Today's conversation is with Laura Reber, Founder of Progress Parade, an online special education tutoring company. With her lifelong interest in psychology and problem-solving, Laura initially began her career as a school psychologist before following her passion for supporting each student as an individual to create her tutoring company, Progress Parade.
Laura is a wealth of knowledge about special education, learning disabilities and challenges, and how to navigate the public education system to get the most for your child. In this interview, we discuss what a school psychologist does, the difference between how a school evaluates a child and how a medical team does, how a child's diagnosis can impact the services they receive, the rights of the parent around school evaluation, and some common supports a school can offer to a neurodivergent child.
I learned a lot and I hope you do too. Enjoy!
🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 32 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify
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- Laura is the founder of Progress Parade, a team of online special education tutors. Book a free consultation or find them on Instagram and Facebook.
- Laura discusses how the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) doesn't categorize ADHD as a disability, so students with ADHD with an IEP or 504 have to placed under a different category. Read more about how IDEA defines disability here.
Laura has written a blog post about common accommodations for ADHD here.
She also has a post about modifications and supports available for ADHD here.
Neurodiverging is dedicated to helping neurodiverse folk find the resources we need to live better lives as individuals, and to further disability awareness and social justice efforts to improve all our lives as part of the larger, world community. If you’re interested in learning more, you can:
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Transcript of How to Get Your Child Support at School with Laura Reber of Progress Parade
Introduction to Neurodiverging and Laura
Danielle: [00:01:01] Hello, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast! I’m Danielle Sullivan, and I’m so happy to be back here with you after our recent break. I’ve got a lot of great shows coming at you in the next couple of months, so please click “subscribe” if you haven’t yet, to make sure you don’t miss any episodes, and find show notes and more at Neurodiverging.com.
To welcome us back, today’s conversation is with Laura Reber, founder of Progress Parade, an online special education tutoring company. With her lifelong interest in psychology and problem-solving, Laura initially began her career as a school psychologist, before following her passion for supporting each student as an individual, to create her tutoring company, Progress Parade.
Laura is a wealth of knowledge about special education, learning disabilities and challenges, and how to navigate the public education system to get the most for your chid.
In this interview we’re discussing what a school psychologist does, the difference in how a school evaluates and how a medical team does, how a child’s diagnosis can impact the services they receive at school, and the rights of a parent around school evaluation. We’re also talking about some common supports a school can offer to a neurodivergent child. I learned a ton from this interview, and I hope you do, too.
[00:02:11] Want special access to the patrons-only aftershow, and many other “members-only” perks? Consider pledging $1, $5, or $10 a month to fund the Neurodiverging podcast. Find out more and pledge today, at patreon.com/Neurodiverging. Thank you for your support, and here’s our interview.
Laura's Work History and Passion
Danielle: Welcome to Neurodiverging, Laura, it’s great to meet you! How are you doing today?
Laura Reber: It’s great to be here! Thank you for having me. I’m doing well.
Danielle: So glad you’re here! So, you are a school psychologist, and now you tutor special education in other kids with additional needs outside of the average school system. Can you let us know a little bit about how you began to specialize in tutoring students with learning disabilities, especially?
Laura: Of course! Yeah, so I was working as a school psychologist in a school setting, in a public school setting, and I just repeatedly saw that it was tough to really meet diverse learners’ needs in the school setting. I think one great way to do that is one-on-one. When I was thinking about other things I could do outside of a school setting, I realized that, in graduate school my number one passion was always what we called the Academic Intervention Clinic at grad school – or, tutoring, essentially, high-quality tutoring. I started tutoring on my own, outside of my school-based job, after school and before school, and loved it so much that I decided to make a career out of it! It’s exciting.
Danielle: Awesome! So you really are passion-driven to this.
Laura: Yeah. For sure.
Danielle: And what originally got you into psychology?
Laura: [00:03:57] So, I originally got into psychology because – I was thinking about this recently. I was like, “This was so long ago, how did I get into psychology?” I come from a family of math and science people. Just a whole lineage of engineers, statisticians, and I like science, but I also was always drawn to helping people, too, so I was like “What’s the science plus helping people?” And I think that’s how I was originally drawn to studying psychology in under-graduate. And I did, also, study computer science in under-graduate, too, so I got to see science from both ways. What is human psychology like, and what does automation look like, too? It was interesting to see both lenses.
