Parents usually suspect that their child has a learning problem, but they don’t always know what to do about it. They often begin by scheduling a conversation with their child’s teacher. Unfortunately, school personnel frequently say that students are doing fine or perhaps that they just need more time to develop. This creates a dilemma for parents; should they override the advice and possibly upset the teacher or just wait and see what happens? Parents want to trust that school professionals know best.
The problem is that many times children aren’t doing fine and waiting and seeing rarely has a positive outcome. People don’t grow out of learning disabilities. In fact, the sooner the problem is addressed, the easier it is to help students catch up to their peers.
If you suspect a learning problem, it is generally advisable to have your child evaluated. Sometimes parents worry that professionals will label their child and that the label will then become part of the permanent record. While it is true that labels can “stick,” it is also true that confirming what you already suspect, hearing the words spelled out for you, can be a tremendous relief. Parents have told me that many times over the years. Now at last the problems can be addressed with correct school placement, instruction, or accommodations—and sometimes all of these!
You might begin by requesting that school district personnel conduct educational and psychological evaluations, or you could have independent evaluators do it. Either way, consider the results and recommendations with a critical eye. Do they support what you’ve been thinking? Does the report suggest detailed ways to help? If the answer to these questions is yes, then that’s terrific! You’re all set. Congratulations for doing this for your child.
But maybe after all the waiting and preparation, the testing and report, you find that what you’re reading or being told is a complete surprise. Does it seem too good to be true? Can all the difficulties you’ve noticed really just be in your imagination? There are two possibilities here. On the one hand, perhaps you’ve exaggerated the school difficulties and everything is okay after all. In that case, you can take a breath and relax. But conversely, maybe the evaluator hasn’t dug deeply enough. While hearing that all is well might make you feel better in the short term, it will be small comfort if the problems persist or get worse. I’m so sorry if this is what happened, but it is not uncommon. Sadly, those are often the kinds of cases that are referred to me.
So what is a parent to do? The best advice I can give is that if the first opinion doesn’t adequately address your concerns or answer all your questions, ask for a second opinion—an independent evaluation. Then get recommendations from people whom you trust, preferably professionals with experience serving children with learning differences. And carefully research the credentials and experience of the person you choose. Just as in any field, the strengths of evaluators vary. Good luck on this journey to help your child.
Sometimes I wish we could eliminate special education. Every child has strengths and weaknesses, and the goal of education is to meet all of their learning needs; it seems unnecessary to place some students in a separate category that requires more “special” education than others. The problem with that logic is that before we had special education, before Public Law 94-142—the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA])—was passed in 1975, more than a million children with disabilities were completely excluded from the education system, and many more had only partial access. The Federal Government did not require schools to include children with disabilities, so children that schools deemed uneducable could not attend public schools. Some families were able to send their children to specialized private schools and other children were institutionalized. A great many others had no option but to stay home. Those who were enrolled in public schools were generally either placed in regular classrooms without accommodations or segregated in special classes.
P.L. 94-142 guaranteed a free and appropriate education for all children—with due process protection—and that was a big deal. Moreover, the law stipulated that children who received special education services had to be placed in the “least restrictive environment” so they could be educated with other children as much as possible, and states were required to provide a continuum of such placements—a range of placements from the regular education classroom to hospitals or institutions.
But P.L. 94-142 was first implemented over 40 years ago. Do we still need it? Unfortunately we do. If all students were placed in the least restrictive environment, receiving instruction that was appropriate to meet their needs, parents would not ask me to conduct independent evaluations. They would not require due process hearings to settle disputes. And it would not be necessary to attend team meetings in which outside experts like me advocate for better placements and services.
I would truly like to believe that all children can receive the kind of education that helps them reach their potential without the need for legislation—that we can manage without IDEA. Perhaps we’ll get there someday, but we’re just not there yet.
Dr. Andrea Winokur Kotula is an educational consultant for families, advocates, attorneys, schools, and hospitals. She has conducted hundreds of comprehensive educational evaluations for children, adolescents, and adults.