Parents of special education children need guidance, support

Parents need the training to become partners in educating children with special needs, a preschool special education teacher writes.

SHARE Parents of special education children need guidance, support
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Nationally, more students are qualifying for special education services every year, including nearly 48,000 In Chicago Public Schools.

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Eric, Sarah’s 4-year-old son, has autism. At Sarah’s first IEP meeting at Eric’s elementary school, the case manager across the table asked if she had any questions. Confused about the process and the technical language being thrown around — even the term IEP, Individualized Education Program, which refers to a plan for a special needs child’s learning, is intimidating — Sarah said nothing.

After an hour of listening about everything her son could not yet do, she left feeling overwhelmed, holding the 40-page IEP the case manager gave her. Sarah is not alone; she is one of the many parents I have worked with in my nine years as a special education teacher in Chicago.

Nationally, more students are qualifying for special education services every year. In Chicago Public Schools, 47,965 students have IEPs and 504s (a formal plan for students with disabilities) as of the 2022-23 school year. This means that over 15% of our students’ parents or guardians attend a yearly IEP meeting at their child’s school. In my school, diverse learners like Eric make up 13% of our enrollment.

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As a preschool special education teacher, I have attended countless special education eligibility meetings at which parents hear “Your child has a disability” for the first time. Imagine yourself as that parent and what it feels like. Worse, after pronouncing the diagnosis, different experts in the room immediately started reviewing the results of their evaluations, including information on the child’s strengths, deficits, and goals for the upcoming school year. I saw the confusion on parents’ faces. Explaining the various sections of an IEP in an hour-long meeting is nearly impossible. Most parents leave the room feeling like Sarah: overwhelmed, unsure of what to do, and unsupported by their schools.

We cannot talk about diverse learners like Eric without talking about parents like Sarah. She and other parents are responsible for advocating for their child’s evaluation. They are crucial members of Eric’s special education team and need to be able to understand everything in that 40-page document, so they can raise concerns and advocate for Eric’s evaluation and the services he needs.

Empowering parents to become advocates

This is why I and other preschool teachers at my school created an initiative called Parents as Partners, to educate parents of diverse learners on the policies and procedures most relevant to them and to empower them to have their voices heard about their children’s education. We hold quarterly meetings with parents, on subjects such as the sections of the IEP, the referral and evaluation process, and the multiple services diverse learners may need (speech, occupational therapy, etc). We also talk about different organizations in Chicago that support diverse learners, how to support their children during major transitions (summer break, starting a new school year, new teachers, etc.), and systems to implement at home to maintain consistency of language and routines for the child.

The good news is that CPS is on board with our thinking. The Office of Diverse Learners and Support has Parent Support Specialists who provide workshops, trainings, and advocacy support to families of diverse learners. Families can contact one of the four Parent Support Specialists directly to receive support.

Parents as Partnersis a low lift for our school, with a minimum cost to start and implement. Yet, it has a tremendous impact on families. The sense of community created through our meetings is invaluable. As parents share their experiences, challenges, and joys, together we are building a support network to de-stigmatize and normalize the diverse experiences of raising special needs children like Eric. This shared understanding is a powerful motivator for parents at my school, fostering resilience and a positive mindset.

This school year, Sarah went into Eric’s yearly IEP meeting knowing how to navigate the sections of the IEP and what questions to ask team members. When she was told that her son did not qualify for a specific service, she asked probing questions, showed work samples, and used language from the Special Education Parent Guide that the Illinois State Board of Education created. Sarah was able to get the service provider to retest Eric. She left the meeting feeling like a valued member of her son’s team.

Not only was her voice heard, but it was finally respected. That is what Sarah, Eric, and all our families need.

Haley Ford is a preschool special education teacher at LaSalle II Magnet School. She is a 2015 Chicago Teach for America alum and a 2023-2024 Teach Plus Early Childhood Education Policy fellow in Illinois.

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