Danielle: It’s really cool. It sounds interesting to be comparing those.
How Does A School Psychologist Support Diverse Learners?
Danielle: And then, what about school psychology, specifically? Because that is a very specific niche.
Laura: It’s very specific, and I actually don’t think I realized how specific it was when I started studying it. I was working – after I studied psychology, I was working in foster-care. I was a foster-care case manager. And I knew that wasn’t my long-term career path, for many reasons, so when I was thinking about what was my next step – obviously, in foster care, there’s a lot of at-risk kids, a lot of students who are experiencing various kinds of at-risk factors. Not only learning disabilities and IEPs, but socioeconomic factors, and obviously home factors are huge for students in foster care. Continuity and things like that, their lived experience is a huge part of what they’re going through.
So I was like, “How can I reach these students the best?” And I thought, well, school. They’re at school all day. Most students do attend school. So, it’s a great place to meet students where they’re at, and for some students it’s the most consistent environment they’re in, if they are, for example, foster students, and they change their home environment a lot. Sometimes they are able to stay in the same school setting, so I thought it would be a great place to impact students that needed it. That’s why I thought, “School psychology, that’s a good place to see a lot of students and to help them.”
Danielle: [00:06:09] Working as a school psychologist, you get a lot of insight into, obviously, all the different factors that go into student learning, and I know that now you specialize in learning disability and kids with neurodivergence – autism, ADHD, those kinds of things – so, can you tell us a little bit about what a school psychologist does, in terms of those kids?
Laura: That’s a great question. I think a lot of people don’t know what a school psychologist is. I think, even teachers and people who work in an academic setting might have some confusion around it, so I’m really happy you asked that question.
The most traditional way that people know about school psychologists, or the most traditional role that school psychologists often occupy, is the “tester”. You know, if a student has been referred for evaluation to see if they need a special learning plan or individualized learning plan or IEP to meet their education needs, then a school psychologist is a big part of that testing process. Usually, we test their cognitive ability – or their IQ is another way people talk about that – their academic skills, sometimes we assess social-emotional skills, and then we help determine what their needs are, and if they do have a disability, or if they are eligible for that IEP, is another way of thinking of it.
That’s the most common thing we’re known for. I think some people get confused, they’re like, “What’s a school psychologist versus a school counsellor, or a school psychologist versus a social worker?” School psychologists really have a specialty in that testing piece. We also are trained to do social-emotional intervention, so we could do – in some districts, school psychologists do social work minutes, or counseling minutes, which is something that many school psychologists want to be doing more of. We don’t want to be seen as just testers; that is our most common role, though.
[00:07:54] We know a lot about the systems. We get a lot of training in systems change and systems development, so I think many of us get involved – I don’t want to make this alphabet soup, acronym world – but for people who know what Response to Intervention is, or the multi-tiered support system. So getting kids multiple levels of support based on their needs in a school setting – we love to get involved in that, too. So a really broad role, really different from school counsellor or social worker.
I’m passionate about it, I think it’s a role that we really need. I think many districts are trying to increase the number of school psychologists their districts have so their students can get more presence with a school psychologist, so they’re not spread between five buildings, as they have been historically.
Danielle: I know, I didn’t even know we had a school psychologist until going into the IEP meeting initially, the first one ever, because, at least in our district currently, they’re sort of that more testing and evaluating role. It would be great if parents knew that they were there as a potential resource, or someone to check in with occasionally. It’s definitely an important role.
Laura: Yeah! I think, more and more – the National Association of School Psychologists is definitely advocating for a smaller student-school psychologist ratio than what currently exists, and I think that’s the right move. You know, with mental health, we’re realizing how important that is.
I think having one school psychologist per building would be great, because a big part of the problem, even special ed teachers not knowing about us, a lot of times we are in a couple buildings, and we just show up for the meetings, and that’s pretty much what we do, and that’s too bad. We’re capable of so much more than that.
