It’s FCAT week, as many of you know, and my son is in third grade. This is his first major standardized test, but he has been calm these few days and prepared each morning. He's even getting up early and getting ready without any prodding from me.
He's growing up. It amazes me because just a few months ago he needed that prodding daily.
My advice to him about the FCAT was to try his best to focus, read all the answers before choosing one, try to relax, and just try do his best.
Our son is on an individualized education plan (IEP) at school, so the FCAT is more challenging for him than students not on a plan. An IEP is a written plan for the special education of a child with a disability, according to the Florida Department of Education. More info here
My hope is I can help some of you just beginning or going through the 504 or IEP process for your child.
There are steps that happen before a child is eligible for an IEP (and, believe me, it is not always easy. It took years in our case). Other measures to help your child, such as a Section 504 plan must be taken first. In a Section 504, according to the DOE, the plan describes the accommodations that the school will provide to support the student’s education. More info on Section 504
Some of the benefits 504s and IEPs provide can include everything from special classroom seating (which can help with vision and hearing issues), extra time and help from teachers on tests, including the FCAT, having math word problems and other classwork read to the child if he or she is unable to read on grade level, among other things.
I won’t get into the specific details of my son's IEP, out of respect for him and the teenager he will become -- you know, one who might be mortified knowing his school life is available on the Internet. That said, I have already let you know he has learning disabilities and ADHD, and we are not ashamed or secretive about it. He knows we love him just as he is and constantly reinforce with him that many children learn differently. His way of learning is his own special way, and it's nothing to be embarrassed about or to hide from others.Here are a few points of advice, based on my five years of dealing with 504s and and IEP, and after many, many talks with teacher friends, local child advocates and other experts on learning disabilities and special education. (And, don't worry, I will write more about this in the future).
1) Follow your intuition: You might be a parent suspecting something is not quite right with your child's school performance or behavior. You might have a gut feeling; if you do, listen to it. Maybe your son or daughter is mixing up letters or numbers, having trouble focusing, having trouble reading, pronouncing simple words incorrectly, writing illegibly, spacing written words oddly or is hyperactive. It does not matter what grade your child is in at the time. We first noticed a problem in kindergarten. Keep an eye on your observations, inform your child’s teacher of your concern(s) immediately and keep following up. Don't ever feel like you are overreacting; you know your child better than anyone else.
2) Get your child tested by an independent psychologist. If you feel it’s time to get your child evaluated or your school advises this might be a good idea, as it was in our case, take him or her for a neuropsychological evaluation. This report is done outside of the school, takes several hours for the child to complete over a few sessions, but it can show ADHD, sensory processing disorders, learning disabilities and so much more. You can find psychologists in your area and many pediatricians can help you decide on the right person. Make copies of your final report, bring that report with you to future meetings with school officials. For me, that report was ammunition I had to keep referring to over and over when school officials did not 'see' in my son what was said in the report. He started with a 504 for a few years, and then his second-grade teacher eventually saw and believed all the findings of our report. I will always be indebted to her and glad I never gave up. She and other caring and observant teachers helped write and convince the school he needed an IEP.
3) Get connected. Find people who can help you figure out what to do and where to get help. There are Facebook groups, teachers, special education and IEP advocates who all can help. Much of the help is free, but some advocates do charge and will attend meetings with you to help your child. Most parents have no idea where to begin to get the special teaching their child needs and they simply just set up a school meeting where all kinds of terms are used like 'tiers' and 'interventions' that might fly right over your head. My best resource is a friend, Lyman L. Dukes III, Ph.D., who is an associate dean with USF's College of Education and an Associate Professor, Special Education, at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. He also authored Preparing Students with Disabilities for College Success: A Practical Guide for Transition (2009). He has helped me cope with my fear, realize this process is not a death sentence for my son to attend college and strongly encouraged me to always advocate for my son. He always answers my sometimes-frantic questions, and I am thankful to have an expert as a friend.
4) Do your homework. I suggest learning all you can about interventions, 504s and IEPs before you set up your first school meeting. Read the links above and below. Write down your questions and take notes. It really helps to be prepared because once that ball gets rolling you are going to have a few meetings a year with at least four our five school officials in the room. It can be intimidating, especially when you don't agree with what they might be saying. (No, your child does not attend).
5) Advocate. This is your child. There is no one more important. You might need to get a little snippy at times with school administration or teachers, but you are your child's biggest helper. These days I call it advocating, but there were days it really felt like a battle to get the school system to hear me. I know my child. I knew he needed more help than he was getting and he needed it from teachers trained in teaching learning disabled children.
Now, more than 3/4 of the way into his first year on an IEP, I can honestly say my son has made remarkable progress. Watching him read and seeing great improvement overall brings tears to my eyes.
Have more suggestions or thoughts? Comment below, or find me on twitter @momsatwork, and remember, I will have plenty more to say about this in the future. This is just the beginning, and you are not alone.
Here are resources I use:
National Research Center on Learning Disabilities www.nrcld.org/
Learning Disabilities http://www.ldonline.org/
Florida Council for Exceptional Children http://www.floridacec.org/
Florida’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports http://www.florida-rti.org/
Florida Department of Education http://www.fldoe.org/ese/pubxhome.asp