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Who is Supporting My SPED Child?

18 May

This is a very important question for all parents to ask. Ask this question at the yearly IEP meeting, but also ask throughout the year because teachers are constantly changing groupings as students’ needs change. Often high needs students are supported by a teaching assistant, not the teacher. There are strict state and national standards for teacher preparation programs and for teaching licensing, however most teaching assistants are not licensed and many do not have a degree in education. They are typically not the most qualified person in the classroom, which is why they should not be instructing students, especially our most vulnerable. NCLB, a federal education bill, has set forth guidelines for the use of teaching assistants. They are available for you to read at the US Department of Education link provided. Many IEPs are written so that either a teacher or paraprofessional can provide services to your child. As a parent and a teacher, I am very wary of this because I want my child being instructed by the most qualified person. If an assistant is supporting a child in the classroom, this will be listed as inclusion support. A supervising teacher should be present. I always check that this is the case. I ask my child where they are working throughout the day and who is present. I do this because as a teacher I have been witness to IEP students being taken from the classroom to work with an assistant countless times. THIS IS NOT INCLUSION AND VIOLATES YOUR CHILD IEP. When an IEP is violated, your child’s rights have been broken. In this case, your child’s right to receive instruction in the least restricted environment (called LRE in the SPED world). Most teachers and their assistants are well meaning when they send a student out of the room. They see it as giving the child small group or one-on-one assistance. I don’t see it that way for several reasons. First, when your child leaves the room they lose the benefit of positive peer influence and collaboration. Second, they are being singled out and separated from their peers in an unequal way. Third, they lose the instruction of the more qualified person. Fourth, and most importantly, they may be learning helplessness because teaching assistants often are not adept at how to question and prompt students so they can complete work on their own. Well meaning assistants often give students answers before the student can get to the answer on their own, this is how a student learns to be helpless. By providing just enough support for a student to accomplish a task, students learn that they are capable. There is an art to being able to do this correctly and some teachers are not sure of how to do it. As a parent advocate, you have to watch for signs of helplessness in your child and speak up about it. Your child should be able to complete homework without too much support from you. If they can’t, take the time to investigate what is happening throughout the day. Also, review the IEP to see who is providing services and where. If you find that your child spends a lot of time with an assistant, you might want to call a meeting to discuss your home observations.

SPED Parents Beware!: 10 SPED Mistakes to Watch Out For

15 Jan

Deciding to place your child in special education is never an easy decision to make.  As parents we worry if we are making the right decision and if the school will do their best to service our child’s needs.  I like to think that all schools, every where, are doing their best to meet the need of all the children they serve.  However, I know this is not true, so, based on my experience as a parent and teacher, I have come up with a list of ten things to watch out for.  Any of these things could* signal to you that your child’s school is not complying with special education regulations.

10.  Not Informing You of Your Rights:  The school should give you a copy of your rights (called the Parental Safeguards) every year.

9.  Completing Paperwork Late:  A new IEP is written every 12 months, your child is re-evaluated every 3 years, & testing is done within 30 days from permission granted.

8.  Being Inflexible About Meeting Dates & Times:  The school is required to make an effort to have parents at the meetings.  If you request a change in date or time, it should be granted.

7.  Missed Service:  The IEP is a legally binding contract.  The service time must be provided.  If a teacher or specialist is out, that service time is to be made up to your child.

6.  Unmeasured Progress &/or Goals:  The school needs to keep track of your child’s progress (or lack of progress) on  the IEP goals.  They need to report this to you in progress reports.

5.  IEPs that are not Individualized:  Some schools write IEPs for groups of students.  IEPs must be individualized.  Be sure your child’s IEP matches their unique needs.

4.  Under-qualified Staff:  Ask if the teacher providing the service is licensed in special education, occupational therapy, etc.  A teacher’s aide shouldn’t be the main service provider.

3.  Not Accepting Parent Input at Meetings:  You’re an equal member of the IEP team and should be treated that way.  Your ideas count and should be taken seriously.

2.  Unauthorized Changes to IEP:  An IEP cannot be changed with out your permission (even something small).  Once you sign it, it’s a legal document.

1.  Non-Negotiation with Parents:  The school should try to resolve disagreements with parents.  The “my way or the highway” approach to IEPs shouldn’t be the expectation.

*Keep in mind that laws differ from state to state and that sometimes schools make honest mistakes.  If you find any of these mistakes being made at your child’s school, I would carefully investigate by first, reading the parental safeguards that you should have received, second, researching your state laws, and finally, asking some carefully worded questions (with a follow-up in writing).  I suggest that parents assume positive intentions from their child’s school, however, it is the obligation of school staff to know the laws and to follow them.

