When your child receives a diagnosis that requires additional support in school, there's an added burden on you. You become his #1 advocate, and you must put together a group of talented, compassionate people to help take care of him. The more you know about the people and services that are available, the better an advocate you will be.
Special Education Teachers
Special education teachers receive intense, specific training in how to deal with all sorts of disabilities. Whether your child is in a special education class or goes to a resource room, the teacher will be your closest ally. She should be the first person you go to for questions. Discuss any changes you both notice in your child or challenges that develop. Work with her to look at the root of your child’s problems. “While you might see your child struggling to write their name, you want to look at why they are not able to write their name,” says Alisa Dror, the head of the Pinnacle School in Connecticut, which serves students with special needs like those on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD.
Your school's psychologist may become a part of your family's life shortly after your child receives the diagnosis. He will most likely give your child tests to see his strengths and weaknesses and perform an evaluation to help determine what services your child needs. He may also meet with your child on a regular basis to help with any emotional or psychological issues that emerge. Typically, psychologists evaluate students every three years to make sure the services offered are still relevant. Make sure you meet your child’s psychologist. Discuss the kinds of things he will share with you about your child and what he’s likely to keep between the two of them. You want to make it clear that he’s joining a team, and you are the captain.
If your child struggles with speaking or understanding language, a speech therapist may be able to help. Not all speech therapists are the same—many have specialties. Stuttering, eating and swallowing difficulties, selective mutism, or simply having trouble pronouncing R sounds are all examples of different speech issues. When you meet with your child's teacher or the principal to discuss services, you should specify the kind of speech therapist your child needs. Be diligent in finding the right person for your child. If the school’s speech therapist isn’t helping with your child’s specific issue, consider finding outside help.
A behaviorist focuses exclusively on behavioral therapy and teaches students how to behave appropriately in school and other situations. "The therapy involves repetition focusing on one behavior pattern until it becomes automatic," says Mary Anne Ehlert, founder of Protected Tomorrows, a special needs advocate firm. Want to get the most out of the behaviorist? Regularly ask what behaviors your child is working on in therapy and start spending some time reinforcing those good behaviors at home. The quicker your child makes each step in behavioral therapy, the quicker the behaviorist can move onto the next one.
Assistive Technology Evaluator
Sometimes technology can help your child perform to his maximum potential in the classroom. Examples could include a microphone, recording advice, glare-reduction screens and voice-recognition software. The assistive technology evaluator will determine what, if any, electronic devices your child needs. Keep an eye on the news and talk to other parents about new technology that’s landing in stores. You want to be aware of any breakthroughs that might help your child. If you do learn about something, prepare to ask the assistive technology evaluator and prepare to bring it up in the next IEP meeting.
"First and foremost, (parents) have to educate themselves on what their child's diagnosis means, as well as, given that diagnosis, what services are most appropriate," says Dror. It may feel like you are a bully or a nag when it comes to your child’s care, but sometimes the Momma Bear attitude is appropriate. It’s best if you back up that attitude with knowledge about your child’s diagnosis, personality and needs.
If your child has a service specified in the IEP, the school is legally obligated to provide that service. "Parents should not accept the reason, 'It's not in the budget,'” Ehlert emphasizes. “Budgetary issues should never prevent the child from receiving a service," After the IEP meeting, stay on top of what's happening at the school. Ehlert reminds parents that if speech therapy is supposed to happen twice a week, for example, make sure it's happening that way.
Dror recommends that parents find a way to work with the school. "While (parents) may feel they are in an adversarial position with their school districts—and sometimes they are—find a way to work with your school district," she says. You aren't going to be able to do everything for your child—no parent can—so it's important to make sure you have a team of professionals who really understand what your child needs.