6 Keys to Navigating the Special-Needs System

If you have a child with special needs, these tips can help you better understand the procedures in place to help your student.

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Some kids require extra attention to succeed in the classroom. These children are often (but not always) considered to have "special needs," and there are procedures in place to help them. Understanding the system can make all the difference.

1. If you think your child needs more help than she's getting at school, you can inquire about having an IEP (individualized education program) meeting.
During this get-together with your child's teachers and other school staff, you can discuss her strengths, weaknesses, and learning needs, and what can be done to support her progress in the general curriculum. Sometimes this will jump-start a formal evaluation that may assess her as having a particular condition (such as ADHD) that entitles her to some form of extra attention. If the problem is minor, it may merely result in a plan of action (such as helping her learn to write more neatly and legibly); if it's deemed more serious, she may be assigned an aide. Note: If you don't feel the approach is working, you can ask for another IEP at any point.

2. Accommodations aren't intended to teach academic skills.
If an aide is assigned to your child, her primary responsibility is to make sure he is paying attention to the teacher, pulling out the right worksheets, and writing down his homework -- not to explain things he doesn't understand, says Sarah Gershfeld, a behavioral psychologist and special educator who consults with the state of California on its autism services.

3. Aides are obligated to be discreet.
They are forbidden to divulge which child they are assisting. You can also request that an aide enter the class separately from your child.

4. You don't have to use your school's providers.
Don't feel the staff occupational therapist is a good fit for your kid? Each school district may contract with an approved non-public agency (NPA). You can request someone from outside, says Gershfeld. For a list of NPAs by zip code, visit lovemyprovider.com.

5. Special support may include private school.
If public school truly doesn't provide the kind of attention your child needs, the district may be legally obliged to send her to a private one or, in the case of extreme disability, pay for in-home tutoring.

6. Special needs is not just a little-kid thing.
Legally, schools must provide any educational support your child needs to finish school -- even if it takes him up to age 21.

    Children with Autism: The Parents Perspective

      Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.