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How Do You Advocate to Ensure School Success If Your Child Has Special Needs? A Recipe for Obtaining a Comprehensive IEP
Heartfelt gratitude to Kristian Keefer-McNeil, our guest writer this week, a mother of two children with special needs and a mental health and IEP advocate. Kristian also has a website, specialneedskids101.com, that offers valuable parenting information and advice as well as a Facebook page where parents can come together and learn from each other.
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a legal document that describes the learning needs of your special needs child. The document also outlines the specific services the school will provide to help your child succeed academically.
While the IEP process isn't an easy one to navigate, developing this document gives you the assurance that your child will receive special education and/or support services so educational goals can be met. However, it's important to know what's involved, how you can help the process along, and what action you can take if you're not satisfied with the outcome of the evaluation.
Requesting an IEP Evaluation for Your Child
To begin the IEP process, you need to request that the local school district evaluate your child. Generally, for children to qualify for an evaluation, they must fall within one or more of the following 13 disability categories listed in the IDEA—Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:
When asking for an evaluation, you have to provide evidence in the form of progress reports, test scores, graded samples of homework assignments, and medical records supporting your child's need for an IEP. It is also important to point out your specific concerns to the school administrator and show documentation suggesting that your child might have a learning disability or developmental delay, autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In addition, you can also ask your child's teacher, school counselor or pediatrician to make a formal request for an evaluation to determine if your child needs special education services or other accommodations to be able to succeed in school.
If you aren't satisfied with the results of the school's evaluation, you may hire an educator or another qualified professional not employed by your child's school district to perform an educational evaluation. Although school officials do not have to agree with the findings of an independent evaluation, the school must consider the results of that evaluation in its final decision.
Other Special Support Services
If your child has a physical disability or a hearing, vision, speech or language impairment, additional assistance and intervention services may be needed to meet the goals set by the IEP team. Nevertheless, even if a disability can be determined, your child will only be eligible to receive services if the disability in some way restricts his ability to function in school.
Occupational therapy (OT) is a supportive service for which your child may qualify under IDEA. In addition to special education, your child may need help with handwriting or developing other fine motor skills, particularly those related to performing school tasks.
If you have questions about the results, ask which assessment tools the occupational therapist used to evaluate your child. There are several standardized and non-standardized tests a therapist can administer to determine whether your youngster needs OT services. Request more than a single assessment of your child's functional skills.
Physical therapy (PT) is another supportive service children may qualify for if it improves their ability to function in the school environment. Even if they don't need special education services, a physical therapist may recommend modifications and adaptive aids that can improve their school performance.
A therapist may also develop activities that focus on improving balance, postural, and large muscle control to help your child sit upright properly at his desk. This development of gross motor skills also aids in the development of fine motor skills.
To get your child PT services from the school, you must point out how this physical disability interferes with the ability to access and participate in school activities. You can also mention that your child qualifies for PT services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which outlines specific accommodations needed to access educational activities. Section 504 is a federal law that protects your disabled child's rights not to be excluded from participation in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.
Speech or Language Therapy
If your child has a communication disorder, evaluation by a speech-language pathologist may be necessary. Therapists in the public school system generally watch children in the classroom, along with talking to parents and teachers about their observations. In addition, most therapists administer standardized testing.
Speak up: No one Knows Your Child Better Than You
Whether you're concerned about special education classes or other services and therapies that you feel your child needs, you have the right to suggest changes to your child's IEP. The school may not give you all that you request for your child, but that shouldn't stop you from speaking up.
You can learn even more by reading Kristian's blog post, What Not to Do When Working to Obtain the Best IEP for Your Child, here.