Guest post from Rachelle Willgren
So, you’ve noticed that there’s something “off” about your child in school. You’re concerned about his well-being in the classroom. Or, perhaps you already know that your child has special needs, but either you have new teachers, new “issues,” or something isn’t getting across and your child isn’t thriving as they should be.
Here’s some tips & tricks for how to communicate with your child’s teachers and other school personnel when he/she has special needs. If you’re just now getting started with the whole special education procedure or are just beginning have concerns that your child may need some special education services, there’s tons of information below on what the special education program is and what it does for your child(ren), and what you, as a parent, need to do.
First of all, and most importantly, SPEAK UP! If you haven’t already talked with your child’s teachers, principal, classroom aides, or other personnel, NOW IS THE TIME. DO NOT WAIT. If you haven’t already started the process for a Special Education Evaluation, you need to do it NOW. In many schools, there is a long wait list for children trying to get assessments and evaluations, as well as students already in the special education system who need their yearly assessments & meetings, so contact your school’s Special Education department right away and get on their radar. This is a long and detailed process regulated by the federal government, so you have to do it a certain way and in a certain order. That’s a whole other article in itself! If you don’t know who to go to or where to start, the front office staff at your child’s school should be able to guide you in the right direction.
In case you do not know, Special Education is a broad term that is used by the federal government to describe the “specially designed instruction” that a child with a disability needs to meet their unique situation. Basically, this means that each child needs their own individualized plan to accommodate these needs. To be eligible for special education, a student must meet these two requirements:
- Have a disability as laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) categories, and
- Have a need for specially designed instruction, meaning they need extra help to make progress in school and benefit from general instruction.
(P.S. the categories in IDEA are autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech/language impairment, and traumatic brain injury)
Okay, so now that you’ve started the process, or you’ve already been through the process to get your child into the Special Education Program, here are some things you need to do to be able to communicate well with your child’s teachers and other staff members.
1 – STAY ORGANIZED.
I cannot stress this enough. There is SO MUCH paperwork in the Special Education realm and if you’re not careful, you’ll drown in it. Have a special email folder dedicated to only special education topics: meetings, communication with the school, documentation, forms, etc. Many forms and documents that you encounter are required by federal regulations. When you initiate a conversation by email, make sure your subject line is clear and concise so that you can easily find it again later, and CC everyone who needs to be a part of the conversation.
For all of the other papers you’ll need to keep track of: Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings, report cards/progress reports, documentation, conferences, notes between you and teachers… anything you have a “hard copy” for, have an easily accessible folder for all of this. Keep it as organized as possible. Personally, I have a hanging file folder just for Special Education, and I have color-coded sticky notes or folders. I sort it by school year. I have one folder for our initiation process and evaluations, a folder for our first half year of Pre-K where I’ve put his ARD meeting notes and all of his progress reports, and a folder for this last year of Pre-K with this year’s documents. Keep everything in chronological order so you can easily find it when you need it.
It is also helpful to keep a folder of any doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions, prescription information, and anything involved with your child’s physical or mental health. Sometimes this may come in handy, especially if your child has a physical disability or needs testing such as a hearing or vision test.
If you like having all of your information in one place, simply print out all of your email documents and include them in your folders. That way you can easily find everything you need in one place.
Have an easily-accessible document that has all of the contact information for everyone you may need to contact regarding your child’s special needs. This includes your child’s Teacher(s), Paraprofessional(s), Diagnostician, School Child Psychologist (if applicable), Special Education Director, Counselor(s), Principal/Vice Principal, any Therapists, Coaches, Doctors, or anyone else who works with your child regularly and may have input. Make sure to keep it updated throughout the school year and especially between school years.
Finally, use a family calendar to keep track of meetings, conferences, appointments, etc. For us, I use a special color pen for each of us. Daddy gets green, my oldest son gets orange, my youngest son gets red, I get blue, and family events are purple. I also have a special color for school events. I keep a family calendar out and open on our “communication station” at home so Daddy and I are always on the same page about any upcoming events. (This has come in handy for all aspects of life, not just school.)
