It can be hard enough to come to grips with the fact that your child has a learning disability. When the school seems to be working against you instead of with you, the situation can become even more difficult for students, parents, and teachers alike. But you don’t have to sit back and leave you child’s educational fate in the hands of the school system.

School systems are overwhelmed with an increasing special education population and a limited budget. But as a parent you have rights and so does your child. With a little research and determination you can get your child the services she needs to be successful in school, from the very beginning.

The Kindergarten Waiting Game

There are many learning disabilities that don’t raise an eyebrow until later in school when children are required to do a lot more reading and writing. However, other problems may be evident at a much earlier age. We know from research that early intervention is often the key in helping students with learning disabilities, so why the wait? “First is the rather old fashioned idea that schools shouldn't rush to judge a child, and that supposed learning issues may dissipate as the child matures” says Pam Marquardt, an educator from Oakland, California. “The second reason is that funding for special education has not kept pace with the great increase of students identified with learning disabilities.” So, while the teacher and parent may agree that a child should be evaluated, the school district is often slowing down the process.

Marquardt has observed firsthand that there is little support for the kindergarten teacher who recommends assessment, unless the situation is extreme. One of the ways in which schools make evaluation assessments is based on the child’s academic history. Because this is the student’s initial year in school, teachers have a hard time showing that the child has a history of academic difficulty. Joseph Feldman, founder of Community Alliance for Special Education, an advocacy group in San Francisco, California, calls this the "'Wait to fail environment.' When you combine this ‘lack of documentation’ with the pressure to limit the growth of special education programs, you will find that kindergarten teachers’ concerns are often dismissed by administrative and special education staff as premature."

Work with the District

It can be tempting for parents to get mad at the school and the system for not working harder to help their child and address her needs. However, Feldman urges parents to keep a positive rapport with the district. “Fight for the service, but not the district.” If your child is diagnosed with a learning disability she will be in that system until she graduates, so you want a good relationship with the people that will be providing the services. But Feldman admits, “It’s a hard and delicate balance.”

What are Your Rights?

When a child is suspected of having a learning disability, the general approach is to start with a "SST", or Student Study Team meeting. This group consists of your child’s teacher, administrator, the school physiologist, and a special education teacher. This meeting is used to go over the child’s strengths and weakness in school and begin a plan of action. The SST can be a very useful tool in helping to determine what will work best for your child. Unfortunately, it can also be a hindrance to getting your child the services they need quickly. Feldman says you don’t have to wait. If you feel that your child needs an evaluation and special services write a simple letter to the school stating your request for an evaluation. The school district then has 15 days to respond to your letter. Once you write the letter the federal deadlines for action kick in, so this will get the district to speed up the process.

What You Can Do

Both Feldman and Marquardt agree that parents need to be informed advocates for their child. So how exactly do you advocate for your child? Here are some useful tips and direct action you can take to be better prepared in helping your child.

  • Trust your own judgment and don’t get caught up with professional jargon. You know how your child struggles, so trust your convictions.
  • Keep a note book and document everything, especially when meetings and conversations occur, to keep a record of all interaction with the school district.
  • Get support. Take someone with you so that you don’t go to meetings by yourself. District personnel can seem intimidating.
  • Don’t make enemies. Always maintain a reasonable demeanor and listen to what the district is telling you carefully and respectfully.
  • Know who the decision maker is in the meeting.
  • Take documents home. You don’t need to sign them at the meeting, so get someone to review it, make a copy, and read it!
  • Do your research. Know your rights, understand the laws, ask the school district for their special education policy, and join a parent groups for support.

Keep in mind that this is a lifelong journey for you and your child, but armed with support and good information your child can receive the education that best suits her needs from the very beginning.