “eating one’s feelings” by overeating after stressful situations, then simply teaching about healthy food choices does not make sense. Instead, we want to look at other coping strategies that do not focus on eating.

In speaking with a former student-athlete of mine who has worked in both the exercise and nutritional realms with many individuals, including some you might know, he shared with me that he encourages a weekly “cheat day” when approaching weight loss due to the body simply being out of shape. We discussed the merits of my “Pizza Fridays” and how something like that actually can help a body to acclimate to other foods during the week. Psychologically, these “cheat days” can help give an individual better internal strength when approaching their diets. He has noticed that many of his clients begin to adjust their “cheat days” into healthier foods while more easily acclimating their bodies to an overall diet regimen.

He cautioned about diets though when it came to overeating due to stress or emotional responses. He works with his clients on coping mechanisms first in these cases. He then can see or help a client transition to less overeating issues. With our individuals, we may need to begin with these coping mechanisms. These could include breathing exercises for both daily practice and emergency usage. We might also include some physical activity at the beginning and end of each day. Even something as simple as a walk – a quarter mile or less – can be a good starting point. If we focus on those activities first, we can then move toward the nutritional component. If we start in the wrong order, all the work we might do with nutrition and portion-controlled eating can go right out of the window the first time any stressful event occurs.

Another issue surrounds something we addressed above and that is dealing with stress and anxiety. An individual may not be overeating or have weight issues when anxious. Instead, they may have escalations which can be detrimental to themselves or to others. A “Best Me Ever” plan looks at the causes of these escalations and addresses activities, like breathing, that can be used in several different ways. We are teaching life skills to our individuals in this case and encouraging them to deal with their stress and anxiety in positive manners.

Exercise is another aspect of the “Best Me Ever” plan. Again, we want to start with what the individual can do and build off that. We then want to move into areas that might interest them and let them add more activities to their own exercise portfolio. A slow build of exercises along with directing them toward lifelong activities is most beneficial here.

Notice what we have been doing throughout this blog. Let’s start with the “Best Me Ever” designation. Our foundation is that we are already good and that we are moving to the “best” version. That is not only a positive move but can be improved upon each year. We are not focusing on the negative aspects of our life. Instead, we are looking at causes and how to handle them in a healthy manner. We want our individuals to be excited for these plans and apply them daily to life. We don’t want them to feel they are failures by setting benchmarked numbers which may or may not be reached. We want them to begin to have healthier approaches to life and the other issues or concerns will be addressed as a positive side-effect.

As enter into 2024, we still have until September 30th to spend the ESSER III funds. All Assistive Technology is eligible to be purchased using these funds. Assess what you are already using in your school or district and bring in technology which may fill in some gaps. Look to create your own AT Assessment/Trial kits that can be utilized by teachers, therapists, AT Specialists, and yourself in the future. Consider making AT as transparent as possible in the buildings by re-visioning how to use some of the older AT in standard classrooms or offices, e.g. using a QuickTalker 12 as a support with a book like Goodnight Moon to let students “read” to themselves at the press of a button. Bring in new AT to support the current student population with an eye toward future students as well. We can use these funds to help so many students and don’t want them to go to waste. If you have questions on what might be good to have in your building or would like some ideas of how to use your current AT in other ways, please feel free to reach out to me at rheipp@schoolhealth.com.

2024 will be the best year for all of us! What is your “Best Me Ever” plan going to be?

Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter

The Holidays Are Not Always a Wonderful Time for Some Individuals


As we enter the holiday season, we find excitement and lots of activities that go beyond our normal routines.  Starting with the schedules that we see in schools and at home, changes to routine become more routine than not!  As parents, we learn to verify what the actual breaks from school are so that we know how to best prepare.  For example, when I was a student in the 1970s, we went to school the Wednesday before Thanksgiving up to the 22nd or 23rd of December before any breaks took place.  Things have changed greatly since then.  As an administrator in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw that we needed to add the Wednesday before Thanksgiving due to the lack of attendance.  We also learned that the time off at Christmas needed to be two full weeks and had to work around potential weekends.

As fun as time away from school might sound, it does create issues for individuals who crave routine.  Even within school days or therapy sessions, we may see different scheduling of classes or decorations which can draw attention and cause issues around focus.  For some individuals, this could lead to sudden escalations around things we might not have considered, like having to walk around a decorated area instead of walking through it.  

