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Preparing for Your Journey Through the Special Education Maze

Become an effective participant at IEP meetings by systematically observing your child and documenting facts.

By Deidre Hayden

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended in 1997, Congress recognized parent participation in educational planning as key to the success of children with disabilities. IDEA requires that:

  • Parents have an opportunity to participate in meetings about the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child, and the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child;
  • Parents are part of the teams that determine what additional data are needed as part of an evaluation of their child, their child's eligibility, and the educational placement of their child;
  • Parents' concerns and information are considered in developing and reviewing their children's Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

How do you prepare for your role in educational planning for your child? You begin by carefully looking at the central figure in the whole planning process - your child. This article suggests a way to observe your child to gather information. It will help you be effective at any stage of the planning process, whether it be for your school-age child's first formal evaluation, or your child's 10th IEP meeting.

To begin focusing on your child, think about the following:

  • What are three things your child has recently learned or accomplished?
  • Choose one of the items above. What helped your child learn this?
  • What are three things your child is trying to learn now?
  • Choose one of the items that your child is having trouble learning. What is causing her trouble?
  • What one thing would you like your child to learn within the next six months?

Observing Your Child in a Systematic Way

Sometimes parents have trouble answering the above questions. You know a lot about your child, but your knowledge is often "felt" in a general sense rather than in the specific terms needed to answer the questions.

Since planning an appropriate program for your child requires specific, documented facts rather than generalized impressions and concerns, you will need to collect your own facts. To convey personal knowledge of your child to school personnel - people accustomed to dealing with test scores, specific behaviors, goals, and objectives - written, concrete facts will be most influential.

One way to collect these facts is to observe your child in a formal way. "Observe!" you say. "When? How?" You think of the days you barely have enough time and energy to brush your teeth before turning in for the night. But observations can be made. Gathering and organizing information is a vital part of becoming an effective educational advocate for your child.

Guidelines for Planning an Observation

Before you begin to observe your child, think about:

  • What will you be looking at during the observation?
  • How your child solves disagreements or problems
  • What distracts your child
  • What holds her attention
  • Who, if anybody, will be interacting with your child?
  • Friends
  • Brothers
  • Sisters
  • Teachers
  • Tutors
  • Where will you observe your child - in what setting?
  • Home
  • School
  • Neighborhood
  • Picnic
  • Ball game
  • When will you observe your child?
  • Mealtime
  • Before school
  • After school
  • At school
  • Bedtime

Comments from readers

"I have a question. The school took almost 6 months from our request or him to be evaluate and in turn receive speech therapy. He had a lot of challenges learning his letters, numbers, and sounds. Two weeks before the year ends the school is now recommending he be retained bc they say he hasn't made enough progress. We don't know what to do. Since he started receiving speech therapy he has made a drastic improvement but there is no way he can or in my opinion should be compared to a child that started the school year with no issues/needs. He is doing good in math and has shown maturity. I beleive this is unfair to my child but have no idea what his rights are and mine as a parent. We did not get any communication from the school or his teacher about their concerns other then their concern about him needing to improve his letters, numbers, and sounds. I have stood stern that until they provided him with speech therapy he would continue to have challenges with learning this, we! tried to get him speech therapy through our insurance but they said the school had to provide.Since being advised by his teacher and assistant principla of their intention,we have called the district and have met with the principle. The decision to retain is hers and we are adamant that retaining him is not in his best interest and is not fair to him. Is there anything we can do? What type of requirements do schools have to provide my son with speech therapy or an accomodation to his learning plan until they can provide the service? How can we help our son? Please advice."