Navigate The School System When You Child Has A Disability
As a parent, there are moments when warning bells go off-times when you
notice that your child might be having trouble grasping certain skills that
their peers seem to have mastered. Over the course of my career as a teacher and
child case worker, time and time again I've heard parents make statements like
the following :
"I have been reading with my child, but he doesn't
seem to understand what he has read."
"I notice while we're practicing spelling words, my daughter mixes up the
letters, or writes them in reverse order."
"My child just seems to drift away; she's not really overly active, but she
doesn't seem to be paying attention."
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, you may want to start the
process of getting some help with your child's education. When your child is
diagnosed with a disability, the rule of thumb for parents is: the earlier you
can document the problem, the better.
Where to start?
Start by gathering information to support your concerns. Contact daycare
providers, the child's doctor, or anyone else who might be interacting with your
child or knows them and may have observations to share. Are they seeing what you
have noticed? Have them put something into writing. Then it's time to contact
your child's school for help.
Put your concerns in a letter to your child's school and be sure to include the
date. Keep a copy of this letter in your files. This letter will start the
?timeline? that documents the disability and need for extra support. Clearly
state that the letter serves as a request for a multi-factored evaluation and
that you are giving consent for this to take place, and be sure to clearly
outline your observations and concerns. Include copies of any documentation,
evaluations or assessments that support those concerns. Also, describe any
special or extra supports that the school may already be providing for your
Be sure to provide your contact information with your address, both day and
night phone numbers, email and cell phone. Remember that a reasonable time frame
for response would be (1-2 weeks), and address your letter to the principal and
Special Education Coordinator of your school or district. By doing this, you
have started the process for your child to get the help they need. There are
timelines that each state must go by, but the final determination of what type
of help they will provide should be made within 100 days.
The process may vary from state to state. You do have the right and
responsibility to participate in any meetings with your school during the
evaluation process. There should be several meetings: one to plan what
evaluations will take place, which could include screenings, classroom
observations, monitoring, consultations, assisted technology, and materials to
support student achievement. Your child must be assessed in all areas associated
with the suspected disability including an appropriate evaluation in the areas
of: health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence,
academic performance, communicative skills, and motor abilities.
The members of the team from the school will come together to review the results
and determine if your child meets the criteria for services. The right to
receive those services has been mandated under Federal Law-The Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that if school-aged children fall
under one or more qualifying conditions or under Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, they should be eligible for support.
If your child is determined to be eligible, your child's team will develop an
?Appropriate? (which means equal to an education that is provided for those
students who are not disabled) program that will be designed to provide an
?educational benefit for a person with disabilities.? This covers all school age
children who meet specific criteria who may fall under on or more qualifying
conditions , ie autism, specific learning disabilities, speech /language
impairments, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, visual or hearing
impairment, and other health impairment. Under IDEA, an Individual Educational
Plan will be made. The name of this plan will vary from state to state, but it
must be developed within 30 days. This plan will be reviewed on a yearly basis,
to establish goals for your child's education and the supports that will be
provided. Your child will be re-evaluated every three years to determine
eligibility for continuation of services.
A child may also receive services under Section 504, which has less specific
procedural criteria under which school personnel and services are provided.
Under Section 504, a child who meets the definition for qualified ?handicapped
person? may receive services,, such as a physical or mental handicap that
substantially limits a major life activity. This would include a child who has a
disability that impairs walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, working,
or caring for him or herself. 504 services cover a lifespan, and safeguard a
person with disabilities in areas of school, employment, transportation and
public access to buildings, among other things. If a 504 plan is developed, it
will be reviewed periodically, usually annually, and the guidelines are more
What are my rights and responsibilities?
If your child is denied services, you have the right to request that an
independent evaluation be done to assess your child's needs. Under IDEA the
school will be responsible for the expenses, while under 504 the parents would
cover the costs. You may also appeal the decision under due process with the
state education department. Each state may have a slightly different process-you
can find out more about the process in your particular area by accessing the
websites for the Department of Education for you state/province. Also check the
yellow pages and web sites for advocacy groups for various disabilities in your
area. They can be a strong support for parents during this process, and have
materials that can help you on this journey.
Remember: You are your child's advocate. You know your child better than
anyone else at the table and it is your role to help develop the best
educational supports to meet your child's needs. You should be notified of any
planning meetings scheduled for your child. Prepare for these meetings by making
notes and doing research. Be ready to give your views: you are an important part
of the planning process.
Build a file or binder about your child. Keep copies of all
correspondence, (send important concerns by registered mail), evaluations,
minutes of the meetings and your copy of the educational plan. This can become
one of the most valuable documents in your child's life. Most schools make
sincere efforts to provide the education and services your child needs. But
there may be times where you will need to push for things that you feel will
make a difference for your son or daughter's education.
Accommodations and supports may range from very minor changes to more
restrictive or creative educational settings. Some supports may be as simple as
alternative means of testing for your child, (oral testing, extended time to
test, etc.) to employing a one-on-one aide who will support your child on the
bus or in each class. The beauty of the team approach is the problem-solving and
creative solutions that can be developed to meet the needs of your child. This
is why it is called the individual education plan.
Remember we must ?parent the child we have.? It is our job to advocate
for the best education that can be provided for your child. You know your child,
and you are their cheerleader and supporter. Your involvement in their education
will make all the difference. How to Navigate the School System When Your
Child Has a Disability reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents)
Jill Fletcher has a Master's in Education and is a
certified Assistant Principal. Jill also taught for five years in a special
program for ?Youth at Risk of Dropping Out of School? in New Brunswick, Canada.