IDEA for Your Child's Future:
Advocating for Special Education Needs, Part 1
by Nancy Jennings
Twelve-year-old Roger was having a rough day. He slumped home from school, head hung low, because he'd gotten yet another detention - this time for failing to turn in his homework. His mom greeted Roger at the door and immediately knew something was wrong - again. "Last time it was for not paying attention in class," he cried, "And the time before because some kid was teasing me and wouldn't leave me alone, so I hauled off and hit him! I hate school, Mom," he said quietly, "And I don't want to go back. No matter what I do I always mess up, and always get in trouble!"
Many parents of children with special needs have faced this type of situation. Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity, autism, conduct disorder, depression -- any kind of disability can wreak havoc for a child in the classroom. The teacher and/or school's response may be demerits, detentions, or suspensions; continued problems may lead to expulsion. Parents may feel helpless and hopeless to change the situation. In the end, everyone turns to the child to "fix it;" unfortunately, the child may not have the resources to solve his or her problems.
Luckily for Roger -- and thousands of other children just like him -- there are resources available.
Since enactment of P.L. 94-142, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, children with disabilities have improved their academic success dramatically. Before enactment of this ground-breaking law, one million children with disabilities were excluded from school altogether, and many were housed in dehumanizing institutions. Today, one of the basic goals of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been largely met -- children with disabilities have access to education.1
Under P.L. 94-142, rights include:
Not every child with special needs requires an IEP, or needs services under the umbrella of IDEA. In many cases, informal conferences with the teacher (and anyone else working with the child) may be enough to formulate a plan.
As a parent, it is your responsibility to advocate for your child. Don't expect that your child's teacher automatically knows what kind of special needs your child has -- and if they do know, don't expect they will understand how best to manage the disability in the classroom. If a child is having consistent difficulty remembering to turn in homework assignments, the teacher may feel a simple daily diary sheet may be all that's necessary to help jog the child's memory. However, if the child is dyslexic or has another kind of learning disability, a daily diary sheet may be more of a hindrance than a help. If a child is sleeping during class, a quick prod by the teacher may be all that's needed to wake him or her up. But if a child is sleeping due to problems with medication, the teacher may not be able to do anything about it.
If, after an informal conference with the teacher and/or other school representatives, you don't feel as though your child's needs are being adequately addressed, you may want to consider special education services under IDEA.
The first step toward obtaining special education services for your child is to arrange for him or her to receive an evaluation. "Evaluation" refers to gathering and using information to determine whether a child has a disability, and the nature and extent of the special education and related services that the child needs. The public schools are required to conduct this evaluation of your child at no cost to you.
There are three ways in which your child can receive an evaluation:
Some schools may be able to conduct a child's evaluation themselves; others may not. If your child is evaluated by a specialist outside of the school, the school must make the arrangements and will state in writing exactly what type of testing is to be conducted. Again, all of the evaluation procedures arranged for or conducted by the school system are to be done at no cost to you.
The evaluation process should look at the "whole child," not just academic functioning. Tests are an important part of an evaluation, but the family's input is also vital. Additionally, the evaluation process should include:
A multidisciplinary team should be involved in performing the evaluation. The team conducting the evaluation may include the following professionals, as appropriate:
Professionals will observe your child and may administer tests and use other procedures (such as interviews) that examine your child's speech and language functioning, personality and adaptive behavior patterns, academic achievement, potential or aptitude (intelligence), and levels of function.
All tests and interviews must be conducted individually in your child's primary language. The tests must also be given in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of disability or racial/cultural background.
The law states that the school may not place children into special education programs based on the results of only one test. Many tests are needed to measure areas that might be problematic. However, the law does not mention the specific tests to be used. There are many tests that measure the same thing. A specialist may choose to use a certain test as long as the test is considered to be nondiscriminatory and measures what the specialist says it will measure.
Information gathered from the evaluation will be used to decide whether or not your child is eligible for special education and related services. If your child is found to be eligible, the evaluation results will help in developing your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP).
An IEP is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child's special needs. Your child's IEP should include statements of your child's strengths and weaknesses and should describe the instructional program developed specifically for your child. The IEP has two purposes: 1) to establish the learning goals for your child; and 2) to state the services that the school district will provide for your child.2
IDEA requires that every child receiving special education services have an IEP, that parents be included in the development of the IEP, and that the child's parents are entitled to receive -- upon request -- their own copy of the IEP.
The IEP should be developed by your child's teacher(s); someone from the school other than the teacher; you as the parent(s) or guardian(s); the child (if appropriate); and any other individuals you or the school feel are necessary to provide a clear understanding of your child's disability.
According to the law, the IEP must include the following information:
The law is very clear that parents and/or guardians have the right to participate in the IEP meeting. The school staff must schedule the meeting at a time and place that is convenient for parents to attend. However, if no mutually agreeable time can be set, the school may hold the IEP meeting without you, but must keep you informed by telephone or mail.
The law also provides for the changing needs of the child. Once a year, whether you request it or not, a meeting will be scheduled to review your child's progress. This will also allow for development of the next year's IEP.
You as the child's parent or guardian can prepare for the IEP by doing your own personal "evaluation." What are your child's strengths and weaknesses? How does your child feel about school? What are your goals for your child, and what would your child like to accomplish? What do your child's therapist and/or doctors feel are appropriate goals?
While it's always important to challenge your child academically, you must also be careful not to set goals that are too high, or too out-of-reach. For some children, "being able to complete multiplication tables up to the number 20" may be reasonable. For other children, "learning and understanding the concept of multiplication" may be more appropriate. As a parent, knowing and understanding your child's abilities -- and limitations -- will greatly increase your child's chance of success, as well as formulating the proper IEP.
You can also help your child succeed by supporting his or her learning process. Let the school know you are interested in being an active part of your child's education. That may include visiting the classroom, helping during special projects, or offering to work in the classroom one or two hours a week.
Also, talk with your child's teacher and/or the school to explain any special equipment, medication, or medical or emotional problem your child has. If necessary, offer to provide material to further educate the teacher and school, as well as your child's schoolmates.
Ask that your child's schoolwork be sent home on a regular basis, to ensure that both the school and your child are working toward his or her goals. If you have any questions or concerns, make an appointment with the school to discuss the situation.
Talk with the teacher to learn how you can reinforce your child's school activities at home. Cooking may be helpful in teaching math and fractions; a trip to the library may encourage your child to read more.
Work with the teacher and school on alternate approaches to helping your child. For instance, if your child is easily distracted in the classroom, a tape player with classical music and headphones may provide enough of a barrier from the noise and chaos -- while at the same time allowing the child some "quiet space" needed to concentrate. Different colored folders for different subjects may help your child organize his or her thoughts -- as well as their desk! And allowing for short breaks during the school day -- to take a quick walk around the building, get a drink of water, or even take a short nap -- may help refresh a child and give them energy to complete the rest of the day.
Above all, remember that you and the school want success for your child. Working together can make this happen.
In Part 2, we will explore how to create a collaborative team -- from the school and teacher's perspective -- in order to better understand and utilize the IEP process.
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY):
P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013-1492
(202) 884-8200 (Voice/TTY)
Phones answered "live" 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. EST; voice-mail all other times