If you have discovered that your child has a psychiatric or learning problem, or you are beginning to suspect that she does, you might be wondering what you can do to make sure that she is getting the best support possible when she is at school. Parents sometimes tell me that they feel powerless when it comes to school issues, but there is actually a lot we can do for our children in terms of advocacy. Here are some good rules to follow:
1. Communicate with your child and ask questions.
Study after study show that kids make healthier choices, do better in school, and have higher self-esteem if they have warm, positive communication with their parents. Parents who want to help their children tackle the challenges of school need to be able to ask direct questions on a regular basis and carefully consider the answers. “What do you like best about school?” is often a good icebreaker. Follow-up questions should include “What is easy to do each day?” and “What is the subject you wish you had only once a week instead of every day?”
2. Recognize that your child behaves differently at home and school.
It’s critical to talk to your child’s teacher to find out how well she is functioning at school. Teacher-child relationships vary widely, but given that teachers spend six hours a day with our kids, we can count on them to have a keen sense of how children learn and behave. When you meet with a teacher, ask about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. You should feel comfortable asking questions like: Does my child have difficulties with organization, following instructions, or staying on task? Have you noticed any delays in her academic or social development? Does she get along well with other kids?
3. Maximize parent-teacher conference time.
Many parents go to parent-teacher conferences unprepared. They arrive without questions, receive an enormous amount of information about a child’s academic performance, and then leave with a laundry list of concerns they haven’t been able to talk through. You can maximize your parent-teacher conference time by planning questions to ask at the beginning, not the end, of the conference. By asking your questions up front, you’ll help ensure that the conference time is used to address your child’s challenges, set appropriate goals, and determine whether any special education services might be needed.
4. Don’t delay getting support for your child.
If you have specific concerns about your child’s school performance, don’t wait until parent-teacher conference time to request a comprehensive evaluation and inquire about special education services. Your child’s teacher can provide not only a different perspective on how he is progressing, but can also help facilitate evaluations of your child’s cognitive, academic, linguistic, social, and emotional functioning. You should also know that there’s a federal law requiring schools to provide an education to children in the least-restrictive environment—meaning, a child with symptoms of a learning or psychiatric disorder must have every opportunity to be educated alongside his typically developing peers. The school is supposed to ensure that children receive the services they need to fulfill their potential.
5. Request special services in writing.
If you suspect your child needs special education services, you must request in writing that he be evaluated to determine which services would be appropriate. School districts offer school-based evaluations free of charge, but parents must send a letter of request to the administrator responsible for the school’s special education programming. Talk to your child’s teacher about this process—specifically, find out who to contact to arrange an evaluation—and ask for assistance in obtaining a copy of his school file, including report cards, progress reports, attendance records, behavior assessments, testing data, and any other teacher reports. The materials in your child’s school file will be used in all evaluations for learning and psychiatric disorders.
6. Meet with the people who evaluate your child.
The school must provide you with written results from your child’s evaluation. But you can get more than a written summary. Arrange a meeting with the people who’ve evaluated her to discuss the results and whether educational objectives are being met or need to be changed. If you disagree with the results of the evaluation you can request an independent one.
7. Understand the Individual Education Plan.
You must become familiar with the IEP process in order to effectively advocate for a child with a learning disorder. An IEP is a personalized education plan that takes into account a child’s specific needs and outlines a modified curriculum with practical goals for academic success. Parents, teachers, special education experts, and any other specialists on a child’s team should participate in the development of the IEP. They should also carefully monitor the child’s progress on the IEP, assess whether he is meeting educational goals, and coordinate more support if needed.
8. Monitor your child’s moods.
A large number of children with psychiatric disorders also struggle with learning disorders. In fact, roughly half of all children with ADHD have dyslexia and half of all children with learning disorders develop chronic depression in adulthood. As a parent, one of the most important things you can do is trust your intuition when your child’s behavior seems abnormal. Pay attention to changes in her personality and mood in the same way you watch for rising and falling grades. Her academic achievement is intimately tied to her emotional well-being.