Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
– John Dewey
It 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:
Have you ever been told something about Special Education — either in passing or at an IEP meeting — that just didn’t seem right? All of us (parents, educators, and other professionals) at some point have said things we wish we could take back. Here are some actual comments that sent bewildered parents to double-check with Matrix:
- We only have the speech therapist at our school twice a week, so we can’t offer more days…and actually we need to cut back on how many hours your child gets, because the therapist’s case load is so busy.
- It is against our policy to have your child’s paraprofessional at an IEP meeting.
- Your child doesn’t qualify for Special Education because she is too smart.
- He just needs to try harder.
- We can’t assess your child; the wait is too long.
- Your daughter’s off-task behavior isn’t what behavior plans are for. They are for kids who have real behavior problems and are sent to the principal.
- Until your child’s behavior is manageable, we have to place her on Home Hospital Instruction; then we will consider other placement options.
- Since your child is eligible for an IEP under Intellectual Disability, she can no longer receive speech services.
- In order to move your child to a new school, you must first waive your rights to an IEP.
- We don’t do IEPs in middle school; he would need a 504 plan.
- Since your child has autism, he has to be in the autism class.
When a comment doesn’t seem to make sense — or leaves you needing to take deep breaths! — here are some suggestions for what you can do or say:
- “Please put that in writing.” If you are requesting a change to your child’s IEP and are told this can’t be done, ask for the denial in the form of Prior Written Notice (here are details from our IEP packet and from Families & Advocates Partnership for Education).
- Show me. Sometimes it can help to say “Can you show me where it says that?” Ask to see policies. Keep in mind that school policies can’t be more restrictive than Education Code.
- State your understanding. Learn the six core principles of Special Education. Refer to the “I” in IEP (Individual Education Plan) — it is a plan to meet your child’s individual needs. Any area impacted by the disability can be addressed in an IEP through a goal, accommodation, or service.
- Request that the information you think may be incorrect be confirmed with a higher authority. This might be the Special Education Director, your local Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), or the California Department of Education Procedural Safeguard Service, 800.926.0648.
- Ask for data or an expert. “I would like to request an assessment to understand why it is hard for my son to ‘try harder’,” or “Who can join our IEP team to explain my son’s disability? What skills need to be taught so that he is able to ‘try harder’?”
- Defer. “I am requesting to schedule another IEP meeting so more information can be gathered about my request.”
The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) has posted additional ideas for how to respond, as has Friendship Circle.
Of course, sometimes the shoe is on the other foot! School and district staff hear comments from parents that make them take deep breaths. Some examples include:
- My child didn’t learn anything last year.
- I think you are just prejudiced.
- It’s obvious that no one on the team understands my child.
- You are trying to railroad my kid.
- If only you would stop being so hard on my child, her behavior wouldn’t be a problem.
- I know that my child couldn’t have done what you said he did because he told me he didn’t do it.
Comments can well up from frustration or due to limited experience or resources. Do your part to make the process productive. Read the communication tips in our Advocacy packet. If the exchange grows into a dispute, there are several methods available for parents to resolve conflicts; see our Resolving Disagreements packet.
If you learned something from this article, be a parent leader and share it with others! Together, our efforts can reach beyond our own children.
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:
The California Department of Education (CDE) has provided more clarification on the exemption from taking the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) for students with IEPs or 504 Plans. Frequently Asked Questions are answered on the CDE website.