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Pushing past assumptions: For this Colorado school psychologist, a language difference is not a disability

Christina Veiga

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in the Aurora school district, is careful to ensure that students don’t get labeled as having a disability just because they don’t speak English well.

But it was a mother’s emotional plea that reminded her that receiving special education services can be a good thing, too.

In this installment of “How I Help,” Simpson — who recently was named the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Provider of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists — shares what she learned from that parent, why some people say her job must be boring, and how she reached a student fed up with special education testing.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in Aurora Public Schools, with her husband, Kent, and her daughter, Willow.
Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in Aurora Public Schools, with her husband, Kent, and her daughter, Willow.

I became a school psychologist after working as a school social work intern as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia. I met the school psychologist at our school and understood his role to be a bit different than the school social worker. I loved the concept of using a combination of social science and statistics to understand students.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the schools where you work?
I’ve heard others in the field say, “It must be boring testing, scoring, and writing reports over and over again.” Just the opposite! It is exhilarating to use what I know about the culturally and linguistically diverse population as a lens for everything else (test scores, teacher reports, parent reports, etc.) in order to help understand a student and to help that student succeed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
This year, I tested a student with autism who the team thought might have an intellectual disability. His tolerance for testing was low. At one point, he just got up and walked back to his classroom! After a few attempts at using motivators and reinforcers, we finally found one that worked: For every item he completed, we read a page of a book. He tested higher than the intellectual disability range. He taught me that it pays to keep trying to find the right motivator!

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
The project I am proudest of is called “true peer comparisons.” It’s a way, based on current research, to compare culturally and linguistically diverse students (formally known as English language learners) who may have a disability to similar students who do not have a disability.

It is useful when a school team is considering the “specific learning disability” special education category. The criteria for this category are vague and many culturally and linguistically diverse students were being labeled with it based on assessments that are normed on monolingual English speakers and based on criteria assuming that the student is of the majority culture. (That is, has been exposed to English since birth, has parents who graduated from high school, is read to at home, etc.)

A student might read a year or more below grade level, and this, to a teacher may look like a disability. However, they are assuming grade-level standards, and grade-level standards assume majority culture. If you compare a group of true peers — other students who also speak Spanish at home, may not have books at home, did not start learning English until enrolling in kindergarten — you have a more appropriate norm that compares apples to apples.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The most difficult part of my job is hearing of the histories of our students with trauma. There is often trauma surrounding immigration to the United States and/or the environmental issues that drove them to immigrate. Also, now that I am a mother, it’s harder to work with students with severe disabilities. I often find it difficult not to take on their parents’ grief.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At some Individualized Education Plan meetings, I advocate that a student is simply in the process of learning English and likely does not have a learning disability. At one such meeting about four years ago, I gained an important insight. Our team was suggesting that a particular student may not qualify for an Individualized Education Plan.

The student’s mother was close to tears and said through an interpreter, “I work with my daughter every day after school, and she is still so behind. How can this be?” It was such valuable information. We often base a student’s level of progress, or lack of progress, on state standards and the level of supplemental academic support at school. This student stood out, not just to her teachers, but to her mother, as academically behind based on the high level of academic support at home.

I learned that advocating for students is not just supporting the absence of a disability. It can also be supporting the existence of a disability.

Is there a tool, curriculum, or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I couldn’t live without my co-workers. Recent immigration trends are causing the field of bilingual school psychology to develop quickly, but it is difficult for the research to keep up. Our team works together to figure out what is best for students who may be dually identified as English learners and learning disabled before, during, and after the assessment process. My coworkers are indispensable in best understanding and advocating for this population.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
Some kids may act aggressive or hurtful, but generally it comes from a place of hurt. It can be hard, but when you assume they are acting out of a place of pain, it is easy to be kind to them, even in stressful situations.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I enjoy being with my kids, especially outside. I also love going for a run to clear my head.

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