Danielle: Yeah. I think a lot of the special education professionals are having the same trouble, where you’re in one building, the OT’s in another building, you never see each other – and how are you supposed to build a working relationship based on that schedule?
Laura: Right! And that’s so important, to collaborate for student needs in that way.
Danielle: [00:09:58] Great, thank you.
What's the Difference Between an Educational Diagnosis and a Medical Diagnosis?
Danielle: You started to talk about this; I know that, at least when my son was diagnosed with autism, we got an educational diagnosis and a medical diagnosis and a couple of other framed things.
But can you talk a little bit for the parents – a lot of parents that are listening have children with some kind of something that would count as a learning or educational challenge. So, what’s the difference between a learning disability diagnosis, compared to an autism or an ADHD evaluation where you go in and you get this ten-page report on what’s going on with your kid?
Laura: Yeah, that’s a great question! So it’s kind of two questions folded in there, I think, or two distinctions that might help parents.
One is, the private route versus the educational route. So, many parents do get an evaluation that their insurance pays for, or that they privately pay for, ad a lot of times the words that come out of those evaluations are different from the words that an educational evaluation will use. For example – this is changing a little bit, with the current DSM as that starts to filter down into people’s language – but for a long time people used to say dyslexia and dysgraphia and dyscalculia, so that’s a learning disability in reading, learning disability in writing, learning disability in math. If you map the medical or the private diagnoses onto the educational diagnoses, those are the same, they’re just different words – which, I think, is very confusing to people.
It’s like, “Well, does my student have dyslexia, or do they have a learning disability? What’s the difference?” And I think that can be really confusing. So I do talk to parents a lot, that dyslexia in the private world is a learning disability in reading and/or writing in the educational world. So, sometimes the labels that kids get privately does not exactly map onto an educational diagnosis, so I think that’s an important thing for parents to understand.
Danielle: [00:12:00] Really good to know.
Laura: Yeah. And then, the other thing is “What’s the difference in a school setting?”
If parents want to look into this – if you Google – and, I don’t know if you have show notes, if you do, we can share these in show notes – if they want to look at the IDEA, or the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, they can see all the different disability labels that IDEA has defined. And actually, learning disability and autism are both in there, in the labels. ADHD is not in IDEA’s disability categories – so, if a student does have ADHD and does need an IEP, they do need to qualify for services, then that has to be mapped somewhere else in those labels. Often it goes in Other Health Impairment, which is one of the labels, and sometimes it goes to – the terminology that IDEA uses is actually Emotional Disturbance, which I find to be way too strong a language –
Danielle: Not great, yeah!
Laura: Some school districts just steer past that and call it Emotional Disability, which is better, but actually in IDEA it says Emotional Disturbance. I’m like, “Who is petitioning to change that language, because we need to get right on that.”
That’s the two places that ADHD gets mapped. I think it more often gets mapped to Other Health Impairment, but really – technically, the way I view it, at least, it’s more about what services the kids are getting, so the educational diagnosis does matter. Obviously you want your kid to have the accurate diagnosis because that’s the language that people are going to be using when they talk about your child or your student, but it doesn’t have to have a huge impact on the services that they get. Ultimately, a student with an autism diagnosis could get very similar services to a student with an ADHD diagnosis, which would, again, fall under Other Health Impairment in school.
[00:14:00] So, yeah, those services could look very similar with the same diagnosis, because an IEP is always defined by the student’s needs and not by the disability.
Danielle: That makes a lot of sense, thank you.
Laura: Yes! I’m glad!
Parent Rights Around Educational Evaluation in the Public School
Danielle: So, a parent going into a school system wanting services for their child is really looking for an educational diagnosis. Is it true that they don’t actually need a medical diagnosis to get that, but a medical diagnosis is just supportive documentation, would you say?
Laura: Yeah. So, every parent has a right to request an evaluation from their school, whether or not there’s already a label of any kind. And you do need to do that in writing. If you did suspect that your student needed support in school through an IEP or even a 504 plan – which, to talk about that high-level, IEP is usually services like social work or special ed minutes, and a 504 plan is usually accommodations, like extended test time or turning in homework with an extended deadline, things like that – so if a parent did think their child needed those, they should request, in writing, an evaluation.
