Special education

How to get the extra help your child needs

By Mari-Jane Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Registering a child for school usually means showing up with a birth certificate, proof of residence and basic medical records. Five minutes, and you're done.

But for kids who need special education, whether they have an attention disorder, fine motor delays or a more serious medical condition, that process is much more complicated and can begin as early as age 2. Something as simple as advancing to a new grade can mean an army of specialists performing hours of tests and parent interviews in the preceding months.

That all culminates in long, sometimes contentious meetings to hammer out an individualized education plan. The IEP determines such factors as classroom placement, the number of minutes per week a child spends with a speech therapist and whether a child will get extra time on assignments. It can also address extracurricular activities.

Parents are often fraught with worries about what would be best for their child: Should he spend most of his time in a general education program or in a special-education classroom? Will her inability to focus present a problem amid 25 other kids? Adding to the stress, schools aren't always able to provide all of the services a parent would like for their child, because of money and resources.

"Most parents are initially dealing with coming to terms with the fact that their child has a disability," said Pam Wright, a psychotherapist who co-wrote "Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy" (Harbour House Law Press, 2006) with her husband, Pete Wright.

"People are already vulnerable coming in," she said. "They have a lot of anxiety and helplessness and fear about the future. That doesn't set the stage for parents to feel like they are an equal partner in developing an educational program for their child."

We recently spoke with the Wrights and other experts in special education who offered the following suggestions for parents preparing for an IEP meeting.

Know your rights. For example, your child's IEP must include measurable goals; you can request that the IEP committee reconvene at any time to review and tweak the document; and the schools are required to notify a parent, in writing, when they plan to change their child's IEP.

Plenty of books and Internet resources explain the ins and outs of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 2004, which regulates special-education services. Most school systems also hold workshops for parents. Additionally, the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (http://www.peatc.org) has an IEP checklist iPhone application that helps parents access and organize information.

"There's about 350 pages of regulations [that govern the IEP process], and even those are not always followed by the schools," said Cherie Takemoto, executive director of the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center in Alexandria and a co-author of the fourth edition of "Negotiating the Special Education Maze: A Guide for Parents and Teachers" (Woodbine House, 2008).

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