Your Child’s Education

This list of resources is for your convenience. This list does not imply an endorsement from Bethany Christian Services for the organization, website, or individual. We have no control over or responsibility for the accuracy or relevance of their information.

Going to school provides wonderful opportunities for children to learn and develop new skills and friendships. Adopted children—especially those whose pre-adoption history included abuse, neglect, or orphanage life—often run into unique educational challenges. These challenges can be related to the learning itself, answering questions from classmates or teachers about relinquishment or adoption, or completing school assignments that are personal and painful.

One of the greatest fears of any child is the loss of a parent. Adopted children have already experienced this loss at least once in their lives and often experience more fear and anxiety when they are separated from their adoptive parents, such as when going to school(than other children). They may also be more anxious about the change and unfamiliarity that a new school or classroom represents.

If prior to adoption, your child’s life was highly structured and did not provide sensory stimulation (e.g., orphanage life), changing schools or even classrooms can be over stimulating. Some children need a sense of control over their environment in order to feel safe. Without it, they will have difficulty focusing on their teacher and learning because they came from environments where they had to pay attention to everything going on around them so they could avoid danger. Some children, because of abuse or neglect, may have experienced actual changes in brain development that make learning or social relationships difficult. The parts of the brain needed for learning and for developing positive relationships are also the same parts that are most affected by trauma.

When you understand why your child feels vulnerable, you can become your child’s best coach and advocate when it comes to education. There are a number of strategies you can use to help your child:

  • Take your child and visit her new classroom a few days before school starts. If your school doesn’t offer a day or two leading up to the start of the year when parents and children can come to look around, call and see if you can come by. One visit can alleviate a number of anxieties and new experiences your child would have faced on the first day of school. Taking the time to make her new school environment more familiar before school begins can help your child adjust—and even look forward—to this new chapter in life. The Child Trauma Academy has created a “My New School” photo book (http://ctaproducts.org) that you and your child can take with you on your visit and fill with pictures of the places and people your child will encounter at school. Later, you can go through the book together at home, making the school even more familiar and further reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Meet with your child’s teacher before or at the very beginning of the school year. If you know that your child has vulnerabilities related to early childhood trauma, you can provide general information about the trauma to the teacher. Informing the teacher of your child’s needs early on will help the teacher better accommodate your child. Let your child know that you are going to meet their new teacher and ask if they want to come with you or if they have any ideas about what should be shared. Assume that whatever you share will get back to your child in some way, so keep your child’s confidentiality and privacy intact as much as possible, and ask the teacher to do the same. You do not need to share all of the details of why your child has a particular sensitivity; just that your child does, along with two to three basic strategies for helping her in the classroom.
  • Establishing a positive and friendly relationship with your child’s teacher early on will benefit you, the teacher, and your child. Helping in a friendly, cooperative way from the beginning of the year creates a sense of partnership and understanding that can help resolve conflicts that might arise later. Your child’s age and how she currently feels about adoption should guide whether or how you disclose that your child is adopted (see suggestions above). Once your child reaches middle childhood (6 – 12 years old), they want to blend in with peers as much as possible. Giving your child control over who and when to tell about her adoption is important. Even if your child doesn’t want her adoption status disclosed, developing a positive, cooperative relationship with the teacher at the start of the year is a good strategy for any parent.
  • Generate ideas with your child in advance. Get a list of common adoption-insensitive classroom assignments (Adoptive Families magazine provides a helpful list at http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/school, and talk to your child about some of them (Don’t tackle all of them at once; that can be overwhelming). In a light, age-appropriate way, explore your child’s ideas for how she would like to handle them. You may be surprised at the creative ideas your child thinks of, and some assignments you were sure would upset her may not bother her at all. Talking about assignments in advance is especially important if your child does not want to share with the teacher that she is adopted. If the teacher does know, you may want to tell her about assignments that may be troubling and offer alternatives in advance that are more inclusive and sensitive to adoption. This way, the teacher is not left scrambling to create an alternative after an assignment has been made, and your child is not put into a situation where she feels singled out as the only student in the class who requires an alternative assignment.
  • Role play with your child in advance on how to respond to questions about adoption from her peers and teachers. The W.I.S.E. Up!SM Powerbook from the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) is a helpful resource for doing this.
  • Some children may benefit from educational alternatives, such as delaying your child’s start at school, initially enrolling her in a grade according to developmental age rather than chronological age, or homeschooling. Know that this is normal and it is ok to tap these educational alternatives to help your child thrive academically.

