Education Week: Quick Guide To Special Education

Image via Flickr user Daniel Kuperman

With school back in session, teachers are busy teaching students and students are hopefully filling those little minds. As teachers are with children every day, they are able to see how they are learning. Sometimes, though, children are struggling in the classroom. They may be having trouble sitting still, difficulty processing information, difficulty communicating their needs, problems with hearing or vision, etc. When a teacher notices these issues, she talks with the parents and, if necessary, a referral is made. This is where an Individualized Education Plan or IEP comes into play. An IEP is exactly that, it is a tailored, individualized plan designed to help the child learn the necessary skills in the classroom. Each child has their own strengths and weaknesses and IEP’s are designed to tap into those strengths to help overcome areas they are struggling. There is all sorts of legalese having to do with federal requirements that we won’t go into here and has been discussed elsewhere. The process of getting a child on an IEP can be a bit confusing and there is a good overview here.

Who is on an IEP?

That depends on the needs of the child. The following professionals are often part of the IEP team.

  • Student’s teacher
  • Paraprofessional
  • Speech therapist: looks at various communication problems such as stuttering, articulation, oral/feeding issues, as well as receptive and expressive communication. If your child needs an augmentative communication device, they are typically the ones to get one and train the child in its use.
  • Occupational therapist: looks at your child’s fine motor skills such as buttoning clothes, handwriting, manipulating small items
  • Physical therapist: looks at your child’s gross motor skills such as how they are climbing stairs, moving around the school, walking/running.
  • Special education teacher
  • School psychologist: help collaborate care for the child and ensure they succeed not only educationally but emotionally, socially, and behaviorally.
  • Others depending on the child’s needs

This team conducts a thorough evaluation of the child in their areas of expertise and then writes up their findings in a report. Included in this report are proposed goals for the child for the school year.  This report is then presented at a team meeting where the parent and sometimes student attend. The findings are reviewed with everyone on the team giving input. Goals are modified if needed and the team signs off on the plan.

Just to get the perspective from an IEP team member, I have had the privilege of working at a school system with a caseload of about 70 children. Each child had individual goals, meetings, and progress reports to do on top of the daily therapy. It was a lot of work, but it was so worth it to see the progress at the end of the year. Personally, I loved collaborating with the team and the parents to come up with solutions for their child. Most of the time what we tried worked, but sometimes it didn’t and we ended up changing the IEP. The bottom line though is that we were all there to help that child.

If you suspect your child may be delayed or is struggling, you shouldn’t wait until they are school age to address the problem. In fact, the earlier it is addressed the better the outcome. Early intervention is so important that it is part of the federal law that each state is required to find, identify, and evaluate all children in the 0-3 crowd that may be having problems. Special education can be a maze for parents but it is up to the parents to advocate for their child. So do the research and arm yourself with knowledge to help your child be the best they can be.

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