Just to make it simple I guess I would give that to the school principal or an administrator – ideally you would give it to the school psychologist, because they know most what to do with it, but you might not know who that person is.
And they do need to respond to you. Parents need to know that it’s their right to get a response to that request. The school doesn’t have to agree to do it, but they do need to respond and tell you if they will or won’t, and why.
So, to go back and answer your question, knowing that information: essentially, if they already have an outside evaluation and diagnosis, that is more evidence that the school should do their own evaluation, but it’s not necessary. If you want to request an evaluation without that and see what the school says, that’s totally possible. And at that point, that’s a free evaluation to you, it’s paid by taxpayer dollars to make sure that every kid gets a fair education, so that’s a nice benefit of that as opposed to a private evaluation. It doesn’t have any cost associated with it.
What Supports Can A School Offer Students with Disabilities?
Danielle: [00:16:10] And, having worked as a school psychologist for such a long time, do you have any sense of what kinds of support are most often offered by the school to a kid with autism or ADHD, any of that broad spectrum of learning disability?
Laura: Sure. So, students with autism often have – as your listeners probably know – they often have social needs, they often have language needs, and they often have learning needs – not always. Students with autism often see a Speech-Language Pathologist at school, each school has at least one who services students there, so providing speech-language goals at their level, specifically for their needs is one common service. Social workers also exist at every school, providing social work minutes to help students with their social skills, again at their level, help students make transitions or any kind of social-emotional or behavioral goal would usually fall to the social worker.
And then, whatever academic goals. A lot of students with autism have average academic skills, a lot don’t. It just depends on what they need, academically, to make progress towards grade-level.
And then, ADHD, again is with the social work, executive functioning goals, or learning to ask for a break if you need it. A lot of times, students with ADHD and, actually, autism, might have Occupational Therapy consult minutes, or service minutes, to be able to help with sensory processing, to be able to provide them with fidgets or other things that they might need to be successful in a school environment from a sensory standpoint, that usually falls to the Occupational Therapist.
[00:17:51] Occupational Therapists also sometimes work on the handwriting. Students with all three of these disabilities often struggle with fine motor skills, so that would usually fall to the Occupational Therapist to work on those.
And, obviously, learning disabilities usually have some academic goals. So, reading disability, then often they’re going to be working on decoding, or reading comprehension, or spelling or writing skills. Those would all fall to the Special Education teacher. So, yeah, there are a lot of services that are available, specifically to the child and their needs, which is exciting.
Danielle: That’s great, thank you.
I’ve heard a lot of questions from parents who are listening to the podcast, and are trying to figure out, “Is this IEP actually useful?” “What can I ask for?” “What should I be asking for in addition to what the school is offering?” Because some teams are fantastic, and some teams are overworked or overwhelmed, and the IEPs aren’t as great, so just getting the gist of some of the things that are available, potentially, is really helpful to folks, so thank you.
Laura: Yeah. It can be really overwhelming, too, that first evaluation meeting – you have all these people at the table. Usually, you have the nurse, the social worker, the Occupational Therapist, the Speech-Language Pathologist, an administrator from the building, the school psychologist – it’s very overwhelming, so it can be helpful to know, generally, who might be there, to help you frame it for yourself.
What Are We Still Figuring Out About Learning Disabilities?
Danielle: For sure, thank you. And you were talking about learning disabilities. There’s a broad spectrum of things, of conditions, of ways of learning that can be classified as “learning disabilities”.
In your opinion, do you think there are limitations around our knowledge of learning disabilities, especially when it comes to this kind of in the school environment?
Laura: [00:19:52] I would say, learning disabilities is the disability we have some of the least information, or understanding of – maybe “information” is the wrong way of saying it, but the least concrete understanding of. I think, for autism, for example, there’s some pretty clear-set – not that it’s perfect – some pretty clear criteria around socialization, communication, and though it is, obviously, a large spectrum, there is a lot of consistency in what we see in autism, for example.
Learning disability is less consistent. As a school psychologist, we are actually trained in diagnosing learning disabilities two different ways. One way is – just kind of very high level to talk about – one way is looking at a discrepancy between a student’s ability and their achievement. So, what they’re capable of versus what they achieve. And the other way is looking at how they respond so support. So, if you give them support, is that enough to catch them up? If not, maybe they have a learning disability, to talk about it really simply. Just to kind of understand, high-level, what we’re talking about.