Adoption in the Classroom is a handout for teachers to use to make their classroom more adoption-friendly(from Adoptive Families magazine)

School Resources from EMK Press

The unique educational needs and considerations of children adopted from institutions overseas are discussed by Boris Gindis, Ph.D., in an article entitled, “School Readiness and School Placement of a Newly Adopted Post-institutionalized Child,” published by the Post-Adoption Learning Center (PAL, Inc.).

Visit Resources for a full list

Special Education Services and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

Some children—adopted and biological—need special assistance to thrive academically. There are factors that may require that your child receive special assistance, and, thankfully there are many customizable solutions available through an IEP (sometimes called an Individualized Education Plan, Individualized Education Program, or Individual Education Plan).

An IEP usually starts with assessment or testing and uses a special document to describe educational goals for your child (if he is between the ages of 3 and 21 and qualifies for special education services). It is developed by a team that includes professionals at the child’s school, the parents, and the child, if age 14 or older (or sometimes younger, if appropriate).

Once established and agreed to by all parties, the IEP is legally binding. It is reviewed annually but can be revised more frequently as needed. The IEP serves as a guide and includes benchmarks that measure the effectiveness of specialized education services. It sets educational goals and prescribes the services that the school will provide to help the child achieve their learning goals.

Special education services are mandated and funded by the federal government under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA 2004). Children younger than age 3 can also qualify to receive early intervention services under IDEA 2004. If a child does not meet eligibility requirements for an IEP, he or she may still qualify for special education services under a 504 plan; however, 504 plans and IEPs significantly differ from each other.

While most adopted children do very well in school, special education services may be helpful for some children who were exposed to harmful substances or chronic stress before they were born, or children who experienced abuse, neglect, institutional life in an orphanage, or multiple disruptions in caregiving prior to adoption. These types of traumatic experiences can significantly impact a child’s developing brain, but supportive and effective interventions can help in recovery.

More information about the benefits of intervention can be found under the Complex Trauma and Its Impact and in “Factsheet: Vulnerable Young Children,” by Evelyn Shaw and Sue Goode and published online by the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (NECTAC). The unique educational needs and considerations of children adopted from institutions overseas are also discussed by Boris Gindis, Ph.D., in an article entitled, “School Readiness and School Placement of a Newly Adopted Post-institutionalized Child,” published by the Post-Adoption Learning Center (PAL, Inc.).

To qualify for services and educational assistance as part of an IEP, a child must have one of 13 disabilities identified by IDEA 2004:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Mental retardation
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

Detailed descriptions of each of these disabilities under IDEA can be found at the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. State departments and local school districts can provide additional information about what may qualify as a disability or whether your child may be a fit for an IEP under IDEA. It is important to familiarize yourself with your local programs, starting with your state’s department of education.

You can request an evaluation of your child if you believe that he has needs that fall within one of the disabilities described above and warrant individualized services. A request for an evaluation should be given to the school in writing, outlining your concerns. Each school system has procedures in place for parents who wish to request an evaluation and should make information about the process available to you in writing. Contact your child’s teacher or the school office for this information. If the school denies your request for an evaluation, they should provide a written explanation of their decision, which you can challenge. You may choose to contact your local Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) for assistance in challenging the school’s decision.

You may also have your child independently evaluated outside the school system. The school may challenge or limit the cost of paying for an outside evaluation but should consider the results of independent testing as part of the overall evaluation process.

