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Common traps in special education: what to watch for and what you can do

Whether your child is struggling in school or if they already have an IEP, here are the most common traps to watch for in special education.

A boy is standing slumped with his tongue out, looking frustrated. Photo by Hunter Johnson on Unsplash

If your child is struggling in school or is already in Special Education, it’s important to keep close track of your child’s progress and their school experience. While schools genuinely care about their students, sometimes they make decisions that make things easier for them, rather than acting in a student’s best interest. If you listen to your gut and know your rights, you can prevent some of these decisions from derailing your child’s education. Read on to learn more about some common traps to avoid with the school.

Some of these situations relate to services described in a child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan). If your child does not have one, read more about the IEP and special education.

Common traps to avoid:

The school is giving your child work that’s below grade level

“The work we are doing is just too hard. I don’t want her to feel bad!” 

If a child is struggling with reading or math, teachers may give them easier work and leave it at that. They may say they don’t want the child to feel bad, or the child simply can’t do the grade-level work.

All students should be striving to do grade-level work, even if they need special teaching strategies or services like working with a speech or occupational therapist. It may be necessary to give easier work at times while they are catching up on basic skills, but the goal should be to do the grade-level work with the support.

If the teacher says, “The work we are doing is just too hard. I don’t want her to feel bad!”, you can push back. Say, “What kind of support can you give to help her get through the grade-level work?” or “Let’s find out why she’s struggling. Maybe it’s time for a special ed evaluation.”

U.S. schools already have a problem keeping kids at grade level. Among 4th graders in 2022, 67% are behind in reading and 64% are behind in math. (We define “behind” as not scoring “proficient” levels in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP). And the longer a student is behind, the harder it is to catch up. 

Students need to make steady progress each month in order to stay at grade level. If your child spends months doing below-grade-level work instead of getting support to do the harder work, they can get far behind pretty quickly. Insist on the support your child needs to show steady improvement.

The school keeps sending your child home or suspending them for “acting up”

“Please come pick him up now. There’s nothing we can do.” 

Children’s behavior in school is often misunderstood. As a result, students with disabilities may get punished for acting up, when what they really need is more support.

Schools sometimes send a child home in the middle of the day or suspend them because of their behavior, when the behavior is actually because their disability-related needs are not being met. When a student is sent home or suspended frequently, they miss critical class time. This will likely leave them even more behind and make it harder to catch up academically. 

Legal experts suggest that you do not agree to let the school send your child home unless the school is suspending them. This holds the school accountable, since there are legal limits to how many times per year they can suspend a child with a disability. Sometimes the school may call it a “therapeutic dismissal” to make it sound official but not count it as a suspension. 

If your child is getting suspended frequently, you have to help the school understand the reasons behind the behavior and push them to address those reasons instead of suspending your child constantly. 

The school may say, “There’s nothing we can do here. You must take your child home.” Here’s what you might say back:

  • “I am not picking up my child unless you are suspending them.”
  • “I’m sorry but you are required by law to educate my child.”
  • “If behavior is a problem, we need to look at the reasons behind it and add some supports.”

If your child is acting up, the answer is to explore the reasons and address those reasons.  Missing class time will only make things worse. This is a great time to ask for your child’s IEP team to meet (remember: you don’t have to wait for your annual meeting).

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LA:

See these resources for Louisiana students and families:

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The school asks you to waive your right to the 3-year evaluation

“I don’t think it’s necessary. Everything is the same.” 

If your child has an IEP, the school must do a full re-evaluation every 3 years. This is to see if your child’s needs have changed and to make sure they are still getting the right services and accommodations

This is required by law. But sometimes schools ask parents to sign a waiver, which lets them skip the re-evaluation. Do not sign this until you think carefully. 

The school may say that your child’s needs have not changed and there’s no need to put them through the hassle of doing the evaluation again. But it’s almost always in your child’s best interest to do the re-evaluation. 

If the school tries to get you to waive your right to do it, do not agree right away! Only agree if you are very confident your child’s needs have not changed at all. The best way to really know is to do the re-evaluation. (Read more about why the 3-year re-evaluation is important.)

Your child’s services are limited because of the school’s needs, not your child’s

“We can’t schedule a speech therapist at the right times twice a week, so we’ll say once a week.” 

When setting up an IEP, the services should respond to your child’s needs, not the school’s convenience. You must be sure that your child is getting all the kinds of services they need, and getting them often enough to make progress.

Sometimes a school will suggest fewer or less frequent services than a child really needs. They may say it’s because of “scheduling problems” or “staffing limitations”.

“Related Services” in the IEP refers to services like Speech Therapy, OT (Occupational Therapy), or specialized reading support. These are usually done one-on-one with your child and a specialist, but sometimes they are done in pairs or small groups. They require specialists who may be hard to find. You should push for what you think is best for your child. However, it’s important to balance your child’s needs for these services with their need to be in the general education classroom. (Both are important!)

What you can do:

  • If you don’t agree with decisions about services, including how often and how long for each session, question the reasons and make your case
  • Stand your ground if you think the suggested IEP services are not enough. But also consider the value in having your child spend more time in small groups or with the whole class
  • Use the evaluation report or ongoing school assessments to give proof that your child may need more services
  • Talk directly with the professionals who did the evaluation and the therapists who have worked with your child

Your child’s needs should drive the services written into the IEP, not the school’s schedule or convenience! 

Now that you know about some of the common traps in special education, you can be prepared. And if you spot one, speak up. With some work and advocacy, you and your child’s IEP team should be able to create a plan that leads to what everyone wants: successful outcomes for your child.

Learn more:

Check out our page: Special Education Hub

Where you will find links to more articles on this topic.

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