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My Child is Struggling in School; What Can I Do?, by Judy Mankowski

Today begins a new series by Judy Mankowski, a teacher and special needs parent, on how to navigate the IEP process.


There are a few different scenarios through which a child enters the world of Special Education. The first is through aging out of Early Intervention (EI), into a special education pre-school program. This process is fairly cut and dried, and is often facilitated by the Early Intervention program. The EI program will often help draft a letter requesting that the district evaluate your child, and will provide data to support this request.


Another way a child enters into special education is when the parent or teacher notices the child is struggling in school. This struggle could be academic (grades), behavioral (getting into trouble), or both.


There are several terms with which you need to become familiar. First is Child Find. Child Find is a federal mandate that is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Child Find requires that public school districts have a process in place whereby they can find all students who have disabilities and need services. All children, from birth to age 21, are covered by this mandate - regardless of where they are educated. Once the school district is aware or suspects that a child has a disability, they must conduct an evaluation.


Some parents have children who have been diagnosed with a disability by a healthcare provider. By law, once the parents present the school with the diagnosis as part of a request to evaluate, the school must do so. Sometimes the school will argue that the student’s grades are fine, and so there is no need to evaluate. This is not so. Good grades alone cannot be used to exclude a child from the Child Find mandate.


If the school refuses to evaluate a student with a diagnosed disability, they must provide you with a written response detailing the reasons why they are refusing. This is usually called Prior Written Notice (PWN). This document is very important, and can be used to argue that the school is not fulfilling its responsibilities.


For children who do not have any diagnosed disabilities, they may be suspected of having one due to any number of school-based reasons. Perhaps they are failing one or more subjects. Perhaps they are frequently disrupting the class, or getting in trouble for behavior that is disruptive, atypical, or problematic. Perhaps they do not speak in class, and so have poor classroom participation. Perhaps they do not have meaningful friendships, or play alone at recess. Any of these reasons could be an indication of an undiagnosed disability.


It takes some work and preparation to get an undiagnosed child evaluated. First, when grades and notes are sent home to be signed be sure to scan them into the computer or use a cell phone app that creates PDFs out of photos. If you have neither computer nor cell phone, take a run to Staples or the library and make a photocopy for your records. Keep these in a binder, they will be invaluable as you go through the process.

Whenever school personnel calls home (teacher, principal, dean, etc…) to speak to you, always send an email summarizing the phone conference. The first rule in the IEP world is: If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. End your summarizing email with something like, “If there is anything in the above summary that is inaccurate, please respond to this email correcting it.” This way, if there is no response to that email, there is no disputing your understanding of the conversation.


If your child is one who is sent home due to behavioral issues, please know that needing to pick up the child early (unless they are ill and are being sent home by the nurse) is a suspension of the child’s educational placement. Request that the school document the suspension with the proper letter, and do not leave the school without it. This is especially important if the school is frequently calling you to pick up your child due to any sort of tantrum or outburst. You want it documented, as it is an indication that there may be a disability.


Once you have gathered these notes, work samples, and have documented the behavioral difficulties, write your request. The request letter does not have to be long. Simply write that due to certain difficulties your child is having in school, that you suspect he may have a disability, and that you are requesting that your child be evaluated as required by the Child Find section of IDEA law. Make a copy of the letter for your records and send the letter by certified mail. When you get the return receipt back with the signature, add that to your child’s binder.


The district has to respond to your request within ten days. Typically the district will respond by scheduling a meeting to discuss the request. This meeting is where you will bring all of the documentation you already gathered - notes home, work samples, email summaries of phone calls and in-person conferences, suspension paperwork. Your child’s teachers will also have data to bring. After reviewing the data, the district will either agree to evaluate, or refuse.


If they agree, then there will be an evaluation planning meeting (in my experience, this has been at the same meeting as the identification meeting). This is when the team plans out which evaluations will be done. This can include educational testing, psychological testing, speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc. I highly recommend having the speech evaluation include pragmatic language. Even children with advanced vocabularies can have difficulties with pragmatics that cause behavioral issues. Once the evaluations are planned, you will be required to sign your consent. It is very important to note that the district cannot conduct the evaluations without your consent.


If the district refuses to evaluate your child, they are required to list their reasons in a PWN. If you disagree with the reasons, you have the right to file Due Process. Each state has its own timeline and forms. Please check your state's special education website.


Come back on Friday for part two, which details what to do after the evaluation.



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