Category Archives: Parenting

Worried that your child may be retained?

Mother and daughter using smart phoneAt this very moment, many parents are very worried about the possibility that their child might be required to repeat their current grade. Many of these parents have received one or more letters notifying them that their child was at risk for retention because they were not meeting grade-level expectations for learning. These are often form letters that are sent automatically based on the child’s performance on academic testing done at several points during the school year. In many schools, the warning letters do not take into account that the student may have an identified disability.

With only a couple of exceptions, North Carolina’s public school law gives principals sole authority to determine what grade a student is assigned to. The exceptions include 3rd grade, when the Read to Achieve law mandates retention of any child who does not demonstrate “proficient” (grade level) reading skills on the End-of-Grade (EOG) assessment. Principals can request a “good cause exemption” for students who meet certain criteria. Students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) based on disabilities that impact reading are eligible for such an exemption. The tricky thing about this is that the principal is not required to request the exemption. They can still choose to retain students who have this kind of disability. In high school, students are assigned to a grade based on the number and type of course credits they have earned. However, a high school principal can decide to assign a student to a homeroom that is different from the grade shown on their official transcript.

Parents do not have to just sit and wait anxiously for that last report card. There are things that they can do to try to help their child.

If you get a letter in January or February warning you about possible retention, you can contact your child’s teacher(s) to get more information about why the letter was sent. If your child is not learning at the expected rate, you can ask about what actions have been, or can be taken, to help them make more progress. For a child who does not have an IEP, this might mean starting or intensifying research-based interventions as part of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).

If your child has disability and receives supports as part of a Section 504 Accommodation Plan, you might want to consider asking for an evaluation to see if the child now needs special education services. If your child already has an IEP, you can request an IEP Team meeting to consider making adjustments to instruction and/or supports to improve learning.

Under any condition, it would still be a good idea to meet with the school principal to discuss your concerns about possible retention. Most public schools are too large to expect a principal to know each child well. You can discuss potential pros and cons for your child. For example, you can explain why it might make more sense to promote your child to the next grade with targeted supports and services, than to require the child repeat the entire curriculum of his/her current grade. You can also take that opportunity to share additional information about your child that the principal can consider as he/she makes their decision.

The principal does have the authority to make the final decision about retaining or promoting your child. However, you can try to influence that decision before it is made. You can also continue to advocate for your child to get the instruction and services that he/she needs next year, regardless of the grade they are assigned.

Get ready for next school year

As one school year winds down, its good to start thinking about the next year. Perhaps you have a child who will simply be moving from one grade to another in the same school. Maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering KindergartenToday's Preparation... Tomorrow's Success!
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It is time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.

If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS:

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Think about any possible barriers or challenges that your child might have in the new setting
  • If your child is entering middle or high school, ask about required courses and any options that may exist. Some courses are offered at multiple difficulty levels, and there may be other ways to help make sure that your child gets a course schedule that will work for him/her
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed in the accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts. There may also be other steps that you can to help make this transition a smooth one.

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

Think about summer camps NOW!

Camp Drop Off sign

Many parents are so busy trying to get their child through the school year successfully that they do not think about possible summer activities until summer is almost here. By then, many camps and programs have already filled up. Parents may find themselves in a mad scramble to find ways to keep their child occupied. My biggest tip for parents, especially parents of children with disabilities or special healthcare needs, is to start searching and planning as early as possible!

If you find a program that seems right for your child, but no space is available for this year, find out when you should contact them about enrollment for next year. You can also ask to be put on their email list, if they have one. Use calendars and any other tools that work for you to set up a future reminder.

Each year the Family Support Program at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work creates a directory of summer camps and programs for children who have various disabilities. The 2018 Summer Camp Directory also includes tips for conducting your search and questions to ask to make sure that the program is a good match for your child. In some larger communities a local newspaper, parent magazine or other organization create similar listings of summer camps, programs and activities in that area.

Many local Departments of Parks and Recreation offer summer day camps, and some have “therapeutic recreation” programs designed specifically for children and youth with disabilities.  However, regular camp programs supported by public funds have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations that would make it possible for many children with disabilities to participate in their program.  Some of the Y’s are also making a deliberate effort to be more accommodating of children with special needs.

Call around, talk to friends and acquaintances, check out public libraries, museums, movie theaters, bowling alleys, skate rinks, churches, public and private schools, tourist attractions, scouts, 4-H clubs, etc. for summer offerings that might be of interest to your child.  Parents often have to create a patchwork quilt of activities in order to keep children constructively occupied throughout the summer.  At home, consider using educational websites, software and activity books to keep the young minds active and skills from being lost.  Many disability-related websites also offer summer tips.

