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Preparing for Back to School for Your Child with Special Needs in Challenging Times

Published August 30, 2022

by Marion M. Walsh, Esq.

Preparing for back to school in September always brings hope and a sense of expectation for both students and parents.  For the 2022-2023 school year, this remains true.  However, it has been a difficult two years for students, who are still recovering from isolation during the pandemic, the adjustment to virtual learning and the return to in-person classes, the lagging return of in-person extracurricular activities, amid an increasing sense of national anxiety as well as an increase in school violence.     

Especially in these times, easing your child or teen with learning, developmental or emotional disabilities into the school year can be challenging.  This article provides you with some helpful reminders and insights on preparations for the transition from the summer to the school year.

1. Review Your Child’s IEP or Section 504 Plan.  Ensure you have a copy of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan If you do not have a copy, request it from the school district. Ensure the IEP is accurate and reflects your child’s needs. Take the time to ensure that present levels of educational achievement and functional performance are correct and updated.

2. Make Sure you Understand Program, Goals and Services.  First, make sure you understand the IEP.  What is the class size for your child? Will she have an appropriate amount of interaction with non-disabled peers?  Consider whether the frequency of related services, such as speech or counseling, is appropriate.  If your child needs accommodations for remote or hybrid learning, ask for these accommodations and that they be documented.  Also review your school district’s new COVID plan and how it impacts school and services.

3. Examine Annual Goals.  Every IEP should contain goals to address every area of need.  Goals drive the programming and should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. Make sure the goals are appropriately ambitious and not recycled from the year before.

4. Review Needed Transition Services.  If your child is turning 15 this year, the IEP must contain appropriate transition services, meaning the services needed to transition to post-secondary pursuits such as college, vocational training, employment, or day programming, as well as skills for dormitory or independent living

5. Check in on Your Child’s Mental Health.  As of October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.

In a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of high schoolers reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, its important to check in with your child or teen on their well-being and to ensure your child is receiving appropriate support.  Understand the warning signs of a mental health condition Learn More: Here and share information with your child’s health provider and the school district—and continue to monitor your child.  There should be no stigma in seeking help.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has resources to review to obtain more information.

6. Be Realistic in Expectations for the Special Education Program.  For effective advocacy, focus on what is appropriate. School districts must provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities, which means that the IEP must be reasonably calculated  to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of  his circumstances   In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that progress just above minimal is not enough to show a FAPE. Yet the IDEA does not require a school district to provide services to maximize a student’s potential. 

8. Consider Whether Your Child Needs Increased Services.   Make sure the IEP reflects any changes within the last year or over the summer. Thus, if your child regressed or showed increased anxiety, the school district should document this on the IEP.

9. Make Sure the IEP Reflects Parental Perspective.  If you disagree with the IEP, make sure the comments reflect this.  Document any concerns in writing.

10. If Your Child Does not have an IEP, Consider Referral.  If you believe your child has a disability that is impacting his education, refer your child to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) for evaluations to determine eligibility. You may also refer your child for a Section 504 plan if you think your child needs accommodations but not special education services. School districts have an obligation to identify and evaluate students who may have a disability.

If  you are unclear about your child’s rights and the responsibility of your school district or disagree with school district services, it is recommended to seek legal representation from an experienced attorney.

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