Public School Resources for Parents of Special Needs Kids: Elementary Edition
Preface: The information in this post is based upon my interactions with the Alpine School District in Orem Utah. Other states and countries will have different resources and regulations about those resources. You’ll have to check locally to find out what can be done, but hopefully knowing what is available elsewhere will at least arm you with good questions to ask. This listing is incomplete. Each child has unique challenges, each school presents unique possibilities and barriers. All that is intended here is some basic knowledge of where to start.
First some tips for dealing with school personnel
Assume that they are competent.
They may not be, but starting discussions with the belief that any difficulties can be resolved by calm discussion puts you in a much better bargaining position. People are not helpful when they feel belittled or defensive.
Gather information before making demands.
Be sure you fully understand the school, the teacher, the administration, and the potential roadblocks. Once you do, pick the crucial needs and start with those. Be willing to compromise on the non-crucial needs. If you try to force a plan that does not work for the school staff, then that plan is doomed to fail.
Keep your emotions in check.
You may be furious or upset, but putting school officials on the defensive is not likely to result in a better outcome for your child. I swallow my frustrations all the time if it allows me to achieve an important goal. What matters is helping your child, not venting your emotions.
Many of these teachers and staff have been at their jobs for longer than you’ve been raising your child. You are the expert on your child. They are the experts on what works in the classroom and school setting. Most of the resources I’m going to list, I learned from helpful school personnel.
Respect their time and effort.
Any adaptation that they make for your child represents extra time and effort on the part of school staff. Even if they are required by law to make those adaptations, be grateful for it. It is still a gift, and thanks are appropriate. Also, human beings respond to positive reinforcement. The child with gracious and thankful parents is likely to get just a little bit more kindness than one whose parents are not.
People at your school who can be your allies:
This person is your front line and your most important ally. Often if you can build a good rapport with the teacher, you don’t need much other intervention because you solve many of the problems in the classroom. But rapport is not guaranteed. Sometimes the teacher has to be worked around instead.
This person sets the social tone for the entire school. You may or may not have dealings with the principal directly, but still pay attention. The principal has some veto power over what can be offered to your child. We once chose to switch kids into a different school because of the social environment a principal was creating, even though he meant well.
Every school in Alpine District has one. She’s likely only at the school one day per week, but she exists. She is the one who schedules additional testing and performs much of it. Additionally, she can do in-class observations of your child to see what might be working or not working in the classroom. She can see how your child behaves when you are not there and can report if there is something amiss with the teacher/child relationship.
These range from reading and math specialists to speech therapists. Your child will only work with these teachers if they have been tested and demonstrated an additional need. Once you have access to these teachers, they can be additional allies.
These are the people who watch the playground at recess. Sometimes they are teachers, other times they are separate personnel. Either way, they may have observations about your child in a different environment than the classroom. Depending on your child’s issues, talking with the yard duties may be very helpful.
All local elementary schools have one, though she is usually only present one day per week. If your child’s needs include medical issues, you’ll need to communicate with the school nurse.
These people are the front line for many issues that come up at school. They help your child if he gets injured. They dispense medicine according to doctor’s instructions. They see almost everything that happens at school.
Testing and Diagnosis
When my kids were young I was afraid of doing anything that would get my child “labeled.” I was reluctant to pursue testing or diagnosis, believing that we were better off just trying to address the issues we saw, rather than declare what the issues were. I have come to believe that the value of diagnosis greatly outweighs the possible negative consequences of being labeled. Diagnosis is your friend. Really.
I have encountered school personnel who misunderstood, or did not comprehend. I’ve met some who meant well and thought they were helping but who were doing the opposite. I have never met a single one who was dismissive of a diagnosis. I’m sure such people are out there, but I’ve not encountered them yet.
I’ve been through a full diagnostic process for a child four different times. I’ve been through testing more times than I can count. Every single time it has given me more information about what my child needed. The diagnoses shifted information in my head and opened up new paths to help. I did not expect that. I thought that diagnosis closed off possibilities, when it did the opposite. Diagnosis was always an emotional process and grieving was part of that, but afterward we were far more able to move forward.
If your fear of being labeled is strong (or your school has demonstrated a tendency to pigeon-hole labeled children), then there are private means to pursue testing and diagnosis. You can then decide what to share with the school. A good resource for private help is to contact your local college or university. Be sure you get recommendations, because private diagnosis can be expensive and not all providers are good.
Locally I recommend contacting the BYU Comprehensive Clinic (cc.byu.edu 801 422-7759) They did a full work up and testing on Link when he was six. I don’t remember how much it cost, but I know it was not very much for what we gained. More recently we had Gleek diagnosed through a private clinic called TAPS that works out of the Clear Horizon’s Academy. Full diagnosis there cost around $750. University of Utah, Wasatch Mental Health, and Primary Children’s Counseling Center are also places to check.
Diagnosis and testing through the school does not cost the child or the family, though it does cost the school district. You can request testing and I believe they are required to provide it upon parental request. You may get push-back from school personnel if they don’t think your child needs it. They are unlikely to be willing to devote school resources to testing unless significant issues have manifested at school which impact your child’s ability to learn, or which disrupt the classroom for other students. Often they don’t realize that testing is an option or they just don’t think about it.
We have had the following testing done through school resources:
Social and behavioral skills testing
Motor skills testing
Speech and language testing
Auditory processing testing
Psychological in-class observation
Testing to compare academic achievement to grade level expectations
I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten or missed
Making a Plan
Often the results of testing and diagnosis are useful information and can help you form a plan with your child’s teacher. That may be all that is necessary, though you’ll have to continue to form plans with new teachers each year. If the difficulties are ongoing, or if your child needs additional school resources, then making an official plan through the school is probably a good idea. Locally we have two types of educational plans:
This flags the child as needing extra help in the classroom and defines exactly what sort of help must be provided. For example: one of my daughter’s friends is legally blind. She has a 504 plan stating that she must be seated at the front of the class, that people must read her tests to her out loud, and that she may use special equipment to help her see. Any sort of diagnosis which impacts education, and which will not go away, merits a 504 plan. I think this can include requiring an in-class aide, but I’m not sure exactly how that works. Link qualifies for a 504 due to his Auditory Processing Disorder and his ADHD (he actually has an IEP instead, I’ll get to that next) Gleek would also qualify for a 504 plan, but she does not currently have one because at the moment she’s getting straight A’s and thriving at school. The moment she needs something the school does not automatically provide, I’ll brandish her diagnoses and get a 504 plan for her.
IEP (Individualized Educational Plan)
This includes everything in a 504 plan, but also outlines what additional resource or educational help that the child might need. In elementary school Link had one of these to provide him with speech services and then writing resource help. Part of setting up this sort of plan is setting goals for what needs to be achieved with the child that year. Over the years Link had goals relating to conversation, speech, writing, and social interactions. He met with speech therapists for learning to communicate clearly and with writing specialists for the same. One year he even had an in-school play group where the school psychologist taught social skills over board games.
For both kinds of plans you meet at least once per year with the teacher, the principal, and any resource teachers. During that meeting you evaluate how things are going and set new goals for the coming year. You can call an IEP meeting at any time if the current plan is not working. One of the values of an IEP or 504 plan is that it stays with your child even when the teacher changes. It is supposed to help provide continuity of support across school years. The purpose and importance of both IEP and 504 plans shifts dramatically on entering junior high and high school, but that is a topic for a different post.
You are your child’s best resource, but you can’t do it alone. Hopefully some of this information will help you acquire a team to help you and yours.
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