Parenting a Child with Special Needs: Your Education Rights

Perhaps a teacher or administrator at your child’s school has approached you recently with concerns about her academic progress. Or you may even have just learned that your child has a learning disability and are considering moving her to another school with services that will better meet her needs.

Wherever your family is in the process of addressing your child’s learning needs, the world of special education can be daunting and confusing. Even as you sit down with a team of educational experts, their use of acronyms and convoluted language can seem overwhelming. You may feel as if you’ve left the meeting more confused than when you arrived.

The good news, though, is that while you may not understand it all now, you will soon learn how to become your child’s best champion. So, how do you begin advocating for a child with disabilities?

First, you need to know your rights.

5 Essential Protections

Parents have specific rights regarding their child’s education. Below are five requirements that your child’s school must comply with when working to address her learning difficulties.

1. An Initial Meeting

All parents have the right to request a meeting with the school team to discuss concerns about their child. Schools cannot say no. You also have the right to request certain initial learning supports or a formal assessment if you are concerned that she may have a disability. This bears repeating: A school cannot refuse to meet with you to discuss these concerns.

Still, there are steps to consider when moving towards an assessment for special education. Generally speaking, your child should have the opportunity to first receive tiered academic support through a process known as Response to Intervention. This initial intervention will provide her with targeted instruction that directly addresses her academic struggles before she undergoes a special education evaluation.

For example, if your child knows the alphabet and understands the sounds that letters make individually and in combination, she may be able to read, but struggle with fluency. In order to strengthen her reading skills and ensure that she meets grade-level standards, she might be placed in small groups with other children who face similar challenges in order to work closely with a teacher on specific exercises to improve these abilities. This type of small-group intervention is provided on a regular basis, and each child’s progress is monitored to determine whether the support is working.

Your child will be provided this intervention, and her teacher will collect progress measures to see how her skills are developing. This support will continue for a fixed period of time (generally, 6–9 weeks for a single level of intervention). If her abilities are not developing enough to meet grade-level standards, she will be provided with a second level of intervention while her teachers continue to track her progress. If, after this second level of intervention, your child is still not meeting grade-level standards, the team may refer her for a special education assessment because the members believe she needs intensive, individualized instruction that cannot be provided within her general education class.

As a parent, you can ask to move past the RTI step and directly on to an evaluation, but it is usually not recommended. Your child may only need small accommodations or adaptations to her education to be successful, and jumping right into testing can, as the saying goes, put the cart before the horse.

2. A Copy of Your State’s Parental Rights

If you attend a meeting to discuss your child’s learning struggles and the possibility that she may have a learning disability, the team you meet with is required to provide you with a copy of your state’s rights as the parent of a child with a disability. If they don’t, ask them for this document.

It will contain many pages of legal information, so plan to sit down with someone you trust and go through them. Mark the document up with notes, questions, and bookmarks so that you can raise them with the school team at a follow-up gathering.

3. Your Child’s Data

Your child’s special education team should have several weeks of data on her academic achievement that they can provide to you at this initial meeting. This documentation should include information on her progress, describe which areas she is struggling with, and provide examples of her learning profile compared to peers. The data should be organized, thorough, and presented in a way that you can understand. If it isn’t, ask questions!

If this information is not available, the team has not met its legal obligations; you must request that they begin collecting it immediately. Without this data, they cannot legally proceed with any kind of assessment as a next step.

4. Your Permission

The school team cannot conduct any formal assessments, either cognitive or academic, without your signed permission. Doing so is not legal. They should discuss all aspects of the recommended evaluation with you before anything is done.

And remember that you are a vital contributing member of the decision-making process. You ought to feel completely comfortable asking which assessments are being conducted, why they are being carried out, and what purpose they have in supporting your child.

5. Team Participation

It’s also important to know that each member of your child's special education team is legally required to be present at every meeting and to remain for the entire time unless you provide written permission — before the meeting begins — that you are comfortable with her absence.

This is important to recall because team members are busy and may try to slip out of meetings early. While this may be understandable, it’s important that they contribute to the conversation for as long as it lasts. Not being a part of the conversation can have educational, ethical, and legal ramifications, both for your family and for the school.

For example, as a special education teacher, I am not qualified to report the school psychologist’s assessment results because I’m not an expert trained in this area and did not administer the tests myself. If I tried to report them, but did so inaccurately, the student’s education plan might be inadequate to meet her needs.

If, at any point during a meeting, you are confused or unclear about what is going to happen, you must ask questions. Advocate for your child in this way. Your team should be willing to provide you with any explanations you need.

Also, remember to ask for a copy of the meeting’s notes. Legally, each of these sessions must be recorded, and you are entitled to this documentation.

The Special Education Team

Once your child is evaluated and found to need special education services, you’ll want to learn about the team members who will typically work with her. Note, however, that the precise makeup of special education teams may vary from district to district, so it’s important to request specific information from your child's school.

A Special Education Teacher

This educator will provide specific learning supports for your child based on her Individualized Education Program. These are typically provided outside of the general education classroom. All instruction should be designed to meet your child's individual needs. This means that no other student's instruction will look exactly the same — that's why we call it "individualized"!

Learning supports can be provided in academic, social, or behavioral areas. Your child may see her special education teacher once a week, once a day, or spend significant amounts of time with her on a daily basis. This determination will depend on the needs the team identifies.

The special education teacher almost always works in one school at a time.

A School Psychologist

The school psychologist will be the person who conducts any cognitive assessments (such as an IQ test) on your child, and possibly observes her in her classroom. The psychologist will collaborate with the special education teacher to determine where your child’s cognitive strengths and needs fit with her academic abilities in order to develop the best instructional plan. After the initial assessment, you may not hear much more from the school psychologist since she does not provide academic instruction.

These professionals generally split their time between two or more schools each week.

A Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP)

The SLP conducts assessments if the team has concerns about your child's speech or language development. She will be tested in this area only if the team is worried that the these issues may have a negative impact on her academic success. If the evaluation shows that your child does have a problem in this area, the SLP may provide weekly services (either one-on-one or in a small group) to assist your child with her speech and language development.

Some SLPs split their time between schools each week, while others are dedicated to a single school.

Occupational Therapist (OT) and Physical Therapist (PT)

The OT or PT provides services if there is concern about your child's small or large muscle movements, such as an inability to grasp a pencil properly or difficulty with balance when walking. OT and PT assessments look very different from academic or cognitive assessments, and their aim is to ensure that your child's physical needs do not prevent her from being successful academically.

OTs and PTs almost always divide their time among several schools or other settings.

A School Administrator

This person will typically be your school's principal or vice principal, although occasionally the school psychologist fills this role. An administrator is required to be present at every meeting to support your family and the school staff in complying with legal obligations.

A Family Advocate

You are free to invite your own family advocate to a meeting whenever you wish. This individual can be a family friend with special education knowledge, a representative from a community agency, a family doctor, or a service provider who works with your child outside of school.

As a parent, you have the right to pose questions, receive information, and have access to any piece of data that is being used to make decisions about your child.

You are a key player in the decision-making process — insist on being involved!

You can learn three key questions Lisa Beymer suggests considering as you investigate schools for a child with special needs.