How do you know if your child has a disability?
Children can have many different kinds of problems in school. A child may struggle with attention or controlling his emotions in the classroom, in the lunchroom, or on the playground. Another may have difficulty learning math or mastering reading. Still other children may be unable to produce a written product without great difficulty.
If you are a parent or a guardian of a child who is struggling in school, chances are you have wondered whether your child might have a disability that is interfering with his learning.
Disabilities come in many different forms. The special education law recognizes many different kinds of disabilities, from conditions that interfere with attention and concentration (such as ADHD), to problems that interfere with reading, writing, and math (dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia), to social or emotional difficulties (which may stem from a variety of conditions including anxiety, depression, or autism spectrum disorders).
If you think that your child may have a disability that is affecting his academic, social or emotional progress in school, you can ask your school district to evaluate your child for eligibility for special education.
You are entitled to this evaluation under federal and state law.
How do I get my school district to evaluate my school-age child for special education services?
Ask! The special education law allows parents, teachers, administrators, or other caregivers to refer a child for a special education evaluation. If you would like to have your child evaluated by the school district, the best way to begin the process is to request an evaluation in writing. You can send your written request to the principal and the special education administrator for your district. It is always best to explain what has prompted you to seek the evaluation, that way the school district has some idea of what type of an evaluation to administer. Common assessments include psychological, educational, speech and language, physical therapy, and occupational therapy evaluations. Once a school district has received your written request, state law requires the district to send a written notice to you within five school days of the district’s receipt of your letter. That notice will ask for your consent to evaluate your child and will provide you with space to express concerns or provide additional information about your child. The school district must receive your signed consent form before it can begin to evaluate your child for eligibility for special education.
What’s an IEP and how do I get one?
An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a document issued by a school district once a student has been found eligible for special education services. It is the plan that describes how a school district will provide a student with a free, appropriate public education (a “FAPE”), as required by law. Under federal and state special education law, districts must provide every disabled student with a FAPE so that every student can make progress academically, socially, and emotionally in school.
An IEP is drafted by an IEP team at a team meeting. Parents are automatically members of their student’s team and their attendance at team meetings is required unless unusual circumstances exist. The IEP sets goals that a student will achieve within a one year time frame and specifies the services that a school district will provide in order to enable the student to achieve the goals. The IEP also identifies the student’s school placement. Placements range from full inclusion in general education classrooms to residential placement in a special education school. The student’s placement is determined solely by the educational needs of the student. School districts are responsible for fully funding a student’s placement.
Once the IEP has been issued, parents can accept the document in full, reject it in full, or accept parts of the IEP and reject parts of it. The school is required to implement any part of the IEP accepted the the parents.
Can I observe my child’s educational program?
Yes. State special education law requires schools to provide “timely access” to parents (or their consultants) to allow them to observe their child’s current program or any program proposed for their child. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education encourages schools to respond promptly to a parent’s request to observe a program. Further, schools cannot unreasonably limit the amount of time for the observation: school policies that observations can last no longer than one hour are contrary to state law. Parents must be afforded enough time to allow them to evaluate whether the program is appropriate for the child. Parents (or their consultants) have the right to see both academic (e.g., classroom) and non-academic (e.g., lunch, recess, social skills groups) parts of the program.
Can my child get extra time on tests and assignments?
Many students with disabilities require extra time for tests and assignments because the nature of their disability makes it difficult to accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently. If your child has a disability and psychological testing establishes the need for additional time, a school district must accommodate this need.
MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests are untimed, and all students are allowed up to one full day to complete each test. If MCAS tests are administered on an early release day, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education advises that schools must make arrangements to have staff stay with those students who have not finished the test until the time that school would end on a regular school day.
Decisions to grant extra time for SAT and AP tests are made by the College Board, the non-profit organization that administers these tests. Applications for extra time (or other accommodations) are made directly to that organization and must be supported by recent testing establishing the need for the accommodation. Visit the college board website for more information.
Students in college may also be granted extended time for tests and assignments. College students should inquire with the disability services office at their college. Generally, colleges require that a student submit recent (within the last 3 years) testing to establish the existence of the disability and the need for the accommodation.
How do I choose an independent evaluator?
A good evaluation is an indispensable part of any special education case. Evaluators should be chosen with care. Before making an appointment with anyone, you should consider what kind of an evaluation you are seeking as different professionals do different kinds of testing. Start by making a list of what your concerns are about your child’s functioning. Once you have listed everything you are worried about, group your concerns into categories: are your worries primarily medical (eating issues, allergies, hearing, eyesight, pain, sleep difficulties), psychiatric (anxiety, depression, mood swings), gross motor (balance, posture, gait, coordination), fine motor or sensory issues (handwriting, sensitivity to light, noise, smell, touch), speech or communication (listening or speaking), neuropsychological (possible learning disorders of reading, writing, or math; social skills problems, attention issues, cognitive ability). Although some issues can be dealt with by more than one type of professional – e.g., anxiety issues can be assessed by a primary care physician, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a neuropsychologist – others are primarily the province of a particular specialist (e.g., speech production is generally best assessed by a speech and language pathologist).
When calling to make an appointment with an evaluator, you need to find out some information before you commit to an appointment. Explain what your concerns are and ask if the professional is experienced in evaluating children with these issues. Ask whether the professional you are calling will do the testing or whether it will be delegated to an employee. Find out whether the evaluator will attend a school meeting to explain his findings to the school, whether the evaluator would be willing to observe your child in her school setting if appropriate, and whether the evaluator would, if necessary, defend his report at a hearing. If the answer to any of these last three questions is no, consider choosing another evaluator. A professional who will not step beyond the confines of his office is of limited use to you.