Be Proactive When Addressing Special Needs

The start of a new school year is exciting, but if you have a child with special needs, it is also nerve-wracking. Will these teachers be willing to help my child? Will they dislike him or her because of the extra attention required? Here are seven tips to start the year off right for your child with special needs:

1. Know your legal rights.
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) entitles your child to a free, appropriate public education (including services from birth), but eligibility must first be determined by an evaluation. If you feel that your child’s special needs may qualify, ask for that evaluation. If you meet resistance, insist. As a last resort, a private evaluation may provide adequate evidence that a formal school-based evaluation is needed.

It is important that you study your rights. The school system is obligated to provide you with a copy of the legislation, but the language of the law is obtuse, and the school may or may not provide you with adequate interpretation. There are a number of good Web sites, such as www.kidstogether.org. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education also can provide information. Check www.ncpublicschools.org for information online.
Pay particular attention to these rights:

-You have the right to call meetings to talk about your child’s progress.

-You must sign your approval to your child’s education plan, called an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Be sure you understand every element of the plan: services being planned, frequency of services, whether your child will be pulled out of his regular classroom for special services, and what activities he will miss during that time. Perhaps most important: What other services are available that are not being offered to your child?

-You have the right to reverse your previous decisions. Even if you have given your consent to an IEP, you can recall that signature and request another meeting to discuss another plan, in whole or in part.

-You have the right to take an advocate to meetings, whether a lawyer or just a friend. Especially if you are nervous, an advocate may help you feel more confident. He or she can speak for you, or just listen and take notes.

2. Be positive, but firm.
Parents who do not feel confident in their knowledge or who feel intimidated by school personnel may be reluctant to act authoritatively in their interactions with the school. Start off by clarifying details. For example, you could say: “I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Can you tell me exactly how many hours per week Susan will be in language therapy?”

If you still do not get satisfactory answers, notch your responses up a bit: “Yes, I’m sure you have many children to serve, and that must really tax your resources. Nevertheless, Danny needs these services three times a week.”

Finally, if you feel that you are not being respected or listened to, it is appropriate to be more forceful (but smile, hold your head up and speak clearly): “Perhaps I’m asking too much of this group, here at the school level. Is there someone in administration or at the school board I should talk to about this?”

3. Meet early in the year.
Your child’s teacher needs time to get to know her, but it is important that you sit down with the teacher as early in the year as possible. In fact, if you are able to find out who the upcoming teacher is and speak with him at the end of the previous school year, that may be ideal. Ask what you can do at home, even over the summer, to reinforce what the teacher is doing.

4. Don’t “watch and wait” too long.
Resist the normal tendency to “watch and wait” to be sure that your child is really having trouble with memory or needs more time to complete work. A couple of months is a long time for a developing child.

5. Watch out for bullying and teasing.
Formal education is not the only (or sometimes even the most important) issue in your child’s school life. Social relationships are vital to self-esteem, mental health and long-term happiness. Many children with disabilities endure teasing, belittlement and bullying because of their special needs — and not just from other children.

Your child may not tell you about teasing or bullying. In some cases he is not aware that it is inappropriate. In other cases, and especially as he gets older, your child is embarrassed and further humiliated by revealing what is happening. Watch for signs, including changes in appetite, sleep habits or attitudes about school. If you feel like something is going on, talk with the parents of other students in the class to see if they have noticed anything odd about the teachers’ or students’ treatment of your child.

6. Do not discuss your child’s problems in front of him, and ask school personnel to abide by the same rule.

No one likes to be defined by her deficiencies, and you want your child to have a positive attitude about school.

7. Go the extra mile for the teacher.
Your child’s teachers do have a lot of work to do and many children’s needs to consider. Acknowledge their work with your child with cookies, greeting cards, volunteering and in other ways.

Terri Combs-Orme, Ph.D., is a professor of social work at the University of Tennessee and a mother, aunt and godmother who has worked with families with children who have special needs.

Categories: Exceptional Child