What can we do to become more aware and help to spread that awareness to others?  First, recognize that we can only control what we can control. As our individuals leave our buildings, there are other disruptions that can be problematic.  With that in mind, I recommend “Holiday Sensory Kits” for the parents and guardians.  These kits can be used throughout the year; however, I am making suggestions that will help to address the constancy of change over the next few months.  To start, have the parents consider putting this together in a backpack or drawstring bag so that it can be portable without being obvious to others. In this backpack, a pair of noise reducing earbuds or headphones will be important for many. I like the Vibes as they really do appear as earbuds, yet give that reduction in ambient noise that might be encountered outside, in malls, or in larger gatherings.  For some, those might need to be noise cancelling headphones.  

Depending upon where you live, you also want to consider sudden changes in weather.  Having a pair of gloves and a knit hat in colder regions is also a good idea.  I have even seen some groups go as far as to recommend hand warmers in their kits.  This can be a good idea, as long as the individual who might be using them understands when something is too hot as well as why something like this should be used.

The next things to have in the backpack are a range of sensory support items that are socially appropriate for situations.  The Sensory Tangle Toy is one of my go-to items for both recommending and having available for myself.  I actually have one on my office desk and will utilize it during longer virtual meetings when I cannot get up and move around. This is a good choice as it does not make noise, can be used under a table or close to the body, and is better accepted by the external community for stress relief.  I also recommend that this is not the only item one has for sensory release.  In some cases, if an individual is not prone to throwing items, a squeeze ball can also be helpful.  Again, it does not make any sound and they are socially acceptable.  I do recommend for any sensory object to have more than one in the backpack in case something gets dropped or lost.  

A small first aid kit is also something to consider in the backpack.  Why? I have had stories shared with me where individuals began to escalate in a situation and either fell or crashed into something.  Having bandages and some antiseptic is always a good call.  The First Aid To Go Mini First Aid Kit is a nice choice for this.  

Finally, we do want to look at something with a little bit of weight (2-4 lbs. max) like Theo the Therapy Dog, the Manimo Weighted Lizard, or a Washable Weighted Lap Pad, adding the dynamic of having a weight that can be placed on the lap or shoulders.  For younger individuals, animals are acceptable.  For some of our older individuals, the lap pad is a more socially acceptable choice.

Think about also having some juice boxes, a filled water bottle, and some snacks.  For some individuals, they may need to have something that they are used to eating or drinking when the situation is strange and somewhat overwhelming.  I have spoken to parents who regretted not taking simple things like a favorite juice or snack along, along with presuming a food court or refreshment stand would have something that might assist in de-escalation through food or drink.  Hot chocolate is a great treat but may not help to calm someone who has been triggered in a new environment.  

In Gabe’s Access Angle blog, he addresses some of the outer wear which may be good during these months. Having lived in the Midwest for most of my life, I always urge to take layering into account if the individual is comfortable with that.  Think about things like thermal tops and pants to go on as the base layer and then build out from there.  The nice thing about layering is that one can always remove a layer if it begins to get too warm.  Temperature and other weather conditions can play a major role in escalations as well!

Those of you who have spoken with me or read my work before know that I am big on preparing our individuals to decorations and changes in advance.  I know of some families and schools who slowly transition into the holidays with inside decorations.  One mother described the fact that they have pumpkins around the house from the beginning of October until the day after Thanksgiving for Halloween, along with fall decorations.  The day after Thanksgiving is the changeover day.  In the morning, they say goodbye to the pumpkins and put away the fall decorations while bringing out their Christmas tree.  They only set up the tree on that day to start the transition.  On Saturday, the lights go on the tree.  Then on Sunday, ornaments go on the tree, decorations come out, and the outside is decorated.  This mother stated that even with only a 24-hour gap, it is enough to assist in the transition and not create escalations.