Sometimes the school will initiate the evaluation process if they have concerns about your child’s educational needs. If a teacher or other school personnel believe your child may qualify for special education services, they can request an evaluation at no charge to you, but your written consent is required. Know that you can refuse to give consent if you do not want your child to receive services.

It is important that parents of adopted children from other countries understand that any evaluation of their child should take English proficiency into account. A child cannot qualify for special education services solely because of limited English ability, but testing for a disability must be evaluated in a manner that is sensitive to a child’s native language and culture.

If your child qualifies for special education services, it is important that the IEP be trulyindividualized—it does not take a generic approach but recognizes the needs of your child and designs accommodations and services that best fit him.

You have the right to participate in the IEP planning and review meetings, but the school can hold a meeting without you if it can document its efforts to arrange a mutually-convenient meeting time or other ways of making your participation possible (video conferencing, for example).

Your participation is important. If you feel intimidated by the prospect of an IEP meeting, consider taking an advocate with you who has more experience (see section below, “To Find an Advocate”). If the school does meet without you, they should still provide you with information about what decisions were made during the meeting and seek your written consent before providing any services to your child.

During IEP reviews, your child’s progress toward achieving the goals written in the IEP will be evaluated and necessary revisions will be made. Revisions can be made to the IEP without a meeting if both the school and parents agree to it in writing. A reevaluation of your child’s needs occurs every three years, unless both the school and the parents determine that a reevaluation is not necessary. By the time your child is 16, revisions to the IEP should include plans for transition services to help your child develop independent living skills beyond high school.

More details about evaluating a child, determining eligibility for services, developing an IEP, measuring progress and revising goals, and options for parents who disagree with decisions made by the school are available on a factsheet, “Questions Often Asked by Parents about Special Education Services,” published by The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY). NICHCY also publishes a more detailed guide to developing an IEP.

To Find an Advocate:

Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) in each state offer information and training for parents of children up to age 26 who have emotional, learning, cognitive, or physical disabilities. By contacting a PTI or CPRC in your community, you can connect with experts who can help you advocate for services for your child and possibly attend IEP meetings with you. A statewide directory of PTIs and CPRCs is available online at The Technical Assistance ALLIANCE for Parent Centers.

A glossary of terms related to special education services, IEPs, and IDEA is available from Zero to Three, nonprofit organization that informs, trains, and supports professionals, policymakers, and parents in their efforts to improve the lives of infants and toddlers.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has a downloadable IEP Meeting Planner with suggestions for tasks to do before, during, and after the meeting, and a checklist of symptoms of learning disabilities.

If your child does have special needs, it is up to you and your child to decide who to tell in the school system. You may want to develop a “Student Snapshot” before meeting with those professionals.

The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Attorney Lawrence M. Siegel; published by Nolo.

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A Mother’s Tips for Helping Children Handle Adoption Questions at School

By Kathleen L. Whitten, Ph.D. for Bethany Christian Services

I was picking up my daughter from the first Brownie meeting in second grade. The new girl, a little redhead from Florida, looked at me hard and asked, “Are you her mom?”

I smiled and said, “I sure am.” I knew something about adoption would come next. I was right.

“You don’t look like her,” the little girl said.

“No, I don’t. Not all families look alike,” I said.

I checked out my daughter’s reactions. At the same time we were gathering her backpack, admiring the first craft of the year, and saying our good-byes to her Brownie leader. Sure enough, my daughter’s eyebrows pulled together in a frown over her usually sunny face.

In the car I said, “How’re you doing?”

“Mad,” my daughter said.

“Yeah,” I said, “The new girl asked about stuff that’s none of her business.”

“Yeah,” my daughter said, “like am I adopted. I don’t want to tell her. I mean, Emily and Kiley know, but they’re good friends.”

“Right. And you don’t have to share anything about yourself with anybody you don’t want to tell.”

“No, and I’m not going to.”

Most adoptive families have had an experience like this, with an adoption question coming out of the blue. Scenes like ours play out in many adoptive families at the beginning of a school year, especially for children in the early elementary years from kindergarten to about third grade. Adoption researchers recognize that this is the age when many children begin to look at each others’ families and ask probing questions.

