How to seek help for a struggling child

“My child is not keeping up with her peers in school. What should I do?”

It creeps up on you: the uncomfortable realization that your son or daughter is not doing well in school. Soon after, you reach the point where you know you need to intervene. Where to start?

The first thing every parent with a struggling child in school should do: get a copy of your child’s cumulative files. Simply write a note to your school “requesting a complete copy of my child’s cumulative files”. You sign and date this, and then give this to your school secretary (keep your own copy). Under federal law your school has 10 business days to produce a free copy of your child’s cumulative files.

Something magical happens when you put in a note for these files! Some people in your school may start paying more attention to your child, or will tell you about some brainstorm they had to help your child. This happens because bad news travels fast! The schools are very aware that a parent who asks a copy of your child’s cumulative files is probably getting advice from an attorney or a savvy advocate. Your school is now on alert that you are serious about getting your child some help.

Your school will not call you to tell you that your records are done. I advise my clients to call the school about 3-4 days after they submit the letter. Your school is on the defensive now, and they suddenly become very accommodating.

Hiring an advocate

You’ll need your child’s cumulative files for your advocate. “Do I need an advocate?” you may ask. Yes, if you are serious about helping your child, you should hire an advocate to represent you at your local school. Your child is your most precious commodity but this also means you may not be objective about their situation. An advocate will give you unbiased advice on how – or whether – you should go about seeking the special services your child is entitled to.

When should you hire an advocate? My advice is don’t delay. Contact an advocate as soon as it becomes clear to you that you need to talk to the school about your child’s progress.
Make a checklist to help you choose the right advocate. In my view, a good advocate should:

  • know the curriculum (a former teacher is ideal)
  • have knowledge of all forms of ancillary testing
  • strong test interpretation skills
  • be a skilled negotiator

Of course it’s hard to tell that just from talking to the advocate, so be sure to ask for references! A good advocate will have a list of happy clients which you should read carefully

What is the difference between hiring an attorney vs. hiring an advocate?
An attorney will be 10 times more expensive! And many don’t know a thing about curriculum, testing requests, or testing interpretations. We’ll discuss later when you may need an attorney but for most parents, all you will need is a good advocate.

You cannot trust the school to do the right thing for your child.

In an ideal world, you, your school system and your child’s teacher would all be on the same side, wanting the best for your child. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Why? It is all about money! Your school is not going to tell you about all of the services you can get to assist your child. In fact, many school systems impose a gag order on teachers, preventing them from advising you on how to get either extra help or special education services for your child. Special education/accommodation plans are more work for your school. This means it is labor intensive, costing your school more money. This is another reason to have an advocate who can walk you through the eligibility process to getting those special education services for your child. It is also the main reason I left teaching. If I cannot advocate for the kids in my own classroom, then I really shouldn’t be there!

Major red flags from your schools that your child really needs extra help are comments from your school such as “She is so cute;” “Oh, he is just a little immature don’t worry;” “She really tries hard” and stories to regale to you about something your child did are frequently deliberate avoidance tactics by your school.

Types of help the school should provide. Accommodations vs. Special Education
Services to assist your child to be more successful in school usually fall under two categories. This first category is from the American Disabilities Act. This law was originally written so that children who had diabetes could not be excluded from gym. Under this law, your child may be eligible for a 504 Accommodation Plan. Accommodations usually do not involve direct teaching services from a teacher. Examples of what you can get from your 504 accommodation plan include things like seating in the front of the classroom (to help your child stay focused); being provided with a copy of the teachers’ notes; extra time on tests; prior notice of any/all tests and quizzes; being allowed to take tests in a separate, quiet room; all are examples of accommodations that can be made for your child.

A 504 accommodation plan is not for special education students, who require a specifically designed curriculum in order to learn the concepts. It is ideal for the student who only requires a “few extras” to get by. There are many pluses and minuses of the 504 Plan. A 504 plan does not get your child extra help from either a special education teacher or the regular education teacher. But it does not include due process rights! There really is no accountability in a 504 plan unless you are a diligent parent. My son has ADHD of the combined type, and I put him on the 504-accommodation plan instead of under special education. He does not require a special curriculum to learn. (He would have been mortified to be pulled out of his regular classes to go work with a special education teacher!) My son gets 50% extra time on math tests, preferential seating, and is also entitled to a copy of the teachers notes. He is also allowed to take a picture of the blackboard at the end of his classes to ensure that his notes are adequate. This has been a great plan for him: his grades went from D’s to being an honor roll student!

If your child is significantly behind his peers what should you do?

Accommodations may not be enough. Let’s get back to that advocate you found and your cumulative records. A good advocate should go through your entire cumulative files, paying particular attention to teacher comments, low grades, and especially your state’s annual standardized test results.

Each state has its own name for its annual assessments. In Connecticut it’s the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Georgia has Milestones, Florida the Florida Standards Assessment, and so on. You need to pay attention to this data! It shows you where your child is functioning in the Language Arts and math in comparison to his/her peers. If you take the time to read it there are clear statements such as “a child functioning of this level will most likely require significant help to achieve this task.” Your advocate should be gaining information on the specific testing to request to flush out the nature of your child’s disability. For example, when if I see a low score in the area of phonemic awareness then I am going to ask your school to do the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP)

How do I get Special Education Services for my Child? Remember that teachers are often discouraged from advising you when it comes to spending the school’s money on testing! Your advocate should tell you to get a “special education referral form”. Every school district has their own referral form. The form will ask you the nature of your concerns and what interventions have been tried in the past.

