Parent Partnership

Supporting Parents of Students With Special Needs

There’s often a rift in communication between educators and parents who suspect their kids have special needs. A parent describes the support that would have helped her initiate an assessment.

June 21, 2018
Young boy and his mother having a conference with his teacher
©Shutterstock/Africa Studio

Even as young children, we’re able to identify a behavior that is not the norm for our peer group—the one kid in the class who seems a little more agitated than the rest, a little more loud and unruly. Across the room is a scared child. Another struggles with reading.

All of this may also be evident to a teacher, who can compare one child with his or her peers. But it may not be evident to the parent, who does not experience a whole classroom of children.

To the parent, a particular behavior may not seem beyond the norm. The first thing we parents observe is that our child is shy, or picky, or argumentative. We don’t observe that behavior and diagnose our child as anxious, having a sensory disorder, or oppositionally defiant. We see behaviors that we seek to modify, not categorize.

A Gap in Experience and Understanding

This opens up a rift in experience, understanding, and communication between parents and educators. Education specialists may speak in professional jargon that parents don’t always understand. An educator’s perspective on how a student’s behavior differs from that of his or her peers and on the demonstration of behaviors can be helpful to parents.

Parents are most often not mental-health experts, but they are experts in knowing their children. When they feel that something isn’t right, there’s reason to investigate. But most parents who have shared their experiences with me about asking for help for their children have not received it initially. Pediatricians may tell parents to be better disciplinarians. Teachers may say, “He doesn’t qualify for services.”

Many disabilities—most learning disabilities, most mental health disabilities, and many physical health disabilities—are hidden. A hidden disability is by its nature difficult to observe. Only someone trained in psychological assessment, using prescribed evaluation methods, can determine such a disability—educators generally don’t have this qualification.

State departments of education have standards for assessing and evaluating a child for special education services, yet being denied this assessment and evaluation is quite common. A discussion between the parent and teacher or principal may result in an evaluation, but parents are often forced to make repeated requests to push the issue. Parents may also not understand that requests for evaluation must be in writing.

Parents new to the individualized education program (IEP) process are then confused and angry. Worse yet, some parents accept the initial denial, and then the child does not receive an evaluation.

These problems generally occur because educators lack knowledge. In preparing general education teachers, most education programs don’t require a class on children with exceptional needs (gifted, special education etc.). States have tests and other assessments to evaluate the knowledge of an education program graduate, but even so, a teacher may not be able to recognize special needs or have knowledge about state regulations.

Parents look to teachers and principals to be experts. Not knowing what to do when a school declines to evaluate a child is a common dilemma for parents of children who are struggling. Advocacy groups may help, but a parent would need to understand that external help is available before they would seek it out. Many parents don’t understand the obligation of the school to evaluate their child, and they may not know how to push through a request for evaluation when facing resistance.

Directing Parents to Organizations That Can Help

It would be helpful if school staff referred parents to the appropriate state advocacy organization listed by the Center for Parent Information and Resources. This would steer parents toward a group that could help them to find answers.

In Kansas, our parent group, Families Together, answers questions, holds informational and training sessions for parents and education advocates, and shares documents to inform parents. No one in the school environment let my family know that this group existed, and it took us several years to find it. During that time, we felt isolated and confused. If only a teacher, principal, or district staff member had shared this information.

Hopefully a parent can initiate an assessment and evaluation. He or she will then be accosted with a host of acronyms and other special terms such as IDEA, IEP, BIP, and 504.

My personal experience has been that at no time were the evaluation process or special terms like IDEA, IEP, or 504 explained to me, and I have yet to encounter a parent for whom this did occur. The process of getting help for a struggling child is bureaucratic and complicated, and for the most part educators don’t mentor parents through it.

If they haven’t located an education advocacy group for assistance, parents usually lack the understanding needed to represent their children well through this process. Following an assessment and evaluation of a child, which requires special services to support that child’s education, the next step should be educating the parents about this process. Even a district FAQ website would be helpful. Parents should be part of their child’s education team, yet how can one contribute without a good understanding of the framework for special education services and an understanding of how accommodations can be implemented to help a child succeed?

Some educators and schools are amazing. But as a college professor and a parent of a child with an IEP, I have met students who have not been supported through the K–12 years or who received only minimal support to get them through the system. We can do better, starting from the first time a parent approaches a teacher and says, “I’m worried that Olivia seems to be struggling.”