2 – DOCUMENT EVERYTHING
Any time you have a conversation with anyone at your child’s school about anything relating to your child’s special needs, WRITE IT DOWN. Have a notebook or even just a file on your computer where you write down the Ws: When your discussion/email took place, Who it was with, Why you had the conversation, and What you need to do next. Keep this log in your folder with your other documents. In the event you have a conversation on-the-fly, write yourself a note, a post it, or even type a quick note on your phone so you don’t forget. Don’t just assume you or your child’s teachers will remember, because, well, life happens. The Special Education department staff will keep track of conversations you have with them, whether in person, by phone, or by email, but that does not extend to teachers and other faculty.
3 – KNOW THE LINGO
Oh, there are SO MANY acronyms in the Special Education realm. It can be very overwhelming, especially for newbies. There’s a list of common acronyms at the end of the article and it’s helpful to learn what they all mean because you’ll come across them frequently. The teachers, counselors, therapists, and administration at your child’s school use these every day, all the time, so they sometimes spit them out not realizing you don’t know what they mean! (And it’s OKAY to ask them what that means.)
4 – KNOW WHAT IS IN YOUR CHILD’S IEP (Individualized Educational Program)
Your child’s IEP is the most important thing about your special education experience. Keep in mind when it expires (most of them usually last a calendar year), when your child needs to be reevaluated, and when their next ARD committee meeting (Admission, Review, and Dismissal) is scheduled. Know the IEP backwards and forwards, inside and out. Make sure it still works and “fits” for your child.
Keep track of when your child’s IEP needs to be reviewed. Most schools are very good about making sure everyone gets done on time, but if you’re concerned, make sure you speak to the school to get your child’s meeting on their schedule.
If your child has fallen way behind, or gone above and beyond the goals you and your ARD team have set and you’re still months away from your next evaluation, SAY SOMETHING! Contact the school ASAP about holding an IEP review meeting.
Finally, GO TO YOUR CHILD’S ARD MEETINGS! You need to be there with your ARD team. They can’t help you or your child if you are not there. They need your feedback and your ideas. They need to know how your child behaves and acts at home and when they’re not at school. The more they know about your child, the more they can help them. IDEA establishes that parents are EQUAL members of the ARD team, so this gives you an “official” voice in helping shape your child’s IEP. Make sure you ask questions, share concerns, and be an advocate for your child. You will work together with the other members to make the best plan for your child. Most ARD meetings are held at the school or in a district administrative building and last about an hour or so depending on how many people need to attend (more on that below).
If you feel it’s necessary or will help your child, bring along someone else to the ARD meeting. For my son’s last meeting, I brought my mom, who ended up being very helpful because she had a lot of input and good questions. (For reference, the people at these meetings are the child’s parents/caregivers, a special education teacher, a general education teacher, the principal/assistant principal, the diagnostician (the person qualified to interpret evaluations and implementations), an interpreter (if necessary), and any other staff members, such as speech or occupational or physical therapists, who represent any services your child may/does receive.
Your child’s IEP needs to be reviewed at least once per calendar year, but an ARD meeting may be held any other time deemed necessary. You’ll need an ARD to review additional assessments, for example. Note that many smaller concerns can be simply addressed through Parent-Teacher Conferences, but your child’s teachers will know when it’s appropriate to call an ARD meeting. If you’re unsure, feel free to contact someone in the special education department. That’s what they’re there for.
Sometimes, an issue arises where you as the parent may not agree with the decision of the ARD committee. In these instances, a 10-day recess is given before any other plans are implemented. Your school’s Special Education Director will know how to handle this if it comes up. Most of the time, your concerns will be resolved within the ARD meeting itself, as your child’s teachers and therapists will value your input. In my experience, my son’s teachers, speech therapist, and occupational therapist came up with several ideas and we discussed each one in turn. Most of them were pretty spot-on, but I specifically asked to tweak a couple of them and I actually asked our Occupational Therapist to add a few things to her plan. It was not a big deal at all and everything was handled very civilly and professionally.
I want to pause here and make a note that IDEA states that each student must have an education program in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). I like to call this the path of the least resistance. What this means is that any student with a disability should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers as much as possible. Students with disabilities should have access to the general education curriculum whenever possible as well. Finally, students should be provided with any supplementary aids and services deemed necessary to achieve their educational goals as set up by their IEP when they are placed in settings with their nondisabled classmates.
