Lia Martin’s 9-year-old son, Taylor, is a gifted artist – but he also has ADHD. That means, as the former sitcom writer and TV executive puts it, he didn’t enter the classroom seamlessly. Her son’s learning difference eventually led Martin to seek out an IEP (individual education plan), and that journey also was not seamless.
It started with her feeling of failure the first time she heard Taylor, then a kindergartner, labeled “special needs.” “In that moment, I felt powerless. I felt unequipped and I wondered what I’d missed,” says Martin, who has also worked in educational nonprofits.
Martin has documented her family’s experiences in the book “Finding Einstein: My IEP Journey,” an up-front, candid account of what it took to get Taylor the help he needed to succeed in school. She hopes her tale provides hope and help for parents like her.
For those who might be wondering whether their child’s struggles in school merit an IEP, Martin points out that academics aren’t the only factor. At first, Taylor’s issues were centered around behavior. “My son was at grade level, but he was having some other struggles,” Martin says, adding those behavior issues eventually caused him to fall behind in his work. So if your child is struggling academically or with behavior in school, “it is a sign to sit down and talk with the team,” Martin says. Gather your child’s teacher, principal and guidance counselor and start with an informal conversation.
As you work with the school and others to help your child, keep in mind that while the teachers, counselors and therapists are experts in their field, their data is based on other children. You know the most about your child. “You are the subject matter expert,” says Martin. You have the most information, you have the most at stake and you are an equal in this process.
Martin recalls requesting a standing desk for Taylor, whose behavior improves when he can move around and have an outlet for his energy. The school suggested a stress ball instead – which ultimately did not work. In another situation a teacher’s classroom discipline system involved giving students a “red card” for improper behavior. This caused Taylor lots of anxiety, and his behavior deteriorated. When the teacher followed Martin’s suggestion of awarding stickers for good behavior and pointing out missteps quietly out of others’ view, his behavior improved.
But even with the best intentions and attitude, things don’t always go well. Martin’s advice comes from lessons learned and she moved Taylor through several schools – and even moved the family to a different neighborhood – in search of a good fit. She left her job in order to devote herself to helping her son, and the situation took a toll on her marriage.
Through it all, Martin worked to keep her focus on Taylor’s strengths and positive qualities. They spent time together doing “mommy-kid” things they both enjoyed, which is something she recommends for any parent whose child has challenges. “It reminds you this is a great kid, who is just having some struggles,” she says.
She has a similar prescription for a strong marriage, stressing the importance of scheduled date nights that remind you how much fun you can have together. “It’s making a conscious effort and making the focus about the two of you,” she says. You don’t need to spend much on the outing (other than pay for a trusted sitter), but you do need to make these dates a priority.
Martin closes her book with a gem of a resource section, with tips for before, during and after IEP meetings (including letting yourself have a good cry before the meeting if you need to, and not wearing your favorite mascara). There is a glossary of terms that apply to IEP situations and students with special needs, a checklist for evaluating schools, a daily routine checklist for students, sample letters and tips for communicating with school officials and lists of websites, books and other resources.
She also offers a note of hope. Just a couple of years ago, Taylor, who has always struggled with reading comprehension and focus, would be sent into a full anxiety attack at the prospect of reading even a paragraph of text. “In that moment, you think this is how it’s going to be,” she says of watching him roll on the floor in a crying tantrum.
But there are other moments. Martin recently brought home the graphic novel trilogy “March,” about the U.S. Civil Rights movement. “He read the first book the first day,” she says. “I try to mark those moments, too.”