Sunday, July 5, 2015

Steps to Navigating the Special Education Process

     On my last day of work for the 2014-2015 school year while standing in the front office, all anyone could hear was "chirp-chirp-chirp", over and over again. No one knew where the little chirp was coming from. So a wise administrative assistant and a high school mathematics teacher searched for the source of the tiny, yet frantic chirp. They found it! In the outdoor courtyard located in the center of our school was a baby bird trapped inside a drain hole. It was trapped in a very precarious place. It wasn't possible to just reach down and guide him out. Gentle care had to be taken because this bird was so tiny and frail. The two adults put their heads together and from a coat hanger or two, and a manila folder they created two tools to gingerly guide the baby bird, a killdeer, into their manila-folder tool and into the math teacher's hands. This duo then swiftly brought the frightened bird to safety, outside under a bush near the field where the elder killdeer roam! I ran inside to grab my cellphone to take the tiny bird's picture, but by the time I came back this sweet little urchin was running and chirping on the back field just like all of the other killdeer! Can you see him in the picture above?
      Sometimes being the parent of a child who is having difficulty in school is like trying to see a tiny bird through all of those blades of grass! Where do you look? Who do you go to? Who can you trust? You hope that someone will swoop down just like the two adults in my story and will just fix everything! It's not quite that easy to remedy the problem when a child needs academic help,  but the good news is that there is all ready a plan in place to help children who are struggling in school. I've broken the process down into ten steps as a guide to help parents or guardians navigate the special education system.

1)  Talk to your child's teacher about seeing if your child needs to be identified as needing special education services:
     There are two ways that children are possibly identified as needing special education and/or related services. The first way is by the referral of a parent. The second, is by "child find", a mandate from the Individual's with Disabilities Act. (Wrightslaw: The Special Education Law) Child Find requires all school districts to locate, identify, and evaluate all children with disabilities regardless of the severity of their disability. Child Find operates in every state in the U.S.A..
     Again, their are two ways the child can be identified, first by the parents asking for a referral and second, by child find where school professionals such as the teacher or school psychologist may ask for permission for the child to be evaluated. When the parent asks for a referral, it can be done verbally but it's best to place this request in writing. Under the federal IDEA, the evaluation of the child needs to be completed within sixty days after the parent gives consent. Some states have their own time limit which is then takes precedence.

2) The Child is Evaluated:                                   
     The law mandates that the child's initial evaluation must be complete and individual. This means that the evaluation must be only for that specific child and no other. The evaluation must also assess all areas in which are believed to be included in the child's suspected disability.

3) Determination-It is decided if the child is Eligible for Special Education and/or related Services or not:
    A team of educational professionals and the parents or guardians review the child's evaluation results together. As a group, they decide if the child is defined as a "child with a disability" by IDEA. In my years as a special education teacher, I have seen decisions go both ways.  If, however, the parents or guardians do not agree with the results of the eligibility decision, they may ask for a hearing to dispute or challenge the decision.
* steps 4, 5, and 6 run concurrently.

4) When the Child is found Eligible:
     When the child is found to be eligible for special education and/or related services, The school district has thirty days to write an Individualized Education Plan commonly called the IEP.  The IEP is written by a team of professionals such as: the school psychologist, speech pathologist, teacher, CSE Director, the guidance counselor, and anyone else who will provide services for the child such as an occupational therapist or physical therapist.

5)  The IEP meeting is scheduled:
       It is the school district's responsibility to schedule and implement the IEP meeting.The school district must contact and invite all participants including the parents or guardians and depending on the child's age, the child him/herself.  The meeting must be scheduled at a time and a place (usually at the school) where the parents or guardians and professionals can all attend. The parents or guardians must be informed of the meetings purpose and who will be attending. The parents can also invite anyone that they believe has special expertise on their child such as: a family member, a pediatrician, an outside counselor...etc. The goal is that both the school and the parents are on the same page going into the meeting so that everyone involved is well informed and can make the best decisions on behalf of the child's education.

6) The IEP meeting takes place turning a draft IEP into a complete IEP:
     Again, the entire team with the parent's meet to discuss the child's IEP. Often, a draft IEP has been written to guide the process. It's imperative that the parents or guardians give consent for the IEP to be implemented.  If for example, the parent does not agree with the child's new placement (class or school) the parents can further discuss options with the team before consenting to the IEP and the placement. An example of this is, perhaps the professional team feels that the student is best served in a classroom called a 12;1;1 placement. This means twelve students, to one teacher, and one classroom aide. The parents may want the student to stay in the regular education classroom. The team and the parents must then work out an agreement. Perhaps they compromise by keeping the student in the regular education classroom with a special education teacher as a direct consultant in math and English (this means the teacher goes to these classes with the child) and as an indirect consultant (The special education  teacher collaborates and oversees the the remainder of the child's classes) with resource room support for 42 minutes daily and testing accommodations for all tests and quizzes. The Special education teacher would be  the direct consultant teacher in math and English because this is where the child's disability areas are prevalent. Resource room will be a place where the child can work on his/her IEP goals which are in the areas of the child's disability. Testing accommodations are adjustments that are made to the child's testing situation to help level the playing field between the child and his non-disabled peers. When all persons involved in the child's IEP agree and sign-it, by which the parents give consent, then the IEP can be carried out. 
     If the parents still do not agree with the decisions made by the IEP team, then the parents can ask for mediation, or the school may offer mediation. If no agreement is met after mediation, then the parents can file a state complaint, or a due process complaint. This would lead to a due process hearing where mediation must be available. Most of the time the professional team and the parents leave the IEP meeting in agreement, after all everyone wants whats best for the child.

7) Finally, the IEP is complete and services, are provided for the student:
    The school must make sure that the child's IEP is carried out.  The parents are given a copy.  All of the student's teachers, and services providers must have access to the IEP and must know his/her specific responsibility to carry out his/her portion of the IEP. Everyone must sign-off that they have read and understand the IEP.  A case manager or special education will monitor all persons responsible for carrying out the IEP.

8)  Progress monitoring reports for parents:
     The special education teacher and the service providers must regularly report the child's progress on his/her IEP goals. Data of progress toward to measurable goal should be kept and included in the report. Progress reports must be sent home at least as often as the child's non-disabled peers are rated. Usually, this is four times during a school year.

9)  Yearly IEP Review
     At least, once a year, the IEP is reviewed. It's called the "yearly or annual review".  A review can be held more than once a year if the parents or the school district feels it is warranted. Step nine is very much like step six.  The profession team and the parents again meet to review the IEP, change goals, or the placement as necessary after reviewing the student's progress. Concerns and things that are going well are discussed. Sometimes additional testing or consultations are recommended. Again, if the professional team and the parents or guardians are not in agreement with the IEP, then a mediation can take place, or a due process hearing. Parents can also file a complaint with the state education agency. In most cases, however, all parties leave the IEP meeting in agreement.

10)  Reevaluation Process
     Minimally, every child with an IEP must be reevaluated every three years. More often if it is requested by the child's parents, guardian's, or teachers. It's called a triennial review. The triennials purpose is to determine if the child is still considered a child with a disability under the IDEA guidelines. Like an IEP meeting their will be a triennial review meeting to discuss any changes in programming that may need to be made on behalf of the child.


     In the end, like our baby killdeer, you too will navigate your way through all of the blades of grass and special education processes that will get your child the help that he or she needs. Remember, all persons involved want what's best for your child. Also remember, as the parent you always have the right to question your child's IEP and advocate for your child. Like our little killdeer your child will land on soft, yet solid ground.