Is my child learning in the right setting?

School GirlThe signs were there in 6th grade, my daughter’s first year in middle school. She pulled her sweatshirt hood over her head in class and picked at the sleeves until they were frayed. Teachers said she needed to learn more teacher-pleasing behaviors, look interested, and pay attention. My daughter said she felt like dog poo under someone’s shoe at school.

She and I spent every Sunday afternoon reading social studies chapters, attempting to pull out main ideas and details. Every night, she did two to three hours of homework or test prep for science, math, or social studies (thankfully, the English teacher said just reading was homework enough). My daughter saw a Resource Specialist through Special Education at school, but it wasn’t enough to access the curriculum. She sat in general education classes with information flying past her faster than her mind could take in, sort, and absorb.

I asked the school about a change in placement. “She’s such a nice girl,” I was told. “Give it time. She’ll do better.” I let it go.

But halfway through 7th grade, the situation got worse. I regretted not listening to my gut and requesting a placement change more firmly. Lessons learned?

1. Know the signs that a placement isn’t working:

  • IEP goal data and diagnostic tests show lack of progress
  • your child reports an anxious, downtrodden, or distressed emotional state when at school
  • services available at the placement have been maxed out
  • class or school environments can’t be accommodated any further to meet your child’s needs

2. Gather data that supports your gut feeling that the placement isn’t working. This may include grades, teacher emails, observations of behavior, a log of time spent on homework, or the number of nights there were meltdowns over school.

3. Make a list of what your child needs in a learning environment. Examples:

  • clear instruction with multisensory input
  • peer group with similar skill levels
  • time dedicated to building reading skills, including how to scan for key information
  • reduced sensory stimuli
  • teaching content vocabulary
  • small chunks of homework based on skills she has learned and can practice on her own

4. Review the IEP to identify any goals or services that might need to be added to address skill weaknesses.

5. Ask for an IEP meeting for the team to discuss your request for a change in services and placement. The meeting must be held within 30 days of your request.

6. If your request is denied, ask for the denial to be put in the form of Prior Written Notice so the reasons the district is denying your request — and all the data they used to make that decision — are clearly written out.

7. Consider dispute resolution options (see our Resolving Disagreements packet). Keep in mind the law requires school districts to educate your child in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) with supports and services (here is that page in our IEP packet). This means using supports and services to educate your child to the greatest extent possible with non-disabled peers. Before a district recommends a more restrictive environment, the IEP team should discuss if any more supports and services can be added in the least restrictive environment.

I let too much time lapse before I got my daughter into a class that met her needs. Watch for the signs, even if it’s as early as preschool (check out our Transition to Preschool packet, available in English and Spanish, or the shorter bilingual Help! sheet about preschool Special Education placements).

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