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Parent-teacher conferences are coming. Are you prepared for what you might hear?

By Valle Dwight

When our son Tim was in second grade, my husband and I happily trotted off to meet with his teacher in October. We were confident that we’d hear the usual stuff we’d heard since preschool: “He’s a delightful kid. He’s smart, articulate, funny, and kind.” We were not in the least worried about him, and we loved this opportunity to revel in his successes.

So when his teacher started talking and was not in fact saying all those things, we were stunned. Tim is smart, funny, and delightful, yes, but guess what? He can’t read, she said. When the other kids were doing silent reading, Tim was right there with them, cuddled on the floor and holding a book upside-down.

“The fact that he’s so bright and can’t read is the sign of a learning disability,” she said.

I immediately burst into tears.

It really shouldn’t have come as such a shock: I had questioned his first-grade teacher about why he wasn’t reading, but she had assured us that it was all developmentally normal — he’d be fine. But we were caught off-guard nonetheless.

Before we could even catch our breath, the teacher was walking us down to the principal’s office, asking that our son be tested for a learning disability. And so began our journey into the world of learning disabilities. We had a lot to learn.

“When parents are thrust into the whirlwind of special education, it can be confusing and scary,” says Alison Greene, a special education advocate in Northampton, Mass. She encourages parents at this stage to get emotional support, ideally from another parent who has been through the process. “It can be a devastating time — parents are often frightened, confused, and sad. Sometimes they make bad choices when they’re in the throes of it. Reaching out to another parent can help steady the newcomer.”

Parents also need to find someone in the school system to explain the evaluation process their child will be going through, says Greene. She recommends starting with the school principal. “I find that many parents have never even talked to their child’s principal,” she says. “The principal knows how the system works.”

Realistically, no parent should expect to be an instant expert in evaluations, learning disabilities, and special education, adds Greene. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know which tests to ask for. It’s enough to say, “My child isn’t reading,” and the professionals should be able to start the process of testing.

We were lucky, in a way, because our son’s teacher was the one who noticed the problem, and she knew exactly what to do next. When we all paraded down to the principal’s office, we were handed a form to sign — the teacher checked off a couple of things they would test for, and we numbly signed. To be honest, we had no idea what we were agreeing to or what questions to ask.

“Parents shouldn’t be afraid to put a temporary halt on the process if they’re uncertain of what to do or if they haven’t found the support they need,” says Greene. “Take the time to do a little research about the disability as well as on [your child's] rights in special education.”

Be prepared!

If you find out your child may have a learning disability, don’t panic. There is a process in place for testing your child and determining if he or she has an LD and what kind it is. Here are some tips for surviving those first days.