At the same time, adopted children are beginning to realize—with their wonderful new cognitive skills—that in order to be adopted, their birthparents had to “give them up,” as many people outside the adoption community put it. In fact, one adoption theorist (Leon, 2002) says that adopted children’s difficulties in the early grades come mainly from their first encounters with social stigmas about being adopted. The uncomfortable questions and negative attitudes can add stress to the already demanding transition to a new grade, new teacher, new classmates, and for some, a new school.

Children show this stress in several ways. It might come out in vague anger and grouchiness, especially after school. Others might become unusually quiet and withdrawn, not wanting to play with other children. For some children, this might escalate into more problematic behavior problems, such as opposition or defiance of parents. Children might also complain about vague physical pains, especially on Sunday nights, and say they’re too sick to go to school the next day.

As parents, we can’t protect our children from others’ uncomfortable questions, no matter how much we’d like to. And we can’t keep them in our sheltered home forever. But we cantake action and give them tools to prevent some of the adoption-related stress of the new school year.

Here are three things you can do right now:

First, let the teacher know that your child is adopted. Ask the teacher to be alert for any adoption-related questions and especially teasing. Check out the teacher’s response and use of appropriate adoption language. You might need to do some educating yourself. Also, ask teachers to be sensitive about assigning family trees and asking for baby pictures. That’s especially important for children adopted after infancy. Second, tell your child that some people might ask personal questions about your family. Give your child permission not to answer every question. Questions asked by kids in this age range aren’t just adoption-related but include personal and private subjects like, “How much money does your family have?” “Has your mom been divorced?” These questions are developmentally appropriate, even if they’re not polite! Third, help your child practice some responses to the questions.The answers should reflect your family’s values and your child’s comfort level with the answers. Even if your child attends the most sensitive and caring school, it’s still a good idea to have a conversation about possible questions, comments, and issues your child might face. At the same time, you will create another wonderful opportunity to talk about adoption with your child. Here are some samples.

Q. “Is that woman your mom?”

A. “Yes.”

Q. “Why don’t you look like your parents (or brothers or sisters)?”

A. “Not all families look alike.”

Q. “Are you adopted?”

A. “Yes.” Use this only if your child is comfortable sharing this information, and emphasize that he or she might choose to talk about adoption with some friends but not with others, as my daughter did.

A. “That’s personal information.”

Q. “Why didn’t your real parents want you?”

A. This is obviously a painful question. You have probably already discussed this with your child, so that he or she has the answer in mind. That’s much more important than having the “right” response for someone else. Your child will know the answer if you have already talked about why his or her birthparents decided to make an adoption plan. You can give your children this general answer, “Your birthparents knew they were not able to take care of you, so they asked the agency to find the best parents for you.”

Other possible answers include:

  • “My parents are my real parents, and they want me a lot.”
  • “That’s a mean question, and the answer is personal.”

Q. “Where are you from?” Internationally adopted children, like my daughter, who are ethnic minorities in their schools get this question.

A. If your child feels okay about sharing birthcountry information, that’s fine. Otherwise, he or she can simply say, “Atlanta,” “Savannah,” “Columbus,” or “Kalamazoo.”

We parents are key in helping our children move smoothly from one stage of life to another—from our sheltering, adoption-friendly homes to school. You can use the resources below to get started.

Schoettle, Marilyn. W.I.S.E. Up! Powerbook. Center for Adoption Support and Education,www.adoptionsupport.org

W.I.S.E. Up! Powerbook for Children in Foster Care. Order throughwww.adoptionsupport.org

Labor of the Heart: A Parent’s Guide to the Decisions and Emotions in Adoption by Kathleen L. Whitten, Ph.D., adoptive mother and developmental psychologist.http://drwhittenonadoption.com.

