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A Q&A with LDA CEO, attorney, and parent Cindy Cipoletti

If you suspect your child has a learning disability, what should your first steps be?

This would depend on how old your child is. When you first suspect that they might have a learning disability, the earlier a child is identified and gets the appropriate intervention, then the more successful they can be, and the better they’re going to be able to do in school. 

So if your child is already enrolled in school, and you suspect they may have a learning disability, the first step would be to request in writing an evaluation from the school. If your child has not yet enrolled in school, if they’re in preschool or it’s before they start kindergarten, then I would tell parents to discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. And look into some early screening options. There are a lot of new early screening options popping up and some can even be done online now too.

Get a sample of a written request for an evaluation here.

What rights to parents have when requesting an evaluation?

Parents have the right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, to request an evaluation of their child, which the law provides should be performed within 60 days of that request. A lot of states have their own timelines, so generally the schools will follow whatever the state mandated timeline is. There’s also no cost. Part of the law is that you are entitled to have your child evaluated for a learning disability and there is no cost to the family.

What should parents do if they don’t agree with the child’s evaluation?

Parents can request an independent educational evaluation for their child if they don’t agree with what the school’s evaluation says, and they can request that the school pay for that individual or independent education evaluation (IEE), but you’ll have to show why that’s necessary. And the school might disagree with you and decline to pay for it. 

But as a parent, you can always have an independent evaluation done and pay for it yourself, though they can be quite pricey. But if you really feel that the evaluation is wrong, or inaccurate,  you can definitely take that route. The school has to consider the independent education evaluation, but it doesn’t have to accept the results or recommendation. The IEE will become part of your child’s educational record, but again, the school doesn’t necessarily have to accept the results.

What’s the difference between an IEP and 504 Plan?

There are two different federal laws that apply here. So the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is a federal education law requiring school districts to offer a free appropriate public education. You may have heard that referred to as FAPE for students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. So that’s one law, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a different law. That’s a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. So those are the two different laws that we’re talking about when we talk about the difference between an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and a 504 plan. 

So when we’re talking about IDEA and the IEP, if a child is determined to be eligible for special education services, under the IDEA he or she will be offered an IEP. There are 13 disability categories under the IDEA, and a student must have one of those disabilities, and that disability must affect their educational performance in order for them to qualify for an IEP. The IEP lays out a program of special education instruction, so it’s really a roadmap. It sets forth supports and related services that the child needs to make progress and thrive in school. It’s a very detailed plan, it contains goals, measurable outcomes, details of modified instruction and timelines for those measurable outcomes. So that’s the IEP, and again, the IDEA is the law that the IEP falls under. 

A 504 plan, which again refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is a different method for students with disabilities to get the supports that they need. It’s like a blueprint for how the school can provide support and remove barriers for a student with a disability. Unlike an IEP, there’s no standard 504 plan. And Section 504 has a broader definition of disability than the IDEA, so sometimes students who may not qualify under IDEA for an IEP can actually get the support and accommodations they need through a 504 plan.

How should parents prepare for an IEP meeting?

If you are new to IEPs and you’re about to go into your child’s first IEP meeting, write down your specific concerns for your child. Because when you get into that meeting, you may think that you’ll remember what you want to say, but it can be overwhelming. Even as someone who is an attorney, and I would consider myself fairly educated in this area, I was intimidated going into my first IEP meeting. You tend to forget what you want to say. So write down your specific concerns, list challenges that your child is struggling with in school, and write down anything else that you really want to make sure that you communicate and don’t forget. 

I would request that the school provide you with any evaluations and proposed goals or objectives prior to the meeting. Bring a notebook, something to write with, and any evaluations that you may have had done outside of the school. 

And be prepared for the meeting to be a little bit emotional and stressful, especially if it’s your first one. It can be really difficult to discuss your child’s challenges and to hear about them from other people, some of whom you may not know. So don’t be surprised to go into your first, second, or third IEP meeting, and come out feeling a little emotional and a little stressed, or a lot emotional and a lot stressed. That’s really normal. 

And don’t be afraid to ask questions or voice your opinions. It can be intimidating and feel like everybody else in the meeting knows more than you about the processes and terminology, but don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Or if somebody uses a term that is unfamiliar to you, don’t feel that you can’t ask what that means. Make sure you ask, that’s the time to do it. 

And know that you don’t have to sign the IEP at that meeting. If you feel like you need some time to process it or talk it over with your family, know that you don’t need to sign that IEP right there. Special education services won’t start until that IEP is signed, but if you need a couple days, make sure you do that, and make sure you take that time for yourself.

Who will be at the IEP meeting?

There will be a bit of a difference from state to state on this, but generally speaking the student is always allowed to be at the meeting. But it’s the parent’s decision on whether they think it’s beneficial for your student to be at that meeting or not. 

A parent or guardian is required to be at the meeting, and a general education teacher is required to be at the meeting. They may or may not be your child’s teacher, that role may just vary depending on the school district. The special education teacher is required to be at the meeting, a representative from the school or the local education agency is required to be there, and someone who can interpret evaluation results, like a school psychologist or speech pathologist, or another special education teacher, will be there.  

And then anyone else that is invited by the parent or guardian is also able to be there. So if you have an advocate or a case manager or someone else that you want to be a part of that meeting to either be a support to you or you think can offer valuable input on your child, that person can be there as well.

What is the parent’s role in an IEP meeting?

I would say that the parent role is the most important role in that meeting. Whether you’re a parent or the primary caregiver of that child, you know your child better than anyone else, and you’re going to be able to provide the most input on your child struggles, on their strengths, on their weaknesses, where they’re succeeding, where they’re failing, and how they’ll respond to certain approaches. 

Your role as a parent or caregiver is to make sure you provide the team with all the information about your child that you think needs to be considered in the development of their IEP. And again, if the team is using words and phrases you don’t understand, ask questions. I would err on the side of over-communicating, just to make sure that everyone knows exactly what they need to know.

How often are IEP meetings? And when can you expect your child to get a new IEP?

If your child already receives special education services, the school typically must reevaluate at least every three years. The school has to have your consent to do new testing, but not necessarily to review the existing data on your child. You can request a reevaluation more often than that, but not more than once a year, generally. And especially if, after two years, you feel like they really need to have this reevaluated because the goals  aren’t pertinent any more, then definitely, definitely request a reevaluation.

What should you do if you feel your child’s IEP is ineffective?

The first thing you should do is request a reevaluation. Offer documentation or examples of how the goals of the IEP aren’t being met, aren’t relevant, or aren’t applicable anymore. Like I said before, you can always have an independent evaluation done. 

Many disputes can be resolved just by talking through the disagreements or discrepancies, and I always advise parents to try to resolve any kind of disagreement amicably. Rarely is taking an adversarial approach the most effective way to resolve a dispute. However, if you aren’t able to resolve things through conversations in meetings, which unfortunately happens, you do have a legal remedy under the IDEA called due process. Due process starts when you file a written complaint against the school. After you file the complaint, you and the school will attend what’s called, generally, a resolution session, which is a meeting where both sides try to reach an agreement before going any further. 

And the school may agree to waive that meeting and try mediation, like bringing in a kind of a mediator or a third party to try and reach a resolution. 

This might be a situation where a parent should hire an attorney or an advocate if you get to this point. Under IDEA you can file a due process complaint for a dispute related to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a child with a disability, or the provision of a free appropriate public education. So if you feel that’s the case for your child, then due process is the avenue that you would take to make sure that your child’s needs are being met.