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Your Child's Education: Fully Customizable

For many parents, choosing the educational path for their child is a simple task. We live in neighborhoods with quality schools, meet with teachers for conferences and do our best to keep up with the new strategies used to teach math or writing.

Families with children receiving special education services know there is a lot more to it than that, and the more we know about the options available to us, the better schooling our children will get. Adopting a passive attitude will not bring the best result.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act makes it clear that all children are entitled to the best education available. More specifically, the concept of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is in place to ensure that, to “the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … are educated with children who are not disabled.”

There are many possible settings for your child’s education, from being integrated with students in a general education classroom all day to highly segregated, in which schooling takes place in a special care facility specific to the needs of your child.

Depending on the disability, many support services can take place right in the general education classroom. For example, the presence of an aide might be enough to help your child stay on task. The aide could also offer minimal support during instruction time, helping the student re-read directions, breaking tasks into smaller steps or taking notes for the student and helping them organize their materials. The aide might be in the classroom for as little as 45 minutes a day or the entire day, depending on the needs of the child.

If your child requires more specific instruction, a special education teacher might be placed in the general education classroom to “co-teach.” This is different from having an aide in the class, because the special education teacher (sometimes called an Itinerant Specialist) will modify how the material is presented and adapt the information or assignments to meet the specific needs of the student. While the general education teacher is the content expert, the special education teacher is the strategy expert.

Another possibility is that a student may leave the general education classroom during designated times, reporting to a “resource room.” Resource rooms are used to teach the same information as the general education students but are helpful when the student needing special services can benefit from smaller groups or individual instruction without the disruptions of general education classrooms. The student should not miss any academic instruction that is occurring in the general education classroom, because they are receiving instruction parallel to their peers. In the best-case scenario, the special education and general education teacher plan together to coordinate instruction. For example, if a specific novel is being taught and your child is pulled out to the resource room during language arts, your child will study the same novel – including vocabulary, plot points and themes – as the children studying the novel in the general education classroom. They are simply taught in a smaller group, with more support or different instruction than they might otherwise receive. If the student receiving services has severe reading or math deficiencies, parallel teaching might not be in the best interest of the student. Instead, they might pursue skills needed to help close the gap between their academic ability and the grade-level expectation.

Another option is that students may receive instruction in a special education classroom, with a special education teacher, but in a school with “typical” students. The class size may vary according to the needs of each student but will be smaller than those in the general education classroom. Depending on the disability, students may eat lunch with their peers, partake in specials such as gym or art classes or take electives with their typical counterparts. The amount of time students with special needs spend with their peers is determined by the needs of the student. It may be that students socialize only with their general education peers at lunch, recess, or school-wide events such as assemblies or dances.

Moving to a more restrictive environment, another option for educating students with special needs is placement in a special day school. This allows multiple schools to share resources. Day schools are environments on a different campus from a general education school and are used for students who have more severe needs that cannot be met in a typical school. Students attending a day school still live at home, unlike a residential school. According to expert Spencer Salend, these schools offer “comprehensive medical and psychological services students might need.”

On the extreme scale, some students may still be educated in hospitals or institutions. While this placement still exists, institutional schooling should be considered only as a short-term option, and while it might be necessary for some students, the emphasis should be placed on moving the student to a less restrictive environment as soon as possible.

One more restrictive option is homebound instruction. In this case, students are usually recovering from illness or surgery. Teachers may come to the home and provide instruction there. Like institutional schooling, the goal is to make this as short-term as possible.
With so many options, it can be overwhelming, especially when the needs of your child may constantly be changing.

Cindy Miller, a parent of a child with special needs, teaches special education in the Arlington School District and believes the Least Restrictive Environment is critical to ensure the correct placement for your child. “As a parent, I have always wanted what would best meet my child’s needs emotionally, physically and intellectually in just about that order,” she says. “I looked at LRE as a way to protect my son from environments that I felt were too overwhelming or too stimulating for him. In those instances, my request was that he receive adaptive PE and music therapy, which would be more beneficial and better able to address his goals and objectives.”

As an educator, however, Miller is careful when determining the Least Restrictive Environment for a student. She talks with parents to determine what their goals are for their child, both now and in the future. She warns parents that students who are engaged in special education courses may not end up with the same credits as their non-disabled peers, resulting in a different diploma. “If the student is college-bound, this can cause issues with admission or disqualify them for admission to a college at all,” Miller says.

Miller also reminds parents that although it is tempting to have an aide spend the day with our students with special needs, it isn’t always in the child’s best interest. The hope is that our students with special needs gain more independence, and if an aide is constantly with them, this might not happen.

As students grow older, their needs may change, and with this, the Least Restrictive Environment will change as well. While parents can view this as disruptive, Spencer Salend reminds teachers and parents that this is a good thing. To move from a highly segregated environment to one that more resembles those of their nondisabled peers means the student is evolving in one or more area. At the same time, some students that may not be having success in a mainstream classroom might do better in a more restrictive setting.

Becky Hughes is a mother who had to make this difficult decision yet knows it is the right one for her daughter Sarah. She remembers sitting in her daughter’s sixth-grade ARD (Admission, Review and Dismissal) meeting with a group of teachers, as well as the district special education coordinator, and hearing their recommendation to put Sarah on the pre-vocational track. It would mean changing schools, as her junior high school did not offer these services.

As any mother of a child with special needs can attest, hearing that your child’s needs are not being met is devastating. Learning that Sarah might need to change schools tested Becky’s resolve, and while she understood the teachers wanted what was best for her daughter, Hughes needed time to adjust. Sarah had been looking forward to attending the same school as her older sister, but this decision would mean changing junior high schools to one that offered different courses that could meet her needs.

Before making the decision, Becky requested to see a pre-vocational class. The special education coordinator arranged for a visitation the very next day. The experience couldn’t have gone better. The teacher greeted Sarah and her mother at the door and spoke with Sarah as she gave a tour of the classroom. Comforted by the compassion and excitement various staff members showed her daughter, Hughes became cautiously optimistic.

When Sarah heard about the end-of-year trip to Hurricane Harbor, she made up her mind that this was the school for her. Hughes needed more time to think, though after much discussion, the Hughes family decided this alternative placement was in Sarah’s best interest. The decision itself would change the course of their daughter’s education plan, and as Miller mentioned, it could mean limited college and career opportunities. The potential consequences were put in black and white when Becky was required to sign a form stating that she and her husband understood that the diploma Sarah would receive would not be “normal.” Hughes cried, because she felt “This was the death of my dream for the future I saw for her.”

More than a year later, however, Becky is happy to report that Sarah is doing well. “What I thought was the death of a dream was really an unforeseen curve in the road, but not the death,” she says. “Sarah feels accepted by her peers; the district is working with the local community college to have some college courses – she can and will get a job that our joyful girl will find joy in when the time comes. We are all glad that we went this route now, but it was an emotional journey getting here. I do believe that we made the right choice.”

So what should you as a parent do for your child’s education? Ask questions. Research. There are no easy answers in education, but if your child is receiving special education services, decisions should not be taken lightly. As Hughes learned, the long-term outcome of decisions made even in elementary school will have lasting effects.

Miller sums it up this way: “You as the parent are the consumer, even of an educational career for your child. Your job as a parent is to get involved, find out what supports are in place for your child and investigate what the Least Restrictive Environment looks like for your child.” Ask questions, she adds – and follow the progress of your child’s IEP. If no progress is being made, find out why. If there don’t seem to be challenges, ask why. Is your child in the right program? What else is available?

“You don’t get any do-overs for your child and their school career,” Miller says. “Make this one count by being the most informed about your child’s Least Restrictive Environment.”