When kids are having trouble in school, the powers that be might recommend the child be evaluated for special education. For some parents this does not come as a surprise. For example, if your child has a speech and language disorder, autism, or other developmental issue you probably started to research treatment options when your child was young. Often these parents are relieved to have someone doing something to help them. Other parents might have children that always seemed distracted, or hyper. Sometimes they thought their kids were just so smart that they get lost in their own world instead of playing with other kids. Sometimes these issues don't arise or are not apparent until early elementary school when young students fall behind their classmates and don't learn as expected based on their apparent intelligence levels. When you first learn your child might need special education it is emotionally difficult and for some completely devastating. While dealing with these emotions you are expected to just jump in and understand what is going on which is not always easy. If you find yourself in this situation here are some straight answers on what you can expect. First, the School District will want to evaluate your child and then hold a meeting to discuss an IEP. IEP stands for an Individualized Education Plan. Many times school administrators forget that this is a scary process for parents and they assume that you know what an IEP is and what it means. Parents are often in shock or just trying to absorb it all so they don't ask questions or they just don't know what to ask. I have read a lot of articles about IEP's but they mostly describe the legal meaning. I think this process can be overwhelming enough without going bleary eyed while reading pages and pages of legislation and legal jargon. What you really want to know is "what does this mean for my child and what should I expect?" Here are the basics of what an IEP is and what the process is like. Your child will be evaluated by a team of experts. What type of evaluations they conduct will depend on the situation. If your child is preschool age they should do a full battery of tests including evaluations by a Speech Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, Adaptive PE, and Psychologist. The Psychologist is there to evaluate cognitive ability and to see where the gaps are in your child's learning abilities. Don't worry about their title - they are important elements of the process. These tests will determine whether or not your child is eligible for special education and if so what types of services are needed and what will be provided. Whether or not your child is found eligible they will hold an IEP meeting. Assuming eligibility is granted this is how the meeting will be conducted. Everyone will state their name and their position -i.e. Jane Smith, Speech Therapist, Mary Monroe, Mom, Etc. Then each person who conducted an evaluation will read their report or a summary of their report to describe the current level of performance. You can (and should) ask to see the reports prior to the meeting. This will give you time to think about your questions and arguments before you get there. Parents can comment or ask questions as each evaluation is reviewed. Then each evaluator makes their recommendation for services. If service is being provided they will write a goal for your child and state who is responsible for helping your child meet that goal. For example, they recommend that your child receive 30 minutes of speech each week. The goal might say child will be able to produce fronting sounds of t, p, m 4 out 5 trials with minimum prompting. Etc... The goals need to be assigned to the appropriate professional (e.g... a speech therapist) and they need to be measurable. The therapist will often work on more than just one issue but they need to have a measurable goal. They will also give incremental goals. These are like mini goals or milestones that your child is expected to hit in a shorter period of time to show they are making progress toward the main goal. If the main goal is set to be met in 1 year then the 1st incremental goal might be 2 out of 5 trials with maximum prompting and set to be met within 4 months. The type of services available will (should) depend on what your child's needs are: Placement - What this means is what type of classroom your child will be placed in. If they are ADD, have a learning disability, or have high functioning autism the best placement might be in a regular education class with accommodations, a full time assistant, or both. In some cases more intensive placement is needed. In these situations a SDC or special day class will be offered. These take many forms. Here are a few that I am familiar with: SLD - severe learning disability EE - early education - typically for kids with mild Autism, developmental delays, and mild Mental Retardation. Typically this applies to kinder and first graders. Aut - Autism - this is for kids with medium to low functioning autism NPS - this stands for non-public school. If you or the school believes that the school district does not have an appropriate placement for your child they might fund (pay for) a private school that has a classroom program that will meet your child's needs. Don't get excited - you cannot just go out and find a private school that you like and get it paid for. It has to be vendored (have a contract) with the school district and truly have something different to offer that cannot be found in the public school system. You have to be able to show why the public school's program does not allow your child to access his education. Classroom support Your child might