Trying to learn how to navigate the special education system and how to advocate for your child with special needs? Learn from our mom blogger Jenay’s experience. And remember, you’re not alone in this.
I am a full-grown woman—quite the imposing figure at 6-feet tall, I can fall asleep with the light off, walk under a ladder and once, I even let my kids play with a slime-maker kit—unattended.
I fear no man.
And yet, even with this impressive resume of daring feats of adulting, three little letters can send me shaking in my size-12 boots.
A. R. D.
For those of us not familiar, ARD stands for admission, review and dismissal—the meeting of teachers, administrators and parents to determine student eligibility for special education services at school, and how to accommodate or modify the curriculum to serve the student in the classroom setting.
And for those of us who are familiar, just seeing those three letters probably struck a twinge of fear deep in their hearts, or at the very least, sent a shiver up their spines.
Because although I’ve found myself in numerous scary or anxiety-inducing situations, nothing, and I mean nothing, has caused me more mental trauma than my experience advocating for my child with special needs in school.
When I had my son, I was in my 20s. He was my first, and in the womb he had no markers or indications of Down syndrome that he would later be diagnosed with when he was 5-days-old.
I remember thinking about the what-if scenarios that I eventually discovered don’t really matter. Now that I have four kids—and a little parenting under my belt—I realize we will never know what to expect when it comes to what our kids will do, or who they will be.
We make mistakes and try our best, and then our kids turn out to be completely frustrating and simultaneously way better humans than we could ever be given credit for.
I’ve also learned that all children have unique needs. They go through phases, stages and individual growth. But the time my son’s differences actually become “special” is at school.
I mistakenly thought this part would be easy. I thought the school would work with me to come up with what “success” looks like for him, and measure him against that standard. If he excels, we change our standards. If he struggles, we tighten in to meet him where he is.
If only. The A in ARD stands for admission. Did you realize a child with Down syndrome has to re-qualify for special education services every year?
Sure, not every child with a certain diagnosis is going to need the same accommodations, and it’s important to evaluate what services (if any) are needed. But once that has been established, it’s not like his Down syndrome is going to go away.
Yet every year I have to sit through hours of meetings where it feels like the entire staff of the building has gathered to read me a list of how many ways my kid will never truly “measure up” to some impossible standard.
That’s not exactly what happens. But ask any parent who’s been through the process and I’ll bet they tell you, that is how it feels.
And round and round we go—making sure all the I’s are dotted on the permanent record of his academic inabilities.
Since the R in ARD stands for review, I suggest that while the district is reviewing your kid, take the time to review your rights.
And a perfunctory read of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not good enough for all circumstances. Learn from my experience—just because the IDEA says that a child cannot be denied services, doesn’t mean that it holds up under scrutiny. Also, just because your neighbor’s child with the same diagnosis is receiving services doesn’t necessarily mean your kid will even be offered those services.
In order for your child to get the education he or she deserves, you will have to get an education you never wanted—and it is only provided by the School of the Hard Knocks. Take notes, create a paper trail, know your rights, attend the meetings, read the minutes, meet your candidates and vote.
Parenting isn’t for the faint of heart, and you need every tool available to advocate for your child.
You will have doors slammed in your face (figuratively for sure, but maybe literally as well). You will be told “No.” Never forget, the D in ARD stands for dismissal. So you will need to be prepared to be dismissed. And you also need to be prepared not to take “no” for an answer.
This is your kid. No one cares about him or her as much as you. If you know your kid needs assistance at school—whether it is considered too small or too large an issue by the school—you are the one responsible to make sure your child gets the assistance they need.
If I could give you three main points of advice, it would be this:
Don’t be scared. I know I mentioned the fear I experience in the face of my own ARD meetings, but it is important to approach these as professionally and unemotionally as you can. Don’t get pushed into something because you don’t understand or don’t want to cause problems. Ask questions, and be sure to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.
Put your child first. While this feels personal, it is about your kid, not you. Once you are able to see your child as an individual you will be better able to understand what is best for them–even if it isn’t what you wanted. Make sure you are truly fighting for your child’s needs and not for your own pride.
Get help. If you can afford it, I highly recommend hiring an advocate or attorney to help you and attend your meetings. If your specific needs don’t rise to this level, or if you can’t afford the cost of retainer fees, there are many free resources you can use. Check out the special education resources from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), and when you have a disagreement with your ARD team, learn how to navigate the dispute process.
It takes a village to raise a child, though many of us feel isolated and don’t know who to turn to for support. But we are out here, and connecting virtually is easier than ever before. Together, we can support each other and get our kids the education they need.
I am a proud, fearless member of your village. You can do this.
Jenay Sherman is a Christian, wife, and mother to four boys in McKinney, Texas. She was selected as the 2017 Texas Mother of the Year, loves writing about their family adventures, and she is a best-selling author of young adult fantasy books. You can follow along on Scary Mommy, or on her personal site, 4 Amusing Muses.
Image courtesy of iStock.