Furthermore, be aware of the places you are traveling to.  Prepare the individuals by explaining to them what they will be seeing and experiencing.  Be ready to take things slow.  Whatever you are doing, make sure that you include the whole family.  Inclusion in all activities is so essential to overall fulfillment and happiness in our lives.  Lack of inclusion can also cause escalations.  Be aware of the focus of the individual and what they are hoping for.  I learned this the hard way one Christmas, when my son was much younger.  He and I slept on a pull-out couch in the room with the Christmas tree as he was intent on catching “Santa.” Well, “Santa” woke up at about 3:30 am, brought out the gifts, and filled his stocking.  Santa also ate the cookies which happened to be my…  I mean HIS favorites and tossed the carrots outside for the reindeer and animals to eat.  “Santa” was feeling pretty good about things until my son awoke and had one of his worst escalations ever.  He was inconsolable for almost an hour because he didn’t catch “Santa.”  Take time to understand their needs beyond what we might believe those needs to be!  He did learn soon after that the spirit of “Santa” lived on in all parents.  In the future, he was able to catch “Santa.”  It did mean that lots of noise had to be made or “Santa” had to even “accidentally” shake his bed to wake him.  

The most important thing when helping individuals is to take care of yourself first.  When you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it can take its toll and not allow us to be present in the moment.  Make sure you are engaging in self-care as well.  When we focus on ourselves and preparing our individuals for various activities and changes in routine, we can make this the most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter

2022 Year in Review Product Highlights

Gabriel Ryan, School Health Blog Writer and Contributor 

2022 Year in Review Product Highlights

As we head into the holiday season and think about gifts for others or products and tools to support your work starting out the new year, what a better time to revisit several products the School Health team has highlighted through social media this year. You may find the perfect gift, spark an idea that will enhance your learning, or encourage the success of students you support. All of the highlighted products are related to students with disabilities or Special Education supports, and can be found on the School Health website under the Special Education category. The Special Education category is broken down into the following nine subcategories: Sensory, Motor Skills, Augmentative & Alternative Communication, Speech Therapy, Switches, Computer & Tablet Access, Learning, Living Aids, and Positioning & Mobility.

You’ll find a category and link below from several of the products highlighted this year. Look for videos from Talkin’ Tech with Dr. Ray and some of my Access Angle blog write ups that relate to the products. I hope you will enjoy revisiting these products, videos, and blogs as much as I did!



Motor Skills

  • Handwriting- find pencil grips, slant boards, and hands on materials
  • Puzzles- letters, numbers, small knobs and jumbo knobs

Augmentative & Alternative Communication

Speech Therapy


  • Speech Therapy assessment and screening materials, fluency, articulation, phonology, workbooks and resources


Computer & Tablet Access

  • Keyboards and Mice- A variety of keyboards and Mice for all types of learners, including individuals with special needs 


Living Aides

Positioning & Mobility

Due to the multiple uses of some products, they may appear under more than one sub-category on the website.

Just a reminder to subscribe to SchoolHealth Special Education emails to stay in the loop on products and resources, here.

Wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy holiday season!

Posted in Access Angle Segment

Creating a Happy Holiday Season for All!

Creating a Happy Holiday Season for All!

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp


“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” We hear that phrase echoing from the radio throughout the month. It's interesting to now see some radio and streaming stations moving toward “holiday favorites” from November 1st on until the end of the year. A recent poll showed that many working adults believed that they needed another two weeks to be sufficiently ready for the holidays. “Black Friday” now starts earlier online (like, by weeks, on some sites) and we have “Cyber Monday” carrying on for a full week. Take all these things and add to them the excitement that can be in many environments, and one has the recipe for either an amazing season or a state of dread and overwhelm, effecting both neuro-diverse and neuro-typical individuals. How can we find ways to make this that amazing season?

First, start with you! Take time every day for yourself. Those who have heard me speak or read my blogs know that I am a big proponent of the “five-minute me time” on a daily basis. Taking just five minutes at the very beginning or end of your day can help calm your nerves and reenergize your body for all that life throws at you. Unfortunately, there is not an easy way to get the marketing of this season completely off our screens or out of our ears. Keeping a strong sense of self, staying with any exercise or stretching routines, practicing breathing, and having a nice cup of tea or coffee can assist in the body and mind being focused and dealing with life one moment at a time.

Next, bring the individuals with whom you work or live into focus. Start with the holidays that you and they celebrate. How can the ideas and essence of each of those holidays be emphasized?  If they are not celebrating a holiday which some of their peers are celebrating, how can that be explained in a manner that is accepted by them? What about those who will only celebrate the New Year at some point and do not identify with other holidays? We have to remember that it might be difficult to understand why a friend celebrates with a cornucopia or Christmas tree, when they celebrate with a Hanukkah Menorah.  Sharing the reasons behind these celebrations helps to create an understanding around the beautiful differences each one of us has. The communication of these differences through these celebrations and the highlighting of their own celebration helps to bring a better understanding of how we are all one family. This is a good place to start in preparation of this season.

