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Dealing with school problems...

Updated on December 3, 2010

Dealing with school problems

So, your child is struggling at school, what is the first step?

The first few steps may seem obvious, but they're important, so, stick with me. Ask your child what's up. This is important for 2 reasons, the first is that they may actually tell you, and the second is, the more thoroughly you understand the problem, the more accurately you can convey this to others when you are trying to help your child. Then, talk with the teacher. Most teachers are truly interested in what you have to say, but are pressed for time so the clearer and more to the point you are the better. Try to formulate your concerns and consider writing them down, pay particular attention to behaviors, those are the concrete symptoms which will form the basis of any interventions.

Once you're past this more informal stage, the next step is usually called an SST or student study team meeting. Your child's teacher/s will be present and you will have a chance to formalize your concerns and talk about what can be done with the teacher. If these interventions are not successful, the next step is usually a 504 plan. A 504 plan is a piece of legislation under the Civil Rights Act which states that all children should have equal opportunities for education. This bill states that the school must provide accommodations to a child who has a disability. Their criteria for disability is much broader than that used in Special Education and basically states that anyone who shows impairment which impedes their education is entitled to appropriate accommodations. So, you can qualify for a 504 plan while you are still in the general education system. If you have a child with significant difficulties, you can ask for a 504 plan to be put in place pending an assessment for Special Education. A 504 plan can contain pretty much any type of accommodations/interventions which you and your child's teacher feel are appropriate and it is legally binding, just like an IEP. Many kids with ADHD who do not qualify for special education services can obtain a pretty comprehensive plan this way and avoid the additional hassle of obtaining Special Education services.

To begin the special education process, the parent or guardian needs to write a letter to the school formally requesting an evaluation. Click on the link for an example of such a letter. Make sure you include all your contact details, your child's name, birth date, class and teacher. State your concerns, with behavioral examples wherever possible, note how long the problems have been occurring and what steps have already been taken to try and deal with the problem. Again, heavy on the behavioral examples, it will make your journey through the system a lot quicker and easier. In order to get certain services the people within the system have to justify the reason you get them, and the more concretely you describe things and the more examples you give, the easier it is for them, and therefore for you.

Many parents find it difficult not to become defensive during this process. Parents feel bad when they're kids are struggling, they usually feel that it has something to do with them, so they feel guilty too, and they feel embarrassed because they worry that others will say it's their fault. So, it's really understandable that people enter the system feeling defensive, guilty, uncertain and confused. So, while this is a normal and understandable reaction, it really works to your disadvantage in a couple of ways.

Your perceptions, it turns out, actually have more to do with your actions than objective reality. Whatever you see is colored by your experiences and emotions, so when you are anxious or defensive, you have a tendency not only to magnify and remember any negatives, but also seek experiences which confirm your beliefs – and wouldn't it be nice if it was all the teacher's fault. The reality is that, as important as teachers are in your child's development, if your child is having multiple problems in multiple situations, its probably more than that. That doesn't mean that it's the parent's fault either and actually, with the exception of diagnostic assessment, it's really more important to find out how to help your child, rather than why the problem is there.

The more you approach this as a collaborative effort to help your child, and become an educated and informed advocate for your child, the easier the process will be for you. Let's face it, this is an uncomfortable process to begin with, everybody wants kids to well and feel good about themselves, so know your rights, get support (I'm a huge fan of parent advocacy groups, they really know their stuff, can save your hours of frustration and be a shoulder to cry on when need be).

It's important for those involved with you and your child to understand both how long the problem has been going on and how it has affected your child and family. One of the requirements for special education services is that the child show these impairments over a long period of time and over several contexts, so if you can show this it helps with the screening and makes sure you get quicker access to services.

Once the school receives your letter they have 50 days within which to provide an assessment of your child and meet with you to discuss the results. Again, the clearer you are initially, the more it helps the assessment team zero in on what the problem may potentially be. At this time you'll probably be bombarded with questionnaires and more questions. Again, the assessment is not focused on your parenting skills it's about trying to get the most comprehensive view of the child (and you'd be surprised, the darndest things can be important). Your child will also be assessed by a school psychologist, possibly an occupational therapist and/or speech and hearing professional depending on the focus of the evaluation.

Once all the information is collected, a meeting, known as an IEP or individualized educational plan. Your child's teachers, those involved in the assessment and a school administrator will be present. Feel free to take notes and I always recommend taking a friend or parent advocate. These meetings provide a lot of information, acronyms, jargon and legalese which is often difficult to understand and take in, along with the fact that most parents both want the relief and fear the future if their concerns are validated, so it's hard for people to remember what's been said clearly. You will be given a copy of your rights and you have the option of not signing off on the IEP immediately (you do need to sign that you were present), but you can take it home and review it as long as you bring it back within 24 hours.

Again, as hard as these meetings can be, they really are aimed at helping your child and making sure they get a good education. If your child is a little older, it may be a good idea to have them attend part of the meeting. After all, this is a plan for their education and the more they feel they have some input, the more invested they are likely to be in the suggestions. Once signed, the IEP is a legally binding document, so make sure you're clear about it and have what you want.

You'll be given feedback from those who assessed your child and they will discuss whether you're child meets the criteria for special education. There are several ways which a child can qualify, due to significant developmental delay, significant physical or health related impairments, learning disabilities or severe emotional disturbance. The classification basically helps decide which agencies will be assisting you and what your services will look like. At the initial IEP, if your child qualifies, you'll also receive recommendations regarding interventions and potential resources, all of which are provided at no charge to you.

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The legislation behind these services is known as IDEA and guarantees every child a right to a free and fair education. You'll probably hear these terms batted around a lot as you navigate the system, so it's helpful to know where it all comes from.

Once your child has qualified for Special Education services, their goals and accommodations are written into the IEP and, once signed, this is a legal document and you have every right to ensure that the school is providing services in accordance with what was decided. As the parent, you can call an IEP at any time. Your child will automatically be scheduled for a review each year and will be reassessed every three years.

This can be a good time to revise and fine tune your plan. Has your child met their goals? If not, why not and what could be done to help. Schools really appreciate parent input and your interventions can be as creative as you like and involve whichever agencies are assisting you. You are also entitled to door to door transportation, which is often a really big thing for moms of struggling kids who are already overloaded with doctors, psychiatrists, occupational therapist or speech professional appointments as it is.

Another important tidbit, if you child is placed in Special Education as a result of a behavioral or emotional disorder and is threatened with expulsion, you have the right to a manifestation hearing to determine whether the behavior was related to your child's disorder. If the team concludes that this was behavior resulting from an emotional/mental disorder, the school may not expel the student. For kids with severe behavioral problems, this can be a life saver as usually they have failed at numerous schools and day care centers due to their behavior and are often threatened with expulsion.

Special Education is a complex system and there are many laws within Special Education focusing on particular services, for example if your child qualifies under an emotional disturbance you may be provided with psychotherapy, case management and access to a psychiatrist.


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