If you’re a special needs parent, you know how important it is to advocate for your child’s needs at the start of each school year. You probably already know that the partnership relationships you form with teachers and administrators in the fall will form the foundation of your child’s success throughout the year. Whether you’re gearing up for homeschool, distance learning, in-person classes, or some combination of the three, now is the time to take another look at your child’s IEP/504 and to ensure that your child’s entire support team-—including you—is aligned on expectations regarding academics, behavior, and teacher-parent communication.
What new accommodations need to be made to best support your child in this new environment? What old accommodations are irrelevant or impossible during COVID? How will you partner with the school staff to identify and address problems and celebrate successes? How can the school support you as a parent, and how can your parenting support the school? Below are a few tips and things to think about as you prepare for the start of the new year.
- Now more than ever, your child’s success requires a proactive stance. Don’t wait until school starts to come up with a plan, or the district might have already implemented concrete processes that are very difficult or impossible to change.
- Create a document that lists your child’s strengths and weaknesses, how these have impacted her academic performance in the past (both at home and at school), and how you predict they will impact her performance in her new learning environment. Include any current accommodations, and re-assess the needs they are addressing in light of COVID. Be as specific and concrete as possible. The school’s staff should have already read the existing documentation, but that’s not always the case—think of this as a cheat sheet to get everyone back up to speed.
- Schedule a pre-school meeting with your IEP/504 team, and don’t be afraid to track them down via email or phone if you’re told they’re not available until school starts. Talk openly about your expectations, questions, and concerns. You don’t need to walk into—or out of—the meeting with all the answers. However, it is important that.everyone on your child’s team is on the same page and following the same game-plan, even when that means acknowledging that some concerns remain unaddressed and that some answers will unfold over time.
- Develop a good communication plan. As the parent, you should be forewarned of any changes to your child’s schedule, curriculum, or physical surroundings. Set up frequent check-ins with her teacher and IEP/504 team and talk about the best way to keep you informed so that you can better prepare and socialize these changes at home.
- If your child is physically returning to school, request a tour of the building before her first day so you can start prepping her. Pay attention to changes in the classroom and the location of bathrooms. If possible, have her teacher accompany you on the tour.
- Accept that any existing plans and accommodations will probably need to change—in fact the whole idea of “success” or “optimal performance” might need to change, especially for special needs children. You and/or your child’s teachers may not be able to evaluate certain things remotely, like how well she’s able to focus in class or on Zoom, so be willing to exchange observations and insights with school staff and to adjust your goals as needed.
- Schedule frequent check-ins with your child’s teacher to discuss what’s working and what needs to change. Make sure to give each plan of action enough time to tell if it’s truly working, and agree on what the markers of success are and what will cause the plan to shift. (“We are agreeing now that we will all start the year by trying Plan A. If my daughter meets this Goal by this Date, then we will all continue Plan A. If not, then within one week we will all switch to try Plan B.”)
- Consider novel solutions to old problems. There may be cases in which your school simply can’t support your child to the same, pre-COVID level. Be open to bringing in outside coaches or tutors, and don’t hesitate to reach out to other parents for advice. (Need some advice? Check out our new caregiver coaching service!)
- Remember, you are part of the educational team now—you’ve spent a lot of valuable time with your child in quarantine, and you have unique insight into her that no one else has. You have a voice and a vote in these decisions.
- Also remember that your special relationship with your child means that your child may respond differently to teachers and peers than to parents and siblings—for better or for worse! This is normal, especially after everyone in your household has all been through an intense spring and summer together. Be emotionally prepared to observe these differences in behavior, and try not to take them personally. Acknowledge what you observe, share it with the team, and maintain your focus on identifying your child’s needs and on partnering effectively with the school to ensure those needs are met.
- Don’t shy away from sharing your experiences and talking to your team about any specific strategies or solutions that have worked for you—and what hasn’t worked. At the same time, be honest when you don’t have an answer. You don’t always have to.
- Keep in mind that districts and teachers are struggling with how to manage COVID, too. Give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they all care about your child’s success and doing their jobs well.
- That being said, teachers and admins are definitely overwhelmed. Approach things with a spirit of collaboration, but remember things will slip through the cracks and you will have to be tenacious.