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Your Local School District

For children with disabilities age three and older, special services are provided through local school districts. First Signs recommends that parents:

  • Start the transition process into your local school district early, at 30 months of age
  • Take notes of all communications with school personnel
  • Seek independent evaluations
  • Talk to other parents
  • Do your research and ask questions
  • Remember the two P’s — be positive and persistent

The same public law that provides for Early Intervention for children under the age of three, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), extends a range of services for children with disabilities age three and above. This law ensures that every child receives a “Free Appropriate Public Education.” Services are provided through the local school district, and may vary considerably from state to state, and even from one school district to another. Please visit the Department of Education’s IDEA Web site for detailed information.

Working with your local school district, rather than Early Intervention, has both opportunities and challenges. Often, a child will receive services in a neighborhood school, which can include your child with typically-developing peers in the context of the community. Many school districts have extensive experience, committed teachers and administrators, and a dedication to meeting the unique needs of your child. Others, however, struggle with the challenges of public education in the U.S. today -- poor funding, a rising student population, a decreasing pool of talented teachers, and other burdens of a bureaucratic system.

When working with your local school district:

  • Start early. Contact the local school district when your child reaches 30 months of age. Even if you are receiving services through Early Intervention, be advised that in most states, they will stop on the day of your child’s third birthday. School districts often take months to observe, evaluate, and make recommendations for your child. Keep in mind that public schools keep different hours and have different staffing during the summer months. Start the process as early as possible, as your child’s first placement is particularly important.
  • Take notes. It is best to record the names, phone numbers, details and dates of all conversations with school personnel. This will help you to remember appointments and other important information, such as the mutually agreed upon details of your child’s placement. In doing so, you will be able to closely monitor the progress on developing an appropriate educational program.
  • Seek outside evaluations. While your school district will often conduct evaluations on everything from development, self-care, speech, and motor skills, it is good practice to have an outside opinion in order to be able to make the best decisions for your child. In some cases, a school district may use evaluators who have no direct experience with developmental disorders, or may have a conflict of interest when evaluating your child. See Specialists for more information on getting an evaluation.
  • Talk to other parents. Contact the local Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), parent-to-parent group, or a disability society to see if you can talk to another parent in your district. You may benefit from their experience, and their support, as you begin to navigate the educational system. A wealth of information and can be found on-line, including bulletin boards and Web sites. For more information, please see Resources.
  • Do your research and ask questions. Prepare yourself for the process by becoming a parent expert: know the terminology, the treatments, and the territory. If you don’t understand why a school district has made a recommendation, ask. If you don’t agree with an evaluation, request an outside evaluation. If an out-of-district placement is recommended by a clinician, pursue it. The more knowledgeable you are, the more effective you can be for your child.
  • Remember the two P’s: be positive and persistent. In most cases, schools are working with limited resources. If you remain clear, positive, and persistent, you may be able to work as a team with your local school district. A path of cooperation is always preferable to conflict, especially given the time and expense involved. However, if a program is proposed that does not meet the child’s needs, or is contrary to clinical opinion, you may need to pursue other means. In addition to hiring an advocate or lawyer, you may also contact the special education director for your district or state. In some states, the Department of Education has a special office dedicated to dispute resolution for parents and schools.

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Last update: 03/13/14
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