A Guest Post by Carolyn Romano, Vice President of Product, Torchlight.care
Perhaps you have been concerned about your child’s grades or school performance for a while now. Or maybe this year, new struggles have emerged that just weren’t present before. Where should you begin in order to first identify the reasons for your child’s difficulties, and then take action with the school to address them?
There are many factors that can contribute to a drop in academic performance, including:
- a new environment
- poor chemistry with a teacher
- a noisy or disorganized classroom environment
- a learning disability or other special need
- mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety
- bullying or other distressing social situations
- stress at home
- substance abuse
- a variety of other factors
Similarly, emotional and behavioral issues may be tied to an underlying academic struggle. Children with good grades might start exhibiting challenging behaviors when the effort needed to stay afloat academically is wearing them down and they are becoming increasingly frustrated. This challenge occurs for some children in the third grade, for example, when children make the shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
Fortunately, in public schools, struggling learners can now take advantage of a continuum of instructional strategies, such as Response to Intervention (RTI) programs, 504 Plans, and Individualized Education Programs (IEP). Let’s take a quick look at each of these.
Response to Intervention
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a schoolwide system of assessment and interventions to improve student outcomes within general education. RTI can consist of new schoolwide curriculum and instructional practices, additional small group instruction in reading, or individual tutoring in math for students with learning gaps.
Through RTI, many struggling learners are able to make the gains necessary to address academic deficits and meet grade-level expectations. Other students may continue to struggle, despite these interventions. As a result, you or your child’s school may suspect an underlying disability.
If that is the case, you can request, or the school may suggest, that your child be evaluated to determine eligibility for additional services. Qualified school personnel complete evaluations in all areas of suspected disability at no cost to you. The results of the evaluations may indicate the presence of a disability that would qualify your child to receive additional accommodations via a 504 Plan and/or special education and related services, through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires public school districts to meet the educational needs of a student with a disability as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met. To be eligible for a 504 Plan, a student with a disability must have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Examples include ADHD, AIDS, allergies, depression, diabetes, dyslexia, epilepsy, hearing impairment, and low vision. Major life activities include caring for one’s self, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, standing, lifting, and bending. For a child in school, learning is also a major life activity, so things like reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating are also covered.
If a review of the evaluations indicates that your child is eligible under 504, the school will create with you a 504 Plan listing accommodations in both academic and nonacademic activities like recess, meals, and transportation. These accommodations are meant to lessen the impact of a disability and include:
- adjustments to setting and environment
- organizational strategies
- timing and scheduling adjustments
- presentation of information
- response formats
- behavioral supports
- testing options
- considerations for physical disabilities and medical conditions.
Examples of these services may include information in Braille for a child who is blind, changes in testing procedures or formats for a child with ADHD, or a wheelchair ramp for a child with mobility challenges.
The federal special education law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides for public schools to develop “individualized education programs” (IEPs) for children who have a disability that impacts their ability to learn. If evaluations, work samples, and other considerations determine that your child qualifies for an IEP, the school will schedule and hold an IEP meeting where you, your child’s teacher, and other staff members will write an IEP to meet your child’s unique learning needs. The IEP contains information about your child’s strengths, annual goals, and the special education and related services the school will provide.
If you consent to the IEP, your child’s teacher(s) and other school professionals must implement the IEP immediately. School personnel will share your child’s progress with you periodically during the school year. Then, once a year, your child’s IEP Team will meet again to review and revise the IEP in preparation for your child’s next school year. You may also ask for the IEP Team to reconvene, at any time, if you have questions or concerns.
As you work through the above processes, be sure you get to know the professionals in your child’s life. Additionally, if your child is diagnosed with a disability, learn all that you can about how the disability manifests and what s/he needs to be a successful learner. Finally, remember that no one knows your child better than you. As his or her first and best teacher, you are an equal status partner with the school and should be involved in all decisions related to your child’s success.
About the Author
Carolyn A. Romano, J.D. is Vice President of Product at Torchlight.care. She has close to 25 years’ experience as an attorney and advocate for children with disabilities and their families. Carolyn has also consulted extensively with educators and school districts around the country on systems-change efforts to support children at risk due to disability, language, and socioeconomic status.