Coming to grips with a special education label? Easier said than done. The labeling process has timelines and established procedures, but for all parents, there’s a lot more to it than getting a Handbook of Parents’ Rights. For some parents, the very idea of a disability may come as a shock. How could their chatty, sociable kid have a reading disability? How could their brilliant but shy kid be autistic? How could their lively and curious kid have an attention disorder?
The labeling process stops in its tracks right there for some families. They believe that the school is off-base, biased, prejudiced, or negligent. I’ve been on both sides of the fence: seeing kids who clearly needed special education and seeing kids who clearly needed better instruction. For parents who are shocked by this news from school, it can take years to sort through the process. Evaluations, grief, denial, lawsuits, and more can characterize this difficult impasse. When parents are the ones demanding an evaluation, the impasse can be equally disheartening.
Let’s examine what’s involved when parents do recognize that their child has a disability. Perhaps the disability was identified in preschool. Perhaps it was a result of whole body radiation to fight leukemia. Whatever its origin, which is likely unknown, a disability can be like a death, a loss of hopes and dreams. Early intervention may restore some of that optimism, or it may solidify their worst fears. It’s an uncertain path which sometimes leads to depression or ends in divorce. I remember a parent telling me that she grieved every year on her child’s birthday.
Assuming the parents and school agree on a special education label, let’s fast forward to another annual event which can be equally devastating: the yearly IEP meeting. There’s a reason that school-based committees have boxes of tissues available for parents. Although the IEP does reference strengths, the bulk of the document carefully outlines the child’s weaknesses and ongoing need for intervention. As much as a family may want that IEP, it’s another reminder of what might have been or what has already been. It’s a tough meeting, perhaps made even more difficult by a conflict with teachers over the services provided.
What can parents do? Enlist support, whether from family, friends, other parents of kids with similar needs, and/or professional organizations. Educate yourself on the disability and best practices for improving your child’s success. Be your child’s best advocate. Enjoy your child. Your child is a wonderful kid who wants to succeed, wants to be accepted, and wants to do their best.
What can teachers do? Empathize with the family. You may not have had a child with a disability, but you will surely have suffered loss and despair. Encourage the parents. I have seen many kids who had serious problems in their first years of school who are now successful college students. Educate yourself on the disability and best practices for improving your student’s success. Be your student’s best advocate. Enjoy your student. This child is a wonderful kid who wants to succeed, wants to be accepted, and wants to do their best.