• Navigating Special Education Services for School-Age Children, Part 1

    Family TherapyAs a parent, you can tell when something doesn’t seem quite right with your child. Perhaps they don’t want to do homework or go to school. Maybe they have trouble making friends or managing emotions. A teacher may have expressed concern about academic performance or disruptive behavior.

    This can trigger a number of thoughts for parents.

    “Is this normal or is something wrong with my child?”
    “Did I do something wrong as a parent?”
    “Am I being judged as a parent?”

    Further complicating matters is the stigma that has been associated with learning disabilities and related disorders for decades, as if they were obstacles or even failures that could never be overcome. In reality, learning disabilities are very common.

    “There was a time when you heard ‘autism’ and thought it was the end of the world,” said Victoria Bukey, MSW (Master of Social Work), LSW (Licensed Social Worker), and Certified School Social Worker at Nutley Family Service Bureau (NFSB). “The face of disabilities has changed so much in recent years. It’s okay to have one, whether you have a developmental disability, intellectual disability, or learning disability. There are plenty of special education services available to help kids lead healthy, happy lives.”

    Let’s discuss the keys to navigating special education services and the process followed by schools to determine if special services are needed for a child.

    Communication Is Essential

    One common obstacle to progress is the disconnect that often exists between what’s happening in school and at home. Teachers only see the child in school and parents only see the child at home. An organization like NFSB can help close that gap so everyone can see the full picture.

    “I work with the family to listen to their concerns, find out what’s happening in different environments, and determine what type and intensity of therapy are appropriate,” Victoria said. “Therapy is not the role of the school. By meeting regularly with families and coordinating with teachers and case managers at schools, I can help make sure everyone is working together.”

    In addition to improving communication with schools, parents would be well-served to voice concerns to their child’s pediatrician. Even if it doesn’t seem serious, have a conversation. This can help you gain a better understanding about appropriate behavior and learning milestones and set realistic learning and social expectations.

    For example, it’s perfectly normal for a 4-year-old to not be able to read. If a 4-year-old is unable to sit still, this behavior could be totally appropriate for that age. If the child still can’t read or sit still by age 6 or 7, this could be cause for concern.

    Evaluating Your Child for Special Education Services

    Conversations with your teacher and pediatrician and your own observations of your child might tell you it’s time to explore special services. That’s okay. There is a standardized process followed by schools to identify learning disabilities and determine the best path forward.

    The first step is to send a letter to the school to request an Identification Meeting. Always send a physical letter as well as an email to the child study team. If you are unsure who to contact, call your school and ask.

    The purpose of the Identification Meeting is to determine whether the school has sufficient information to move forward with an evaluation for special education services. Several professionals, such as a special educational teacher, speech therapist, or occupational therapist, may attend the meeting to gather information about your child. This meeting must be scheduled within 20 days of receipt of your letter.

    “Your school is there to help,” Victoria said. “Give them support. Provide recommendations from your pediatrician and therapist to help them make an informed decision in the best interests of your child.”

    While the school may determine that an evaluation of your child is not warranted, there is nothing stopping parents from writing another letter if they don’t see progress.

    If the school decides to evaluate, parents must provide consent. The school is then required to complete the evaluation and provide results within 90 days. The evaluation may indicate if your child has a learning disability and provide recommendations for next steps can be made.

    For example, the next step might be a meeting to develop an individualized education plan (IEP), which is required for a student to receive special education services. An IEP is a legal document that lays out a school’s strategy for meeting the needs of a child with a learning disability. The goal is to ensure a child’s ability to access the curriculum within the least restrictive environment. Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education.

    In some cases, a 504 Plan could be more appropriate. A 504 Plan involves modifications to the learning environment to help a child learn more effectively. In this case, the child doesn’t receive special education services.

    The key is to have parents, the teacher, case manager, child study team, pediatrician, and therapist working together toward the same goal.

    Finally, we recommend visiting the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) website. SPAN offers a wealth of resources for parents who need help or are already pursuing special services. Also, the Parental Rights in Special Education document from the New Jersey Department of Education can be extremely helpful. A Spanish version is available as well.

    In the next article, we’ll share a real-world success story of how NFSB helped identify and diagnose a learning disability in a school-age child and helped the parents get the services the child needed.

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