The key message is to start planning early… really early! That is when you will have the most options and a chance at getting financial assistance, if needed.  With planning, your child can go from having a ho-hum summer to a truly great one!

“School Safety” and Students with Disabilities

Columbine, Newtown and now Parkland. We knew this would happen… again.  The tragic shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida was bound to trigger heightened sensitivity to anyone and anything that seems to be even remotely threatening.  While we should all be thinking about what can be done to keep our schools safe, we have to be careful that we do not react in a way that produces, rather than prevents, harm to students.

Some students with disabilities are at particular risk of becoming victims of hyper-vigilant policies and practices.  Recently, a distressed parent called because her son’s school was planning to conduct a “threat assessment” on her son after he drew pictures of guns during class.  My guess is that this was not a new behavior for that child, but it was now considered to be a potential threat after being viewed through post-Parkland “school safety” lenses.  This child had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the parent was (rightfully) worried about what he might say when questioned by the school’s guidance counselor and principal.  There are several things about that situation that raise questions, but I will approach the topic at hand with recommendations rather than criticism.

The very first thing to do is talk to your children about school safety concerns and how the behavior of individuals can be seen as a sign of problems or threats.  We want them to recognize danger when they see it. We also want them to avoid doing things that others may see as dangerous. Even if the child does not fully understand why someone would consider their comment, joke, writings or drawings to be threatening, you have to give them specific examples of behavior to avoid.  Mention or representations of guns, knives, bombs, explosions, killing, etc., are topics to be avoided just about every place except home.  Even if the child is studying a particular time of war in a history class, they should limit their comments to the specific questions being asked. For example: DO NOT speculate about what could have happened if the good guys had a super hand-held weapon that could wipe out hundreds of people with the press of a button).  We can encourage other forms of imagination, as well as broader interests for those children who seem preoccupied by violent themes.

If you have a child that likes to carry or use a pocket knife, sticks, rocks or anything else that could be considered to be a weapon, check their pockets and backpacks frequently to make sure that they don’t accidentally or intentionally end up bringing something to school that will get them in trouble.  Keep in mind, when weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury are involved in a disciplinary situation, a student can be moved into an interim alternative educational setting even when the behavior is found to be a manifestation of the child’s disability!  Such removal is not required though, and school administrators have the authority to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis. You may need to remind them of that.

Be proactive! Review your school system’s Code of Conduct and disciplinary/school safety policies.  If you see glaring problems with the policies, address them with your School Board. If the policies include the possibility of a required “threat assessment”, make sure that the assessment must be done by qualified individuals with expertise in mental health and any identified disabilities that a child may have. Even if your school system’s policy does not clearly state such a requirement, you should raise the issue if your child becomes involved in this type of situation.  Some disabilities can impact the child’s ability to truly understand the questions that will be asked during this type of assessment, and how his answers might be interpreted by others.  The disability may also have contributed to the behavior itself.

Those making decisions about how to respond to a potential threat should have enough knowledge and experience to understand all of the factors involved, and take actions that are appropriate to each specific situation.  One-size-fits-all does not work for special education, and it also does not work for discipline or school safety!

What are surrogate parents?

Our federal special education law places a lot of importance on the role of the parent in decision making. It is understood that parents’ number one priority is looking out for the best interest of their child. But what happens to those children who don’t have a parent who can speak on their behalf?

First, let’s look at how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 defines “parent.”

  • A biological or adoptive parent of a child;
  • A foster parent, unless state law, regulations, or contractual obligations…prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent (e.g. therapeutic foster parent);
  • A guardian generally authorized to to act as the child’s parent or authorized to make educational decisions;
  • An individual, with whom the child lives, acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent, or an individual legally responsible for the child’s welfare; or
  • A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with IDEA ’04

For children who are wards of the State, or for whom no parent can be identified or located, or unaccompanied homeless youth, a trained volunteer must be appointed  by the public school system, or local education agency (LEA), to protect the rights of the child in special education processes. The LEA has to develop a procedure to identify children who may need a surrogate parent, and a way to assign surrogate parents to those children. For children who are wards of the State, the judge overseeing their case also has authority to appoint a surrogate parent.

Surrogate parents are involved in the same decisions that require parent participation. This includes decisions related to evaluation, determining eligibility for special education services, development and review/revision of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), educational placement and the provision of a free appropriate pubic education (FAPE). Surrogate parents also participate in the Manifestation Determination Review meetings that look at the possible role of disability when students are facing disciplinary changes in placement.