We hear a lot about the creation of switch-accessible or adapted toys at this time of the year. It is great that we can create toys for so many to access by simply using a soldering iron or a battery-interrupter.  My first question is why do some only focus upon it at this time of the year? My second question is where in your community can you go to bring toys and have the support you need in making these toys accessible? Look around your community and see if any groups are sponsoring days to create these toys.  I always like to shout-out my colleagues Matt and Holly at the Virginia Tech TTAC who host events like this and supply the training and soldering irons to make this happen. There are also sites like the School Health website where adapted toys are available for ordering.  Just make sure that the individuals have a switch that they can use.

In this month’s Talkin’ Tech with Dr. Ray, I also describe how to take stuffed animals or items like vibrating pillows and add a little weight to them to add another sensory dimension to favorite toys that can also serve to assist in calming individuals. Other options include weighted animals and weighted lap pads which have already been made at a certain weight. Please work with your OTs for precise ideas on the weighting for your individuals always keeping in mind the idea that anything weighted should be only 10% or less of their body weight unless reviewed and approved by an OT. The sensory side should always be considered for our individuals and sensory “toys” may be very appropriate!

As for the “sights and sounds” of the season, we need to have our individuals ready as well!  As a child, I remember my parents driving my sister and me around the city to see all the lights. That can be a wonderful experience. We also must be aware that the visual stimulation of too many lights or the flash patterns of some lights may also be overwhelming. Start slow and small. Be aware when an individual may become over-stimulated. Have space to go where there are less lights or even have them put on sunglasses to tone down the brightness.

On the auditory side, be certain to have tools that can allow an individual some quiet time. Bringing noise cancelling headphones may be a good idea for some. Other products that are not as easily seen and may give noise reduction rather than cancellation, like Vibes, might be a good call for other individuals. Again, it is important to know the limits of your individuals. 

Finally, be sure to dress appropriately for the weather. If you live in an area where it is cold outside and you will be outdoors for some time, bring hand warmers or additional layers of clothing. No matter what the weather, bring socially and event-appropriate fidgets like a School Health Sensory Tangle Toy or a Cuddle Ball to provide some soothing for those who may become overwhelmed by the emotions of those around them or the temperature of the environment they are visiting.

We need to be centered ourselves in order to think of those events which may be triggers for some of our individuals. We do not need to initiate a level of trauma by what we think is something simple. One example is trying to make sure our individuals who celebrate Christmas do not “catch” Santa or someone placing gifts beneath the tree. I can assure you that the escalation which comes with not “catching” the gift placer is not one you want to experience! 

With each one of us remembering to center ourselves and then support our individuals, we create a season of joy and celebration! We are also creating routines and actions which can be replicated throughout the year and for many years to come.

I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season filled with much joy and minimal escalations!

Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter

Thinking through October and all it brings for our Individuals

Thinking through October and all it brings for our Individuals

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp

During a brisk October morning, I thought about all the wonderful activities that occur in October and throughout autumn. Remembering my days as an administrator, October would bring us to the end of the first quarter of the academic year, along with student testing. The academic side of this month was only one endeavor October brought. We were in the midst of the fall athletic season and the beginning of the winter season. We moved closer to the start of major extracurricular activities in theatre, speech, and other clubs. Depending upon the district, we were potentially looking towards Halloween or other holiday activities. In all, October is both busy as well as transitional to progress the school year. Let’s review these ideas and what we might want to keep in mind.

Starting with the end of the month, I have read and written pieces about preparing our students for communities which celebrate Halloween. This can be one of the most over-stimulating holidays for individuals. The sights, sounds, tastes, and movement can create high levels of both excitement and anxiety. We want to make sure that individuals come to an understanding that some might dress in “scary” ways. If that preparation is not done, the first appearance of a werewolf or zombie could be confusing and frightening. Pictures and old costumes can be shared with individuals to prepare them for Halloween events. We also need to make sure that we are educating nutrition information to not eat all the candy or snacks in one sitting. Additionally, we should be aware of individuals who need unique costumes. Think of those in wheelchairs or those who use walkers and what can be designed specifically to their interests to allow them to participate with their peers. Do not forget that some of our individuals may not be able to afford a costume. How can we repurpose what we have or use items that we can pick up at a local dollar store or resale shop? Sometimes, simple costumes can be better as they might not cause sensory adverse reactions, allowing better participation. If you are in a building or community which celebrates Halloween, please be sure to have your individuals ready for a fun-filled and not fright-filled evening!

