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Special Needs

Now that school is back in full swing, you may begin to notice that this year seems harder academically for your child than last year. In fact, thinking back, you recall that you child did struggle some with concepts in reading or math previously, but you thought that given time the learning would occur. Maybe your child's teacher has contacted you as well as she notices some of the same things at school. You might even be asked to conference with the teacher to discuss some of these things. From that meeting, you may find yourself entering a new area of education where acronyms abound. This article may provide a little insight into the alphabet soup of special education.

The general education setting is where the vast majority of public school students receive their daily instruction. As students begin to emerge that have difficulty learning in this setting, the teacher or parent may request that the "child study team" look at the child and examine said difficulties. This team may be referred to by other names, but is basically comprised of the following members: child's parents and at least one teacher, a school special education designee (usually an administrator trained in special education identification and procedures), the school's educational evaluator, the school's psychologist and or social worker. The team will meet to decide if there are accommodations that can be put in place that would assist the child. The team may decide to implement this plan and reconvene at a given time to discuss progress. The team may also decide to put the child through a full evaluation.

A full evaluation is when the child has a battery of educational and psychological tests to determine the child's ability (what they have the potential to do) and his/her achievement level (what they are actually doing). The testing process can take up to two months to complete. It will also include classroom observations and student interviews. The team will then reconvene to look for discrepancies that would indicate a learning disability. If the team establishes that this is the case, then an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) would be written to assist the student in the areas where the discrepancies occur. For example, if the area of need concerns math, then the child may not have any goals for reading as that is not the area of weakness. However, if a child has trouble reading, there may be goal for math addressing reading word problems.

Below, you will find some of the jargon associated with special education.

Child Study Team: The general education team that initially examines and determines whether special education testing is necessary.

Eligibility Team: Usually the same members as the child study team, yet this time the task is to look over test results to determine if the child qualifies for special education services. If so, the team will then become the IEP team with an additional member of the special education teacher (refer to case manager later in article) tasked with writing the IEP.

IEP (Individualized Education Plan): developed for children determined to fall into federal guidelines for needing special education services. These are plans developed at the school level by a team comprised of the parent(s), special education teacher, at least one general education teacher, and the school's special education designee (usually an administrator) at a minimum. They can also include related service providers (occupational, physical, and speech therapists are examples). IEP's are developed annually and last one year until the team reconvenes.

Triennial Review: The student must be reevaluated every three years to determine if the child still qualifies to receive educational services under the special education guidelines. Often, children with services in areas such as speech learn to overcome their disabilities and can be dismissed from the program.

LRE (Least Restrictive Environment): This refers to the setting providing the least amount of special education support your child will receive and maintain success in the classroom. The general education setting without support is the least restrictive environment for non special education students as the default setting. However, your child may require additional assistance that cannot be provided in this classroom. The next setting would be the inclusion setting where there is one general education teacher and one other special education staff member (either a teacher or a paraprofessional) with children both having and not having IEP's. The next setting would be the self-contained setting where only special education students are receiving instruction is a small group setting. This is considered more restrictive as there are no general education peers in the class. However, for some students, this small setting with less interaction and distraction are critical for success. For a very minute population of our students with severe needs, a private day school or even a residential day school is necessary. This is the exception as the vast majority of our students can be educated in the regularly zoned public school in their district.

Goals: These are formulated at the IEP meetings and are written annually so the team knows what the child will work on that year. Progress is given periodically, usually with report cards.

Accommodations: Those supports that will be put in place to allow your child to maximize his chances for success.

Case Manager: The special education teacher assigned to work with your child for the school year to ensure all accommodations are in place in all academic settings. She will be your primary point of contact should concerns arrive.

This is just a guide for some of the terms you will most likely hear in the first few months of your new experience called special education. Your school will likely provide you with assistance during this often confusing process. In some counties, there might also be a parent resource center to assist you further. If your child is not of school age yet, but you are concerned about things such as speech delays or problems understanding your child, physical disabilities which may require therapy, or congenital conditions such as Down's syndrome, discuss the possibility of services with your pediatricians. Such conditions may warrant services before your child begins kindergarten. Your county's school board office will also be able to assist you with preschool services available to you at no charge.

Tammy Hanna, Stafford mother of two and educator

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