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Welcome to a new endeavor of the Family Development Early Intervention Team!  “Field Talk” will be a monthly blog post sharing the voices of early childhood providers who serve or have served military families of young children with disabilities (birth to 5 years old).  We hope you will find it to be educational, personable, and encouraging.

This month we welcome Marde Mott.  Marde serves as a support services specialist in Colonial Heights, VA.  This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Describe your current role.

As a Support Services Specialist my role is to guide and assist special education staff in our school division, as well as to represent the school division’s Director of Special Education as needed.  I chair a variety of special education related meetings and, at times, provide professional development for our division’s special education staff. I also meet with a county-based Family Assistance Planning Team to represent the public schools.  Arranging special transportation for students with disabilities is also a part of my role as the Support Services Specialist.

When a student’s IEP team decides that a student can best be served in the private day separate school facility, I arrange for these placements and case manage these students while they are away from the public school setting.  My biggest role for the school division is to be a liaison for families who have a child or children with a disability.  This requires me to problem solve and intervene on behalf of families so that “small” issues don’t become “big” issues which interfere with a child’s learning in school.

Finally, it is not uncommon for me to attend a Title 1 Math activity night at the local grocery store, be a “buddy” for the Special Olympics Little Feet Meet, attend a Special Education Advisory Committee meeting, help with Kindergarten registration night, etc.  My role with the school division is varied and broad. My day is not limited to the typical 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. work day or solely within the Office of Support Services.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

I have two favorite parts of my current position – one is with students and one is with families.   I love being able to be out and about in our schools to interact with students.  When I took this position I gave up having a caseload of 65 students as a school based speech-language pathologist.  Having to leave “my kids” was tough, but knowing that my current position gives me the flexibility to visit classrooms and encounter students in their learning environment is awesome!

I’m often asked if sitting in so many meetings gets boring or mundane.  Absolutely not!  I think it is a privilege to interact with so many families.  The last thing I want as the Support Services Specialist is for our families to view the special education process as adversarial.  My role is to support and assist family members so they can feel comfortable in the knowledge that our school division is providing the absolute best education for their child.  I love being able to turn a parent, who might be on the defensive, into an ally, just by how staff and myself problem solve to meet the educational needs presented by a parent.  Some of the best statements I’ve ever heard include “We moved here because we heard the schools were good and it’s right!” or  “His teacher knows all about his IEP.” or “I wish I would have moved here a long time ago because this school listens.”

How did you find yourself working with military families?

I came to work with military families through the back door so to speak.  I married an Army officer in 1993 and began my journey as a military spouse.  His military career took us all over the world, and as a speech-language pathologist I was fortunate enough to be able to find work either on or near the Army post where we were stationed.  In terms of working with students, I’ve provided services for military children (ages birth-21) for Department of Defense schools in South Korea and Germany, as well as in Kansas, Ohio, Illinois, and Virginia.  On the personal side, like all military spouses, I have volunteered countless hours for Army family related causes.  My husband’s multiple tours of duty in South Korea and multiple deployments to Iraq, not to mention weeks of temporary duty or field training exercises, gave me ample time to interact with military families both professionally and personally.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences working with military families happened while I worked for the Department of Defense Schools in Germany.  Our special education team wanted to make a concerted effort to include the military parent who was deployed to Iraq in the education decision-making process with their child.  We were able to set up video-teleconferences with these parents downrange so that they could participate in meetings with staff at their child’s school.  Our goal was to make parents feel like they were still a part of their child’s education, even if they were thousands of miles away from home.

Describe a challenging experience working with military families.

Gaining the trust of military families can sometimes be challenging.  Many families have dealt with the special education process and paperwork in several states. Sometimes their experiences with previous schools in other states have not always been very positive.  Making sure that the families know that I will do my very best for their child and will make their child a priority is key to gaining their trust.

From your experience, how are military families similar and different from other types of families?

At the most basic level, the families are similar.  They only want the best educational experience for their child.  They are entrusting the most precious thing they have, their child, to us.  Differences that I see are:  military families are quick to acclimate to a new community; their children are quick to adapt to new schools, friends, etc.; military families are skilled in knowing their rights for special education because they generally have had to deal with several school districts’ interpretations of the parental rights; military families form a “community” with other military families as sometimes the “townie” people are not always good at letting in the “new” people.

Describe a stressor that military families with whom you have worked with have shared.

 This may be changing as the operations tempo decreases for the military, but military families have previously been stressed with the ongoing overseas deployments.  Military families make significant changes in roles when a soldier deploys (i.e., two parent families become one parent, one parent families become run by a grandparent, etc.).  While military kids tend to be very flexible, this is still a stressor in their lives.

What “insider” tips do you have for service providers working with military families who have young children with disabilities?

I would encourage service providers to not “assume” that a family is familiar with resources in the community.  Just because you know a service is available doesn’t mean that it is common knowledge.  I would also encourage service providers to be really flexible in their expectations of military families.  What has “always worked” with your civilian families may not be suitable for a military family.  For example, soldiers often take blocks of leave (up to 30 days at a time) so you may have to double up therapy and/or family sessions in order to meet goals if the family will be away from home for an extended period of time.

If you could improve one thing for military families with young children with disabilities, what would it be?

I would like to see better coordination of information between the military’s Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) and services available in localities.  EFMP managers can misinform families about services available in a community.