Your child may be placed in mainstream (general education classroom), inclusion support (special education teachers in the general education classroom), resource instructional (direct instruction outside of the general education classroom), life skills (in or out of the general classroom), or behavior intervention class (outside of general education classroom) settings. It is vital that you know where and when these will be occurring. It is possible your child may need homebound/hospital settings as well, and this will also be determined during your child’s ARD meeting and you will have equal input in these areas as well.
For 3-5 year olds, a special Preschool Program called PPCD (Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities) provides instruction for students with delays in communication, self-care, social-emotional, cognition, and psychomotor areas. PPCD may be self-contained, inclusive/blended classroom, and/or kindergarten with Special Education support.
5 – TALK TO YOUR CHILD
Your child probably doesn’t even know that there’s anything “different” about them — or maybe they do and that’s okay too. My oldest son has Autism, Speech Delays, Fine and Gross Motor Delays, and Sensory Processing Disorder. We have found that telling him about these has helped him process why he has to leave his class for his Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, etc. We’re very open and honest with him about what his special needs are and why he sometimes gets “special treatment” or why others in his class may get “special treatment” as well. This has helped us tremendously.
It is also helpful to ask your child how they are doing in school. Ask if they’re getting along with their teachers and classmates. Ask if they’re struggling in any classes or with anything specific. Ask if they like doing certain activities better than others. Ask if they’re happy or sad during school. Just get them talking and listen to what they have to say. You’re not at school with them (usually), so you won’t know if your child has any concerns unless you talk to them. This will help you determine if you need to discuss some things with your child’s teacher(s).
6 – TALK (AND LISTEN) TO YOUR CHILD’S TEACHERS
Yes, this article is about how to communicate with your child’s teachers, but you can’t do that without TALKING and LISTENING to them. If your child’s teacher calls or contacts you about something that happened or something your child did or didn’t do at school, LISTEN to what they have to say. Don’t get defensive. Don’t fly off the handle. Stay calm and PROCESS the information. They are in no way trying to slight you or your parenting. They’re there to help your child and they WANT him/her to succeed. When a teacher contacts you about your child, listen to everything they have to say and then ask questions. It’s OKAY to say you don’t understand, and it’s OKAY to ask for some time to process what they have to say. If you can’t think of any questions to ask right then, or you feel too emotional to talk at the moment, then tell them you’ll get back to them and find a time and place that works for both of you. You need to WORK TOGETHER to help your child. Some questions you can ask include:
- “Is my child having trouble in every subject or just some/one of them?”
- “Does this happen all the time, once in a while, or rarely?”
- “Is he/she just not doing what’s asked of him/her, or are they frustrated and can’t handle it?”
- “What do you think needs to be done?”
- “What can I do from home to address this issue?”
- “Are there any other classmates involved?”
- “What exactly is my child doing? Interrupting? Crying? Complaining? Running around? Being noisy? Are they doing these things at the same time(s) every day?”
- “Could this be some sort of ‘performance anxiety?’”
If your child’s teachers bring up concerns that your child may need some extra help or some special education services, DO NOT BE OFFENDED! Again, they are in no way slighting your child or your parenting abilities. Your child’s teachers have seen it all and done it all before; use their years of experience and keep an open heart and an open mind. If there’s any concern that your child may need some special education services, GET THE BALL ROLLING! It’s possible you will go through the whole evaluation process and come out of it not needing any special services, and that’s perfectly fine.
If you cannot give your child’s teacher your full attention at that time, ask if you can reschedule or call back at a more convenient time. You owe it to your child and your child’s teacher to be completely devoted and on-task. When you do meet with your child’s teacher, take notes and don’t interrupt. Teachers put a lot of time and thought into making phone calls and sending emails. They want to make sure they articulate their thoughts and feelings clearly. When your child’s teachers have explained their thoughts, then it’s your turn to share your ideas, thoughts, concerns, and strategies with them. Together you can come up with a plan.