Surrogate parents must have sufficient knowledge and skills to adequately represent the child so many LEAs provide training to volunteers. Surrogate parents have access to the child’s educational records and should be expected to have some familiarity with the child and his/her needs before attending an IEP or other school meeting.

Good surrogate parents provide an important service to children that may have no other adult who can stand up and speak up for them when critical decisions are made about their education. If you, or someone you know has the time and flexibility to volunteer as a surrogate parent, please consider this as a great way to make a real difference in the life of a child who is facing multiple life challenges in addition to having a disability.

 

Is your child in the right courses?

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level 1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

Plan Ahead for School Transitions

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering Kindergarten
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It’s time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.


If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could  impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully, the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS,

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Think about any possible barriers or challenges that your child might have in the new setting
  • If your child is entering middle or high school, ask about required courses and any options that may exist. Some courses are offered at multiple difficulty levels, and there may be other ways to help make sure that your child gets a course schedule that will work for him/her
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed in the accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts. There may be other steps that can be taken to help make this transition a smooth one.

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

“School Choice” for Students with Disabilities. Part 2: Private Schools

While public schools have a legal obligation to provide a free appropriate public education to students who have disabilities, some parents wonder whether their child might be better off in a private school. Private schools often have smaller class sizes than typical public schools and many boast about high student achievement. It is also rare to hear about major discipline problems in private schools. Parents might imagine that their child could get more attention in such a setting. So far, so good.

Private schools, however, are not going to be a perfect solution for every child. There are many things to consider. Private schools DO get to hand pick their students. Children have to apply and be accepted in order to attend.  Most enrollment contracts also allow private schools to dismiss students at any point during the year.

Depending on the school’s accreditation, parents may not be able to assume that all of the teachers are licensed. If the school is connected to a religious organization, religion might be infused into the curriculum or school activities. Also, if a parent has a dispute within a private school, there may be very few steps that they can take.

If you are thinking about looking into private schools for your child, the two biggest factors will probably be cost and the amount of disability support that the school offers.

Cost:

At private schools, parents usually pay for everything: tuition, school supplies, transportation, assorted fees, and the costs associated with extra-curricular activities. Private school costs vary tremendously from one school to the next. Some schools have need-based financial assistance, but they may not advertise that fact.

North Carolina now has two K-12 grant programs that can help some families pay for the cost of sending their child to a private school. The Opportunity Scholarship Program can pay up to $4,200 per year toward the cost of tuition and required fees. In order to be eligible, household income cannot exceed set guidelines. The Disabilities Grant Program awards up to $8,000 per year, which can be used for tuition, fees and other qualified expenses related to educating children with disabilities who are enrolled in a private or home school. There are no income restrictions, but the student must be eligible for special education services using public school guidelines. Contact the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority for more information about the grant programs and how to apply.

Disability Support:

Even though pubic school systems have to spend a certain amount of money serving students who are enrolled in private schools, they can limit the type of services that they provide. Students enrolled in private schools do not have an individual right to special education services from the public school system. Parents should not expect that a child’s public school IEP will be followed after the child enrolls in a private school.

Private schools are not required to provide special education services at all! They can decide how much extra instruction and support they are willing to provide to students. The partial exception to this rule are private schools that receive federal funds. Those schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations and otherwise comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

There are a handful of private schools in North Carolina designed specifically to serve students with disabilities. Most of these schools are in or around major cities. Most also target children with certain disabilities rather than attempt to meet the needs of everyone. Because of low student-to-staff ratios, these schools are usually very expensive.

For the vast majority of private schools student support is limited to some remediation or intervention by a general education teacher or school counselor.  They may allow private speech or occupational therapists to work with students at school. A few schools have a special education teacher on staff. Others have staff who are willing to provide tutoring services outside regular school hours. There is often an additional cost for most of these support services. Some private schools do not offer any extra instruction or support, leaving parents on their own to locate and pay for the services that their child may need.

Questions to ask if you are considering enrolling your child in a private school:

  • Does the school have much experience working with students who have disabilities? What about students with disabilities like your child?
  • What types of supports and/or special instruction are available?
  • Are there teachers with relevant specialized training?
  • What happens if a child needs a service such as counseling, speech, occupational or physical therapy?
  • How do they handle students who have emotional or behavioral needs?
  • Under what circumstances might a student be asked to leave the school? (Read the refund policy and enrollment contract carefully before signing it.)

Having a say in where your child goes to school comes with a lot of responsibility. Do your research. Ask lots of questions. Consider all of the potential impacts on the whole family. There will likely be some trade-offs. Think about which things are most important. Take a deep breath…make the best decision that you can…and don’t look back. If necessary, you can make a different choice next year.