In addition, October brings back thoughts of outdoor sports. Having participated in and coach fall sports, one wants to be used to the needs of individuals based upon the weather. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend many October nights in the mid-to-late 1990s at the ballpark with my father watching playoff baseball with our Cleveland team! (Great to see them back in the playoffs this year! I know that Dad is looking down from some great seats above!) My father spent the last 30 years of his life in a wheelchair due to suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. That never inhibited his love of our pro teams and desire to see them in person. It was at these sporting events that I learned how clothing needs to be assessed individually. My father always had his winter coat, gloves, and hat ready. For a long time, it was assumed that his jeans would be enough to keep his legs warm. We later realized that having a wool blanket to cover his legs made it more comfortable for him. Gabe Ryan, in his Access Angle blog, discusses some of the clothing available today, which really works at keeping the entire body warm. This allows more enjoyment at any outdoor event or even the travel to and from events in cold or wet weather. Not all clothing works for everyone, so be sure to learn what works best for your individuals when they are going out in multiple environments. We want everyone watching these events to be included and not allow the weather to interfere.

As I mentioned above, October brings us to the end of the first quarter of the academic year. There are times when that transition between quarters is overwhelming. During October, we specifically “Go Red for Dyslexia” to bring attention to the number of individuals who struggle with this condition. We want to provide any support we can for these individuals and understand that the use of devices or software does not mean that these individuals are “cheating” when completing work or taking tests. We want to understand that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. I was recently involved in a conversation with a district who simply wanted to address dyslexia in students with software on Chromebooks. I think that is a great idea, but let them know that they also need to have alternative devices for students who are trying to interact with papers or physical books. Many students become embarrassed if they have to use another person as a “Reader” when interacting with these materials. Having a device as simple as a Reader Pen can not only increase an individual's confidence in their own abilities, but also create a stronger sense of independence.

The more we are aware of conditions that can inhibit individuals from participating in academic, social, or personal events, the better we can prepare to help them. Consider all the various environments our individuals may be encountering and think through how we prepare to go to a high school football or soccer game. Now, expand what we do through the eyes of our individuals to pick up some other ideas about how to help them become more fully involved. Autumn can be a beautiful time of the year when everyone has access to all of its activities!

Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter

Changing Perspectives

Changing Perspectives

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp

A few weeks ago, I ran into a former student of mine who graduated from the Class of 1987. It was enjoyable to catch up on life and share some fun anecdotes from the past. Then, last Friday, I virtually connected with a teacher to discuss some approaches that she was seeking to use to help keep her students calmer this academic year. As we wrapped up, I heard a thunderous sound from outside that kept getting louder. It was a clear and sunny day, so I had to investigate. To my surprise, it was the Blue Angels flying by. This should not have surprised me, as it’s a normal event for the Cleveland Airshow over Labor Day weekend to have the Blue Angels flying in my area. As I sit here on Labor Day, I am reflecting on those three events and thinking about how our perspectives in education have changed over time and what they are now.

If we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, Labor Day not only meant the suggested, “end of summer,” but also the factual end of summer vacation for us students. School started on the Tuesday after Labor Day, so we cherished that last chance to enjoy the outside freedom and play from dusk until dawn without homework! We knew that teachers were in school the week before, as the rooms were always decorated and bulletin boards were ready to display our work. When I became a teacher, I had the chance to visit with some of my own elementary teachers. They shared that the week before Labor Day was focused on getting the classroom ready, as well as making copies of worksheets for the activities throughout the first month of school. Those of us from certain generations remember the “Ditto Machines” and how careful we had to be with the master copies and to be ready to clean the blue ink off of our hands! It was an action that we don’t put much thought into today as our worksheets are either online or in a file, which makes printing a simple task.

