When it comes to navigating the educational system, parents of children with special needs face a variety of challenges that other parents don’t — whether it’s understanding exactly what rights their child is afforded under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.), being able to find tutors who work with students with special needs, or securing the academic services their children are entitled to.
Mary Brownell, a professor of special education at the University of Florida, knows these challenges well. In addition to pursuing a career in special education, she’s also the mother of a child with a learning disability. Along the way, Brownell has learned that there are five key strategies that parents can deploy in order to help level the academic playing field for their children. Below, you’ll find these five strategies, along with some resources that can help you carry them out successfully.
1) Become a Strong Advocate
According to Brownell, it’s critical that parents “advocate successfully for their child’s needs. They need to be able to ask questions about the services their child is being provided, know their rights and communicate effectively what they hope the school will do to assist their child.”
Resource: This article from the Learning Disabilities Association of America will teach you about what advocacy entails, how to pass those skills on to a child with special needs and who to contact if you need additional advocacy help.
2) Get Acquainted With School Regulations
Parents of children with special needs “also need to understand their rights,” says Brownell. “Although districts will supply parents with copies of regulations guiding the instruction of their child, parents will need to be able to wade through these regulations and ask questions about them.”
Resource: Parent Training and Information Centers are free resources that provide special needs families with access to seminars, experts and a network of other parents who are going through the exact same thing that you are. They will also teach you about the educational rights of children with special needs, and help you navigate the educational system. There’s at least one center in every state – visit their website to find one near you.
3) Learn How to Access Additional Services
Parents of children with special needs “need [to know] how to identify the services available to them to assist their child,” says Brownell. “For instance, they need to know … how to use insurance to secure services they need. They may also need to know how to access mental health services.”
Resource: Hiring a tutor or two — particularly ones who are trained to work with children with learning disabilities or other types of special needs — can be an excellent way to help your child thrive in school. Keep in mind, though, that the transition to school can also signal a need to begin additional therapies. Find out what’s covered by your insurance plan by reading through your benefits booklet,or by calling your insurance provider. If you feel like your insurance is unfairly denying a claim, learn how to file an appeal.
4) Develop a Good Relationship With Your Child’s Teachers
According to Brownell, one of the best things that “parents of students with intellectual disabilities [can do is] to collaborate with the special education teacher to support their child [at home].” This is especially important if the child has behavioral issues.
“Students with disabilities sometimes exhibit more behavior problems than other students,” she says, “so parents [and teachers] will need [to collaborate on] effective skills for managing those behaviors.”
Resource: Read up on how best to collaborate with your child’s special education teacher –whether that’s through constant communication, home learning or creating consistency between home and school. Here’s a particularly helpful article from the Special Education Guide website.
5) Keep the Future in Mind
With so much happening in the present, it’s easy to forget about the bigger picture, but “[parents of children with special needs] have to be vigilant about identifying services and opportunities for their child after graduating from high school,” says Brownell. Knowing what your child may do in the future can help guide the educational choices that you’re facingin the here and now.
Resource: Parenting Special Needs magazine and the Center for Parent Information and Resources provide their own compilations of resources that give parents the rundown on topics like independent living, postsecondary education and employment. It can also be helpful to know what social security benefits your child will qualify for as an adult. More information on this is available on the Social Security Administration’s website.