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Breaking Autism Blog & Resources

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How Encouragement Shapes Behavior, Builds Self-Esteem, & Motivates Your Child

Encouragement is one of the most profound drivers of human behavior. The word "encourage" comes from the French word encoragier, meaning to "contribute to progress" and "make strong." Interestingly, studies find a strong connection between encouragement, motivation, and resilience. Ultimately, encouragement motivates a child to see themselves and outcomes differently which impacts their behavior, learning, motivation, and self-esteem.

So how exactly does encouragement actually shape behavior, build self-esteem, and motivate your child?

True encouragement motivates a child's effort and builds resilience (one's muscle memory of achievement so-to-speak). With strong resilience, a child is often more likely to envision a successful outcome, leading to more actual successful outcomes, and thereby driving higher self-esteem and more appropriate attention-seeking behaviors. But keep in mind, seeing a positive outcome is learned—at least in part. So, it's important to build this by encouraging a child throughout a project or task, not just at the end. Moreover, encouragement should be focused on the child's efforts, not just the successful outcome.

Laptop and Map

Studies show that children praised for their effort are likely to be more successful and resilient, realizing that their effort contributes to their success. Moreover, these children are more likely to have "growth mindsets" according to Carol Dweck's research. That is: these children tended to love learning and be particularly good at problem-solving, among other things. On the other hand, children praised for their accomplishments were more likely to value performance over their effort. Thus, these children were more likely to struggle with accepting imperfect performance and—perhaps even more eye-opening—more often contribute their self-esteem to their accomplishments.

Encouragement (a type of motivator or 'reinforcement,' as we've discussed) can be as simple as saying "You really worked hard!" or praising appropriate behavior when you see it. For more ideas on encouraging motivation and building your child's resilience, check below for "27 Encouraging Phrases to Motivate Your Child."

True encouragement motivates effort and leads to achievement by building resilience."
- Sabrina Shafer, Esq.
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YouTube Video: Psychology of Success: Praising for "Effort" vs. "Ability"
Harvard University Article: Understanding Motivation
Harvard University Interactive Graphic: The Brain Circuits Underlying Motivation

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27 Encouraging Phrases to
Motivate Your Child

Do you ever feel like the only words that come out of your mouth are direct orders? Do you ever feel like a quick "good job" just doesn't cut it? Many parents emphasize outward praise, instead of focusing on positive internal qualities. This approach does nothing to promote good behavior in the future. Encouragement (a type of reinforcement) can be as simple as saying, "You really worked hard!" Here are a few examples to try around your house:

Sabrina Shafer Quote
  1. Thank you for your help!
  2. You should be proud of yourself!
  3. You worked really hard to get this room clean!
  4. Thanks for helping set the table—that made a big difference.
  5. I noticed you were really patient with your little brother.
  6. What do you think about it?
  7. That "A" reflects a lot of hard work!
  8. Look at your improvement!
  9. You seem to really enjoy science.
  10. Your hard work paid off!
  11. Look how far you've come!
  12. I trust your judgment.
  13. I love being with you.
  14. That's coming along nicely!
  15. You really worked it out!
  1. That's a very good observation.
  2. Thank you for your cooperation.
  3. I see a very thorough job!
  4. That's a tough one, but we'll try to figure it out.
  5. The time you're putting into your homework is really paying off.
  6. You really put a smile on her face with your kind words!
  7. That's what we call perseverance!
  8. I can tell you really care.
  9. You make it look easy!
  10. You've really got the hang of it!
  11. I can tell you spent a lot of time thinking this through.
  12. I really feel like a team when we work like this!
"A big part of preventing bad behavior... is encouraging good behavior when you see it."
- Sabrina Shafer, Esq., 2019
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Accelerate Growth!

A word from our founder, Sabrina Shafer:
"Our culture is obsessed with technology, and it isn't slowing down with younger generations. Just the other day, my seven-year-old nephew left for a playdate. When asked what they were going to do, he instantly answered 'show me all of his video games.' Of course, how silly of me."

There's no getting around it: the world is digital. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. When used wisely, technology can enable children to learn new skills faster, improve progress monitoring, and ease collaboration across teams! This means home and school programs can be more streamlined, relevant, and individualized to a child's needs.

