The passage of the updated version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) made mothers/fathers of children with special needs even more crucial members of their youngster's education team. Moms and dads can now work with teachers to develop a plan — the individualized education program (IEP) — to help children succeed in school. The IEP describes the goals the team sets for a youngster during the school year, as well as any special support needed to help achieve them.
A youngster who has difficulty learning and functioning and has been identified as a special needs child is the perfect candidate for an IEP. Children struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to be taught in a special way, for reasons such as:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- autism spectrum disorders
- cognitive challenges
- developmental delay
- emotional disorders
- hearing impairment
- learning disabilities
- speech or language impairment
- visual impairment
How Services Are Delivered—
In addition, the teacher usually has specific training in helping children with special educational needs. The kids spend most of their day in a special classroom and join the regular classes for nonacademic activities (like music and gym) or in academic activities in which they don't need extra help.
Because the goal of IDEA is to ensure that each youngster is educated in the least restrictive environment possible, effort is made to help children stay in a regular classroom. However, when needs are best met in a special class, then children might be placed in one.
Referral and Evaluation—
The referral process generally begins when a teacher, mother or father, or doctor is concerned that a youngster may be having trouble in the classroom, and the teacher notifies the school counselor or psychologist. The first step is to gather specific data regarding the child's progress or academic problems. This may be done through:
- conference with moms and dads
- conference with the child
- analysis of the child's performance (e.g., attention, behavior, work completion, tests, class work, homework, etc.)
- observation of the child
This information helps school personnel determine the next step. At this point, strategies specific to the child could be used to help the youngster become more successful in school. If this doesn't work, the youngster would be tested for a specific learning disability or other impairment to help determine qualification for special services.
It's important to note, though, that the presence of a disability doesn't automatically guarantee a youngster will receive services. To be eligible, the disability must affect functioning at school.
To determine eligibility, a multidisciplinary team of professionals will evaluate the youngster based on their observations; the youngster's performance on standardized tests; and daily work such as tests, quizzes, class work, and homework.
Professionals on the Team—
The professionals on the evaluation team can include:
- physical therapist
- special educator
- speech therapist
- vision or hearing specialist
- occupational therapist
As a mother or father, you can decide whether to have your youngster assessed. If you choose to do so, you'll be asked to sign a permission form that will detail who is involved in the process and the types of tests they use. These tests might include measures of specific school skills, such as reading or math, as well as more general developmental skills, such as speech and language. Testing does not necessarily mean that a youngster will receive services.
Once the team members complete their individual assessments, they develop a comprehensive evaluation report (CER) that compiles their findings, offers an educational classification, and outlines the skills and support the youngster will need.
The moms and dads then have a chance to review the report before the IEP is developed. Some moms and dads will disagree with the report, and they will have the opportunity to work together with the school to come up with a plan that best meets the youngster's needs.
The next step is an IEP meeting at which the team and moms and dads decide what will go into the plan. In addition to the evaluation team, a regular teacher should be present to offer suggestions about how the plan can help the youngster's progress in the standard education curriculum.
At the meeting, the team will discuss your youngster's educational needs — as described in the CER — and come up with specific, measurable short-term and annual goals for each of those needs. If you attend this meeting, you can take an active role in developing the goals and determining which skills or areas will receive the most attention.
The cover page of the IEP outlines the support services your youngster will receive and how often they will be provided (e.g., occupational therapy twice a week). Support services might include special education, speech therapy, occupational or physical therapy, counseling, audiology, medical services, nursing, vision or hearing therapy, and many others.
If the team recommends several services, the amount of time they take in the youngster's school schedule can seem overwhelming. To ease that load, some services may be provided on a consultative basis. In these cases, the professional consults with the teacher to come up with strategies to help the youngster but doesn't offer any hands-on instruction. For instance, an occupational therapist may suggest accommodations for a youngster with fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the classroom teacher would incorporate these suggestions into the handwriting lessons taught to the entire class.
Other services can be delivered right in the classroom, so the youngster's day isn't interrupted by therapy. The youngster who has difficulty with handwriting might work one on one with an occupational therapist while everyone else practices their handwriting skills. When deciding how and where services are offered, the youngster's comfort and dignity should be a top priority.
The IEP should be reviewed annually to update the goals and make sure the levels of service meet your youngster's needs. However, IEPs can be changed at any time on an as-needed basis. If you think your youngster needs more, fewer, or different services, you can request a meeting and bring the team together to discuss your concerns.
Parents’ Legal Rights—
Specific timelines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to providing services as quickly as possible. Be sure to ask about this timeframe and get a copy of your parents’ rights when your youngster is referred. These guidelines (sometimes called procedural safeguards) outline your rights as a mother or father to control what happens to your youngster during each step of the process.
The parents’ rights also describe how you can proceed if you disagree with any part of the CER or the IEP — mediation and hearings both are options. You can get information about low-cost or free legal representation from the school district or, if your youngster is in Early Intervention (for children ages 3 to 5), through that program.
Attorneys and paid advocates familiar with the IEP process will provide representation if you need it. You also may invite anyone who knows or works with your youngster whose input you feel would be helpful to join the IEP team.
Moms and dads have the right to choose where their children will be educated. This choice includes public or private elementary schools and secondary schools, including religious schools. It also includes charter schools and home schools.
However, it is important to understand that the rights of kids with disabilities who are placed by their moms and dads in private elementary schools and secondary schools are not the same as those of children with disabilities who are enrolled in public schools or placed by public agencies in private schools when the public school is unable to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Two major differences that moms and dads, educators, other school staff, private school representatives, and the children need to know about are:
- Not all children with disabilities placed by their moms and dads in private schools will receive services.
- Kids with disabilities who are placed by their moms and dads in private schools may not get the same services they would receive in a public school.
The IEP process is complex, but it's also an effective way to address how your youngster learns and functions. If you have concerns, don't hesitate to ask questions about the evaluation findings or the goals recommended by the team. You know your youngster best and should play a central role in creating a learning plan tailored to his or her specific needs.
The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook