Now that the dust has settled from the whirlwind first few weeks of a new school year, parents of students in special education should revisit their child’s Individual Education Plan to make sure it’s still meeting the child’s needs.
Parents shouldn’t assume that an IEP drawn up in April still meets their child’s needs in October. Some students make gains over the summer vacation that make the goals set in the spring outdated. Others might be struggling to adjust to the demands of a new grade, or a different teacher, and might need some additional support.
I recently spoke with Sheldon Horowitz, director of learning disabilities resources at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, about what parents of students in special education should do one to two months into a new school year. Here are excerpts of that conversation.
MW: What do parents need to do one to two months into a new school year?
SH:At the end of each school year you go through an annual review and look at the IEP and ask, “Does it need to be updated? Do we all agree that these are the things we’re working on?” Then something else happens during the summer. Kids come back to school, and after a month or two, it’s important to look at the IEP and say, “Is it working? Are the goals still appropriate? Did they become a better reader over the summer, or get better at paying attention? What do we know that is different about that child in the four to five months between?” ... If a child is receiving special education services of any sort, I would talk to that provider and say can we talk or meet in person and go over the IEP. ... IEPs are about a child’s progress ... and they are partnerships or agreements between the school and the family. As a child moves on in his educational career, I would include him in the process as much as possible. I would always be testing the waters about to what extent a child can be included in the IEP process. The better they’re able to develop self-advocacy skills, the sooner they can build the ability to articulate what they need. That can’t be done soon enough or in too much of a robust way.
MW: What are some signs that parent need to make some changes or tweak things?
SH: I always look at a child not just through the lens of academic performance, but if they’re not liking math, writing, social studies, there’s got to be a reason. It might be that they feel like they’re in trouble. Anxiety might be a signal that something is not going right. Talking to your child about what’s going on at school and listening to them is really important. Use that as an emotional barometer that might point to a needed tweak in an IEP. ... Certainly if a child is in a special education program and part of what they’re getting are accommodations like extra time or calculators, see whether or not they feel good about those accommodations. Are they working for them? ... If the child says “I’m not using them,” maybe that’s a conversation you need to have with the IEP team.
MW: What kinds of things can parents ask to change?
SH: It could be something as big as “Don’t pull my child out, have him work in a group inside the classroom.” It could be the type of instruction. If the school says they are working on a literacy program, and you know there are skills your child hasn’t yet mastered but aren’t in the curriculum, if you know that those are things that will help your child and the school hasn’t targeted them on the IEP, you can say, “Here’s what I’d like to see you do some of or more of.” Parents can really be in the driver’s seat.
MW: Should parents nitpick about hours or minutes of service, or focus on the big picture instead?
SH: It’s a combination. Young children often have reading help and speech/language help and occupational therapy help. All of that help can pull the child out of what otherwise would have been a well-balanced day and become overwhelming. Minutes might make a difference if they’re blocked, spread out or targeted in a certain way. I’d say look at the entire thing and make decisions about the priorities. It may be that some OT work can be incorporated into gym class or the science program, or sent home for parents to work on. Some of that will fluctuate.
MW: How can parents set up a good working relationship with their child’s teacher?
SH: Initiate a discussion when there is no problem. Don’t wait for the child to be slipping underneath a ton of work or falling behind on a project or doing poorly on tests. Say, ‘I’m here to be a partner to you. What can I do at home? Here’s what you can do based on what I’m seeing at home.” It can be once a week, an e-mail or a note in the bookbag. ... Teachers are really busy, parents are really busy. The hard thing is to figure out how to get those busy schedules together and find a time to coincide.
For more information on helping children with learning disabilities, visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities Web site.