Visit Resources for a full list

Teasing

Q: We adopted our son as an infant. When his classmates learned in grade school that he was adopted, several of them began to tease him, and this has not let up over the years. Later we adopted our daughter from China. She is teased at school because she doesn’t look like the rest of our family. Can you offer any advice about how we can help both of our children deal with teasing?

Response from Kathleen Whitten, PhD, developmental psychologist and lecturer at Georgia State University in Atlanta and adoptive mom

A: Most adoptive families have had experiences like yours. They’re painful for everyone, parents and child alike. As parents, we can’t protect our children from others’ uncomfortable questions, no matter how much we’d like to. And we can’t keep them in our sheltered home forever.

But we can take action and give them tools to prevent some of the adoption-related stress from teasing. Here are three things you can do right now: work with the school, talk to your children about questions people might ask, and role play some responses.

First, tell your child’s teacher what your child is experiencing. Children have a right to be safe at school, not only physically but emotionally. Check out the teacher’s response and use of appropriate adoption language. You might need to educate the teacher. If you aren’t satisfied with the teacher’s response, go to the principal. If bullying is a significant problem at your child’s school (and painful teasing is bullying), suggest that the school implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, proven effective worldwide in reducing bullying.

Second, tell your child that some people might ask personal questions about your family. Give your child permission not to answer every question. Questions asked by kids in this age range aren’t just adoption-related but include personal and private subjects like, “How much money does your family have?” or “Has your mom been divorced?” These questions are developmentally appropriate, even if they’re not polite!

Third, help your child practice some responses to the questions. The answers should reflect your family’s values and your child’s comfort level with the answers. Even if your child attends the most sensitive and caring school possible, it’s still a good idea to have a conversation about possible questions, comments, and issues your child might face. At the same time, you will create another wonderful opportunity to talk about adoption with your child. You will also reinforce the idea that adoption is a normal, healthy way to build a family. Here are some examples:

Q:  “Is that woman your mom?”

A:  “Yes.” (You don’t have to say any more!)

 

Q: “Why don’t you look like your parents (or brothers or sisters)?”

A:  “Not all families look alike.”

 

Q:  “Are you adopted?”

A:  “Yes.”  Use this only if your child is comfortable sharing this information, and emphasize that he or she might choose to talk about adoption with some kids, like close friends, but not with other children—or adults.

A:  “That’s personal information.”

 

Q:  “Why didn’t your real parents want you?”

A:  This is obviously a painful question. You have probably already discussed this with your child so that he has the answer in mind. That’s much more important than having the “right” response for someone else.  Your child will know the answer if you have already talked about why his or her birthparents decided to make an adoption plan. You can give your children this general answer, “Your birthparents knew they were not able to take care of you, so they asked the agency to find the best parents for you.”

Possible answers to others include:

  1. “My parents are my real parents, and they want me a lot.”
  2. “That’s a mean question, and I don’t have to answer it.”
  3. “Why do you want to know?”

Q:  “Where are you from?” Internationally adopted children get this question.

A:  If your child feels okay about sharing birth country information, that’s fine.  Otherwise, he or she can simply say, “Atlanta,” “St. Louis,” “Los Angeles,” or “Kalamazoo.”

Parents are key in helping our children move smoothly from one stage of life to another—from our sheltering, adoption-friendly homes to school. You can use the resources below to get started.

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: http://www.clemson.edu/olweus

Schoettle, Marilyn. W.I.S.E. Up! Powerbook and W.I.S.E. Up! Powerbook for Children in Foster Care. Center for Adoption Support and Education, www.adoptionsupport.org.

From Adoptive Families magazine, the story of how one mother explained adoption to her daughter’s first grade class: http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=238

Kathleen L. Whitten, Ph.D., is an adoptive mother and the author of Labor of the Heart: A Parent’s Guide to the Decisions and Emotions in Adoption. She is a developmental psychologist and lecturer at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, Dr. Whitten was a research faculty member at the Child-Parent Attachment Clinic of the University of Virginia, where she was also a lecturer in psychology and an evaluator of the Quality Improvement Center for Adoption. Dr. Whitten was named a Distinguished Fellow in Developmental Psychology by the National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C., and is also an award-winning poet. She also teaches continuing education programs on adoption for professionals and parenting workshops for adoptive families. Dr. Whitten’s website is http://drwhittenonadoption.com.

