By Molly Pachan, Ph.D.
Congratulations! You’ve made it through another school year! Last year was a little rough, but it’s easy to put that aside for now. Until… that little voice creeps in.
“Did I talk to the teacher enough? Do I really know what’s going on? Is my child learning the way they should? Will my child be ready for high school in this city?”
Many parents wonder if their children are learning at the right pace. Sometimes their grades are inconsistent. Was it because that teacher was really good at drawing your child out? Did that teacher not understand how to manage behavior? Or is there something going on with my child? Zoning out, dislike of reading, problems in math, and classroom behavior are often a sign of something more serious going on. As children develop, these issues can accumulate and became more difficult to remediate in later years. This is not your fault as a parent. Our children are unique persons who are products of many factors: they are each a product of their genetics, societal values, cultural heritage, technological advancements, and their generation. The good thing is, you can do something if your child is struggling with school.
Fortunately, public and private schools in Chicago offer many excellent options to support students with diverse learning needs. As the third largest school district in the United States, Chicago has many resources. Even if you send your child to a charter or private school, there is usually support available. The following steps are designed to help you get started. It’s ok to skip around! You might do these in another order, or repeat some steps as things unfold.
1) Talk to your child’s school. The school psychologist, principal, and teacher are a good place to start. Voice your concerns that your child may be falling behind. Even if their grades are adequate, it’s ok to express that you think your child should be doing better in an academic or behavioral area. Ask the teachers what they have already tried, and what works! Teachers usually have strategies that are working, at least part of the time, to help with the problem you’re noticing. It’s also important to note if they are seeing drastically different behavior or performance in school than what you see at home. Also, find out if your child’s teachers have recommended a Response to Intervention (RTI) plan. If so, ask what interventions they recommended, and what was implemented.
*Pro tip: Ask about the positive! Don’t just focus on areas where your child is struggling. Ask what your child does well. How does he or she relate to other students? What was the most fascinating thing they did as a class? What does your teacher like about being a teacher for this grade level?
2) Talk to a professional to assess your options. Many parents think they have to get an online degree in educational law, advocacy, and pedagogy to get support for their child. But you don’t have to! There are already professionals who know how to navigate the process. These include educational advocates, mental health counselors, and child psychologists. Your insurance may cover meetings with a health professional who works with children and families.
3) Request a referral. As a parent, you have the right to request a full and individualized evaluation (FIE) under the IDEA Act. http://idea.ed.gov/ CPS provides a referral form, which you can request from your child’s school. Within 14 days, your child’s school must let you know if an evaluation is warranted. If your child attends private school in the city of Chicago (even if you live outside Chicago) then you can request to enroll in your local attendance school as a “non-attending student.” The referral must be given to the principal of the student’s local attendance area school. Keep a copy of all letters that you send to the school.
4) The countdown begins: 60 days to IEP meeting! If your school determines that an evaluation is warranted, then they must conduct that evaluation (with your consent) and prepare the results for a formal IEP meeting within 60 days of your request for evaluation. This evaluation will entail your child meeting one-on-one with a licensed clinical psychologist, school psychologist, or affiliated personnel to complete intellectual and academic tests. The testing may take several hours or even be spread across several days. Make sure your child is well-rested and has eaten a healthy breakfast the day of testing. Let your child know that the testing is not related to their grades, and it will help their teachers tailor coursework to better suit their learning style.
5) Optional: Seek out a private evaluation. If your school determines that an individual evaluation is not warranted, you are allowed to obtain a private evaluation through a psychologist. Depending on the reason for evaluation, insurance may cover all or part of the cost of such an evaluation. The school district is required to consider results of a private evaluation conducted by a licensed psychologist. Often, results of a school evaluation will only address moderate to severe learning differences. Psychologists who do not work for the school district can often develop more nuanced, individualized assessments to understand the root of your child’s learning or behavior style.
6) Let the results sink in. Once you receive results of your child’s evaluation, you might feel relieved, confused, angry, ashamed, or anxious. Will the school treat your child right? Will this hold him/her back? Will your child have a harder time getting into high school or college? It is not always easy to see school staff reduce your child to a report. Remember, they are just doing their jobs! Evaluations are supposed to summarize an individual so that school staff know how they can help. If something strikes you the wrong way, ask questions. It often helps to frame your reaction as a feeling. For example, “When I see that my son is Extremely Low in this math part, I’m feeling surprised and disappointed, because he’s always loved math.”
7) Form a team. At the IEP meeting, you, your child’s teachers, and school administrators will form a plan for the best supports that your child needs. This includes the number of minutes each day, week, or month that the child will see special education instructors, a school counselor, or other staff. It can also include creative strategies to help your child engage. If your child has difficulty sitting still, ask for her to be allowed to use a ball-chair, fidget toy, or stim-toy. If your child gets restless due to anxiety, ask for him to be allowed to request to leave the classroom for a walk to the end of the hallway to calm down and take deep breaths. There are many creative interventions that can be tailored to your child’s needs which will enhance the classroom environment for all students. Listen to teachers, and find out what is practical in their classes. You can set the tone for collaboration in this meeting, and then you’ll be positioned to make sure the IEP is implemented appropriately going forward.
With these steps, you can help your child achieve their learning potential. Building relationships with your child’s school staff will set the stage for educational teamwork.
For further reading, check out…
Chicago Public Schools Office of Diverse Learners
Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Special Education homepage
Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)