Monday, August 10, 2009

Back To School: Preparing for the New Year

Summer is almost at an end, and soon it will be time for students, teachers and parents to gear up for school year 2009-2010! Most parents, whether of typically developing kids or kids with disabilities, are a little anxious as the school year approaches. What will this year's teacher be like? Will my child make new friends in the classroom? How will the curriculum expectations change? How will my child adjust to a new setting, like middle school? What will the homework expectations be? As parents of students with disabilities get ready for another school year, these questions also lead to questions and concerns about IEPs, assessments, progress reporting, instructional programs, related services, and other issues.

Here is a list of questions for parents to ask themselves as the school year approaches. Thinking about these things ahead of time and getting organized will help parents get this year off on the right track.

Is there an IEP “in place” for the start of the school year?

The school district is required to have an IEP in place at the start of the school year for each child within the district who is eligible for special education and related services. An IEP is “in place” if the District has made an offer of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and is ready and able to implement the goals, services, accommodations and placement called for within that offer. If you had an IEP meeting in the spring that was not “finalized,” it should be reconvened before the school year starts, to ensure that a program is in place for your child.

Is the IEP signed / have you provided written consent?

If you agree with what the IEP team developed and the District offered in terms of goals, services and placement, you should make sure that you have signed the IEP form indicating your agreement and consent, and that this signature has been provided to the District. You don't want to be in a position of dealing with lack of implementation at the beginning of the school year because the District doesn't have your signature. If there are portions of the IEP that you don't agree with or consent to, or if you have additional concerns that have not been addressed, you should indicate this either in a letter or on the signature page of the IEP. Contact a local special education attorney or advocate to assist you with responding to the IEP if necessary.

Do you understand the IEP and the program that will be provided?

The IEP document should be clear enough for you to fully understand what goals will be addressed, how those goals will be measured, and what special education and related services will be provided. Frequency and location of the services should be specific. Additionally, the District should have included you in any team that made placement decisions, and should have provided you with adequate information about what placement will be offered / provided. Review the IEP document before the school year starts. If there are portions you don't fully understand, ask! If at all possible, discuss these questions with the case carrier, teacher or administrator prior to the start of the school year, so that when the year starts, you are fully informed about what your child will be recieving in his/her special education program.

Does your child’s teacher need additional information regarding your child’s needs?

Don’t assume that the (new) teacher has been given all of the relevant information. Although the school district must provide the teacher with information regarding the IEP so that it can be fully implemented, parents can be proactive in making sure the teachers have enough information. Most teachers will be open (and even grateful!) to friendly and courteous communication from you in regards to your child’s disability, IEP, and the accommodations he/she requires in the classroom. Share this information with your teacher at "open house" or "back to school night." Or, if appropriate, try to contact the teacher directly. Some parents I have worked with like to make a one page "cheat sheet" related to their child at the start of the school year. Remember that IEPs are often lengthy documents, and teachers have a lot of other information to review too. A single page of information about who your child is and what they need may be an efficient, friendly way to introduce yourself and your child to the new teacher.

What information came out of your child’s ESY program that should be shared with the team?

Did your child attend an ESY program or receive other instruction or services over the summer? Consider whether your child’s needs have changed over the summer in such a way that the District may need to reconsider what it has offered and will provide. For example, if your child attended an intensive remediation program that was private or outside of the school district, he/she may have made such progress that the goals written last year are not longer appropriate. Progress (or regression) may be an important consideration in many areas after a summer program, including both academics and non-academics. If you believe this information impacts the IEP, go ahead and let the District know in writing that another meeting needs to be convened to consider current data and make appropriate adjustments. Share information from the program, including progress reports and other data, when appropriate.

Are you aware of how progress will be reported to you during the school year?

Progress reporting is an important part of how you as a parent will be involved in the ongoing development of your child’s program. If you are not fully aware of your child’s progress, or lack thereof, you cannot effectively advocate for changes in the IEP when they are required. The IEP document is required to contain a statement of how progress will be measured and of when you will be provided periodic progress reports on your child’s goals. Check the IEP and make sure this is clear, and mark it on your calendar so that you can know when to expect reports.

What other things do you need to discuss with your child's teacher?

There are some things you will want to know about the new school year regardless of whether or not your child has an IEP. What school supplies does your child need? What are the schoolwide and classroom rules? Will there be any big projects this school year that you should plan on in advance? What are the homework expectations and policies in this class? Most importantly may be the question of how you will communicate with the teacher, and how information you need will get home to you. Will there be notes placed in your child's backpack? Are phonecalls / emails appropriate? These are things you should think about and gather information regarding. I often think that one of the biggest hurdles for parents involved in the special education system is communication. While many districts, administrators and teachers are great at communicating, too often there are limits and attitudes about communication with teachers in the special education world that would not necessarily even come up within the general education world. Remember that your child is a student first, and a special education student second. If you approach the start of the year as would any parent in the general education community in regards to opening the doors of communication with your child's teacher, those doors will possibly stay open for productive, two-way communication.

Have appropriate arrangements been made for transportation, medications, etc?

If your child's IEP calls for transportation to be provided as a related service, make sure that arrangements are in place for transportation to be implemented, and that you know the schedule, drop off / pick up place, and other relevant information. If your child is taking regular school district transportation, you also need to find out all of the relevant details regarding that. Otherwise, if you are arranging for transportation privately or are taking your child to school yourself, make sure you know the whens, wheres and hows of drop off, pick up, etc.

Medications may also require some advance planning and arrangments. Make sure all medication and prescription information is up to date, and see your child's pediatrician before school starts if needed. Fill out and return any necessary forms for the school nurse related to medication dosage and administration. If your child's teacher also needs to be made aware of any medication information, including possible side effects, share this information as appropriate.

Do you have organized records and a system in place for gathering documents related to your child's education?

Having everything organized is a great way to start the year off right. We recommend that parents organize their child's documents by category; IEPs, assessments, correspondence / communications, progress reports, other; and then chronologically within the category. There are other ways to do it: you could organize everything in one place chronologically with an index, or you could have a separate folder / binder for each school year. Go to the back to school section at the local discount store or supply store and get a three ring binder and some dividers, and then decide what system will work best for you.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has a great checklist for what you should have within your child's records. You can print it out at their website. Your records should be in a system that is easily updated so that as the year goes by, you can add progress reports and other documents as appropriate. It is also a good idea to have a designated place for forms that you need to review, fill out and return to the school.

What can you do to prepare your child?

Back to school time is a transition, and can be stressful for any child, particularly for some children with disabilities. In most circumstances, there are many things parents can do to make the transition less stressful. "Priming" your child for the school year can be a great strategy - talk to your child about what to expect, focusing on the positive aspects. Let your child tour the school if needed or if it is a new setting. Work with your child's providers, if possible, to develop strategies like social stories to help the child get ready for the new year. Most importantly, be a good listener and listen to any concerns or worries your child has about school.

The website "Additude" has a great article on preparing your child with ADHD for going back to school, and their tips would be applicable to many kids with other diagnoses as well.

Remember that the IEP process is a team process, and truly successful implementation of an appropriate education can only come through team effort as well. If everyone does their part to get the school year started on the right track, there is a much greater opportunity for building success and meaningful progress for the child, as well as productive cooperation between parents and teachers throughout the year.

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