Thinking back to my former student from the Class of 1987, we began school the week before Labor Day. This was done so teachers could get the administrative tasks (seating charts, assigning of textbooks and numbers, handing out of syllabi, etc.) completed and begin teaching before the weekend. Some of my colleagues used that long weekend to assign a paper or an extended homework assignment, while I knew that students would put in little effort because of the longer weekend. When speaking about past classroom environments, it was different than today. I was on the fifth floor of a 100-year-old building. “Air conditioning” meant that I opened all of my windows and my classroom door, and the teacher across the hall did the same thing. Teaching in Cleveland also meant that the Friday before Labor Day was practice for the Blue Angels at Burke Lakefront Airport. You did not want to schedule any tests or quizzes on that day as the noise did not allow any concentration. Making sure we had air circulating and that the students were not hanging out of the windows were our most important responsibilities. Today, air conditioning and air purifiers keep us comfortable and healthy.

How times change! My last Labor Day, which only focused on administrative tasks and continuing the movement into the new school year, came on September 3, twenty-one years ago. As a veteran administrator, the school year had already started, and we were getting ready for parent back-to-school nights. Another school year had begun, and everything was moving along. It would be only eight more days until the unthinkable would occur and I would never be able to look at the start of the school year with thoughts of simple planning again.

Although I was already out of administration and working with School Health, Labor Day weekend of 2020 meant something completely different for my colleagues that were still in schools. Administrators were furiously making sure students had access to equipment, internet, and other requirements for virtual learning. Teachers were adjusting for another year’s worth of lessons to be conducted in a virtual format. Some even needed to plan to conduct both virtual and in-person classes simultaneously. The focus became how we could teach in an environment that we never have before.

This year, the focus of teachers and administrators is looking at the health and well-being of our students. I want to remind all educators that we need to also make sure that we are taking care of ourselves within that structure! Breathing breaks, sensory breaks, calming areas, and yoga sessions are part of how we can all continue to move forward and live healthier lives. We need to look at education in a holistic manner and understand that a 30-60 second sensory break or teaching a student how to use breathing to calm down, creates a life skill that will assist them forever. Our students, as well as ourselves, are still in an anxious state of mind. By modeling how we can grasp all of the unique events that come our way each day, it gives them a greater lesson, compared to teaching them a science concept or a math equation. We give them a way to live.

Over the summer, I had an administrator ask me how much more difficult I thought it was to be in education now, compared to 20, 30, and 40 years ago. I told him that it was simply different. Our world 40 years ago was local and today it is global. Thirty years ago, we still had to research topics and questions in libraries using reference materials and today, we have students jump on their cell phones for the same information. Twenty years ago, we were focused on the safety and security for our schools and ourselves, and today we are more aware of everyone’s well-being. Perspectives and students are the key parts that have changed. We still need to operate with the idea of, “in loco parentis,” and adjust it to teaching life and coping skills. The most important thing for myself that I shared with the administrator, was how we, as educators, are now more aware of how our mental well-being is the key factor for us to bring our students to that same level.

Although the perspectives have changed, there is one task that we continue to do. We give our students the tools to make differences in their futures and, therefore, keep those perspectives changing to adjust to the world around them!

Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter

Beginning the New School Year Inclusively

Beginning the New School Year Inclusively 

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp

As we move into the 2022-23 school year, we have hope that this will be a more traditional year than the past two. We are also cognizant of the issues we still face as we prepare to work with our students. We are going to take a journey that brings in the themes of literacy, access, sensory support, inclusivity, and transparency. At the same time, we will take inspiration from a Paula Abdul song from 1991, “Promise of a New Day”:

So time over time
What will change the world?
No one knows (no one knows)
So the only promise is a day to live, to give
And share with one another

As we move into the new academic year, we are reminded that some of our students are still struggling with literacy and reading skills. Virtual learning took its toll on some students, even with Herculean efforts by their teachers. Learning styles are significant for everyone and our master teachers recognize the needs to have multiple styles of teaching built in for the sake of all learners. This need is heightened for those students who, due to the conditions they face, need structure, consistency, and multiple ways to understand what is being presented. I recently posted a Talkin’ Tech video extolling alternative uses for Alphabet Pebbles. The beauty of these pebbles is the fact that they can be used in classrooms from grades Pre-K through 12, adding a level of physical/tactile interaction to activities. As we look at the other conditions our students face, we see that assistive technology like the Reader Pen or LiveScribe can aid our more developed students while permitting them to display their abilities. Assistive Technology is NEVER a way of creating an unfair advantage and those who argue that point do not subscribe to the ideas of inclusivity. Inclusivity means that students are able to use the tools which allow them to work alongside every one of their peers within that room.

