Children, parents, and teachers often meet a new school year with optimism. This fresh start is a chance for new beginnings, new friendships, new study habits…and new obstacles. While challenges are opportunities to learn and get stronger, those that have emotional or learning difficulties may quickly become frustrated by the academic environment, and this is where school supports come in handy.
First, a quick primer on the levels of support that a parent can expect in school. Many public schools have adopted the Response to Intervention tier system. This system exists for all students, and the Level 1 tier, which all students are exposed to, includes classroom structure, group learning opportunities, and screening by professionals that can ideally catch the students who are struggling quickly. Those that are struggling are moved to the next level, tier 2, where smaller group instruction that specifically targets the areas of weakness are explored, while remaining in the general education setting. For those students who are still struggling while receiving this level of intervention, they are moved to tier 3, which includes a more in depth assessment of the struggles and tailored, individualized education.
This individualized instruction can be provided under Section 504 accommodations, a federal law that protects individuals with a health condition or disability, or special education, an eligibility that can provide accommodations and modifications to the educational environment so that an individual with an emotional, learning, or physical disability has adequate access and the ability to learn.
It is within this world of special education that parents are expected to become advocates for their children – a tricky job for parents who are often unfamiliar with the nuances, acronyms, distinctions and accommodations particular to a school, district, or eligibility. While parents are often the best experts on their particular child, understanding what a school can or cannot offer, what their child is like in the classroom, or what their specific needs are can be trickier.
The first step is understanding what a school can, and cannot offer. If your child is eligible for special education, they are protected by the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). An important aspect of special education is your child’s individualized education plan, or IEP. This plan, tailored specifically for the child’s needs, sets forth specific goals that educators help your child meet and achieve. At the very minimum, this plan is reviewed annually, though a parent has the right to request more frequent reviews and amendments to the plan.
The implementation of this plan is often a collaborative effort between special education staff and general education staff. The goal that schools attempt to achieve is a balance between the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) and the individualized instruction that a child may need. Typically a special education plan will outline the percentage of time that a child is with their general education peers, and in special education, so that parents can be aware of this balance.
Some children, however, don’t necessarily need the restrictions of a formal special education or 504 eligibility. Your child’s temperament may need quieter space, more time to process information, or group learning in order to optimize their school functioning. Teachers and staff often want to collaborate with you on how to reach your child best. Communication is key, and it may help to have a professional help identify the strengths and challenges your child may have, and to help guide teachers and staff on how to maximize the strengths and accommodate the challenges. Our team has experience in public and private school settings, and we would love to help!