An assistive technology device is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. 1401(1). In other words, assistive technology (AT) can be any tool, including an app or a specialized keyboard. Indeed, the law's broad language allows the IEP team much flexibility in deciding which AT is appropriate based on the child's individual needs.

Whether you're just getting started with integrating technology or looking to improve in some key areas, here are the top considerations:

1. Thoughtfully Integrate Tech into the IEP or 504

  1. One of the biggest disservices to a child is not gaining proficiency in computer skills across the board.
  2. If we could mandate one skill that had to be addressed from the early intervention stages, it would be incorporating technology skills into a child's IEP or 504 Plan. Nowadays, proficient typing skills and general navigation on a computer or tablet are a must. We find that having a child or teen type instead of hand write can, in some cases, be a huge relief and increase communication skills. This is definitely worth talking to your team about!
  3. Sometimes a good place to start is with visual schedules. We've found a fantastic app in which you can use real pictures and increase the field as the child improves in their time management and independence skills. Anyone who knows our style knows that we always root for real pictures over drawings, and we're big on combining target skills into one goal—which this example program definitely does!
  4. Consider learning more about an "Assistive Technology Assessment" and see if it makes sense in your case. Once an appropriate, individualized AT plan is developed, document everything in your IEP.

2. Track Data to Speed Up Learning

  1. There are many programs and apps that keep data for you about targeted skills.
  2. We're not huge sticklers about the idea that mastery is achieved when a child reaches three correct responses in a row. Instead, we tend to look for consistency (not perfection) with the skill and—perhaps more importantly—generalization across environments and even people.
  3. Many of these apps log a child's progress and can be accessed across different devices, meaning various people and professionals can track and access the data. This often leads to quicker mastery and generalization. If the same apps are being used from person to person, you'll likely see that programs and skills are taught in a more stable, streamlined way.

3. Use Technology to Increase Communication & Visibility

  1. One of the most common concerns we hear from parents is that they don't feel like they have visibility or communication about their child's day or progress, particularly at school. Using technology—such as a tablet that goes between school and home using the same apps and logins—allows for a significant change. For instance, using the schedule app allows parents and school staff to see what the child did. This allows for better conversations and awareness of progress.
  2. Technology can also be used to drive socially-appropriate conversations. It is a huge advantage to be able to flip through calculated pictures to help drive a conversation, jog a memory, or see what is cool these days. Apps like Bitsboard allow you to create folders of pictures and display them in an assortment of ways. Needless to say, before this tech, teaching these skills was more difficult and involved less success.

Bonus Information

One of the bonuses of technology is that you can use it to drive socially appropriate skills and video modeling! Consider checking out what apps are cool for the age group and build skills around them. Alternatively, the next time you're looking to shape a behavior, see if there's a good video online for video modeling. This technique works so well!

Remember, there is always something you could do better or differently. The key is to start smart and small, and then follow up with consistency. Most importantly, have fun with it!

Your input is invaluable. What are some areas you wish you knew about when first encountering the technology or assistive technology area? What are some of your favorite apps? Contact us to share your thoughts.

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Parents’ Rights to Meaningful Participation in IEP Meetings

Parents have a legal right to a seat at the IEP table. Parents know their children best, and bring invaluable perspective and knowledge about the child into the IEP process. Courts affirm that “parents surely know the student the best, regardless of any expertise.” L.H. v. Hamilton, see Resources below.

“Failing to afford Parents an opportunity for meaning participation in the identification, evaluation, and placement of a child is violative of the IDEA, against Congressional & public policy, and could be a denial of FAPE.” - Sabrina Shafer, Esq. Click To Tweet

Despite common knowledge, Parents have every right to be an informed and meaningful participant in all meetings on the identification, evaluation, and placement of their child. In fact, by law, parents play an equal role to District team members.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) states:
(b) Parent participation in meetings. (1) The parents of a child with a disability must be afforded an opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to— (i) The identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child; and (ii) The provision of FAPE to the child. [§300.501(b)(1)] Immediately after this statement, IDEA focuses on the corresponding responsibility of the school system: (2) Each public agency must provide notice consistent with §300.322(a)(1) and (b)(1) to ensure that parents of children with disabilities have the opportunity to participate in meetings described in paragraph (b)(1) of this section. [§300.501(b)(2)]

