Throughout Chicagoland families are transitioning from summer vacation mode to back to school. Typically, this means shopping for new clothes, backpacks, school supplies and getting used to getting up early again, but for families of kids with special needs it also means preparing to negotiate with the school yet again.
Terms like IEP, 504, “appropriate education” and “quarterly benchmarks” are core tools of the “special education” toolbox and every parent or guardian should do their best to understand those terms and their child’s rights them in order to advocate most effectively for their child. Many parents mistakenly believe they have to go along with whatever the school district says, but that is not so. Parents have the right to be heard regarding their child’s educational plan.
Working with the school and social service entities is seldom easy and many families find it challenging or intimidating. Time and resources are always limited, but now more than ever it is crucial that the loved ones of kids with special needs take a proactive stance. The current fiscal crisis here in Illinois is hitting social services, healthcare and education particularly hard with school closings, cuts to funding and the elimination or “consolidation” of services for special education occurring throughout Chicagoland. Here’s what you can do:
- Do your best to understand your child’s special needs. Educate yourself and have a good sense of how your child is progressing as measured by report cards, standardized test results, behavioral incident reports and prior Individual Education Program (IEP) documents.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. But, more important, have a structure in place for written communication, whether it’s notebook coming back and forth in a backpack or an exchange of emails. This is helpful information/evidence for an IEP meeting.
- Talk to other parents and guardians. The exchange of information can be a surprisingly rich source of information.
- Consult with professionals as needed. Doctors, therapists, tutors, lawyers each may have a role to play in the process and each will have a specialized perspective that you can benefit from. Provide any updated independent evaluation performed outside of school, whether it’s a psychological evaluation, an evaluation from a developmental pediatrician, or a private speech pathologist. However, it’s a team effort and parents are part of the team so their opinions are just as valid and relevant as the teachers and other professionals. Parents can request testing at any time and the school district must comply in a timely manner. If the parents feel the testing administered by the school district is invalid, they can request an independent evaluation by an unbiased third-party at district expense.
- Always attend parent teacher meetings (IEP meetings, quarterly conferences, etc) and ask questions—what is the most minutes the school district will provide for speech services? What is the difference between the resource room and a contained instructional classroom? What is the difference between the school district program and the township program?