Once you turn in this form, the school should schedule an initial meeting promptly. Different states have different names (and slightly different processes). I will use Connecticut’s terminology. In CT, you will be invited to a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting. It takes two PPTs to get through the eligibility process.

PPTs are often scheduled back to back for multiple children. The schools like to rush you in and out! When they start your meeting by saying there is only a half hour time slot for the meeting, request another one that offers you more time.

Preparing for your PPT or IEP Meeting

Being prepared for your meeting is key! Bring in work samples that your child has done which shows he is struggling to understand concepts, or which demonstrate immature handwriting to help make your case.

Another key component at your PPT is that special education comes with its own form of language by using 3-4 letter anachronisms, such as IEP, SLD, ISS. You will need to learn the special ed lingo, or you will be lost the entire meeting! (Check out our “learn the lingo” guide.) For those parents who are seeking special education services for the first time, you will have the most work to do.

You should have a 3 ring binder with every form and piece of data that your school gives you. Put your material in chronological order. (your hearing officer is not going to appreciate your looking for documents to show him/her) Write your questions out prior to any meeting. Finally have respect for everyone’s time. Everyone is busy! You will do the best if you learn the lingo, organize yourself, and write out your questions prior to your meeting. Never give your only copy of anything to anybody. Photocopy it first. Your school has an uncanny way of misplacing your documents.

PPT I is very anti-climactic. The only thing decided at this meeting is generating a list of tests recommended for your child based on their strengths and weaknesses. It is very easy to get bamboozled at this PPT! For example, there is one language test that your school tries to give your child when asked to assess language which allows the child to get the question right by randomly pointing to one of four pictures and does not test for syntax or grammar. I instead would request a more comprehensive test such as the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals. Everything is a negotiation. You need someone to help you who knows all about these tricks, and will intervene on your behalf! As a parent you have no reason to know about the various tests available and what they measure. Do not just say ok to their proposed testing!

After agreeing on the testing, your school then has 45 school days to complete the assessments and reconvene PPT II. This is the meeting where your child’s testing is reviewed, and a determination is made whether or not your child qualifies for special education services. This is where your advocate should shine! Are you familiar with the saying that “statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics”? Your school will highlight the positive and gloss over your concerns. Tricks schools use are to only give the child a (easier) portion of a particular test; they may also use composite scores to show that your child scores within an average range. HOWEVER, when there is a lot of scatter in those numbers (showing that your child does OK on some portions of a test but badly on others), they will only focus on the positive. You need an advocate to speak up and say, “Hey this child is over two years behind in math”

Anything you ask your school for (eligibility, Out of District Placement, pencil griper) that is denied, have the school mark it on page 3 of your IEP document under “Actions Refused.” This is how you lay a paper trail if you feel your case may go to due process. Another tip: be sure to read any minutes the school provides to make sure it is an accurate reflection of what occurred during your meeting. I started doing this because I would get my page 2 back from the school, read it, and wonder if we were at the same meeting!

What to do if you and the school disagree on the right plan for your child?

Ideally – with your advocate’s firm but polite presence – the school will agree to provide the special education services and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that your child needs. If you do not come away from the PPT II satisfied, however, there are two approaches you can take: mediation or a due process hearing. I recommend mediation first. Have your advocate help you fill out a “request for a mediation hearing.” You do not need an attorney.

Once you’ve turned in the mediation request, you will receive a call from a State Department of Education consultant or hearing officer. The actual mediation occurs at your home school. You are in one room with your spouse and advocate and the school staff is in another room. The hearing officer will listen to both sides, by going back and forth between the two parties at the meeting. At the end of your mediation, a hearing officer will decide who is in the right/wrong. Mediation is a legally binding agreement. Mediation is also free to parents. Do not attempt a mediation hearing if you are by yourself, as the schools all have top-notch lawyers! Your advocate can handle your mediation hearing. If you choose to skip mediation or do not accept the mediator’s proposed resolution, you have a right to IEP due process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA). This is where you have to open your wallet and bring in a lawyer. You and the school district will present written and oral evidence about the disputed issue before a hearing officer. You can appeal all the way to state or federal court.

An example of when you’d want to hire a lawyer is if you believe the school is not able to serve your child properly (in legal jargon, “has not provided your child with a free and appropriate education”) and you are seeking an out of district placement. Your school will go to any length not to give you that out of district placement as it will cost the school system on average $150,000 dollars annually, not including transportation costs. Since your school will have to pay the tuition it is worth their while to try to fight you.

Some final tips as you seek help for your struggling child:

  • Dress for success — you are working with professionals!
  • Assertive not aggressive
  • I over E: intellect over emotion
  • Ask pointed questions
  • Learn the lingo so you understand everything that comes up at the meetings
  • If your question goes unanswered wait for a break in the conversation and repeat your question
  • Always be polite, but you can stand your ground while being polite

And did I mention, hire an advocate to represent you

Empower yourself with knowledge!

This blog post was written by educational consultant Amy Eisner, one of HomeworkCoach’s advocacy partners. Amy is based in Connecticut.

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