What back-to-school worries are in your child’s backpack?

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. 
– John Dewey 

Kids running towards busIt isn’t only your child who may have back to school jitters/nerves. The start of any new school year can bring both excitement and worry for any parent, particularly for parents of children with special needs. Will the new teacher understand my child’s special needs and be a “good fit”? Will new classmates offer friendship or teasing and bullying?  If changes are hard for your child with special needs, as is often the case, what behaviors or emotions may spill out?

Back-to-school jitters are especially potent if your child with special needs is headed to a new school. New physical space, new teacher and staff, new route to school, new IEP team.

What might be behind some of our parent jitters?  If as children we struggled in school or were teased ourselves, those memories can be rekindled as our children head through the school door. If you loved school and your child doesn’t, that also can bring disappointment. As parents of children with special needs, we can become very protective and have anticipatory worry.

Unfortunately, worry can be contagious. Our children sense it if we feel confident and positive or worried and negative. If you find yourself with too many jitters or worries:

  • Find a trusted person with whom you can let those worries out so they don’t spill over on your child.
  • Try to ensure you and your child are rested for the big day.
  • Exercise and meditation can relieve worry and stress.
  • Use language that communicates positive ways to approach new situations.
  • Focus on positive features about the new school year.
  • Write a one-page summary about your child for their new teacher. Include your child’s strengths, interests and challenges and some techniques or strategies that address them.
  • Take a “test run” and visit the school with your child before the first day to familiarize both of you with the new environment.
  • Reach out and identify people in the new school year who feel warm, positive and accepting about your child and you. Besides the educators, this might be the school secretary, custodians, bus driver or cafeteria workers.

For more tips on reducing transition anxiety:


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).

What is DIS counseling?

Special Education is full of terms to master. One term that’s being heard more is “DIS counseling.” DIS stands for designated instructional service. This is another term for related services.  Related services are any service needed for a student to access his or her education and make progress in IEP goals in the least restrictive environment (see the LRE page from our IEP packet in English or in Spanish). Designated instructional services” (DIS) and “related services” mean the same thing.

During the years when Assembly Bill 3632 mandated County/Community Mental Health as the agency to provide mental health school services to students receiving Special Education, the term “mental health” or “CMH services” was commonly used.  With the ending of AB 3632, school districts are now responsible to provide services for students whose emotional challenges get in the way of their education, and the term DIS Counseling is being used. You may also hear the terms “Educationally Related Mental

Health Services” (ERMHS) in Sonoma County and “Mental Health as a Related Service” (MHRS) in Solano County. ERMHS and MHRS are the same as DIS counseling (term used in Marin County).

If your school district indicates that your student may need counseling, be sure to clarify if this is DIS counseling (Special Education counseling) or if this is counseling provided through general education. For a student in Special Education to receive any related service, an assessment is done to identify need and to guide the type, duration, frequency, and location of a service.

For more information on related services/DIS, see:

How do IEP special factors apply to your child?

At every annual IEP meeting, the team — which includes you, the parent — must discuss a student’s needs related to “special factors,” which are:
  • Behavior
  • Assistive technology
  • English learners
  • Special communication needs
  • Blindness/visual impairments
If you disagree with the rest of the team about whether your student has needs in any of these areas, ask for their decision in the form of Prior Written Notice (see page 26 of our IEP packet, found here in English and here in Spanish). Prior written notice is an important part of your rights and procedural safeguards.
If the team agrees that your student has needs in any of the special factor areas, something must be added to the IEP to address those needs. This may be a behavior plan, specific assistive technology, communication devices or software, or goals to build English proficiency.
For more information on the various special factors, see our IEP packet and our new Behavior packet. For an in-depth overview or information on specific special factors, check out additional resources from:
Excerpted from our September Express E-Newsletter

Changes to Regional Center services

Changes in the law enacted by the legislature effective July 1, 2011, have again resulted in how and if services are provided by the Regional Centers serving children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Here is a summary of changes which might in particular apply to families with children ages birth to 22 years:

  1. Responsibility for Prevention Services has now been transferred to the Family Resource Centers which also provide Family Support under the Early Intervention Program. As a Family Resource Center, Matrix will hold that responsibility in our area. See the PRRS portion of our website for more information.
    An Annual Family Program Fee will now be charged annually in addition to the Family Participation Costs that families pay for specified services. A family whose income is in excess of 400% of the Federal Poverty Level will be charged $150 per year.
  2. Special Education instead of Adult Services for 18-22 year olds. If a student remains eligible for special education services between the ages of 18 and 22, they are not eligible for adult services from the Regional Center unless they have received a diploma or certificate of completion.
  3. Receipt of Behavior Services provided for children under the age of 18 must be verified in writing by parents to ensure that services are delivered. Additionally, the law allows for the use of behavioral services paraprofessionals—qualifications to be determined.

Additional changes in the law might apply to your situation. Remember, there are appeal rights and exception policies for most determinations made by the Regional Centers.