“School Choice” for Students with Disabilities. Part 1: Public Schools

Every school-aged child in the U.S. has a public school that they can attend once a parent registers them. Parents also have a right to choose to teach their child themselves in a home school, or they can enroll their child in a private school that they are admitted to. For many of today’s parents, choosing a school for their child is not quite that simple. In a two-part blog series, we will take a look at public and private school options.

Part 1: Public Schools

All public schools must follow federal and state laws regarding students with disabilities, such as IDEA and Section 504. These laws give students the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Public schools have to provide special education services and accommodations for students who need them because of a disability. If a student requires specially designed instruction, an individualized education program is created by an IEP team, which includes the parents. The IEP team makes decisions about the amount and type of special education services and supports that the student will get.

In most cases, school system administrators make the decision about which school the child will actually be assigned to.  Most children with disabilities attend the same school that they would go to if they did not have a disability. Other children may require specially designed instruction and services that are not available at the neighborhood school. These children are supposed to be assigned to the school closest to home that can meet their needs.

Parents who desire to have more control over their child’s education often want to know about any school options that may be available for them to select as a matter of choice. The following is a list of public school options, any of which may or may not be available in a particular community. There are also things that parents should think about when considering each option.

  • Year-round Calendar- Some school systems allow parents to choose between schools that operate on a traditional calendar that has a long summer break, and a year-round calendar that gives students several shorter breaks throughout the year. For many children, the shorter breaks allow them to make more consistent progress because they do not loose skills or get “rusty” over a long school break.
  • Magnet Schools– These schools follow the standard course of study, but also offer an enriched curriculum or special instructional approach based on a particular theme, area of study or philosophy. When considering a magnet school it is important to look for a good match between the student’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. For example, a child who has difficulty with oral expression in his primary language may not be the best candidate for a language immersion magnet where most of the instruction is in a second language.
  • Charter Schools- Like magnet schools, they may have a particular focus or mission that sets them apart from regular public schools. In North Carolina, charter schools operate independent of the larger local school systems around them and they do not have geographic boundaries for attendance. Because they are public schools, charter schools do not charge tuition. They may or may not provide some sort of transportation assistance. In NC, charter schools may also use unlicensed teachers for up to 50% of their instructional staff. This creates opportunities as well as challenges.

While charter schools do not get to hand-pick their students, some students may have disability-related needs that cannot be adequately addressed within a particular charter school. For example, a school that was granted its charter based on having a college preparatory curriculum, would not be required to develop a totally different series of courses for a high school student who has a significant intellectual disability.

Many parents like the idea of a smaller school and possibly smaller class sizes. However, charter schools also have fewer in-house staff resources to address special needs than a regular school system. Most charter schools do not have a school nurse or behavior specialist on their staff.  They may contract with private providers for services such as evaluations and speech, occupational or physical therapy. They may have only one or two special education teachers, and the person who functions as the Special Education Director may not have a special education background at all. The staff limitations may negatively impact the school’s ability to effectively address the challenges of students with significant, complex or uncommon disabilities.

If you are considering a magnet or charter school for your child:

  • Check out the website of any schools that you are considering. Pay particular attention to the information found under headings such as “About our school” or “Academics.” Looking at the staff list may give you an idea of who is available to provide student support services and what the school’s priorities are.
  • Think about whether the things that make that school different from others is a good match with the things that make your child a unique individual.
  • Attend an Open House or arrange a personal tour. 
  • Ask questions about how they address the needs of students with disabilities.
    • If the response is that they do not have any students with disabilities, consider that a red flag.
    • If they describe something that sounds like a one-size-fits-all approach, ask what happens with students who do not benefit from that approach.
  • If relevant, ask how the school handles challenging behavior.
    • Listen for mention of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS)
    • Be wary if they talk about “zero tolerance” policies and behavior contracts, focus solely on punishment, or if they say that they do not have any behavior problems at that school.
  • Positive signs can include mention of flexibility; willingness to make adjustments; emphasis on addressing individual student needs and/or learning styles; use of outside resources or consultants; commitment to on-going staff development; teachers with specialized training and experience relevant to your child’s needs; collaboration with parents; and anything else that may be very important to you and your child.

School choice works best when parents have enough information to make informed decisions.

Great Back-to-School Checklist

The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) has created a great Back-to-School Checklist for families. It contains some tips that apply to parents or caregivers of all children. There is also a series of tips especially for parents/caregivers of children who have health concerns.

Even though school has started, it’s never too late for a good idea. Check it out!

Back-to-School Family Checklist