need an assistant to be able to attend regular classes or might even need one in a special day class. The name of these assistants varies from school district to school district (ours has changed it at least 4 times in the last 5 years) but whatever they are called, the job is basically the same. Support assistants are there to help your child function in a classroom by keeping them focused, on task, helping them regulate by reminding them of the schedule, staying with them on the playground if needed for safety reasons, etc... To get an aid the team often has to add a "behavioral support plan" to the IEP. In some school districts aids might only be given if there are safety concerns. As much as we want to downplay any negative behavior in our children, it is important to let the team document the very worst behaviors in the IEP. Otherwise you run the risk of having the district deny the teams request for an aid. (If the aid is in the IEP and later some bureaucrat says they are not funding it politely remind them it is in the IEP which is legally binding. They will need to hold a new IEP to take it away and if they don't they're not in compliance and you can take them to court). Support Services - If your child needs therapy like speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or educational therapy the IEP team will offer you the services in the IEP (if they need it and it is not offered that is another issue. Then you need to not consent to the IEP and go to Due Process to argue why they are wrong) These supports are usually offered at school on a pull out basis. In our school district this is known as DIS service (Designated Instruction and Services) - It means the service will be performed by district personnel during school hours. The benefit of having the service at school is that (in theory) all providers can coordinate their efforts. Having therapy at school means you won't have to take them to appointments every week. Your child won't be bombarded with long days. When they are expected to work all day at school, do homework, and then also have therapy it can be a little too much. For learning disabilities the "Resource Teacher" is an invaluable service for kids struggling with the curriculum. These teachers are typically special education teachers that are trained in a variety of techniques to help kids with different learning styles. They will either help in the classroom or hopefully pull your child out of class for one on one or small group instruction. This can happen 1 - 5 times per week depending on your child's need. Another option is NPA service which is conducted by a non-public agency (again this is what they are called in Los Angeles you might need to describe it to find out what it is called in your area). What this means is that a private company or therapist has a contract with the school district and can provide services after school. The benefit to NPA service is that your child will not miss as much class time by being pulled out to get therapy during school hours. Also you have more control over which therapist works with your child - they have to be contracted with the District but at least you can meet them and choose among several therapists to find one that best meets your child's needs. You will have constant contact with the therapist so you can follow what is being done and make sure that service is being provided. You can sit in on sessions so you can learn what is being done and carry it over into the home for a more complete therapeutic program. This is particularly important when kids are young and cannot effectively communicate ideas with their parents. For some kids, outside service is needed. For example if they need OT in a clinic setting with specialty equipment or if they have a complex speech disorder like Apraxia requiring intensive oral motor therapy. The IEP team will also make other recommendations that they include at the end summary. In Los Angeles it is page 12. I'm not sure if that is true nationwide. They summarize all of the services in paragraph form so that it is clearly spelled out. Make sure they spell out every service and how many hours each service will be provided per week. They must include any accommodations or modifications and they will also talk about ESY (extended school year). Accommodations are little things they do to make the regular grade level curriculum more accessible. Things like sitting in the front row, extra time on tests, having directions read out loud, a note taker, all qualify under accommodations that can be made to help your child access his/her education. Make sure to ask for these at the IEP and have them included in writing. Ultimately it means that your child is still expected to do grade level work but that they will have some extra help to make sure it gets done successfully. Modifications are actual changes to the curriculum. These might include doing fewer problems, reading books that are below grade level, not participating in standardized testing. In essence, although they remain in their grade, your child would not be required to do grade level content. It would likely affect their ability to obtain a high school diploma or receive passing grades since they are not going to learn the required course work. If the curriculum is just slightly modified it might not prevent them from getting a diploma since kids eligible for Special Education can stay in school until they are 21 but you should definitely have this discussion with the IEP team if they recommend modifications. If you choose a non-diploma path that might be the right choice for your child but you want to make sure you are making an informed decision and not letting the team make the decision for you. ESY - This stands for Extended School Year. Basically it is their word for summer school. Most kids in special education should be offered summer school. If your child is in a special day class they will most likely have a similar type of class for summer. For kids in regular classes it can be difficult to find the right summer placement - particularly before 2nd grade. If your child has ADHD, a learning disability, or high functioning Autism you can likely find a SLD or language based class (sometimes called by the misnomer Aphasia classes) that will meet their needs. After second grade (at least where we live in LA) there are summer intervention classes for typical kids. These classes are designed for kids that are having trouble keeping up so this would be the closest to what your fully included child is receiving during the school year. Try to get him/her into one of those programs with their aid if they have one. They are entitled to the aid in summer if they have it during the school year (although they are not entitled to the same aid so make sure to ask for that ahead of time. The District will not put it in writing but it does not hurt to ask). It is proven that most kids lose skills over the summer so for special needs kids who are already behind it is doubly important. Also kids with Autism are known to regress if they do not stay on a consistent program so they should always be offered summer school. Many summer programs have been shortened to 4 weeks which still leaves a big chunk of time that they don't have school. If your child receives outside services (such as private speech or private OT) you want to make sure that the final page stipulates that those services will continue when school is not in session. Otherwise you will need to break from therapy as well which not in your child's best interest. For example the entire school year (including a 4 week summer school) is typically a total of 44 weeks a year. When my son was small he received private speech for 1.5 hours a week. A break in therapy would have been bad for his development since he was already so delayed. In his IEP, page 12 stipulated "Child is to receive NPA speech 1.5 hours per week for 48 weeks a year. This meant that 2 weeks over the summer we would have to break and 2 weeks over Christmas break we would not go to speech but that was much better then having 3 weeks over Christmas, 1 week over spring break, and a total of 8 weeks in summer. That is 3 whole months of service he would not have had if this was not written in the IEP. Consenting to the IEP. This is one of the most important things a parent does at an IEP meeting. All of your input is very important but many times the rest of the team's mind is made up before the meeting so whether or not you consent is going to determine if the team's recommendations will be put into affect. If the team recommends services be provided and you are happy with what they have outlined then you can sign it at the meeting. If you are not familiar with the team (if you don't know them well enough that they would correct a typo or a misunderstanding without argument) I recommend taking it home and reading it before you sign it. Once you sign it the document is legally binding so make sure you know what it is in there. I have heard some IEP teams tell parents they must sign it at the meeting. That is not true so DO NOT LET THEM BULLY YOU. If you agree with most of it but not all, you can consent in part. There will be a box that says something like "I consent to the IEP but I disagree with the following" and then it will give you a list of options like placement, assessment, services, other, etc. If you check this box the IEP will be implemented but you can argue for the items you disagree with to be changed either at another IEP, mediation, or at a due process hearing. Or if you don't want something to be implemented you can say I consent to the IEP except I do not want my child being pulled out for counseling or whatever.) If you had a previous IEP and they are changing it against your wishes you need to invoke your right to "Stay Put." This means they cannot take the service away until you have gone to mediation or due process to state your case for the service remaining on the IEP. If you do not explicitly invoke this right when you sign the IEP you will lose the service for your child until (or I should say if) you get it resolved at a later date. If your child is not found eligible then either you will be relieved or irritated. Regardless of your initial reaction you need to get a second opinion from someone who will not be financially responsible for your child's care. You can also get help under a basic 504 plan if your child does not qualify for services under an IEP. A 504 plan is a way to get accommodations for your child who may need help but whose disability does not rise to the level of needing special education. For example, this is ideal for a kid who is ADHD and needs to sit in the front row, needs extra time on tests, needs class assignments written on board or in a notebook to bring home, or other types of accommodations teachers can make to help them be successful. One would think that a parent could just tell a teacher "hey my kid has struggled in the past and we have found this helpful." Unfortunately, not all teachers are created equal and they are human so their reaction to this type of request varies. If you encounter a difficult teacher the 504 plan ensures your child has a legal right to these accommodations and even the most difficult teacher will need to comply.
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