School and Adoption: Becoming the Coach Your Child Needs.

School provides wonderful opportunities for children to learn and develop new skills and friendships. Adopted children, however, may also experience some challenges in the school setting, ranging from comfortably fielding questions about adoption from classmates, to completing assignments that are insensitive to their history, to overall learning itself.

Depending on their history prior to adoption, children may have a variety of needs that influence their education. All have experienced significant loss at least once in their lives and may experience fear and anxiety during times of separation from their parents, such as going to school. They may also become anxious about the change and unfamiliarity that a new school or classroom brings.

Other children may be overwhelmed by all of the activity in the school setting if, for example, their lives prior to adoption lacked sensory stimulation as can happen in an orphanage. Still other children may have difficulty concentrating in class due to hyper vigilance because early experiences of ongoing abuse or neglect have conditioned them to always be on alert for potential danger. As a result, these children may have difficulty tuning things out so they can focus. Trauma experienced on an ongoing basis early in life (such as abuse, neglect, or prenatal drug exposure) can also affect brain development in ways that make peer relationships difficult.

When parents understand some of the sensitivities their child has due to the differences inherent in joining their family through adoption, or due to the impact of traumatic experiences prior to adoption, they may become their child’s best coach and advocate when it comes to education:

    • Visit the school or the classroom with your child a few days before school starts. If your school doesn’t offer a day or two leading up to the start of the year when parents and children can come to look around, call and see if you can come by. A visit can reduce the number of new experiences your child must get used to on the first day of school and can make the environment more familiar. The Child Trauma Academy has created a “My New School” photo book (http://ctaproducts.org) that you and your child can take with you on your visit and fill with pictures of the places and people your child will encounter at school. Later, you can go through the book together at home, making the school more familiar and reducing stress and anxiety.
    • Meet your child’s teacher before or at the very beginning of the school year. Particularly if you know that your child has vulnerabilities related to early childhood trauma, providing general information about trauma to the teacher in advance can help increase the teacher’s understanding of your child’s needs in order to accommodate them. Speak to your child first about talking to the teacher, and see if your child wants to come with you or if he/she has any ideas or preferences regarding what and how information is shared. This gives your child some control over his/her personal information. Assume that whatever you share will get back to your child in some form or fashion, so keep your child’s confidentiality and privacy intact as much as possible, and ask the teacher to do the same. You do not need to share all of the details of why your child has a particular sensitivity; just that your child does, along with two to three basic strategies for helping him/her in the classroom.
    • Establishing a positive and friendly relationship with the teacher early on offers benefits to you, the teacher, and your child. Helping in a friendly, cooperative way from the beginning of the year creates a sense of partnership and understanding that can help any conflicts that might arise later go more smoothly. Your child’s age and how he/she currently feels about adoption should guide whether or how you disclose that your child is adopted (see the above suggestion). Once your son or daughter reaches middle childhood, it is typically important to blend in with peers as much as possible. Giving your child control over who and when to tell about his/her adoption is important. Even if your child doesn’t want his/her adoption status disclosed, developing a positive, cooperative relationship with the teacher at the start of the year is a good strategy for any parent.
    • Generate ideas with your child in advance. Get a list of common adoption-insensitive classroom assignments (Adoptive Families magazine provides a helpful list at http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/school, and talk to your child about some of them (Don’t tackle all of them at once; that can be overwhelming). In a light, age-appropriate way, explore your child’s ideas for how he/she would like to handle them. You may be surprised at the creative ideas your child thinks of, and some assignments may not bother your child at all. Talking about assignments in advance is especially important if your child does not want to share with the teacher in advance that he/she is adopted. If the teacher does know, you may raise awareness about assignments that may be troubling and offer alternatives in advance that are more inclusive and sensitive to adoption. This way, the teacher is not left scrambling to create an alternative after an assignment has been made, and your child is not put into a situation where he/she feels singled out as the only student in the class who requires an alternative assignment.
    • Role play with your child in advance on how to respond to questions about adoption from their peers and teachers. The W.I.S.E. Up!SM Powerbook from the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) is a helpful resource for doing this.
  • Some children may have needs that benefit from educational alternatives, such as delaying your child’s start at school, initially enrolling him/her in a grade according to developmental age rather than chronological age, or homeschooling.

Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs)
Children who have difficulty in school as a result of past abuse, neglect, or prenatal drug exposure may need specialized services within the educational system to reach their full potential. If you suspect that may be the case for your child, talk with the school about having your child evaluated for eligibility for special education services. An IEP (called an Individualized Education Plan, Individualized Education Program, or Individual Education Plan) is a document that describes the educational goals for a child between the ages of 3 and 21 who qualifies for special education services. It is developed by a team that includes professionals at the child’s school, parents, and the child at age 14 or older (or younger, if appropriate). The IEP serves as a guide and measure of the effectiveness of specialized education services. It sets educational goals and prescribes the supports and services that the school will provide to help your child achieve his/her learning goals.

Special education services are mandated and funded by the federal government under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA 2004). Children younger than age 3 can qualify to receive early intervention services under IDEA 2004.

If a child does not meet eligibility requirements for an IEP, he/she may still qualify for special education services under a 504 plan, which specifies that no one with a disability can be excluded from participating in federally funded programs or activities, including elementary, secondary or postsecondary schooling. A 504 plan might include such things as wheelchair ramps, blood sugar monitoring, a special, gluten-free lunch, home instruction, or the use of a tape recorder. 504 plans and IEPs significantly differ from each other.

To qualify for services and educational accommodations as part of an IEP, a child must have one of 13 disabilities identified by IDEA 2004; detailed descriptions of each of these disabilities can be found through the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. States and local school districts can add other factors in consideration of whether a child’s disability qualifies him for special education services under IDEA, making it important to familiarize yourself with your local programs, starting with your state’s department of education.

Parents may request an evaluation of their child if they believe he/she has needs that fall within one of the disabilities identified by IDEA 2004 and warrant individualized services. Each school system has procedures in place for parents who want to request an evaluation and should make information about the process available in writing. Contact your child’s teacher or the school office for this information. If the school denies your request for an evaluation, they should provide a written explanation, which you can challenge. You may also contact your local Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) for assistance in challenging the school’s decision (See the list of recommended resources at the end of this article).

Parents may also have their child independently evaluated outside the school system. The school may challenge or limit the cost of paying for an outside evaluation but should consider the results of independent testing as part of the overall evaluation process. With a parent’s consent, the child’s school can also initiate the evaluation process, at no charge to the parent, if they have concerns about a child’s educational needs.

It is important that parents of children adopted outside the United States understand that any evaluation should take English proficiency into account. This means that, while a child cannot qualify for special education services solely because of limited English ability, the presence of a disability must be evaluated in a manner that is sensitive to a child’s first language and culture so an accurate diagnosis of disability can be made and not incorrectly attributed to limited proficiency in English. (See resources at the end from the BG Center for Cognitive-Development Assessment & Remediation.)

During IEP reviews, the student’s progress toward achieving the goals written in the IEP will be evaluated and any revisions will be made. Revisions can be made to the IEP without a meeting if both the school and the parents agree to it in writing. A reevaluation of the student’s needs is done every three years, unless both the school and the parents determine that a reevaluation is not necessary.

You have the right to participate in IEP planning and review meetings; however, the school can meet without you if it can document efforts to arrange a mutually-convenient time or other avenues of making your participation possible (video conferencing, for example). If the school does meet without you, they should provide information about decisions made during the meeting and seek your written consent before providing any services. If you feel intimidated by the prospect of a meeting, consider taking an advocate with you who has more experience (http://www.taalliance.org). Your participation is important!

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