7 – FOLLOW UP
First of all, don’t just look for a quick fix. Children are people too and you can’t expect them to change overnight. Take time to digest what’s going on. Do research if necessary. Talk it over with your family, including your child. Talk it over with any other caregivers, or even coaches, leaders, and anyone who is active in your child’s life. If you think it may help, reach out to other parents who have students in similar situations. This has been one of the greatest resources for me, personally.
Set up a time when you or you and your spouse can meet with your child’s teacher, therapist, or whoever. At the very least, follow up with a note, email, or phone call — and don’t forget to document it! Your child’s teachers will appreciate the effort to stay informed and involved in your child’s school life.
8 – BE INVOLVED
Be at school events whenever you can. Open Houses, Math/Science Nights, Walk-A-Thons, Field Trips, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Class Plays & Performances, and other events are amazing opportunities to see where your child spends most of their day and who they spend them with. If you’re able, ask about being a classroom volunteer. I am the “classroom mom” on Friday mornings for my son’s Pre-K class and not only do I LOVE it, I get to see how my son functions in his classroom and how he interacts with his peers, teachers, and therapists. When I get the chance and it’s not interrupting a session, I’ll quickly ask the SLP (Speech/Language Pathologist) or one of his teachers how my son is doing and if everything is going well (and then I document it!). The teachers and SLP greatly appreciate the active involvement in my son’s life and it’s an easy way to keep track of my son’s progress in between progress reports. You don’t have to become BFFs with your child’s teachers, but at least learn a little about them and how they interact with your child.
9 – STAY INFORMED ABOUT SPECIAL EDUCATION NEWS & LEGISLATION
Staying on top of new special education legislation (federal, state, and local), news, and events is a great way to stay prepared for ARD meetings and strategies. The more you know, the more prepared you are for advocating for your child.
10 – I’LL SAY IT AGAIN, SPEAK UP!
Until scientists develop a way to communicate telepathically, no one will know your concerns about your child unless you TELL THEM! Even if something seems insignificant, it’s worth bringing up. There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle, and the more pieces you have, the clearer picture you will get. It’s possible that one little thing you’re holding back is the one little thing that your child’s teachers or therapists need to make sense of something else.
If you don’t feel like your child’s teachers are listening to you, then SAY SOMETHING. Express your concerns TO THE TEACHERS first. Make sure to document everything and keep it organized. Be polite and respectful and express your concerns that they may not be on the same page as you or may not be quite understanding what you are trying to tell them. Remember they have other students too and, while they love your child, they have others to take care of as well. It’s very possible they don’t even realize that you aren’t satisfied with their level of understanding.
If your concerns are still not getting across, then it’s probably time to take it to the principal. Call the school and ask the best way to communicate with the principal about your concerns. Share your concerns and all of your documentation with the principal and, again, be respectful, polite, and detailed. Make sure to explain how you’ve tried discussing your concerns and waiting it out, but you’re concerned about the quality of your child’s education. Depending on the principal, he/she may set up a meeting or conference with the teacher with or without you. Changing classrooms is a last resort but, unfortunately, it may come to that. It’s really up to the principal and the conditions of your IEP.
If you’re still not satisfied with how your child’s principal is handing things, the next step up is The Special Education Director, and then the Special Education Executive Director, the Associate Superintendent, and then the Superintendent.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: You are your child’s best advocate. You know your child best. If you feel something is off, SPEAK UP.