Literacy is so essential in the lives of all our students. As we look at programs like the Science of Reading, as well as other approaches, we see the opportunity to have all of our students understand letters, phonemes, and words in multiple styles. Take some time to reflect on how we can turn lessons involving literacy into something that is tactile in nature. When we look at our students who have moved into lessons focused on reading and notetaking, we must remember that not everyone will cognitively process the information the same way. Incorporating tools that permit text-to-speech principles, along with alternative forms of notetaking (think about taking digital images of your notes on the dry erase board and putting them into a PowerPoint or utilizing the save features within your interactive whiteboard and including those notes into an online PDF), provide all students with alternative access. Research demonstrates that by giving students the opportunity to review notes they may have missed, actually increases the attention they pay within the class itself.

Access also becomes such an essential piece for some individuals. One might not be able to access digital information in the same way as peers. Hence, an alternative mouse, like the Glassouse, might be appropriate, while other individuals may need switches or AAC devices in order to access information and communicate with others. This leads us into thinking about the creation of classrooms with transparent, Assistive Technology. I do not mean that the technology cannot be seen, but transparent, AT is so ingrained within the classroom that no student views it as different or strange.

Examples of this would be to use TalkingBrix 2 as a way of providing students classroom feedback or instructions at a station so that the teacher does not need to be involved. One could use a GoTalk 9+ as a way that students could read a book to themselves. By putting page pictures on the GoTalk 9+ and recording the words from that page on the device, students can then take the book and interact directly with the device to have it read aloud to them. In both of these cases, we are using AAC devices for tasks other than simple communication. In effect, we begin to de-sensitize the neuro-typical students to use AAC devices. Therefore, when a student needs to use the device for communication purposes, other students do not find it unusual because it is a familiar device. Switches can also provide access by taking a switch not being used by someone in particular, like the Jelly Bean or Compact Switches, which can be connected to a light and used like an answer button. By using these devices as something common, it breaks down barriers when students see an individual using one for digital access in other classes.

As we prepare our classrooms, we need to take the sensory needs of all our students into account. Fidgets or kinetic releases are both socially and classroom appropriate. Items like Mad Mattr or Tangle Jrs. are great tools to have available for all students when they feel overwhelmed in the classroom. We must remember that we are in a global environment where anxiety levels are high. Creating sensory breaks and even sensory stations within a classroom will be healthy for everyone. Think about having a corner or location where the students can go to just sit and relax. Adding in an object like the Fiber Optic Lamp introduces light and texture to the area. Breathing activities and yoga can also be used to help students relax.

The most important responsibility to remember for this year is that you need to take care of yourself. Those of you who have worked with me already know that I urge everyone associated with schools to take 5 minutes of “me” or “quiet” time each day. This “me” time is critical for you as it helps to re-center and refresh. The school environment is stressful for all of us who work within it. Ironically, we focus on taking care of our students first and then look to take care of our families afterwards. We tend to leave ourselves out of the “care equation.” We can only give as much as we have, and if we do not have a lot, we cannot give a lot. We need to take time for ourselves daily, as well as engage in other healthy activities, to allow us to be the best we can be! In being the best we can be, we maintain that promise of a new day by being able to share the most we can with our students!

Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter

Help Me, Funding-Won-Rayobi!

Help Me, Funding-Won-Rayobi!

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp

Picture if you will: A small robot rolls into my office and suddenly a message comes forth.  Except take out the robot and make that my personal cell phone in another room and the message is the noise letting me know there is a voicemail.  This happens on a regular basis.  However, the message this time was different.  At the end of my work calls, I grabbed my cell and checked the voicemail.  It was a wonderful old friend who also was a long-time colleague (no, she does not have a hair style that looks like cinnamon rolls on the sides!)  She did though leave this brief message with a chuckle, “Help me, Funding-Won-Rayobi!”

When I called her back, we caught up for a few minutes and then she let me know the purpose for her call. “I am so sick and tired of people reaching out to me, telling me they know how to help spend my ESSER and other special funding opportunities, then proceeding to tell me about their only product. How can I best spend my funds and still support my teachers and students?”  I was shocked that she asked me that question.  She had been an administrator when I was still in that office and has continued to move into higher administrative positions while I moved into the consulting and supporting arena.  I asked her why she would call me on this question, and she responded with, “You’ve been in my shoes, and you have always been supportive when I needed something.  Plus, you give me solutions and ideas, not product placements!”