Can I refuse Special Education for my child?

17 Sep

You have the right to refuse to have your child be evaluated by the school district.  Before a child can be placed on an IEP, a district must evaluated the child to see if they have a qualifying disability.  The district must get your consent, in writing, before they can do this evaluation.  After this evaluation is done, if your child qualifies for special education services, you must again give your written consent for their initial placement in special education.  You have the right to refuse to place your child in special education for the first time.  You can withdraw your consent for an evaluation and initial placement before they begin.  You have a right to be present at each team meeting for your child and to take part in the decision making process.

Once you have given your consent for an evaluation and the initial placement in special education, you must be notified, in writing, when the school has made an important decision affecting your child’s education before that decision is put into place.  The written notice (officially called prior written notice) should include the decision made, why the decision was made, a description of other options considered and why they were refused, and a description of what information was used as the basis for this decision.

You should be aware that if you refuse an evaluation for your child the school district can override your decision by requesting a due process hearing.  At the hearing, an administrative law  judge will decide if your child needs an evaluation in order to get a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).    Every child is entitled to this under federal law.  If you still disagree with the court order to evaluate, you have the right to bring a civil suit against the school district.  The school district cannot, however, get a court order if you refuse initial placement in special education.  That decision is completely up to you.

What is Inclusion?

21 Jul

Before 1975, students with disabilities were mainly educated away from their peers.  They were not given the same quality education that non-disabled students were receiving, if they were receiving any at all.  For the most part our education system was failing our children with disabilities.  The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975) was the first legislation that said that all children deserve a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).  In plain language, this means that for the first time the government was recognizing the equal rights of children with disabilities to receive a quality, free education with their non-disabled peers.  While it took 15 more years until the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) would be written and real change would occur, that 1975 act was the first step toward educating all children in our country.  The idea of including students with disabilities to the greatest extent possible was born out of these federal acts and is referred to as inclusion.

Inclusion is when special education services happen while the child is in the general education classroom (not in a special education classroom). It is a philosophy that brings disabled and non-disabled students together and creates an environment of acceptance and belonging for all students.  Inclusion allows students with disabilities access to the same education as non-disabled students, while giving them the supports that they need to be successful.  Students that are in inclusion programs usually have access to more challenging and engaging curriculum.  They are also learning to be a part of their community and are teaching other students to be more accepting of other’s differences.

While the principles of inclusion are wonderful, it is not always successful.  Inclusion must be carefully implemented so that that the students that qualify for services are still getting what they need.  Teachers who teach in inclusion classrooms are taught to differentiate their instruction.  This means that all students are given instruction based on their needs.  Usually, teachers will use less whole group instruction and work with small groups of students instead. Sometimes there will be a teacher’s assistant in the room to help and at other times there will be a special educator there as well.  Some students do not benefit from total inclusion (meaning being in the general education classroom 100% of the day) because they require services that need a separate setting.   This is called partial inclusion.  I think it is safe to say that almost all students do benefit from some inclusion throughout their day.  Research has found that  students in an inclusion program generally have higher academic performance and better social skills than those not in inclusion.

While schools are obligated to educate students in the least restrictive environment (LRE) under the federal law, they sometimes do not do so.  It may be easier or cheaper for them to educate children with special needs in a separate setting.  Sometimes it is more beneficial to the child to be in a classroom or school that is designed to meet their needs .  As a parent, you may want your child educated separately for your own reasons.  Your child may want to be educated separately for their own reasons.  Your child’s team (which includes you and maybe your child- if they are old enough) will be able to best decide what placement is right for your child.  You may not agree with the majority of the team’s choice for your child.  That’s okay, you have that right.  I suggest that you research inclusion and separate settings (classrooms and schools) so that you can make an informed decision for your child.  You should also observe the two types of settings in your school district so you can see for yourself what your child’s placement will be like.  The placement of your child is a very important decision and you would serve your child best by being informed before you are asked to make a choice.

Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and Special Education

20 Jul

Some children have disabilities that affect their ability to behave in the expected way while at school.  For some of these students, their educational performance is affected and they may qualify for special education.   A child with an emotional and/or a behavioral disorder (EBD) that qualifies for special education will have special protections given to them that other students will not have.  If you suspect that your child may have EBD, or they have already been diagnosed, you may want to think about getting them qualified* for special education services to protect them.  Without a special education (sped) qualification, some students with EBD will be punished for behavior that it out of their control.  Some students are even suspended or expelled from school for their behaviors.  Most parents do not want to see their child miss out on their education because they have a disability, but are unsure how special education professionals can help their child.

