I am the mom of a special needs child. I am a teacher. I’ve worked primarily as a social studies teacher, but I also hold degrees and certifications in special education and school administration. I thought collaborating with my son’s school district to create an appropriate educational plan for him would be a relatively stress-free process. I thought wrong. Last year this process was a nightmare. My son has an uncommon medical condition which was not understood or accepted by several school staff members despite multiple expert diagnoses. The result? Much of my son’s educational program last year was ineffective and inappropriate. Despite this, I believe most school staff members meant well and were trying their best. I think it was a case of they didn’t know what they didn’t know. I found myself teaching my son’s teachers about his medical condition and educational needs even though not all were interested in learning something new. I didn’t always feel valued as an equal member of my son’s educational team. At times, my concerns were ignored. It was difficult and frustrating, but I was a mama bear unwilling to sit quietly and watch my son suffer. I advocated fiercely for his rights. Most of the time I advocated calmly, but there were times when I didn’t. Yes, I became THAT parent, the one teachers complain about and are nervous to talk to. So be it. This year my son has a more appropriate educational program and is better understood. Are things perfect? No, and I doubt they ever will be. I don’t expect my son’s educational program to be perfect, but I will demand it be appropriate. Here are some of the things I learned that might help other frustrated special education mama bears out there:
- Seek out an accurate diagnosis for your child’s condition/disability and learn all you can about it. When appropriate, get the advice of medical specialists and educational experts outside of your child’s school district to provide an accurate diagnosis for your child. While a school district can do special education cognitive and achievement testing, it has a vested interest in your child’s diagnosis because that diagnosis will cost the district money. A child’s diagnosis and programming should be based on the child’s needs, not the school district’s financial interests. Also, school districts may not have staff members with the expertise to recognize uncommon conditions and may unintentionally mislabel a child. This was the case with my son.
- Bring irrefutable evidence to the Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting. A school district cannot ignore expert diagnoses, test results, and recommendations and they will likely serve as the basis for your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). Submit test results and reports to school staff in advance of the PPT meeting so they have time to review them. During the PPT advocate for ALL of the educational recommendations experts made.
- Consult with a parent advocate and bring an advocate to the Planning and Placement Team meeting. An advocate is well-versed in your child’s legal rights and the presence of one sends a clear message to a school district: you mean business. If you cannot afford a private parent advocate, the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center offers free information and support to families of special needs children ages birth to 26.
- Know what you want to achieve at the Planning and Placement Team Meeting. Create an agenda. If you submit an agenda in advance of the PPT meeting, it must be included in your child’s Individual Education Plan notes. This ensures your concerns and requests make their way into your child’s permanent file. Create a list of the support services and accommodations/modifications you believe are best for your child and fight for them. The PACER Center’s School Accommodation and Modification Ideas for Students Who Receive Special Education Services provides a helpful list of ideas to consider.
- After the Planning and Placement Team Meeting, go through your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) with a fine tooth comb and, if necessary, request corrections be made. You should receive your child’s IEP within five days of the PPT meeting and you have five additional days to notify the school of corrections you would like made to the IEP. I have found errors and omissions in the accommodations/modifications section of my son’s IEP. Go through the Notes section VERY carefully. Make sure nothing was omitted or mischaracterized. While a school district may want to present itself in the best possible light, you want to make sure what is written is an accurate account of the PPT meeting. Put all your corrections in writing.
I don’t mean to suggest that all interactions with a school district will be adversarial or negative. You may be a special education parent that has had only positive school interactions. If that is the case, I envy you. Ideally, advocating for your child should be a positive experience and you will see eye-to-eye with your child’s school district. If you don’t, remember you are your child’s champion. No one loves or knows your child like you do and that will be clear at any school meeting. In the end, you aren’t there to make friends, you are there to fight for the best interests of your child. In the past year I fought and I fought hard. You know what I learned? Being THAT parent isn’t so bad after all. My son is having a good school experience this year and he is happy. That certainly makes all of it worth it.