ABBREVIATIONS AND ACRONYMS:
504: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
ABA: Applied Behavioral Analysis
ABC: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence
ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act
ADD/ADHD: Attention Deficit/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
ADL: Activities of Daily Living
ADR: Alternative Dispute Resolution
APE: Adaptive Physical Education
APR: Annual Performance Report
ARD: Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee
ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder
ASL: American Sign Language
ATA: Assistive Technology Act
AYP: Adequate Yearly Progress
BD: Behavioral Disorder
BIP: Behavioral Intervention Plan
BOE: Board of Education
CAP: Corrective Action Plan
CAPD: Central Auditory Processing Disorder
CAPTA: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act
CBA: Curriculum Based Assessment
CCSS: Common Core State Standards
CDA: Child Development Associate
CEC: Council for Exceptional Children
CF: Cystic Fibrosis
CFR: Code for Federal Regulations
CHIP: Children’s Health Insurance Program
CIFMS: Continuous Improvement and Focused Monitoring System
COP: Community of Practice
CP: Cerebral Palsy
DD: Developmental Delay
DIBELS: Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy
DOE: U.S. Department of Education
DREDF: Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
DS: Down Syndrome
ECE: Early Childhood Education
ECSE: Early Childhood Special Education
ED: Educational Disturbance
EHDI: Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Program
EI: Early Intervention
EIS: Early Intervention Services
ELL: English Language Learner
EPSDT: Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment
ESD: Extended School Day
ESL: English as a Second Language
ESSA: Every Student Succeeds Act
ESY/EYS: Extended School Year/Extended Year Services
FAPE: Free and Appropriate Public Education
FBA: Functional Behavioral Assessment
FC: Facilitated Communication
FEOG: Full Educational Opportunity Goal
FERPA: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
FOIA: Freedom of Information Act
GE: General Education
GT: Gifted and Talented
HI: Hearing Impaired
HoH: Hard of Hearing
IA: Instructional Assistant
IAES: Interim Alternative Educational Setting
ID: Intellectual Disabilities
IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
IEE: Individualized Educational Evaluation
IEP: Individualized Educational Program
IES: Institute of Education Services
IFSP: Individualized Family Service Plan
IHE: Institution of Higher Education
ITCA: Infants and Toddlers Coordinators Association
ITP: Individualized Transition Plan
LD: Learning Disability
LEA: Local Education Agency
LEP: Limited English Proficiency
LRE: Least Restrictive Environment
MD: Muscular Dystrophy
MD/MH: Multiple Disabilities/Multiply Handicapped
MOU: Memorandum of Understanding
NASDSE: National Association of State Directors of Special Education
NCLB: No Child Left Behind
NIH: National Institutes of Health
NIMH: National Institute of Mental Health
OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OCR: U.S. Office for Civil Rights
ODD: Oppositional Defiant Disorder
OHI: Other Health Impairment
OI: Orthopedic Impairment
O&M: Orientation and Mobility Services
OSEP: U.S. Office of Special Education Programs/ DOE
OT/PT/ST: Occupational/ Physical/ Speech Therapy
P&A: Protection and Advocacy
PALS: Peer-Assisted Learning System
PARCC: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers
PBS: Positive Behavioral Supports
PCA: Personal Care attendant
PD: Physical Disability
PDD: Pervasive Developmental Disorder
PII: Personally Identifiable Information
PLAFFP: Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance
PLEP/PLP: Present Level of Educational Performance/ Present Level of Performance
PSRS: Procedural Safeguards and Referral Services/ CDE
PTAC: Parent Technical Assistance Center
PTI: Parent Training and Information Center
PWN: Prior Written Notice
RDA: Results-Driven Accountibilty
RFP: Request for Proposals
RS: Related Services
RSP: Resource Specialist Program
RTI: Response to Intervention
SAS: Supplementary Aids and Services
SB: Spina Bifida
SDC: Special Day Class
SE: Special Education
SEA: Special Education Agency
SEAC: Special Education Advisory Committee
SED: Serious Emotional Disturbance
SELPA: Special Education Local Plan Area
SI: Sensory Integration
SLD: Specific Learning Disability
SLI: Speech/Language Impairment
SLP: Speech Language Pathologist
SPD: Sensory Processing Disorder
SPOA: Specific Power of Attorney
SPED: Special Education
SSDI: Social Security Disability Income
SSIP: State Systemic Improvement Plan
SST: Student Study Team
TANF: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families
TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury
TDD: Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf
TS: Tourette Syndrome
T-TA: Training and Technical Assistance
TWWIIA: Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act
VI: Visual Impairment
VocEd: Vocational Education
VR: Vocational Rehabilitation
WIC: Women, Infants and Children (Special Supplemental Food Program)
About Rachelle: I’m a stay at home mom of two little boys. We will call them Froot Loop and Cocoa Puff. I’m married to the world’s greatest guy, Honey Graham. We have three sweet, crazy dogs. Let’s call them Lucky Charm, Trix, and Fruity Pebbles. We live in a small town in the Texas Hill Country. Find me at http://www.mamawritesreviews.com/.