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Advocating for your children in the school system may be one of the most daunting tasks that a adoptive, foster or kinship caregiver undertakes. This is especially true for new parents who may have a wealth of child rearing experience, but no experience in the world of accessing special education services. This article is designed to help parents understand the basic pro- grams offered in special education and how their programs may benefit children in their care.
What is Special Education?
Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of children who have disabilities. This is done at no cost to the parents in the public school system. It should be noted that private or parochial school systems may not have a wide array of special education programs or may charge for added services. Special education can include special instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals or health-related institutions. It is estimated that more than five million children receive special education services each year in the United States. So, take heart, you and your child are not alone.
Many of the programs that are included in special education are related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This federal act is often referred to as IDEA. There are 13 general categories of disabilities listed in IDEA. These categories include autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairment, mental retardation, multiple disabili- ties, orthopedic disabilities, emotional disturbance, speech and/or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, visual impairments, and “other health impairments,” which can be defined as affecting a child’s life functions, of which learning is one of life’s functions.
The first initial steps to receiving special education services are: 1) to ascertain that your child has one or more of the disabilities that fall into one of the 13 designated categories AND 2) that this impairment affects the child’s school performance. Sometimes children in kinship care may already have been evaluated and deemed eligible for special education services. However, a young child or a child who recently came into your care for the first time may not have been evaluated for special education services. Consequently, it is critical that families understand the evaluation system that leads to special education services. A good understanding of the evaluation system and rules relating to the evaluation of a child can open doors to access the services to the fullest extent and benefit for the child.
Having the Child Evaluated
The first stepping stone to receiving special education is to ask the school to evaluate the child. The guidance counselor or director of special education can assist in the request and paperwork. Request in writing that the school evaluate your child as soon as possible. Remember to date and save everything that relates to your requests. A slow evaluation will lead to a slow implementation of extra help. In most cases, the school will evaluate your child at no cost to you. You should be aware, however, that the school does not have to evaluate your child if school officials do not think your child has a disability or needs special education. In times of budget crises, this can be a real issue. If the school refuses to evaluate your child, the school must outline its reasons in written form. A parent has two rapid fire responses to a denial for evaluation:
Request the school system’s special education policies, as well as parent rights to disagree with decisions made by the school system. The stated policies should have added steps to take and
Get in touch with your state’s Parent Training and Information Center, which is an excellent resource and advocacy for parents to learn more about special educa- tion, their rights and responsibilities, and the law. To locate your state’s Parent Training and Information Center, go to www.parentcenternetwork.org.
What happens during an evaluation for special education services? The full evaluation team should look at a host of factors to ascertain how the child is affected by the disability. This evaluation should include assessing the child’s health, vision, hearing, social and emotional well-being in addition to general intelligence, performance in school, and communication and physical skills. The evaluation must be complete enough to identify all of your child’s needs for special education and related services. Thoroughly evaluating the child can provide a great deal of information that can help decide if your child has a disability and how an Individualized Education Plan can be specifically designed for your child’s needs.
You are one of the most significant people on the evaluation team. In addition to you, there should be at least one regular education teacher, a special education teacher, service providers, a school administrator who is familiar with all programs at the school for both regular and special education, a professional who can interpret the evaluation results and talk about what instruction may be necessary, as well as individuals who have knowledge about your child, such as the foster care worker. Do not forget about other qualified professionals who are familiar with your child’s situation. These professionals may include a school psychologist, an occupational therapist, a speech and language pathologist, a physi- cal therapist, or a medical specialist.
What makes up a good evaluation? Individual and group tests scores, observations of your child’s teaching team — your observations and concerns can provide a starting point. Medical records, psychological reports, birth parent information, counseling observations can also provide a more global picture of the child’s disabilities. The evaluation team, with your permission, should collect information about your child from many different people and in many different ways. Tests are an important part of an evaluation, but they are only a part.
