The Special Education Process
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
It is the rare student who goes through school without experiencing some kind of problem. The problem may be relatively minor — a reprimand by a teacher — or it may be more serious — repeating a grade. The problem may be short-term — ridicule from a classmate — or it may be of long duration — a learning disability.
Learning problems come in many shapes and sizes. A student can have difficulty with a particular subject, with a specific area that affects many subjects (for example, a visual perceptual deficiency), or with academic work in general (for example, a slow learner). A student may have good intellectual ability but have a problem concentrating for a sustained period. A student may be anxious or distressed and be unable to invest fully in schoolwork.
Each problem, whether small or large, poses a dilemma for the parents: what steps, if any, should they take to help their child?
In trying to help your child, start at the most basic level: your child’s study and homework habits. Impress upon your child the importance of homework and convey that its completion takes priority over other activities. Work out with your child a homework routine which is compatible with his or her schedule and which suits your child. Some children can complete homework right after school; others need a break. Also make sure to provide a home setting conducive to study. Most children work better in a quiet, well-lit setting free of distraction (although some can study effectively with background noise).
If you have already done this and your child is still running into problems, it’s time to contact the teacher. The teacher may provide perspective about your child’s performance. She may tell you that what you think is a problem is not a problem, or that your child is having difficulty in one specific area but otherwise is progressing as expected, or that the problem is more extensive than you thought. Talking with the teacher will also help you assess her sensitivity to the problem and give you an opportunity to apprise her of information relevant to your child’s school performance.
Discuss with the teacher whether the problem may be related to a lack of maturity rather than to a learning problem. Children in the early elementary grades (kindergarten through third) may have difficulty with academic tasks because of a delay in cognitive development, especially if they are young relative to their classmates. Many of these children soon catch up.
This meeting should result in some concrete plan, jointly developed, about how to respond: the decision may be to provide parental reinforcement of specific skills being taught in school; or to back off from working with your child; or to change the teaching approach; or to revise your child’s schedule; or to place your child in a remedial program; or to recommend that your child be evaluated to determine if special education is warranted.
What is Special Education?
These words — “special education” — elicit anxiety, even panic, in some parents. It may lessen your anxiety to know that you do not lose influence over your child’s educational program when your child enters a special education program. Rather, parents must be involved at every step of the special education process. This is not just sound educational practice; it is the law!
An evaluation of your child for special education cannot proceed without your consent. Nor can your child be placed in a special education program without your written agreement. Moreover, you are expected to participate in the development of your child’s special education program.
Special education is individualized education for children with educational disabilities. The instruction may occur in a range of settings, but must be precisely matched to their educational needs and adapted to their learning style. Special education is founded on the premise that all children with disabilities will be able to learn, regardless of the nature or severity of their disability.
Who Qualifies for Special Education?
Special education students comprise a large and diverse group with a broad spectrum of learning and behavioral characteristics. One child may have cerebral palsy but have exceptional creative writing ability; another may have a neurological disability and have motor and communication problems; another may have a reading problem which has engendered feelings of frustration, discouragement and low self-esteem; still another may have emotional and behavioral problems but have above-average reading skills. With greater public awareness of learning disabilities, the numbers of students in special education programs has increased dramatically.
The distinguishing characteristic of special education students is that they cannot learn effectively in their areas of special need when instructed with regular education methods and materials. Special education is not for children with physical handicaps unless those handicaps impede their school performance. The key is whether the student is able to learn in a regular class setting using the regular class curriculum. If not, then special education may be needed.
If your child is referred for evaluation, a school official, usually the principal, will contact you and request a meeting to explain the basis for the referral, the evaluation procedures, and your due-process rights. The principal will then ask for your written consent to conduct the evaluation; the evaluation cannot proceed without your signature. Your consent at this point only authorizes the school district to evaluate your child; placement in a special education program is a separate step requiring further consent.
You can request a referral for evaluation through a letter to the principal of your child’s school. While the school is not obligated to honor your request, it must at least review your child’s educational status and determine whether he or she is a likely candidate for special education. If so, the district must conduct the evaluation; if not, the district may refuse your request although it must inform you in writing of its reason.
The evaluation will be conducted by a group of professionals which make up an evaluation team. This team will evaluate your child’s intellectual ability, social and emotional status, and academic skills. Through testing, the team will look for evidence of a learning disability. Your perspective will also be sought to gain an understanding of the child’s developmental history, family background, and social adjustment. A medical examination may also be conducted.
The evaluation team may determine that other evaluations, for example, a psychiatric or neurological evaluation, are needed to gain further understanding of your child’s difficulties. The evaluation team, upon completing its evaluations, will review all the assessment results and determine whether your child is appropriate for special education. The team will arrange a meeting with the parents and the teacher and share the evaluation results.
Developing Your Child’s Program
Once you and school officials agree upon your child’s eligibility for special education, you are ready to participate in the development of the special education program, what is commonly called the Individualized Education Program or the IEP. An IEP is a written document required for each special education student which outlines in detail the program of individualized instruction the child is to receive. The school district must implement the IEP as written and without cost to the parents.
The IEP is the blueprint for your child’s program. It determines the type of program your child will receive, how much time during the day your child will be in special and regular education, and what related services (for example, speech therapy or counseling) your child will receive. You are an important part of the group (including the evaluation team and the teacher) that develops the IEP. It is not an exaggeration to say that this IEP meeting may be the most important school meeting you attend.
The special education program cannot begin without your written agreement. If you withhold your consent, the district may respect your wishes (in which case your child would not receive special education services) or it may appeal your decision at a due-process hearing. Once implemented, the IEP must be reviewed annually at a meeting with the parents. At this meeting you will decide whether to change the program or keep it the same.
Federal law requires that school districts reevaluate each special student at least once every three years. This reevaluation results in a determination whether your child continues to be eligible for special education. If the answer is yes, your child remains eligible for special education. If the answer is no, your child is returned to a regular education program.