Things were great with your child at school, until one day they weren’t. You notice that you’re getting emails from the teacher, and possibly odd looks at pick up. Your child is starting to not like school to the point of not wanting to go. She may even start complaining about stomachaches that magically disappear by 9am. He may even start acting out at school to the point of getting suspended. What should you do?
First, take a deep breath. Your child may need special education services.
Know that you’re about to embark on what may be a bumpy ride, but follow the steps I outline in this article, and it will be ok.
Special education is about way more than helping kids who are considered slow learners. Special education is any specialized instruction or service for students. Did you know that gifted and talented is considered a part of special education?
Special education can be for children who have medical health conditions, like diabetes or orthopedic issues, and need nursing support while at school. I have seen a high school football player with a severely broken leg qualify for special ed services for nursing during the year he was recovering. Special education also can provide behavior supports for those students who need a little more structure in their day. Special education can also provide mental health support for those who need it.
The problem with special education, is that it’s an underfunded mandate in a complicated system within the educational bureaucracy of public school. Unfortunately for parents, you need to know how the system works in order to get your child what they need, and often no one will tell you. Often the first people you ask at school, like the school receptionists, are the worst and least informed people to ask. You get services by requesting a full individual evaluation (FIE) The FIE is actually many small evaluations put together in one long report.
Lucky for you, I’ve written up some steps that will help you a lot to get what your child needs.
- Gather information
- Write an email to request an evaluation in all problem areas
- Sign the consent forms
- Research the evaluations your child is getting
- Read about IEP meetings and your rights as a parent at those meetings
- Have one of the evaluators explain the evaluations BEFORE you have a formal meeting with the school
- Talk to someone from an advocacy organization if you have any questions or disagree with what the evaluation recommends
- Meet with the school for the “evaluation meeting” Take someone knowledgeable with you to this meeting.
- Agree or disagree with what the school proposes.
There is a sad tendency to blame the child, and then blame the parent. Don’t get sucked into that. We can feel really embarrassed or vulnerable when our child is acting out, getting in trouble, or is making bad grades. When students act out or fail in class, they are telling you that something is wrong. Your child is depending on you to help sort out what that problem is! It could be the early signs of a reading or learning disability, like dyslexia. It could be the early signs of ADHD, social anxiety, or other mental health issue. It could be that they are being bullied.
To advocate well for your child possible, you must combine informal approach (ask questions in meetings and conversations) and a formal (write emails) approach.
1. Gather Information: This helps you tease the nature of the problem in order to really get to the bottom of what is happening.
- Set up a teacher conference. You must have a relaxed conversation with the teacher about the details they are observing, even if they have been sending you emails. Now, most of us go into automatic defense mode of our child when something is wrong, but you won’t find out what you need to know by going on the attack. Get the information first.
- Ask the teacher for details about the incidents/academic problems:
- When, specifically, did it happen? Recess? While walking in line to the cafeteria? In math?
- This goes for academics. If the child was doing well previously, when exactly did she start doing poorly? (Has there been a sub? Are there new students in class? Has the seating changed?)
- Did the teacher actually see the incident/behavior or is the teacher reporting what another student saw?
- Has there been any changes to the classroom?
- What specific techniques does the teacher use to manage the classroom?
- Does the teacher think that there is any bullying involved?
- For academic issues, what extra help has the teacher been giving informally?
- Is the classroom overcrowded?
- When, specifically, did it happen? Recess? While walking in line to the cafeteria? In math?
- If the issue is behaviors outside the classroom, try to find other staff who might be familiar and talk to them. For example, usually several teachers monitor the classes during recess. See if you can talk to one of those other teachers. If the problem is at lunch, ask the cafeteria monitors. Usually the teachers get a lunch break and are not present at lunch.
2. Write an email to request an evaluation in all problem areas.
Now that you have your facts. If you feel that the problem is anything but bullying, it’s time to write “the email.” For bullying, you write a different email, but that’s a different blog post.
Write an email to the principal and copy the teacher. In the email say:
Dear Principal So & So,
My daughter Jane is a ___ grader in Mrs. ______ class.
Now you will give summary details of your concerns in short bullet points. Now is not the time to write an encyclopedia. Here are some examples:
Behavior: I am very concerned because my son has received ___ many reports of bad behaviors in class. He has used bad language, not stayed in his assigned area, hit another student . . . (describe the specific behaviors)
Academics: I am very concerned because my daughter’s English grade was surprisingly low. Her first 6 weeks progress reports is failing.
Now state what you see at home.
Behavior: This is surprising because neither his father nor I see this behavior at home when he plays with other children.
Academic: This surprises me because we read to her daily, and she loves the stories. She often reads the stories to us and home and writes her own stories.
Now state that you have met with the teacher:
On date you met with the teacher I met with Ms. Teachly, and I feel that she has done what she can to help the situation.
Now you are going to formally request the special ed evaluation.
I think that my child may require additional supports beyond what Ms. Teachly can reasonably offer as the classroom teacher. I would like to request that the school evaluate my child for special ed services.
[NOTE: It is up to the parent to ask the school to evaluate ALL areas of concern. If you don’t ask specifically for anything else, the school will only do 1) academic testing and 2) an IQ eval (called a cognitive evaluation) .