So, I started off by asking her some questions.  The first question which is something that we, as administrators, should be asking is, “Tell me about the difficulties your students with differing abilities are experiencing today and how those difficulties are similar or dissimilar to pre-pandemic times.” Her response to this one is something I have heard from many districts recently.  She began by talking about the literacy abilities of her students.  She spoke of how the movement to virtual classes interrupted the progress of many students and created significant challenges for her younger students, especially those who missed out on direct instruction during critical developmental times.

We then spoke about how ESSER funding could be used for just about anything for her students when it came to literacy.    For those students who were still struggling with literacy development, we spoke about manipulative products like Alphabet Pebbles, Alphabet Beanbags, Traceable Alphabet Shapes, and Letter Foam Magnets allowed for so many types of activities within classrooms for both individual students as well as groups.  If she wanted to go outside of the classroom and into the gymnasium or playground, she could also consider something like the BRAINBall™. Using manipulatives adds the physical dimension to learning and early literacy which many students need after virtual learning environments.

For students who were older, we looked at reading supports like the Reader Pen and Orcam Read as well as software like CaptiAssess and CaptiAccomodate.  The Reader Pen could create scenarios where her students who struggle with reading due to dyslexia or other issues could read their texts and paper tests right there in an inclusive classroom; giving a stronger sense of independence along with the ability to handle the information.  The Orcam Read could work in a similar manner and support students on computers or tablets; especially those with visual impairments or fine motor issues as well.  The Capti software family can reside on the school computers and be something that supports her students in all phases of learning, while constantly giving feedback to the teachers as well.

As we discussed these ideas, she asked about tools for access.  Access is huge for me as I am always encouraging schools to find the strengths of their students and use the tool for access which best fits each individual student.  Again, under ESSER funding as well as other standard special education funding sources, tools for access and communication are available.  I am a big fan of both Ablenet switches as well as switches from Enabling Devices.  I shared with her that Enabling Devices recently went to manufacturing their switches in a new manner creating more flexibility in how the switches can be tailored for schools as well as how they work.  With any switch though, the critical piece is to look at the student.  Do they need a standard switch like Specs or a Piko Button.  Do they need something along the lines of proximity like a Candy Corn, Honeybee, or Movement Sensor switch?  What about something more specific like a chin switch or a finger switch?  This is where I suggested that her AT team have a “testing kit” of several different types of switches that could be loaned out for evaluations and to order these kits through current funding.  I did suggest that she add into those kits a Glassouse alternative mouse and a head mouse for some of her more severe students.  Finally, I let her know that I will be back out on the road conducting AT Seminars again along with Jodi Szuter for schools to see and interact with many new and familiar technologies to review.  I always want schools to see the applicability of assistive technology to all spaces within a school to make them more inclusive and create a level of positive transparency around assistive tech.

Finally, she mentioned the need for sensory support.  She was worried that her OTs were being overworked as they were doing an amazing job of supporting so many students.  That is again happening throughout the country as OTs have been so critical in helping students reacclimate to the routines of the classroom.  She was also concerned that simply putting in a sensory room in a building would drastically limit how many students could receive proper support.  So, we talked about the creation of sensory spaces again using ESSER funds as well as other IDEA funding to bring in items which could be placed in multiple classrooms and shared with students throughout the day.   The critical piece I shared with her is that sensory inputs work to maintain wellness and create less anxiety allowing the focus to be on learning.  She and her team had been so focused on a single sensory room that they had not even considered “mini” sensory rooms throughout the school. 

I shared with her that the critical piece is to know the needs of the students through the insights of the teachers and not to be focused on only one product.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” technology.  However, there are many solutions that can be created for students that maximize the money being spent, and protect the schools for changing environments in the future.  She was grateful for that call and let me know that I will be invited to visit in the late summer.

In the same way, I am available to support all of you.  Feel free to reach out to me at rheipp@schoolhealth.com for thoughts and ideas around your students.  We must be able to work together and see what will work for our students.  We cannot simply purchase things because we are told that they work under ESSER funding.  Many devices do fall under those guidelines.  We need to put together plans that look, not only at next year, but for years to come for our students.  In that way, we all benefit!

Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter