To the uninitiated, the world of special education may seem like a maze or like learning a foreign language. As a parent you see your child struggling academically, behaviorally, or socially and you just want to make sure s/he receives the educational services needed in order to succeed in school and in life. When it comes to providing services for special needs children, not every school district is the same. Some are more likely to provide services while others are stingier about providing services or even recognizing that services are needed. Special education identification and service delivery are guided by federal and state laws; sometimes these laws can be misinterpreted by districts, schools, or individual educators. It is important to keep in mind that all school systems have a law firm on their side when it comes to interpretation of the laws. As your child's primary advocate this may seem daunting; however, if you remain calm, do a little research, and document your concerns and communications with the school your child will receive the services s/he needs.
Prior to services being delivered a referral to determine whether an evaluation needs to take place needs to be made by a parent/guardian, teacher, or pediatrician. An initial individual education plan (IEP) meeting takes place that documents the reason for the referral and it should specifically outline what questions the IEP team wants answered. It is important for you to voice and outline your concerns during this initial meeting because your input is important to what happens next. Evaluations need to be conducted by various members of the team depending upon the area(s) of concern in order to assess you childcare management and determine what type of services s/he needs. With recent changes to how learning disabilities are legally identified in public schools, sometimes IEP teams will use data from Response to Intervention (RTI). This data usually provides information on how well your child progressed on interventions received (if any) prior to the referral. It is okay and legal for schools to use this type of data as it is very informative about how the child responds to more intensive or more frequent instruction. As a parent, you want to leave this meeting secure in the knowledge that your child will receive an appropriate evaluation that answers your concerns and that will provide specific recommendations as to what services your child needs in school.
A second IEP meeting will occur after the evaluation process is completed in order to review the results of the evaluations, determine eligibility for special education services, and determine what services, if any, your child requires to progress in school. In order to prepare for this meeting you should:
Insist that you receive written copies of the evaluation reports five days prior to the meeting.
Read through the reports, highlight or underline anything that stands out or concerns you, and jot down questions about anything you don't understand. Reports are sometimes full of unnecessary professional jargon and you should ask for explanations about anything you need clarification on. Every profession has its own terminology and no one expects you to get a degree in education in order to advocate for your child.
Ask that the professionals who conducted the evaluations to call you to review and explain the results after you receive the reports.
Write down any questions that you have that haven't been answered and bring them with you to the IEP meeting.
At the second IEP meeting, the team will review the evaluation results and determine eligibility for special education services. An individualized education program will be developed if your child qualifies for services. Remember, this program should be individualized to your child and his/her unique learning, social, or emotional needs. Some questions to ask include:
How is that different than the regular curriculum?
What is going to be done to ensure that my child catches up/is ready for the next grade?
What individual modifications and accommodations are going to be implemented?
How is success/progress going to be measured and who measures it?
How often will I be informed of my child's progress?
Who is going to be in charge of managing the plan?
How will other teachers be informed of my child's needs?
When the team is able to answer these questions to your satisfaction you can be reasonably assured that they will provide services to meet your child's needs. It is important that you take notes during the meeting because five days after the meeting you will receive your child's Individualized Education Plan. This is a legal document that outlines the services that the district has agreed to provide to your child. The services in this document should correspond to your understanding of what took place during the IEP meeting. That's why it is always good to take meticulous notes at these meetings. You should call the school and speak with your child's case manager (this will be documented in the IEP, usually on the first page) and ask for clarification of anything that doesn't match what you wrote or heard during the meeting.
If your child does not qualify for services and you are still very concerned that they need services in order to succeed, you can ask that the school provide RTI services, often this is already in place, will continue, and may be the reason why your child didn't qualify for services, or you can ask for an independent evaluation. This independent evaluation is conducted by a professional who is unaffiliated with the school district and who is usually mutually agreed upon by you and the district.
What do I do if the school refuses to listen or just doesn't seem to get my concerns?
In this case you have a few options. The first thing you should do is bring a digital recorder to IEP meetings and record them. The team is usually more careful about what they say and how they say it when they know they are being recorded. Keep a copy of these recordings. Secondly, you can call your state department of education and speak with an educational consultant. Most are eager to help parents and answer questions. Many states have a helpline that you can call that provides answers and gives directions on how to contact specific state and local agencies that will help you. You can call an advocate or educational lawyer who will review your concerns and child's records, provide you with information and direction, meet with you, and attend IEP meetings with you. This last option will cost you money but is often very helpful in extreme cases.
Remember: as a parent you know your child best and you are her/his best advocate. S/he is counting on you to be her/his voice when s/he struggles and ensure s/he receives the appropriate services in order to succeed.