Other possible areas of concern that you can request the school to evaluate. Include absolutely everything you can think of. My child also
- Is disorganized & not keeping up with homework (possible executive function problem)
- is misbehaving at school (this should trigger a functional behavior assessment)
- doesn’t have any (or many) friends (possible social skills issue)
- often express fear about failing a test (possible anxiety issues)
- very sloppy handwriting, could even write letters backwards or upside down (possible dysgraphia or dyslexia)
- having a really hard time in math (possible dys-calcula)
- doesn’t speak clearly (possible speech impairment)
- hyperactive or having trouble focusing (possible ADHD)
- has a diagnosed medical condition like diabetes, seizure disorder, etc. (will need a nursing plan/care plan)
- doesn’t seem to hear very well
- doesn’t seem to see very well
Close the email by giving your availability to sign the consent forms.
Please let me know when I can stop by the school to sign the consent forms for you to start the evaluation process. I am quite eager to get started.
Send the email and keep a copy of the sent email in the folder you keep emails for school.
3. Sign the Consent Forms.
If you do not have a response from the school within 10 school days to sign consent forms, then contact the district special education director. Look on the district website, find the page for special education, and forward the email that you sent to the principal. Tell the special education director that you have not heard anything from the school about when you can sign the consent forms.
For academic problems, the school will often respond first that they will want to put the child into RTI, which stands for Response to Intervention. This is an intensified teaching trial to see whether the teacher’s approach is the issue. Agree, but insist that you want to sign the evaluation consent anyway. RTI is not supposed to last longer than 6 weeks. However, a lot of Texas districts and teachers are very confused about what RTI is and sometimes kids stay there for way too long without the help that they need.
For non-academic issues, you may have to press the school to have you come in and sign the consent forms. Usually for serious behaviors, hitting, leaving the classroom, foul language, the school will be very anxious to sign the forms.
4. Research the evaluations your child will receive
In Texas, the school has 45 school days to complete the evaluation report. Set aside some time when you can do a little research. You want to research the evaluations that will make up the FIE your child is receiving (they should be noted in the consent form).
When you signed the consent form, you can ask the evaluator which tests they will be doing on your child. For example, to determine IQ, some districts use the Wechsler and others use the Stanford-Binet. Every test has a website that explains the test and what the results can mean.
5. Read about IEP meetings and parent rights at those meetings
These meetings can be downright scary for parents when they first walk in. I have seen ARD meetings with as many as twenty-six school staff present. That is intimidating. Especially when the special terminology and all those initials like LRE, FIE, PLAAFP, etc. start flying around. Most initial meetings will have between 5 – 8 people from the district. As the parent, you have been granted a lot of power by the law. The more you research about the meeting before hand, the more you will be able to use it to help you get what your child needs. Take a friend or hire an advocate for that meeting.
It can take up to 3 months to complete an FIE. Use this time between signing the consent form and the date of the meeting, you to research:
- your child’s issues (maybe your child already has a medical diagnosis and you’re trying to get the school to recognize it),
- what happens in an IEP/ARD meeting
- what is the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP
- what your rights are as a parent
Join a local FaceBook group and talk to parents about their experiences. Call the local parent support group and see if there are any trainings you can attend. Don’t wait until the week of the meeting to ask these questions.
6. Have one of the evaluators explain the evaluations BEFORE you have a formal meeting with the school
Usually evaluation reports are 20 – 60 pages long. That’s a lot of material to try and absorb at a meeting. Request the person who had you sign consent forms go over the report with you before the formal meeting at school so that you can ask detailed questions about the recommendations and the charts in the report without feeling put on the spot.
Pay attention to the evaluation recommendations
At the end of the report, there will be one of three endings. Either:
- The report says the student doesn’t qualify for special education services. OR
- The report says the student needs supports, but these supports can be handled by a 504 plan. OR
- The report says the student qualifies for special education under one or more of the 13 legal categories. (NOTE: there is a bad habit of saying that the school “has diagnosed” my child. Only doctors diagnose. Schools designate a special ed label)
7. Talk to someone from an advocacy organization if you have any questions or disagree with what the evaluation recommends
If you disagree with what the report says, you can sign the paperwork disagree. If you don’t have an advocate at that point, hire one. There are a lot of possible things that can happen, and you need someone experienced with the process to guide you.
8. Meet with the school for the “evaluation meeting” Take someone knowledgeable with you to this meeting.
Record the meeting using the Otter AI app or the voice memo feature on your phone. Take a list of questions with you to the meeting. Do not be embarrassed to ask about anything that you don’t understand. It is the school’s responsibility to explain it to you. Don’t let the school rush you through the meeting.
9. Agree or disagree with what the school proposes
At the end of the meeting, you must sign the paperwork. You can sign disagree if you don’t like the evaluation, the recommendations of the evaluation, the designation of 504 or IEP plan, the disability category assigned, the placement of the student, or the school. If you sign disagree, hire an advocate, because procedures can be tricky and complicated.
A Word About 504 Plans
While not special education, 504 plans can provide powerful supports for your child. The main problem with them, is that parent’s rights are not as strongly outlined in the 504 law as they are in the law that governs special education. So the school staff can meet and design the plan without the parent. It can be difficult to know if the plan is being properly implemented. In Texas, often it is not. Students with ADHD and dyslexia are served under 504 (despite the fact that dyslexia is a legally designated learning disability). It’s also a big enough topic to be it’s own article.
The right evaluation can mean the difference between your child receiving thousands of dollars of services they need or falling through the cracks. Don’t go into an evaluation meeting uninformed.