Some children with EBD have externalizing behaviors.  This is acting out behavior that gets them into trouble with authority figures.  A child that is receiving sped services will not be able to be suspended for more than 10 days in a school year, or expelled, without a hearing to decide if the behavior is a result of their disability.  Also, if your child’s disorder becomes too acute for the school to handle, the school will have to place them in another educational setting. Other children have internalizing behaviors.  These are behaviors directed at themselves, such as feelings of self-hatred, depression, or suicidal thoughts.  Most schools have professionals on staff that can help students deal with these kinds of behaviors while at school. If the school cannot help the sped student with internalizing behaviors with the resources they have, the school will have to offer an alternative educational placement.

What children with EBD qualify* for special education?

Students must have a behavioral or emotional disturbance that will last over a long period and to a degree that it is affecting their ability to achieve at school.  What this means is that if a child experiences an emotional shock (such as a death of a parent) and begins to act out, they would probably not qualify for sped because they haven’t been experiencing the disturbance over a long time and the effects of the shock may improve.  Also, the disturbance must be severe enough that is affecting the students ability to do well in school.  For example, a student that is mildly depressed may have some difficulties, such as a poor self-image, but they may not be severe enough for them to need special services while at school.  Here are 5 factors that will qualify a child with EBD for sped services:

1.  Low academic achievement that cannot be explained by another reason (such as a learning disability)

2.  Low social skills (can’t keep up relationships with peers and teachers)

3.  Unexpected behavior in normal circumstances

4.  Depression or pervasive unhappiness

5.  Fear and anxiety associated with school issues

Specific illnesses that qualify children with EBD are:  attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), depression, and bipolar disorder.

*For more information about qualifying your child for special education, see earlier posts.

Getting What Your Child Needs at School

11 Jun

What Every Teacher Would Love to Tell You but They Can’t

Your child is struggling at school and the teacher calls you in for a conference.  She tells you that she is concerned about your child’s progress, but you leave the conference with more questions than when you got there.  Does my child need special education services?  Why didn’t the teacher just come right out and suggest it?  Most likely it is because, like many teachers, she’s under pressure not to.  She may be trying to get you to make a special education referral for your child without saying it out right.  You may have mixed feeling about special education and be confused about what your child really needs.  As a teacher, I can tell you that if she’s called you in for a conference, you have reason to be concerned and should, at the very least, investigate her concerns.

A teacher can make a special education referral for a student, but it’s preferrable for the parent to do it.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that it takes longer for a teacher to make the referral.  A teacher has to go through a process of trying different things and documenting if they are successful or not.  This can take several months to do.  If a parent refers their own child, the testing starts within 30 days of your written consent to testing.  The second reason it is more preferable for a parent to refer their own child is that some school systems subtly pressure teachers not to refer students for special education.  SPED costs a lot of money for public school districts and they are obligated by federal law to offer these services to any child that qualifies.  The only way for a district to keep their SPED costs down it to qualify less students.

What Will Happen If I Don’t Refer My Child for SPED Testing?

Your child’s teacher can help them if you don’t refer them for SPED testing.  Many schools have a way to help general education students that are struggling.  It is often called RTI (response to intervention) and it can be helpful.  The classroom teacher may be the one to give the intervention (extra help) or it could be a teacher’s assistant, a Title One teacher, a reading or math coach, or other qualified school staff member.  All good intervention should include regular assessment to be sure that it is working.  As the parent, before agreeing to intervention services ask:

  • How much intervention will my child get? ( Once a week for 30 min. is not enough.)
  • Who will be providing it?  (It should be a qualified, trained person.)
  • How will they know it is working?  (They should be assessing every few weeks.)

Realistically, they can probably fit this extra help into your child’s schedule about 3 times a week for 30 minutes.  Do not allow this extra help to be provided by an untrained staff member, it may end up being a waste of your child’s time.  Ask for the assessment results to be sent home so you can keep track yourself.  This kind intervention is enough for some student’s to be brought up to grade level in reading or math.  However, for some it is not.

If your child’s school is providing this kind of extra support for your child I would check in after about 8 to 10 weeks.  I would ask for a review of the data that they should of collected on your child.  (By data I mean results from an assessment that they should be doing to track progress.)  Make sure that what they are doing is getting results (the scores should be going up consistently).  If it is not, the intervention is not working and a referral for special education should be made.

