My child qualifies as special needs – now what?

When developing an education plan, you don’t have to get lost in the acronyms

Parents want their children to have a positive educational experience — to learn, make friends and have happy, healthy, productive lives.

So when a child is struggling in school, whether it’s academically or socially, it can be difficult. And when the alphabet soup – IEPs, 504s, IDEA and FAPE — enters the conversation, it can be overwhelming, said Stephanie Landry, a learning disabilities specialist at McLaughlin Middle School in Manchester. But it doesn’t need to be.

For starters, a special needs diagnosis and implementation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) doesn’t have to be a forever thing, Landry said. In fact, going into the process, the goal is typically to get the child discharged from special education at some point, and that does happen. The IEP is meant to address the issues the child is having so they can be discharged.

“The earlier you catch things, the better off you are,” Landry said, noting that most are given out in elementary school when a disability begins to show itself. “The earlier we can catch things, the quicker we can get them caught up, and the quicker we can get them off services. The goal is to not have them on an IEP.”

That said, some children will have IEPs for their entire school careers and that’s OK, Landry said. She shares that her own first-grader has an IEP and their goal is to have him off of it by second grade.

“I don’t want this to be something that follows him forever,” she said. “But if that’s what he needs, I’m OK with that.”

What is an IEP?

An IEP is a plan designed by a learner’s educational team to address the individual’s unique learning needs, said Kelly Ardita, a special education teacher and case manager at Bow Memorial School.

Students who have an identified educational disability and need special education are eligible for IEPs.

Landry said there are still misconceptions about what constitutes a special education student. She said most often people still think of kids in wheelchairs or those who need physical help feeding themselves, for example.

“But there is so much more to special ed that people are completely not aware of,” Landry said. “There are special ed kids in almost every classroom.”

She said that looking at her own son, one might not suspect he had a disability.

“He talks, he walks, he eats, he’s a typical kid,” she said. “And people are surprised when I do tell them that [he has an IEP]. They’re like, ‘oh, what’s wrong with him?’ Well, nothing is really ‘wrong’ with him, but I get that that is people’s first instincts. He has a learning disability, he needs some extra supports in reading and in speech, you know, and it was those things that people don’t typically don’t think of as special ed.”

The team that puts the plan together typically comprises a regular education teacher, a special education teacher, the parents, the student – depending on their age – and individuals who are working to provide the student’s services, such as a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, counselor, reading specialist etc., Ardita said. The team also usually includes a Local Education Agency. The LEA is a representative of the school district that the student attends and represents the district that is providing funding for the student and is often a school administrator.

The plan itself includes a variety of information including:

• The student’s learning profile

• Consideration of special factors to be considered so the student can access their free and appropriate public education — also known as FAPE

• Specialized goals and objectives designed to address the student’s educational needs

• Accommodations and/or modifications that the student may need to best access the educational setting

• Special education and related services

• Accommodations for state and district-wide testing

• A determination of if a student needs extended school-year services based
on their learning profile

• A determination of the school setting or placement of where the plan will be put in place

The process includes meeting with the team to come up with a plan.

When it comes to the accommodations included in the plan, they vary. But by way of example, Ardita said, they might include providing word banks on assessments to help a student who can’t recall vocabulary or allowing the use of a scribe on assignments to support a student with weak writing skills.

An example of a modification in an IEP may include providing different spelling words from what is presented in the general curriculum or allowing a student access to content materials such as an audio recording or Braille to support a vision impairment.

504 plans

These types of accommodations are different than classroom modifications offered with a 504 plan. 

Ardita said a 504 plan falls under the Section 504 Rehabilitative Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law originally aimed at stopping discrimination of individuals with disabilities.

“A 504 is something that you and I can have,” she said. “It’s something we can have in the workplace, even an adult.”

Ardita said 504s are minor accommodations to help the student, whereas an IEP is a plan that changes things completely. In reading, for example, a student with an IEP may read the same story as a regular ed student, but it’s at a lower reading level. In science and social studies, she said, when it comes to tests, she often will give IEP students tests that have the same core concepts as the regular ed class, but are modified to meet the needs of the special ed student. Same concepts, she said, different test.

When it comes to a 504 plan, there are two things to consider, Ardita said. The first is that a learner must present with a disability, which can include a variety of learning and attention issues. Second, that disability must interfere with the student’s ability to learn in the general classroom setting.

A 504 plan is a plan for accommodations, or if appropriate, supports and/or services for the student, and is typically developed and monitored through regular education, Ardita said.

Accommodations in 504 plans may include supports such as wheelchair ramps so a student can access all parts of the school building, the use of an FM amplification voice system to support students with hearing impairments or even adapting an environment to minimize distractions for a student with a ADHD diagnosis, Ardita said.

“These often reflect a student’s disability and provide for access to the school environment and learning,” she adds.

Annual review

If a learner is found by their educational team to qualify for an IEP it must be reviewed at least on a yearly basis, or at any time any member of the team would like to do so. Students who are receiving special education must also have a re-evaluation completed at least every three years.

A test is administered at that point and is used for the team to determine if the student still qualifies for a disability identification, and still requires special education.

As the student progresses, the team can decide to discharge the student from special education and dispense with the IEP.

When that happens, Ardita said, “It is typically because the goals have been met through the prescriptive education the IEP provided for and the student is achieving on grade level, no longer needing special education.”

Landry recognizes that the whole process can be overwhelming to navigate. That is why it helps to go into an initial referral meeting armed with seven questions. Ardita suggests coming into that meeting with a written list to ensure all questions and concerns are answered.

Some questions she suggests asking include:

• Do you have a handout or resource that I could have to better understand the steps of this process and my rights as a parent?

• What are the names, e-mails and roles of the individuals working with my student?

• What is the best way to contact you?

• What are the best ways to support my child at home with what you are working on here at school?

• Are there outside resources I can access to further support what I’m working on at home?

• How will you measure my student’s progress and how will you be informing me?

• How might my learner’s day look different from their peers?

Landry said parents should also feel comfortable asking for a list of the child’s strengths and where he or she is succeeding.

“When parents are sitting at the meeting and teachers are spitting out all kinds of perceived negative things, if you feel overwhelmed and upset, stop the meeting and just say, I know my kid is a good kid and they have good qualities, please tell me one good thing,” Landry said.

“I think sometimes we get so focused on what we’re worried about so that the parents know we’re worried about this and it sometimes gets hammered too hard, especially if it’s the first time it’s coming up. Parents can feel completely blindsided.

“It’s hard to sit there and hear that your child is different. Because every parent just wants their kid to be like everybody else. You know even as adults, we just want to fit in. It’s scary thinking that your kid might be doing something different.” 

Melanie Plenda is an award-winning writer and longtime contributor to Parenting NH.

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