By Shahar Pasch
For most families, the beginning of the new school year brings hope. Hope for new friends, inspiring teachers and exciting new experiences. There are some families, though, who also experience a feeling of dread about the new school year. For children who struggle in school, either academically or emotionally, facing another year of seemingly insurmountable challenges brings a fresh wave of anxiety. As parents, we can be a strong voice for our children to receive the educational interventions, services and accommodations they need to succeed.
Being an informed advocate is critical to your child’s success. If your child already has an IEP or 504 Plan, then make sure you are familiar with the services and accommodations. Attend Meet-the-Teacher Day and Curriculum Nights to get a glimpse into your child’s day. Take these opportunities to gather information about the classroom routines, rules and expectations. This is not the time to ask about your child’s individual progress and challenges. Instead, ask the teacher general questions such as: “what is the homework policy,” “tell me about your classroom management system,” or “what critical benchmarks, tests or projects should we expect this year.”
Ask to see the classroom library and verify it contains books at your child’s reading level. Pay attention to where your child sits in the classroom: is it by a door or window, near the back of the classroom, or near where the teacher sits or provides lessons. Request a copy of the class schedule, including the fine arts wheel, 90 minute reading block, lunch and recess times. Look around the room to make sure that your child’s IEP or 504 Plan is being followed. Is your child’s seat located near the teacher or by the door? If your child needs a visual schedule, is it readily available? If your child has an individualized behavior plan, is it being implemented?
All of this information will ultimately help you advocate for a plan to best serve your child’s needs. For example, if attention and focus are issues, then you can make sure your child is seated in the area of least distraction. Follow up with your child to make sure he/she understands the classroom rules and dynamics.
If I could give one piece of advice to any parent of a child struggling in school, it would be, “Put it in writing.” The best way to communicate with your child’s teacher is through email. Every teacher and administrator has a District provided email address. If you have a friendly, personal relationship with a school staff member, then they may text or call you. This is nice, and even appropriate if your child is generally doing well, but this is not necessarily the best way for you to be a strong advocate for a child with special needs. Sending an email creates a permanent, written record. By sending an email, you have proof that you made a request and/or put the school on notice about your concerns. It is also a way of documenting the school’s response, or lack thereof, to your concerns and requests.
If your child struggles in school, then you should schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher during the first month of school. This should be sufficient time for the teacher to get to know your child’s strengths and needs. Request this meeting by email. Include a list of issues that you would like included on the meeting agenda. If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, you do not need to wait until an annual IEP or 504 review in order to meet. You should send the email request to your school’s ESE coordinator or 504 Designee. If your child does not have an IEP or 504 Plan, then simply email the teacher. Staff email contact information should be listed on the school Edline page and on the District’s website.
Some children experience a “honeymoon” period during the first few weeks of school, when they are still getting to know their teachers and classmates. It is still important to meet with the teacher in order to review any needs the child may have, assess their progress after the long summer break, and ensure that any interventions or services from the previous school year are continuing. You can discuss how your child is adjusting to their new class and if they are making progress on their goals. If your child receives a related service, such as Speech and Language Therapy, it is important to confirm that the service is being provided.
What if your child struggles in school but does not have an IEP or 504 Plan? How do you know if your child is behind? First and foremost, trust your instincts. If you think your child is behind, you should send an email requesting to meet with your child’s teacher to discuss reading progress. Don’t wait until your child falls further behind. Most importantly, ask your child’s teacher to provide your child’s most updated reading level. Palm Beach County uses the Running Reading Record system as one tool to assess a child’s reading proficiency.
Look up your child’s level on the chart to determine where he/she falls in grade-level reading proficiency. (http://www.palmbeachschools.org/ec/documents/TrimesterBenchmarkReadingLevelsFinal.pdf) Ask the following questions at the parent/teacher conference: What reading program are you providing my child to help him/her catch up to grade level? What literacy skills do you think my child needs to improve (i.e. word recognition/comprehension)? What strategies are you using to address these needs? How are you providing these interventions to my child (i.e. small group, individually)? Make sure you receive a written conference report at the end of your meeting to document what was discussed, any concerns you raised and your child’s current reading level.
Once you have all of this information, start your research. Is your child a year or more behind in reading? Is the reading program currently being provided to your child really the best program to address your child’s needs? Has your child fallen further behind, or made progress, over the past school year? Do you think your child needs more or different interventions in order to catch up? Depending on how you answer these questions, you may want to email the school ESE coordinator to request formalized interventions and/or an evaluation. Again, it is important to make sure your requests are made in writing. Do not be afraid to include school administration or District level staff in your emails if you feel that your concerns are not being adequately addressed.
If your child is struggling with behavior, then don’t wait until the teacher calls you to request a conference. Most of our children want to do well. They don’t enjoy getting into trouble. For some children, though, is it difficult to control their impulses or behavior in a highly structured and stimulating school environment. Children struggling with emotional or behavioral challenges require clear expectations and a system which rewards positive behavioral choices. The “carrot instead of the stick” approach to school discipline is most effective in helping children overcome behavioral challenges. If you feel that your child is constantly in trouble, you get regular phone calls regarding behavior problems, or your child has received a disciplinary referral, then you should proactively meet with the school to identify ways to help your child succeed.
Parents have an important role to play in developing a plan to help their child succeed in school. No one knows your child better than you. As a strong parent advocate, you should be an active part of the school’s process of identifying the root of the behavior, creating a positive plan to address the behavior, having open communication between home and school, and helping your child feel good about him/herself. These are all vital components towards overcoming behavioral challenges and, therefore, the school should embrace and welcome your participation. If you feel shut out of this process, put your concerns in writing and continue your advocacy up the chain of command.
There are so many challenges that our children confront when we send them to school. The pressures to perform academically and socially are higher than ever. For our children with learning, physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities, these challenges can feel overwhelming. You are your child’s best advocate, so continue to ask questions and demand answers. I wish all of your children a successful school year!
Shahar Pasch is an attorney in Palm Beach County with over fourteen years of experience. She focuses her law practice on education law. Shahar helps families of children with ASD, learning disabilities, discipline challenges, developmental, emotional and physical disabilities, advocate for their children to receive appropriate evaluations, services, accommodations, placement and planning in the school system. Shahar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.