  • Take a deep breath: You don’t have to do anything on the spot. If you’re not sure what you want or have to do, tell the school you need a few days before making any decisions.
  • Testing, testing: Find out exactly what testing the school will be doing on your child. Schools are required to test in all areas of the suspected disability, so talk to the teacher and really get a sense of where the problems lie. Does your child have difficulty writing? How is his or her speech? If there are concerns, they should be included in the testing process. And don’t forget about things you notice at home (behavioral issues, etc.) — all the facts you can think of might be relevant in diagnosing your child’s issues.
  • Go for pros: Do not be shy about asking who will be doing the testing and what his or her qualifications are. If you are not satisfied that the tester is proficient, ask for someone else.
  • Know the law: Federal law (IDEA 2004) outlines special education requirements, but each state may have variations on the law. It helps to know what your state says about testing and independent evaluations.
  • Parent to parent: Ask your child’s teacher if he or she can hook you up with other parents who have been there, done that. Many districts have organized parent groups for special education, which are a great resource for the beginner.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"OK article...left out some key people and what to do and not to do's. In a good school you would have heard and known sooner about your son...sorry for that. SELPA in CA. is always a place to go to get hooked up with info and other parents. If you need a parent for support...I am one. NOTE: Autism has increased 600% in the past 20 years.... "
"Do not rely on your teachers to warn you that something is wrong. We all have access to internet, benchmark if your child's knowledge benchmarks the curriculum he is supposed to know, if not contact your teacher on how to help him/her to get on that level. Not satisfactory answers should be taken up with the principal or if you have the means have him tested at one of the private learning facilities. We, as parents, have responsibilities towards our children giving extra tutoring or even having a child with a learning disability (my child is one of them) is far from the end of the world but it does take work at school as well as at home in the evenings, the weekends and during school holidays to get them where they need to be."
"I was recently blindsided in conferences with more than one of my foster child's teachers in 8th grade that her behavior is causing disruption in the classroom and alienating her classmates. We have her in a private school to deal with her ADHD and other learning disabilties and so we were very surprised to learn that she was still causing issues in this school. We don't know how to handle this now. "
"I think that they need a program to help the children who have reading problems i have seen first hand how they ingnore the problems of the children with these reading problems i really think this should be addressed"
"My daughter is in pre school and her teacher approached me for permission for her to see a speach therapist. I am so lucky her school offers the resources to catch what may become a problem early on. The instruction is done in a very playful way and she likes it. I think the most important thing is to know about a potential learning disability and be prepared to help when needed. My daughter was concerned when I asked if we could talk about her speach classes. Sometimes I don't realize how much pressure she puts on herself to do well and please my expectations. Be kind and be gentle. I know she'll be just fine"
"The articale is quite helpful! I think that parents need to be always alert & no matter how good teachers are never let them decide for you without your involvement. It happened with me & it was very shocking for me the way she exageerate the issues just to prove that my son had that disability."
"My son was not doing his home work in 4th grade (the teacher let the class do it in study hall) I didn't know until the November conf. what was going on. It shouldn't take until Oct or Nov to find these things out. Think of the days and days wasted. "
"Although this article was about being surprised in a conference, these parents should really have known - on their own and at home - a year or two earlier through at home reading. But the story is well intended."
"Great advise, but it assumes the school and district are willing to help through the special ed process. When I went through this with my son starting in 4th grade, the entire process was set up to keep kids out of special ed and only serve the severely disabled. Money is tight and schools don't want more special ed students. I insisted but he never received any services at all. It was unfair and my son is still struggling in high school. Special ed is NOT a productive avenue in some districts and parents should check around to learn the experiences of other families. If I had to do it over again I would have pulled him out of public education and gotten an extra job to pay for a special ed school. Legal action isn't terribly productive either in California and can take years."
"We need to be careful of who is evaluating our children. It is best to have someone outside the school system. If someone makes an error or continues testing when a child is clinically depressed, IQ points can drop significantly. the documents are put in their file for life. For example, I have a child who did extremely well in grads k-2. But at the beginning of third grade was diagnosed with an illness. The school refused to give him a 504 plan or an IEP even when he qualified because of 'other health impaired' because he did so well. Now, with this false 'borderline retarded' IQ, no one even thinks he has ability anymore and we can't even get it removed. Rather, 'we are lucky' he is doing well. NO one takes the time to read one line in the testing that says the results are not valid."
"The one thing parents need to always remember is the school cannot do anything without permission from the parents. You know your child better than anyone. Always ask questions and once again you are the parents."
"Wonderful, reassuring article!!"
"Honestly, when my daughter was tested and diagnosed in 2nd grade with dyslexia it was a relief. I had suspected for a while that something was not right when it came to reading with her at home. She, also, was a very bright and delightful child and my biggest fear was that this diagnosis would somehow change that if she thought there was something wrong with her. I decided, immediately, that my reaction to her LD was the key to how she navigated the next few years. The first thing I did is Googled 'Famous People with Dylexia'. Quite an impressive list, I might say. I showed it to her and said, 'As you can see, Dyslexia is not excuse for not being successful in life.' Of course, my daughter had a great advantage as a learning support teacher was at the school and worked with her for the next 4 years. I am happy to report that my daughter is now 14 and maintains a B+ average in a challenging Col. Prep. school. I once told my daughter that this challenge is like this... 'You ar! e driving a pick up truck and I am sitting next to you. We have come to a river and the bridge is washed away so we can't cross. We only need to go down the river a little bit and use another bridge to cross and I promise I will not get out of her truck until we have arrived at her destination.' I think I can get out of her truck now!"