Caroline Nelson,
Attorney and Counselor at Law, PLLC

How Do I Know What I Need?
I think I’m communicating clearly; why does it seem like the school doesn’t understand my child?

Are you talking about your child’s needs? Providing appropriate support starts with a common understanding of the child’s needs – academic, social, emotional, behavioral, independence-oriented and self-determinative. The concept of “needs” encompasses both the student’s internal profile and the programs, services and tools that the school may provide. Often, parents and professionals are in discussion about “needs,” but they are actually not talking about the same thing. This fundamental communication error can be the root of serious parent-school differences about levels and quantity of support, the role of disability in the child’s behavior, overall expectations and more.

Can the school just decide what they are going to provide?

No. Schools are not allowed to make decisions without something concrete to back them up, so depending on where you are in initiating or changing services for your child, the school may need to assemble or collect information about how your child is doing in school. This might include classroom observations, trial supports or interventions, formal evaluation and more. Parents also have the right to ask for the schools’ data and to provide their own. Parent data could come in the form of impressions from home, patterns of performance and behavior outside of school and reports from outside professionals.

My child’s school is taking a long time to act on my issue. Should I be concerned?
Maybe. Schools have to follow legally-mandated processes for determining whether and to what extent a student has both a disability and an educational need for services. Schools also have to use research-based tools and methodologies. This means a legitimate process might require time for data collection, finding and using the right approach, and team meetings for discussion, planning and formalizing. That said, parents also have a right to meaningful participation, and this means parents have a right to know what the school is working on, and why.

In addition, schools are fast-paced systems with many different teams and professionals working within them, and almost all are under-resourced. Schools often experience inefficiencies when it comes to quickly addressing individualized needs. As a parent, your role includes monitoring your child’s progress as well as keeping an eye on the process. If you are concerned about a delay in action, ask your school team or a district representative to explain where they are in the process and for a proposed schedule for moving forward.

How do I know what to ask for?

Advocate for your child’s profile as a learner to be well-understood and keep the educators motivated to use their resources creatively to individualize. Both the law and schools recognize that more than one perspective is necessary in determining what a child needs, and nobody knows your child the way you do. As a parent, one of your most powerful approaches is to make sure professionals really see your child as a whole person. This includes understanding your child’s strengths, preferences, interests, short- and long-term goals, and needs — with respect to academic, social, emotional and functional skills and competencies. When all team-members start with the same understanding of the whole child in combination with family-driven hopes and targets for the future, the group can more easily generate meaningful options for how to help your child advance with appropriately ambitious depth and breadth of school experiences and pace of progress.

Why is navigating school support services so complicated?
Special Education, 504, Dyslexia, Gifted and Talented, English Language Learner (ELL) and other programs for special student populations are governed by a maze of federal and state laws and regulations, with additional layers of local policy, practices and resource realities. Depending on your district, different grade levels, campuses, professional roles, and program teams may be more or less integrated or in need of cross-communication or -training with each other. Often, systems issues get in the way of parent-school collaboration by stretching out timelines and interfering with transparency.
Why does navigating special education or 504 feel like “us vs. them”?
The rights of students with disabilities to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) originate in federal laws that provide legal processes for resolving disputes, found in the Procedural Safeguards. However, this set-up leaves out the majority of parent-school negotiations, which usually fall somewhere between completely conflict-free IEP/504 work and a dispute so intractable that it requires a lawsuit or the threat of one for movement.

Parents often hesitate to engage with the school when something isn’t working, for fear of being “that parent,” or they wait until they are exhausted or their back is to the wall. This results both in not addressing a problem when it could be more easily resolved and risking charged interactions and pressure on working relationships by waiting too long.

How does helping or advocating for my child change after they turn 18?
Minors don’t have legal decision-making rights. Parents of young people under 18 have full decision-making rights with respect to their child’s education, medical care, financial situation and most personal issues. These decision-making rights automatically transfer to the new adult when they turn 18. This means schools (including high schools and colleges), doctors, banks and the community in general can and have to look directly to the 18-year-old for all decisions, and they will not interact with parents without informed consent or request from the young adult. There are many tools and strategies available to support your young adult’s autonomy and independence while balancing their needs and timetable to continue growing into full adult responsibilities. Decision-making supports and protections can be individualized to fit your family and circumstances, and it is important to consider your needs and learn about options before your child turns 18.
Don’t some special education/504 disputes need to be litigated?
Yes, and… because litigation strains relationships, takes up valuable developmental and educational time for the child, and taxes financial and emotional resources for all adults involved, it is important to weigh the costs against the benefits.