Parental Rights

Parental participation “must be more than a mere form; it must be meaningful,” courts continue to reaffirm. "Procedural violations that interfere with parental participation in the IEP formulation process undermine the very essence of the IDEA," as in Amanda J. v. Clark County Sch. Dist ., 267 F.3d 877 (9th Cir. 2001). Indeed, as evidence of how important parental participation is to the core of IDEA and FAPE, Congress even attached its emphasis on “full participation of concerned parties throughout the development of the IEP” to the IDEA's procedural safeguards!

There are several leading cases that help narrow exactly what “meaningful participation” even further and give context to the legal jargon. For instance, in a Ninth Circuit case, the court found the school district violated the IDEA, depriving Parents of a meaningful participation, where the school district independently developed a proposed IEP and failed to consider alternatives at the IEP meeting outside of their pre-existing, predetermined program. W.G. v. Board of Trustees of Target Range School District No. 23, 960 F.2d 1479 (9th Cir. 1992). A word of caution—since case law is diverse, ever evolving, and jurisdiction specific, it’s important to know what cases are controlling versus persuasive.

Check out several great resources pointing to key case law below!

Note to Parents: From start to finish, your voice matters. You have a legal and ethical right to share your opinions, desired priorities, and parental concerns. As a parent involved in IEP planning, you can contribute in the following ways:

  1. Requesting “anything that will be presented at the IEP meeting” at least 2 weeks before the meeting, and reviewing content provided thoroughly
  2. Prioritizing concerns & staying on target
  3. Providing ‘Parental Input’ in writing, attached to the IEP
  4. Assessing your child’s skills across environments & being brutally honest with the team (bring examples if you can!)
  5. Monitoring IEP success, or “progress monitor” your child’s growth regularly

While it may be intimidating to establish your voice in IEP meetings, your child’s success depends on it. You have unique insights that no other IEP team member can provide.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to do?! (Ha, say that three times fast.) Without question, navigating the world of special education and special needs is complex. At times it’s obscure and sometimes downright subjective. We can find ourselves binging on the internet, scouring for answers across parent blogs, boards, research, and the like.

Take heed, research and preparation before an IEP is critical.

But to avoid the ever-looming research spiral or “analysis paralysis,” consider first narrowing down your priorities. From there, establish a few reliable and sound sources that you consistently check-in with.

Maybe leave the venturing out to additional sources when faced with a particularly important issue—this will limit wasting valuable cycles.

A few things to consider preparing and bringing to your next IEP:
1) Progress mapping, done by yourself or private team. The process of mapping progress has the tendency to reveal what information is missing and ideally if there’s progress. For how-to’s and more on this, check the resources below.
2) Bring an agenda of all the items you wish to discuss, broken down in outline form with supporting/key information. A little pro tip: Take your notes on the agenda itself, either typing in a different color or handwriting; this will keep you organized on each issue. If you want to take it one step further, circle or highlight items that open & confirm everyone knows their action items before leaving the meeting.
3) Have ‘Parental Input & Concerns’ printed out and ready to read at the meeting. These should be carefully prioritized because it will in large part help shape the IEP. There’s only so much time in the day, so working through priorities before the IEP allows time to consider how you can overlap target skills and overall form a more thorough IEP.

Most importantly, when you run into questions or need to consult on strategy, ASK! It’s better to spend 15-30 minutes consulting with an expert than walking in unprepared.

Schedule time here or contact us here.


Wrights Law: Can the IEP Team Prepare a "Draft IEP" Before an IEP Meeting?
Parent Information & Resources: Parental Right to Participate in Meetings (answers some great questions)
Facebook: Parents Win Due Process Case, 2019 (Defining Illinois’ scope of “meaningful participation”)
UCLA School of Law: Legal Research: An Overview: Mandatory v. Persuasive Authority
Wrights Law: Mainstreaming (LRE) and FAPE in 2018: Analysis of L.H. v. Hamilton County Dept. of Ed

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