What Will Happen if I Refer My Child for SPED Testing?

You will need to write a letter asking for testing.  In your letter you should state what you suspect may be the problem and list the types of assessments you want done.  You will have to sign a consent form.  Do this quickly, because the testing will begin within 30 days of the school’s receipt of that signed form.  Within 45 days of that consent, you will have a meeting with the school to review the results.  Ask for the results to be given to you before that meeting in you original letter (they have to give this to you at least 2 days before the meeting).  This is a good idea to do for two reasons.  First, you will need time to read this report on your own and look up any terms you don’t understand.  Second, sometimes schools wait until the last (and I do mean last) minute to test your child.  Tests are done in haste and reports can be shoddy.  If you ask for the reports to be given to you before the meeting, the district will have to complete the testing and report at least 2 days before the meeting and they will know you intend to give the report your full attention (meaning a shoddy report isn’t going to fly with you).

Here is what to include in you referral letter:

  • Reason for referral (something like… my child is struggling in school and attempts to help have failed…)
  • Suspected disability (it could be a specific learning disability, a health disability, a developmental delay, an emotional disability, etc.)
  • Assessments you want done (some types of assessments are: learning/educational eval., speech & language eval., psychological eval., behavioral assessment, occupational eval., attention/distractibility scale, sensory scale, reading skills assessment, math skills assessment, auditory processing eval., etc.)
  • Request evaluation reports given to you at least 2 days before the scheduled meeting

*****For more information on this, see my “Testing (Core Evaluation)” posts*****

My Child is Struggling in School… How Can I Help?

7 Jun

If you are reading this post, then you know the heartbreak that a parent feels when their child struggles in school.  Every child struggles now and then, but if your child struggles daily you are probably searching for ways to help them.  Some children struggle with a certain subject, while other children struggle with classwork in general.  Some of our children are fine academically, but struggle with the social aspects of school, or what some people refer to as the hidden curriculum (more about that later).  No parent wants their child to struggle daily at school, but many of us are at a loss for what to do.

I am parent of a child with special educational needs and a special education teacher myself.  I have personally experienced success and failure in trying to get help for my child.  It is not always easy to get the help your child needs, but I can guarantee that if you stick it out, advocating for your child is definitely worth the fight.  I have found the following ideas to be successful ways to help your child that struggles:

  1. Start by communicating your concerns directly to the teacher.  Make an appointment to meet with them, or ask them to call you during a mutually good time.  Tell them exactly what is concerning to you, fill them in on any past successes and failures at school, and ask them to observe your child and report back to you what they think may be the problem.
  2. Come up with a plan of action.  Ask for a meeting with the teacher and the pre-referral team at your child’s school.  All schools have this, but they all call it something different (Child Study Team, Teacher Assistance Team, Instructional Support Team).  This team meets to discuss struggling students and make suggestions for ways to assist the student in the classroom.  This is NOT special education.  Any struggling student can get help this way.  The team will write a plan of action and then meet back in 4 to 6 weeks to discuss success or failure of the plan.
  3. Refer your child for an educational evaluation.  Write a letter asking for your child to be evaluated for eligibility for special education.  Be specific in your letter about what you suspect may be the problem and what kinds of testing you want done.  (For example:  Please evaluate our child for a suspected specific learning disability in reading.  Please complete a full educational assessment, including reading ability testing.)  The school will have to contact you with in 5 days to confirm your request and start testing within 30 days.  You will receive the results at a meeting that must take place within 45 days of your request.
  4. Take an active role in planning for your child’s educational needs.  You need to be aware of your rights as a parent and your child’s rights to receive a free and appropriate public education.  As the parent, you should be included in every decision and your opinions should weigh as much as any other team members.  However, many sped teams will not automatically treat you this way.  You will need to speak up at meetings, ask questions, research the options on your own, and make your opinions known.
  5. Get an outside evaluation done if you disagree with the school’s testing.  You may or may not have to pay for this testing yourself.  Tell the school right away that you are not satisfied with the testing they did.  Put it in writing and explain why you are unsatisfied.  Ask the school about the districts policy for getting the testing paid for by them.  Find a reputable educational testing facility (most pediatricians can recommend someone) to test your child.  Once you get the results, you must give a copy to the school if you want them to consider the results.  The law states that they have to consider the findings as valid unless they can prove they are not.
  6. Be reasonable and professional when you are communicating with the school staff.  Do not yell, use profanity, write insulting emails/notes, make unfounded accusations, or get overly emotional. Try not to over communicate, teachers will not be able to call or email you everyday (they may have over 20 students in their class).