Danielle: Big words.
Laura: Yeah. Without digging into the minutia.
So, I guess I just say that to say, in my opinion, if we don’t really know how to diagnose it, we’re not really sure what it is. So, if there’s not really consistent criteria about what defines a learning disability, then there’s less consistency. I think, with autism, we have it a lot more defined, and that leads directly to some treatments like visual schedules, or structure, or speech, or social work. Whereas with learning disabilities, it’s a lot hazier.
[00:21:39] I don’t want parents to get too hung up on the “disability” label. Just make sure your kids are getting what they need. So, if they’re struggling with reading, pursue outside tutoring if you want, or make sure they’re getting special education support at school to they get that help. Don’t worry so much about the diagnosis because we’re still learning! We’re still in the process, just like our students are. We’re still figuring out what, exactly, these things are, what to call them, what students need, and the point is really just to make sure students are getting what they need.
Danielle: Yes. That’s what we’re hoping for.
What Does Progress Parade Offer for Special Education Students?
And so, you as a tutor work one-on-one with folks all the time and, I assume, are highly specific in what you’re offering a child in a one-on-one service.
Laura: Yeah, so I guess it’s like a mini-IEP, but, I don’t know –
Danielle: Less overwhelming?
Laura: Yeah, less overwhelming, exactly. And some people have really negative experiences with their IEP team. Ours are certainly very different, but every parent we speak with, we try to get a really good idea of what their goals are, what their students’ histories are, any diagnoses that they’ve got them. As specific as what their grade level is, or what their instructional level is – like, if they’re not at grade-level, where are they operating in that grade level, where are their skills at, and then we match the tutor specifically based on that.
So, some of our tutors specialize in reading, some specialize in math, some specialize in executive functioning skills – which are more like, organization, time-management-type skills – we match specifically with what the student needs and what the tutor does, and what they specialize in.
Danielle: That sounds so helpful.
Danielle: Can you tell us more, for folks who are interested, about where can they find more information on you and Progress Parade and your work? And I will put some links in the show notes below.
Laura: Sure. Yeah, so they can visit us at progressparade.com, and all over that homepage there’s “Book a free consultation” as you scroll down, you can click on any of those “Book a free consultation,” that comes to my calendar. I do all of our initial consultations, I really want to make sure I’m understanding what their student needs, what the goals are, all those things we just discussed, so I can choose the best fit for them. We do custom-match every single student that comes in with their perfect tutor who is trained for them.
[00:23:58] So they can definitely find us at progressparade.com, book a free consultation, and talk more with me if they have more questions or just want to discuss it a little bit.
Danielle: Awesome, thank you so much!
Laura: Thanks, Danielle.
Danielle: To sort of wrap us up, is there anything you want to say to parents of disabled or neurodivergent students out there as they go through this kind of scary and overwhelming process of getting educated in the public school system?
Laura: Sure! I would say, you’re in the right spot with a podcast like this, you know, self-knowledge and self-advocacy is so huge in special education. It’s dealing with the school system, which is a massive bureaucracy, for better or for worse. Knowing your rights and having a community, so finding like-minded people who need similar things, like either through podcasts, or Facebook groups, is going to go a long way towards you feeling supported and having the knowledge that you need to support yourself and to support your student.
Danielle: Thank you so much! I appreciate you being here today.
Laura: It’s been great to be here, thanks for having me.
Danielle: Neurodiverging is dedicated to helping neurodiverse folks find the resources we need to live better lives as individuals, and to further disability awareness and social justice efforts to improve all of our lives as part of the larger world community. If you’re interested in learning more, please click the “Subscribe” button to make sure you’re notified when there’s a new episode. Take a look around the Website at neurodiverging.com. We have episode transcripts, blog posts, more podcasts for you. If you are looking for something specific or have a question, send me an email at email@example.com, and please check us out on Patreon to support this podcast and this blog, patreon.com/neurodiverging. Have a wonderful week, be kind to each other, and please remember: we are all in this together.