In every classroom in America, there are students who receive special education services. Most students deal with issues such as AD/HD, learning disabilities or autism. It really is another kind of diversity. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 12.8 percent of the nation’s K-12 students had disabilities in 2008-09. Most only get one or two services for learning disabilities or behavioral challenges. A smaller number of kids have multiple needs so they get more services. My daughter has a team consisting of a special education teacher, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a social worker, and a classroom aide, also referred to as a para-educator, or “para” for short. I work very closely with them and we have regular meetings to make sure we are all on track.
How do you determine if your child qualifies for special education services? First, your child has to be assessed. Genetic or developmental disabilities are usually identified well before kindergarten. Every county has some version of the Child Find, a free and public assessment service for young children. If you or your teacher suspects a problem, you can call a meeting with your school to decide if your child needs further testing to receive services. States have specific criteria that must be met in order to qualify for special education services. Getting a diagnosis is not sufficient — you must be able to demonstrate that your child cannot access their Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) in general education alone and needs specialized services and support to do so.
After qualifying, a team of teachers, therapists, and parents, establish a child’s needs and then develop goals to meet those needs. That is the IEP (Individualized Education Plan). This is a written plan that explicitly details goals for your child that her team is accountable for achieving. For instance, my daughter Sabrina is supported by an IEP. One of her goals in kindergarten was to be able to write her first name by the end of the school year. These goals are steps that most kids make in a flash, but for kids with special needs, they need to be broken down and addressed step-by-step. Sabrina has learned to read and write with the support of her IEP and the services it guarantees her.
While every kid could benefit from an individualized plan, the kids who fall outside the lines actually need it in order to access the same curriculum as other children. It’s not always fair, but it’s the system we have right now. Only a few decades ago, kids with special needs were usually denied an education. Now we have IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), a law ensuring all kids have the right to an education.
Special education is not something that each school provides on its own; it is a system weaving together local districts, state requirements, and federal mandates. Each school is supported and accountable by the Special Education department of the school district. There are lots of experienced, talented and committed professionals working for our kids, our families, and our schools.
The truth is that everyone is touched by disability at some point in their lives. Special education services are in integral part of public schools, because everybody deserves a chance to become all that they can be.