Qualifying for Special Education

5 Jun

In order to receive special education services your child must meet two requirements.  First, they must have a qualifying disability and second, they must not be making progress that would be expected for their age and grade-level.  What this means is that even if your child has a qualifying disability, they may not qualify for services because they are making progress without them.  According to the federal act IDEA, there are 10 types of disabilities that can qualify a child for special education services.  These disabilities categories* are:

  1. Autism:  PDD, Asperger syndrome
  2. Developmental delay:  Cerebral Palsy, Downs syndrome
  3. Intellectual impairment:  Cognitive impairment, mental retardation, chromosome disorders
  4. Sensory impairment:  Hearing or vision impairment or deafness or blindness
  5. Neurological impairment:  Brain injury, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy
  6. Emotional impairment:  Anxiety or mood disorders,  ODD, conduct disorder,  schizophrenia
  7.  Communication impairment:  Speech and language disorders
  8.  Physical impairment:  Muscular Dystrophy, spina bifida
  9.  Health impairment:  ADHD, asthma,
  10.  Specific learning disability (LD):  Dyslexia(LD in reading), dysgraphia(LD in writing), dyscalculia (LD in math)
*I have listed some examples of some diagnosis that might fall in these categories, but this is not a complete list and some disabilities may belong in more than one category.

Definition of Special Education

5 Jun

Special education is individualized instruction and services given to students that have a disability or condition that prevents them from being able to do the same school work and school activities as “typical” children, so that they can reach their individual potential.   Special education is provided at no additional costs to the parents and is confidential.  

There are 7 types of disabilities that children can receive services for while at school.  These disabilities are: developmental delay, intellectual impairment, sensory impairment, hearing-vision-deaf-blind, neurological impairment, emotional impairment, communication impairment, physical impairment, health impairment, specific learning disability.

Special education is a right that is protected by a federal act called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law protects a parents’ rights to make decisions about their child’s special education, guarantees an appropriate evaluation of your child, ensures that an individual education plan (IEP) will be written and carried out in the least restrictive environment, and outlines how parents and schools can resolve any disagreements they have. An individual education plan or IEP, is a written document that outlines what special education services, accommodations, and modifications will be given to your child.  It also states where the services will be carried out.  Some children will receive services in the classroom (inclusion), while other students will receive services outside of the classroom (pull-out services).  In some instances, students will be educated in a separate classroom or school.  However, the law says that students must be educated with their peers to the maximum extent possible.  Therefore, placing students in separate classrooms or schools is done only after serious consideration about the benefits and drawbacks of doing so.

Leveling the Playing Field with Accommodations

3 Jun

In order to be successful in school, many children need accommodations.  An accommodation is a change to an assignment or test, making it accessible to the disabled student.  It is not a different assignment or test, just a change to the format, timing, setting, response, or presentation.  If your child qualified for SPED services, then accommodations will be written into part A (General Curriculum) of their IEP.  If your child has a disability (such as ADHD, anxiety disorder, or dyslexia) but did not qualify, you can ask for a 504 plan.  A 504 plan is another type of document written for children that outlines the accommodations they can have in the general education classroom.  Both IEPs and 504 plans are legally binding documents and are confidential (meaning they are not part of your child’s official school records).  As their parent, you have the right to ask for a 504 plan and to take part in writing it.

In order to guarantee that your child gets the accommodations that they have a right to, a written document is highly recommended.  You should ask for one if your child has a documented disability, even if they’re not receiving failing grades.  Some schools will insist that they give all students accommodations or will say their teachers differentiate their instruction for all students.  This may be true, but unless your child has an IEP or 504 plan, the teachers are not obligated to make accommodations for your child’s disability.  Having them written will benefit your child and you because you can refer back to the plan if your child begins to struggle.

Examples of some common classroom accommodations are:  extended time for assignments and tests, allowing students to use a computer for writing assignments, not marking down for spelling errors, having a student take a test in a private setting, providing books on CDs or MP3, having the teacher give the directions in writing and orally, minimize punishment and use positive reinforcement instead, allowing students to use a reference sheet, give student a study guide, give the student a peer role model, and provide students with breaks or allow to leave the classroom for short breaks.

For more examples of accommodations you can ask for your child, go to http://www.fape.org or search for “classroom accommodations.”