Updated: Jul 9, 2021
Like a lot of parents, I had no idea what I was getting into when I realized that my child needed extra help in school. Here are my top 5 things I wish I'd known from the jump.
Everything must be in writing!! If it isn't documented it didn't happen!
Phone calls and Parent-Teacher chats about concerns are great and keep things friendly but every request you make and every concern you present is "unofficial". If you go to the teacher and say, "I'm really concerned about little Johnny's progress in reading. He really seems to be struggling. I would like to get him more help." and you teacher says, "Yeah, I have noticed it too. We'll see what we can do to help." You may walk away thinking "Great! He is going to get help." What has actually happened is your teacher has promised to ask your little Johnny if he understands more often in class. Basically, you are having a chat, that's it. No extra instruction, no intervention, you just had a chat and your teacher might pay a little extra attention in class to certain things. Follow up phone calls and conversations with the teacher with an email recap and to document both your concern and what the offered solution was. If you want an evaluation done, for purposes of services or accommodations do it in writing! Be specific about what you are asking for. Ask for help in making this request. You'll know you've done it right when the school responds, in writing (within 10 days), with either an approval of your request and a whole bunch of paperwork to fill-out or a denial of your request with a very descriptive reason why, known as Prior Written Notice (PWN) or just Written Notice.
2. The process to qualification is SLOW!! Don't wait to get it started!
Every time I expressed concern regarding my child's academic progress, I got answers like "It's too early to tell", or "Let's try xyz and see if that helps", "Grades look ok so for now we'll keep an eye on it". I listened to this for two years and did it happily because I thought it was the way to go. After all they are professionals and as soon as they are sure help is needed then I just knew they'd jump right in there and get the help my kiddo needed. What I didn't know was how SLOW that process is.
Once you make an official request for evaluation the school has 50 instructional days to get the evaluation completed and have a meeting with you about the results. The important word there is instructional days. Meaning days they are in school, which roughly equals 3 months (if there are no vacation days or cancellations during that time). So you're looking at more than one full quarter or grading period (9 weeks) before you can even talk about what's going on with your child. Keep that in mind every time your teacher wants to try this or that and "wait and see" you could be losing critical time that you could be getting answers and even help. This doesn't mean that they can't be trying xyz during that 50 day window, they can be and should be. But regardless of what they are trying you need to get them started on the official evaluation ASAP!
3. The process to qualification is FAST! Yes, I did just contradict myself but stay with me.
Once the school has completed the LONG process of evaluating your child they will give you a notification of the Initial Case Conference 5 days prior to this meeting. This means you only have 5 days to figure out what that educational evaluation report means, if you agree with it, and what your input is going to be at the meeting. Let me tell you those 5 days were a NIGHTMARE for me personally, but they don't have to be for you. During your 50 day window between request and meeting do your due diligence. Request your child's education file, read up and become knowledgeable on your child's suspected disability and instructional approaches used for that disability, read your parent safeguards, do some research about the district-wide benchmark testing, inquire about the type of assessments the school uses in their evaluations and then do your research to become knowledgeable about how to interpret the results of them, gather your own data that way when you get that evaluation report you have a bit of an idea what you are looking at and what you can contribute to the meeting. Trust me it will alleviate so much stress once that evaluation comes back.
4. Save EVERYTHING you get from the school! IEPs and 504s are data driven
Start yourself a binder and put EVERYTHING in it. Emails, notes, observations from home, questions, report cards, classwork examples, district and state testing results. All. The. Things! IEPs and 504 plans are data driven and all of that is data. IDEA and Article 7 requires that schools use more than one piece of data to determine eligibility and furthermore the Case Conference Committee is required to discuss and consider every piece of data presented to them, so save your data!
5. The teachers WANT to help your child!
This is last on the list but it should probably be number 1. I wish I had known how the process works from the other side of the table before getting started. It would have saved me a whole lot of frustration and even anger toward the school staff. Always, try to remember (I know sometimes it's hard) the teachers are teachers because they are passionate about teaching kids. They WANT to help your child! Even when it doesn't necessarily seem like it. Just like any other job the ones actually providing the service are the lowest man on the totem pole. Your teachers have bosses and red tape galore. They cannot advocate for your child the way that you can. This is why they are always begging for parent involvement. I have been in many conferences and dealt with many contentious situations, most stemming from the assumption that the parent and the teacher aren't on the same team, but you ARE!
Think of it like a bank. The teachers are the tellers, they manage the "deposits and withdrawals" of their knowledge to all the students. Some students need a little something extra from their teachers, that is special education and the tools the teacher needs to provide it; but they are locked away in the safety deposit boxes. Everything the tellers need is right there in bank but the tellers can't just go opening up safety deposit boxes whenever they see fit, right? There is a process. The administrators hold the keys to those special education safety deposit boxes, and here's the thing you need TWO keys to open a safety deposit box and it's not the tellers that have it. That's the one YOU have.
The teachers WANT to help but they need you to bring the keys to unlock the tools they need.