‘Responsive Collaboration’

  • ”Responsive Collaboration for IEP and 504 Teams” is co-authored by Albert Johnson-Mussad and Laurel Peltier. CONTRIBUTED

  • Albert Johnson-Mussad holds a copy of the book co-authored with Laurel Peltier. CONTRIBUTED

  • Laurel Peltier holds a copy of the book co-authored with Albert Johnson-Mussad. CONTRIBUTED

For the Recorder
Published: 8/19/2022 4:59:37 PM
Modified: 8/19/2022 4:56:11 PM

In their co-authored book, “Responsive Collaboration for IEP and 504 Teams,” Albert Johnson-Mussad and Laurel Peltier give effective and empathetic advice for IEP and 504 team members. Drawing on their vast personal and professional experience, they advocate and provide strategies for such teams to collaborate more fully with the best interests of the student in mind.

Despite the phrase “special education,” receiving additional educational services is fairly common. 15 percent of students in 2020-21 received special education services under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in the US and about 5 percent of students have a 504 plan. Given this prevalence, it is important to demystify both the processes and the people behind such services.

First, what do IEP and 504 mean? A 504 plan comes from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and, in educational settings, ensures that students with disabilities receive equal access to educational opportunities. Examples include a peanut-free environment, regular blood sugar monitoring, and wheelchair ramps. An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is intended for students who require access to additional educational resources, such as speech pathologists or alterations to academic instruction.

Peltier explains that the main difference between the two plans is that a 504 ensures equal access, while an IEP seeks effective progress.

Johnson-Mussad adds that “even many educators are not very clear on the difference between the two plans [and] that’s the long-overdue informational gap the book fills. So it explains the legal differences and goes through the process of creating and implementing these plans step-by-step. It’s very much practical and action oriented. It provides team members with a variety of tools to engage with each other in responsive practice.”

Whichever plan is used in an individual case, a team is built in support of that student. From the concerned parents and guardians, to doctors, to principals, teachers, counselors, school staff, and even the student herself, a group comes together to help a young person succeed. Johnson-Mussad and Peltier’s book is primarily aimed at the official team members tasked with drafting, evolving and implementing such plans.

The key issue that the book addresses is effective communication between team members. People coming from various educational, professional, social and cultural backgrounds need to learn how to talk and listen to each other in open and respectful ways.

Laurel Peltier began her educational career as a writing teacher at the college level and later middle school teacher. However, after her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, she switched tracks to advocacy and then administration in special education. Now she works at the Collaborative for Educational Services in professional development.

Despite her many positions, she says, “it feels like it’s been all one thing. It feels like it’s been really about helping kids with disabilities, their families and their teachers figure out how to offer inclusive opportunities that are vigorous, engaging, and connect kids with what they need to learn with one another.”

Albert Johnson-Mussad began his career working with English language learners in New Jersey. He was particularly interested in issues of cultural responsiveness and social equity. Before he joined the Collaborative in 2014, he filled a variety of leadership positions (including school principal and curriculum coordinator).

“This work heightened my awareness of the limitations of students’ access to a variety of advanced educational opportunities,” he explained, “which piqued my interest in cultural awareness and social justice, because most of the students in such classes were white, middle class and from families that had resources to support their educational achievement.”

Peltier initially had the idea of writing a book about effective team communication after 15 years of working with IEP and 504 teams and “trying to help people understand the different perspectives of others when they’re working on a team for the rights of students with disabilities.”

Peltier emphasizes responsive practices and explains that this means recognizing the different experiences and information people bring to a team: “People come from different backgrounds, or they see a student in different environments, or they might have different values and goals. Sometimes team members don’t know each other very well, so trust can be impacted.”

She adds, “As human beings, when we experience anxiety or are worried about something we care about — particularly a child — that can cause us physiologically to go to places of flight, fight, or freeze and those reactions are not conducive to responding well and truly collaborating.”

The biggest obstacle to effective teams, she says, is “fear and lack of trust which get in the way of being transparent with information and data.”

Johnson-Mussad chimes in, “There is also the fear of not being heard. There is a fear that your ideas and experiences of what tools and strategies will be effective for that young person will not be heard.” On the other hand, he explains, “In this space of the various stakeholders (teachers, advocates, psychologists, etc.) you can sometimes have people who think they know more or know better in terms of figuring out what a young person needs in order to be successful.” To ameliorate the impact of such attitudes, “responsive practice starts from a perspective of recognizing and seeking out the strengths and assets of every member of the team — including the young person!”

Peltier explains that she was considering all these things in writing a book, “and then I realized, here I am trying to write a book about collaboration and teams on my own! That just seems really ridiculous.” So she reached out to Johnson-Mussad and they let the ideas percolate for a few years until they met other education authors who had worked with Corwin Publishing at a conference and had felt very understood and supported by them. Johnson-Mussad added, “what a magnificent publisher to work with for us as practitioners!”

Peltier expressed her deep appreciation for working with Johnson-Mussad, who brought different social, cultural, and professional perspectives to the project. “I realized Albert is the perfect partner for my project and I can’t do it without him!”

They designed the book to put the students and their needs center stage. Peltier emphasizes, “A student wouldn’t get an IEP or 504 plan if everything was going well for them. To get one of these plans, there has to be some sort of striving but inability to make progress. So, the book is designed to find out what is required for those kids and how to implement it.”

The target audience is primarily special education professionals. But both Peltier and Johnson-Mussad emphasize the need to listen to the parents and caregivers of the students involved. To that end, they say “the book is about remaining open and curious. Curious about tools and strategies. But also curious to hear from the parents and guardians and hear from them about what the young person does well, where they struggle, and what they have discovered helps or hinders the young person to be successful. Parents bring expertise that schools need. Students live in families. Families are powerful and knowledgeable about what enables a student to succeed.”

In their book, they recognize that “success” is not one-size-fits-all and therefore, “our vision was about inclusion, membership, and an enviable life in the community among people with and without disabilities.”

Thus, it is important that the laypersons who make up these communities have at least a basic understanding of how these plans work and how teams collaborate, as Peltier says, “Education does not happen in isolation.”

Johnson-Mussad and Peltier’s book, “Responsive Collaboration for IEP and 504 Teams” is available through Corwin Publishing.

Nicole Braden-Johnson of Conway is the author of “Unheard Melodies,” a monthly poetry column in the local “The Visitor,” and has also been published in several literary journals. She can be reached at bradennicole@gmail.com. Visit her website at unheardmelodiesnkbj.blogspot.com.


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