For some parents, being an advocate for your child in school for services and accommodations can sometimes seem like a daunting challenge. Often we defer to the teacher and school because we see them as the experts when it comes to knowing how to teach a child, and by extension, understand how a child learns. Most teachers do in fact understand how to teach typical children. However when a child has a learning difference, diagnosed or not, some teachers may not have the depth or breadth of knowledge required to understand how that child learns. Strapped for time in preparing materials to meet the needs of the typical learners in the class, teachers may not be able to prepare materials that will meet the needs of the child with an auditory processing deficit, or they may not have knowledge of the various methods to teach a child with visual-spatial deficits, for example.
We as parents want the school to be able to handle all of our children, whether they learn in typical or atypical ways. There are many school districts that take the initiative to identify students who may have a learning disability, but obtaining resources for atypical learners may be challenging for parents since funding for services is often limited. In spite of their desires, school districts often are not able to respond to parents’ queries or requests in a timely manner. This is where the old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” becomes true. Make it a mantra. Parents must be persistent, and armed with knowledge of their rights, and the rights of their children to appropriate services and accommodations for learning disabilities. A great list of these steps to become an effective advocate can be found at: https://cap4kids.org/philadelphia/files/download/ELCGoodAdvocvate.pdf.
Many times parents will secure the services of specialists to assist with the process of obtaining an appropriate Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan, to attend meetings at the school and to be another advocate for the child, to offer another perspective on a student’s needs, and to advise and support parents through the process. Specialists can include: the person who did the assessment of the child, if it was done privately, an educational or learning specialist, or a psychologist.
Often the question of which is better, an IEP or a 504 Plan, arises. Though they may be similar in specifying what specific services and accommodations a student will receive, there are important differences. Eligibility for an IEP requires that students have a diagnosed learning disability, such as dyslexia, a writing disorder, or dyscalculia, for example. The 504 Plan covers children who have physical or emotional disabilities, or who have an impairment that restricts “one or more major life activities.” Any condition which impacts major life activity can include: performing manual tasks, visual, hearing, walking, or speaking impairments, or attention deficits.
Knowledge of your rights as a parent, as well as your child’s rights in school is essential. Asking questions of your child’s teacher, principal, school district student services director, and other parents who have been through this process is an excellent place to start.