*This blog was written and originally published by Foster Village Austin, so there are mentions of Texas - however Tennessee school system is similar. Please reach out to us if you have concerns or need assistance.
As we inch closer to the start of a brand new school year, it can be exciting and also a little nerve wracking, especially if your kiddo has special needs. Advocating for your child at school can be overwhelming but as long as you enter into the process as prepared as you can be, you’ll be fine. The most important thing to remember is that you know your child best! Your experiences as to what works at home (and what doesn’t work!) is extremely important information that you can share with school staff in order to ensure that your child’s school year goes as smoothly as possible.
Now there is A LOT of information about school advocacy. I don’t want to completely overwhelm you, so let’s start with two things before we dive into the nitty gritty.
First, when you are up to your eyeballs in school meetings to discuss your child’s special needs, it can be easy to focus on the negatives - things your child doesn’t do well or simply can’t do. When talking to school staff, be it the principal or teachers, try to turn the focus to include your child’s strengths. Of course it’s important to discuss the areas where your child needs support but by highlighting the things that they do well or are excited about, you can help to give the school support staff a more positive way to view your child.
And second, advocacy is hard work. It’s important to remember to take care of yourself as you navigate the phone calls, meetings, and everything else that comes along with advocating for your special needs kiddo in the public school system. Like I said before, YOU know your child best, and your input is essential in helping set your kiddo up for success. You’ve got this!
Now for the nuts and bolts:
Since there are so many moving parts when it comes to advocating for your child at school, I think it’s important to define some of the terms and acronyms that you may come across.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the law that made it mandatory for schools to provide equal access to education to children with disabilities. This is what ensures that the children who need accommodations will receive them.
SPECIAL EDUCATION (SpED)
According to Texas law, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is required to offer free, special services to students ages 3-21 with designated disabilities. Special services are usually divided into two different types of learning environments, depending on the student’s unique needs.
- The first learning environment includes the student in general education classrooms with available special services. This is considered the least restrictive approach to SpEd.
- The second places the child in “self-contained” classrooms, which are separate rooms reserved only for the education of students with special needs.
Some students remain in self-contained classrooms full-time, while others split their time between both types of classes.
In Texas, you can request a SpED evaluation through the school district by providing a written request to your school’s principal asking that your child be evaluated for SpED. Schools tend to get inundated with evaluation requests, especially at the start of the school year, so it’s important to request an evaluation as early as you can.
Note: There’s a specific timeline that schools have to follow once a SpED evaluation has been requested, and we’ll touch on that in more detail in a future blog post.
“ARD” stands for Admission, Review and Dismissal. An ARD meeting is the meeting that is scheduled to discuss the results of your child’s SpED evaluation. A group of representatives from the school meet with the parents to determine whether or not a student is eligible for SpED services. If a child is eligible for special education, the next step will be to develop an Individual Education Program (IEP).
Note: An ARD is held for initial placement or any time the school staff or parents feel a change is needed in a student’s special education program.
An IEP or Individual Education Plan is essentially a blueprint for a child’s special education experience at school. This is the most structured and extensive process, and it is completed annually. The goal of an IEP is a collaborative approach between parents and the school staff to develop a plan to meet your child’s needs in the classroom, as well as determine if there are other areas of support that can be provided by the school.
Important to note: Sensory processing disorder (SPD) alone does not qualify your child for special education or an IEP. However, some children do qualify for an IEP under a related disability such as ADHD or Autism. That brings us to the next important term, 504 Plan.
It’s easy to confuse 504 plans with special education when they are often mentioned in conjunction but they’re not the same. Special education is special instruction for kids who need more than standard teaching. A 504 plan, on the other hand, is a less extensive process that makes sure the classroom fits how your child learns. If your child does not qualify for SpED and subsequently an IEP, you can still set up a 504 plan. A 504 can help to identify certain classroom accommodations that can be implemented to help your child have a successful school year.
Some examples of these are:
- Multiple sensory breaks during the day
- Regular access to water and/or snacks
- Fidgets and chewable items
- A calming corner or safe space where your child can take a break
- A weighted vest or lap pad
- Noise canceling headphones for loud activities or areas
- Seating that is the right size or that encourages acceptable movement (e.g. a wobble cushion or chair)
The beginning of the school year can be a great time to advocate for your kiddos, but this information is helpful anytime, even if kiddos join your family mid-year.
Texas School Guide. My Child Has Special Needs - What do I Need to Know?. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://texasschoolguide.org/special-populations/my-child-has-special-needs-what-do-i-need-to-know/#section-1
The Understood Team. IEP vs. 504 Plan: What’s the Difference?. (n.d.). Retrieve August 8, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/en/articles/the-difference-between-ieps-and-504-plans
Fuller, Molly. From Scared to Prepared: Advocating at School for Your Special Needs Child. October 17, 2021. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://mollyfullerdesign.com/blogs/news/from-scared-to-prepared-advocating-at-school-for-your-spd-child