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Special Education can be an overwhelming process whether you are just beginning or you have been using the system for a long time. It’s important to know and to understand some key components as you travel through the Special Education System.
A paper trail is any and all documentation that one collects in regards to your child’s educational program. Think of a call you make to the phone company. You most likely take notes that you can refer to later. You write the date, the time, with whom you spoke to and the main points to your conversation. Why? Because if the action you’re requesting doesn’t occur, you have documentation regarding your conversation with the company. Does the company do the same? Most likely, because they pull up your account and often times add “notes” to their computer system.
What does the paper trail encompass is special education? – As defined, it includes any and all communication regarding your student’s educational plan. One caution always shared with parents, “If it’s not written, it doesn’t exist”. The paper trail begins with that first paper or that first conversation. I always advise parents not to “discuss” anything. Put or have everything put into written form. If a conversation does occur, follow up with an email to clarify the main points. This allows for any miscommunications to be corrected but more importantly, it gives proof that the conversation occurred.
It’s advisable to hand deliver requested forms. When paperwork is delivered, have the one who receives it, stamp it or write the date, sign or initial it and make a copy of that page for you. This is proof that paperwork was received.
Collect all paperwork in a file. It’s best to keep it in order, whether by date or by category of documents (e.g. evaluation reports, agency reports, IEPs). At times, a time line is necessary so a running record of contact may be beneficial.
With the computer age and so many reports being transmitted via email, the paper trail may be filed on your computer. In this case, it’s extremely important to back up the files or transfer them to an external hard drive or flash drive.
There are several documents that are of utmost importance for your child’s education. Obvious are the evaluation reports and the IEPs. Each should be contiguous to the next; one leading directly into the next.
The evaluation report is designed to determine if your child has a disability and if he/she requires specially designed instruction. In addition to this, the evaluation report should identify the strengths and needs of your child. Also, the report should determine what specially designed instruction is needed to individualize your child’s education; hence, the Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
There are different ways for processing the information from an evaluation report. Some use a visual chart which lists the core deficits of a disability (e.g. autism) and the students needs as they go through the report. I often color code by highlighting or by notation. One color is used for strengths. These are items we want to use for the student to access learning. Another color is used for needs. These are areas that need to be addressed or skills to be learned. The last color is for the specially designed instruction. Hopefully, all team members reporting for the evaluation makes some comments about strengths, needs and specially designed instruction (i.e. modifications).
As I read through an evaluation report, I sometimes find statements that say “Name may benefit from …”. I want to know about “Johny” so that’s a question we want the team to determine. Does that statement pertain to “Johny”. Another example may be, “_____ is a personal strength of Suzie’s”. OK, so how do we tap into that personal strength (e.g. novel problem solving and visual memory) to facilitate her learning. Parents or I may not know those answers because I’m not a psychologist and that’s not my area of expertise. What can be done is to make a list of these questions and pose them to the team, especially the psychologist who is the expert in evaluating and interpreting the tests. Interpretation of the tests is another item I examine. It’s one thing to give me standard scores, but tell me what it means for this particular student. What’s the significance to that score? Again, if no interpretation is noted, the parents are advised to request an explanation which is best written into the report. A parent always has 10 days to examine an evaluation; therefore, if you have questions or want to consult with someone prior to the IEP, then don’t waive the right to 10 days. Schedule another meeting to review your questions and then write the IEP.
The second document which is the most important document for your child’s education is the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This plan should be written to reflect your student and to reflect the exact program he/she is receiving. Remember, “If it’s not written, it doesn’t exist”. Having an explicit plan tells us that you could move, or your teacher could move, and the next team taking over your child’s education would know exactly what needs to be taught and more importantly how to teach him/her.
The IEP has several different sections. Special considerations are questions that are required to be addressed. If one of those questions is answered “yes”, then, more information is required. Present levels of educational and functional performance should paint a picture of the child. Present levels from one IEP address the past IEP goals and include any new information from the evaluation report. The most important parts of the evaluation report (when there is one), should be noted and utilized in the IEP. If goals are changed or deleted, the reasoning for those changes should be stated. Effective or ineffective SDIs should be discussed. Strengths and needs are listed which then determine the goals. Each need listed on the IEP must be addressed in the IEP. There are specific criteria for writing a measurable annual goal. Once the goals are determined, the most important part of the IEP is how those skills will be taught. These are the specially designed instruction (SDI) or program modifications that your child needs. The needs cannot be “as needed”. Specificity is a must for this part of the IEP. Once the IEP is developed, the team will discuss the program that can best meet your child’s needs. It may be regular education with supplemental aides or it could be various levels of a special education classroom. Overall, the IEP must be developed based on the child’s needs and not according to the program the school offers.
Each section or component of the IEP needs to be reviewed. If there are any questions, those need to be posed to the team. That IEP must be written so that if the family moves, or the teacher leaves, the next team can read that IEP, know exactly how the student was being taught and continue on with his/her Individualized Education.
This process can be daunting, to say the least. So what happens if a family doesn’t understand, or understands but is frustrated with some issue that seems to go unresolved. When does a family decide to call for support from an advocate?
When a parent continuously feels like they are hitting a brick wall with communication, an advocate can be helpful. When a parent sees a child not progressing, an advocate can be employed. When attempts to understand technical terms or processes aren’t improved from the team members, an advocate can help clarify.
Advocates are beneficial for many reasons. Advocacy can be a contact from behind the scenes or it can be the presence in meeting, mediation or hearing. Sometimes, an advocate may support a parent via an email or phone call. Some will review paperwork and ask pertinent questions for the parents to ask. Sometimes, an advocate attends a meeting to listen. Other times, the parents want the advocate to speak for them. At times, there are contentious moments that occur. Most likely the advocate can help to resolve the issues. Ultimately, an advocate is someone who is working for your child, to help them receive the best education possible.
It is our hope that we’ve made some sense of the special education process; to clarify or to resolve some of your questions. The special education process can seem overwhelming but with a paper trail, answers to your questions from your team, and support from an advocate if you need one; your child can begin to receive a better free and appropriate education.
Content Area: Life with Autism
Paul J. Clifford, M.S., Ed.
Expanded Horizons, LLC
Katrina L. Shawver, M.S., CCC-SLP
Expanded Horizons, LLC