Required Reading for Parents with Special Needs Children in School
Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy The Special Education Survival Guide by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright
How To Compromise With Your School District Without Compromising Your Child: A Field Guide For Getting Effective Services For Children With Special Needs by Gary Mayerson
Once the evaluation is completed, many foster parents are uncertain as to what should happen next. The evaluation team will determine if your foster child meets the definition of a child with a disability as determined from the IDEA and from the policies your state or district uses. If so, your child will be eligible for special education and related services. In most states, the caseworkers and the kinship parents have the right to receive a copy of the evaluation report. If the group decides that your kinship child is not eligible for special education services, the school system must tell you this in writing and explain why your child has been found “not eligible.” Make certain that you know what policies the school district has for rebuttal to a contested decision for receiving special education.
Developing an Individualized Education Plan
If your child is found eligible for special services, the next step is to develop an Individualized Education Plan to address the child’s basic disabilities. Once eligibility is established, a meeting must be held within 30 days to develop the IEP, which is a written program statement of the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP. The IEP will: (1) set learning goals for your child; and (2) state the services that the school district will pro- vide for the child. Please bear in mind, that it is important that children with disabilities participate in the general curriculum as much as possible. In addition, participation in the mainstream extracurricular activities and other nonacademic activities is also impor- tant. Your child’s IEP needs to be written with this in mind.
A child’s IEP will contain:
1. Present levels of achievement and educational performance. This statement describes how your child is currently doing in school. This includes how your child’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general curriculum.
2. The IEP must state annual goals for your child. Annual goals reflect what the team thinks he or she can reasonably accomplish in a year.
3. The IEP must also list the special education and related services to be provided to your child. Related services can include, but are not limited to transportation, speech-lan- guage pathology, audiology services, psychological services, physical therapy, occupa- tional therapy, early identification and assessment, counseling services, orientation and mobility services, medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes, school health services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.
4. The IEP must also define how much of the school day the child will be educated sepa- rately from nondisabled children or not participate in extracurricular or other nonacade- mic activities such as lunch or other activities.
5. The IEP should also address testing modifications or changes in how the tests are administered.
6. In addition, the IEP must state (a) when services and modifications will begin; (b) how often they will be provided; (c) where they will be provided; and (d) how long they will last.
7. Finally, no later than when your child is 16, the IEP must include measurable post- secondary goals related to training, education, employment, or independent living skills.
A meeting must be scheduled with you to review your child’s progress and develop your child’s next IEP at least one time per year. The team will discuss your child’s progress toward the goals in the current IEP and what new goals should be added. There can be changes if need dictates in the special education and related services. This annual IEP meeting allows you and the school to review your child’s educational program and change it as necessary. Remember, you don’t have to wait for this annual review. You may ask to have your child’s IEP reviewed or revised at any time. Under the IDEA, your child must be re-evaluated at least every three years. The purpose of the re-evalua- tion is to find out if your child continues to be a “child with a disability.”
Remember that you do have a role in this process. The law is clear that parents or guardians including kinship caregivers have the right to participate in developing the child’s IEP. Your input is invaluable. You know the child well, and the school needs to know your insights and concerns. It’s important that you attend these meetings and share your ideas about the child’s needs and strengths.
This article was shared with permission by EMK PRESS: Kinship Parenting Toolbox
Mary Eaddy is executive director of PRO-Parents of South Carolina; the South Carolina PTI. She has been affiliated with PRO-Parents since its inception in 1990 when it became the parent training and information center for South Carolina. She serves on multiple task forces and committees with the South Carolina Department of Education, South Carolina Department of Mental Health, South Carolina Department of Social Services, South Carolina Developmental Disabilities Council as well as other state and local agencies. Eaddy’s most relevant knowledge and passion for her work comes from parenting two children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder and being grandmother to a grandchild with developmental delays
June Bond, Med, earned a bachelor of arts in psychology and a master of education in early childhood education from Converse College. She is the executive director of Adoption Advocacy of South Carolina. She has published numerous articles that relate to adoption, edu- cation, and family issues and speaks nation-wide on adoption-related issues. She was South Carolina Adoption Advocate of the Year in 1995. She is also the 2006 Congressional Angel in Adoption recipient. She is the mother of six children. She resides in Spartanburg with Bill, her husband of 30 years. This article originally appeared in Fostering Families Today magazine.
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