So, You Knew That Already?

Advocating academics for your child with special needs.

The second half of the school year has arrived. For most children, this brings the excitement of returning to friends, teachers and academic challenges. For others, there is the recognition of new concerns.

And for parents of children with special needs, much of the academic year is spent searching for ways to improve or adapt their child's educational program. Feelings of frustration surface at the lack of information and understanding, as well as isolation and powerlessness to help their children. But it is important to recognize that you are not alone. In reality, you are actually a part of the decision-making team. What follows is insight about how parents can work with schools to develop appropriate and effective programming for children with special needs.

Understand the law. Special education is governed by a complex set of laws and mandates. A lack of knowledge can put you at a disadvantage and make the process feel intimidating. Familiarity with the governing regulations or, at the very least, knowing what laws there are is key.

The federal special education law is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA). The law declares that a “free appropriate public education,” often referred to as FAPE, is afforded to every child regardless of disability. Each state is required to develop its own law to implement the requirements of IDEA.

In New York State, the central law is known as NYS Part 200 Regulations of the Commissioner of Education. Other relevant Federal laws are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and FERPA. Some great resources exist for parents, such as the book From Emotions to Advocacy (Harbor House Law Press) by special education lawyer Pete Wright and the site www.wrightslaw.com.

Close to home, the Hudson Valley Special Education Parent Center (SEPC) is open at the Westchester Institute for Human Development. The SEPC aids parents of students with disabilities in participating meaningfully in their children's education through online and in-person education, training, workshops and individual consultation. The SEPC Web site, www.hvsepc.org, contains a wealth of information about issues related to special education within the lower Hudson Valley region and New York State.

Be an active participant in your child's educational planning team. Once you have acquainted yourself with special education law, you recognize your place as a member of your student's special education planning team. In fact, parents are the first members of the Committee on Special Education (CSE).

When walking into a special education meeting and facing an intimidating group of district personnel sitting at a table, it is easy to misinterpret this as an us against them situation. It might appear as anything but a team encounter. Unfortunately, adverse relationships between parents and school districts arise because of miscommunication or the misinterpretation of a situation. It is critical that a parent recognize that he or she is an equal and important member of the committee, and act accordingly.

Consider the qualities that make an individual a valuable player on any team. He or she knows the rules of the game. A team that is hoping for a good outcome does not give much playtime or responsibility to a player who doesn't understand the game. Likewise, understand the laws and processes of special education so you are perceived as knowledgeable and “in the game.” The MVP on any team respects and capitalizes on the strengths of the other team members in order to achieve the victory. In the same way, when you are sitting in your child's CSE meeting, recognize the expertise of the professionals at the table and use it. You know your child better than anyone, but the professionals come with their own specific knowledge and talents. Be a team player; teams don't win when players fight.

Becoming a more effective participant in your child's education creates a positive experience for you at each special education meeting— and better outcomes at school for your child.