Many of you know I’m pursuing a Master’s Degree in Special Education, and focusing on Educational Therapy... which means I’ll be getting better and better at helping your kids learn, and helping you figure out how to support them. Along the way, I’ll be sharing tidbits to make your life easier, and to earn my fee! Many of you wonder about special needs and how to help your kids, so here’s a short read for some good info.
Central to finding the right kind of help for your child’s situation is understanding what the public school can offer you if you are finding that your student may be needing a little something extra. The term “special needs” is often thought to describe only severe mental or physical obstacles that some children live with, but it more widely refers to any student that requires specially adapted instructional materials and practices to help them maximize their leaning and achievement (Ormrod, 2017). So how could that apply to you? It basically means that if you feel your kid’s education is being hindered in any way, it’s worth looking into what might be going on mentally or otherwise to see if special needs accommodations would help. This includes gifted kids who may need more of a challenge to get motivated to learn.
Public schools have a couple of systems that could benefit your student, but first things first... get an assessment done! The people on your team at the school are teachers, counselors, and of course the principal. Ask for a special needs assessment. This costs you nothing, and you get loads of information about how your child is functioning. It can be a little tough to convince the school that an assessment is necessary, since our beloved public educators are busy people! You should come prepared to show past grades, teacher comments, and any outside information you have collected about your child from a pediatrician, therapist, psychologist, or even a good friend with a master’s in childhood development. Go on in and make your case.
Once you know what you’re dealing with, there are a couple of key laws that are on your side if your child does require special needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (aka IDEA) is a public law passed by Congress in 1975. It’s had some re-do’s over the years, but as of 2004 it provides rights to kids with cognitive, emotional, or physical disabilities through age 21. Here’s what you get out of it:
1. A free and appropriate education
2. A fair and nondiscriminatory evaluation
3. Instruction in the least restrictive environment
4. An Individualized Educational Program (IEP)
5. The right to due process
Not every child with learning issues qualifies for this, but they may qualify for another plan that I’ll get to in a few. The IEP specifies 13 qualities, only one of which is required to get the ball rolling. They are:
1. Specific learning disability
2. Other health impairment
3. Autism spectrum disorder
4. Emotional disturbance
5. Speech or language impairment
6. Visual impairment (including blindness)
8. Hearing impairment
10. Orthopedic impairment
11. Intellectual disability
12. Traumatic brain injury
13. Multiple disabilities
Let’s unpack a few of these that aren’t super specific. What is a “specific learning disability”? These are disabilities that a thorough assessment would reveal when there’s no obvious reason for your child to be struggling. This would include dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, an auditory or visual processing disorder, or any other non-verbal learning disability. What does “other health impairment” entail? That umbrella covers conditions that limit a student’s strength, energy, or alertness -something like ADD or ADHD. Emotional disturbance? Anxiety, bipolar, or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Intellectual disability means below average intellectual ability. Down syndrome falls into this category. If your child has multiple disabilities, you can still get help from the public school under an IEP. Needing more help than anyone else does not disqualify them!
So what do you do if you have your kid tested and nothing is revealed that fits into these nice neat parameters? There is a broader plan provided to you in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, this one is a civil rights law. It says that since your school is publicly funded, they have to help your child get an education, whatever it takes. Now that makes it a little hard on faculty and staff, because the government does not give them any extra cash to make sure this happens. But you can! (Make sure it happens, that is, do not give them cash).
Schools usually create written 504 plans with parents or teachers, but they are not required to do so. There aren’t really set rules about what a plan should look like, so it’s best for you to do a little research into what kind of accommodations you feel would help your child, and bring it up at the meeting. Bees like honey more than... I forget how that one goes, but the point is to be nice. If you approach the subject in a spirit of collaboration and a touch of grace, you’re more likely to get what you want.
So what might you even ask for? Great question! You sound like a smarty to me. Different kids need different help. Even kids with the same disability are going to need specific adjustments based on their learning styles and dispositions, personalities, and stress coping abilities. You need to push for accommodations and modifications to suit your child specifically. Inside the classroom, think where he should sit, or if she should be able to use a recorder while the teacher is giving a lecture. Maybe extra time on homework, quizzes, and tests, or even taking a test in a separate room if it would help them concentrate. Perhaps being able to take a break and have a snack is necessary. The use of technology is admissible in some cases as well -like being able to type out notes in class rather than writing them down.
That all may sound like a bunch of legal garbage, or maybe it’s a tad intimidating. Hopefully this blog made it less so! Just remember that you are your child’s strongest advocate. You don’t have to be a lawyer or an educator to get things done. You are the expert when it comes to your kid! The most important thing is to show up and speak up. If school isn’t “doing it” for your family, make it work for you by pushing for changes. The website below is a great place to continue your search, and remember that I am always here to serve you as well!
1. Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis., et al. Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. Pearson Education, 2017
2. Team, Understood. “Understanding 504 Plans.” understood.org, www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/504-plan/understanding-504-.