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Julie Mower is Executive Director of The Phoenix Center, an accredited non-profit, private school that serves nearly 140 students ages 5-21 with autism, multiple disabilities, behavioral and intellectual disabilities from roughly 60 districts in eight New Jersey counties..
By the time a child reaches an age where they are ready to start school, parents will have learned a great deal about their little one. During those early years, parents may notice that their child socializes, learns, or communicates differently than others. It is around this time that parents may ask, “Does my child need to attend a special needs school?” For many parents, this question alone can be a complex one, never mind the choice to then select which school to attend. But to help parents address the first and most important question, try these tips.
Establish a Relationship with a Pediatrician
A strong doctor-child relationship will be the building block for a healthy life. Not only will this medical professional look after the health of your child via regular check-ups, this person will also be able to refer you to the right person who can perform an evaluation, if needed. Your local school district is a great resource and can facilitate a variety of evaluations that may be applicable to best understand your child’s special needs.
Ask Questions During an Evaluation
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), children are entitled to a free evaluation, provided by your local school district to diagnose potential disabilities and then have the right to receive special services and assistance in school. Note that the school must receive a parent’s written consent before evaluating a child. During that process, do not be afraid to ask concrete questions: if a diagnosis has been identified, what does it mean? How does it impact a child’s growth and development? What services does the school offer that are tailored to your child’s needs? If they do not offer the services needed, you could be best served having a meeting with the district officials responsible for out-of-district placements.
Read Through Your IEP
After undergoing an evaluation, parents will be given their child’s results for review and will meet with a team of educators to discuss options and recommendations. If your child qualifies for special education, an IEP, which stands for Individualized Education Plan will be developed. This is a written and legal document that includes specific goals, objectives, accommodations and equipment needed to meet a child’s specific needs.
Speak with Your School’s Case Manager
If your child is evaluated and qualifies for special education services, your school district will assign your child to what is often referred to as a ‘case manager’. This individual is an educator who will assist you in navigating the process and help you determine if your child’s IEP can be met within the school district, or if the level, frequency, complexity or modalities that would best serve your child need to be acquired outside the district for what is called an ‘’out-of-district placement.’’ Should this be the decision and your child is sent to a placement outside of your school district, your child will receive their educational and related services during the school day, free of cost to the parent, also known as free and appropriate public education (FAPE), under IDEA.
Speak with Other Parents In Your Shoes
As helpful as doctors and educational professionals are, sometimes more anecdotal accounts from parents of children with special needs can be just as valuable. Talk with other parents in your local community. If you are visiting out-of-district schools, ask if they can connect you to other parents that you can talk to about their experiences. What do they enjoy about the school? How has it served their child? Starting to form a supportive, like-minded community can be just as important as gaining answers to your burning questions.
Find a School with Transition Services
A school who serves students with special needs schools won’t just be hubs of academic learning and related services; they will also equip students with the social and life skills needed to succeed outside the classroom. This includes transition services, which help involve students in their community and gives them hands-on experiences so they can go on to lead employed, full, and healthy lives.