By: Celine DeMeyer
Associate Editor, Rainbow Visions Magazine
Parents may learn of it in a phone call or conference: “Your child is having difficulties in the classroom.” Her grades are slipping. She’s acting out. She’s not paying attention, or she often seems upset.
Regardless of the reason, it is apparent that something has changed. It turns out that an injury to her head is having an effect long after the visible bumps and bruises have healed. Her doctors confirm that she has sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and her teachers recommend she be evaluated for special education services.
What is special education? What kind of support does it offer? Who will watch out for the child? A flurry of questions is followed by an avalanche of information. Many parents understandably feel dazed by the whole situation.
Although the federal and state special education rules are complex, they needn’t be overwhelming. Knowing what to expect and how to navigate the system will help to ensure the best possible education for the child.
What is special education?
By definition, special education is “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique educational needs of the student with a disability and to develop the student’s maximum potential.” (MARSE, 2013)
Special education provisions are detailed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that ensures services to children from infancy to age 21. Individual states may offer services in addition to IDEA. For instance, Michigan maintains special education services to age 26, well beyond the federal mandate (MARSE, 2013).
Since traumatic brain injury is one of the designated disabilities within IDEA, special education services must be offered for free by any public agency that provides education services.
What are special education services? They may include speech therapy, counseling sessions or simply extra time to complete assignments. Services are customized to the needs of the child. The educational goals and accommodations will be outlined in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) covered later in the story.
Sometimes, students who do not qualify for special education services through the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA), may qualify for accommodations under a 504 plan. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.
The process of obtaining a 504 plan is similar to an IEP. Parents, teachers, adult-aged students and some others can request a review for Section 504 eligibility determination. A 504 committee, like the IEP team, meets to determine the student’s needs and available accommodations, such as extra breaks or extra time for tests (Section 504).
Unlike an IEP, the Section 504 plan does not include goals and objectives and does not need to be reviewed every year (Section 504). It also doesn’t cover many of the services that are available under IDEA.
Evaluating a child for special education services
Behavior changes, academic difficulties, inability to focus, social problems—any of these could mean that evaluation for special education services is warranted. In such cases, parents or school personnel may request an evaluation for the child. If the school recommends testing, they will request parent permission before going forward. Once the evaluation is complete, the parents are invited to join a Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) that determines if the child is eligible for special education services (MARSE, 2013).
If the MET determines that the child is eligible, the school will then schedule an IEP team meeting to define the educational goals for the child and the services necessary to achieve them. Many individuals are invited to the meeting including the parents, the child’s teacher, a school administrator, a special education professional, a member of the testing team and an advocate for the child if requested by the family. If appropriate, the child may also be invited to the meeting.
The group will discuss the child’s needs, long-term and short-term goals, and the services reommended to help him or her be successful. A variety of individual or group services may be identified and outlined. Accommodations such as extra time to travel from class to class, or the use of assistive devices may also be specified. These services and accommodations will be outlined in the IEP and implemented unless the parents object. The parents may take a copy of the IEP home to review before signing (MARSE, 2013).
Following the plan
Once the IEP is signed, it is considered a legal document, and all of the services outlined must be provided. The IEP is reviewed every 12 months, or earlier, if either the parent or the school believes that it is not serving the interests of the child. Every three years, the student is re-evaluated to determine if they are still eligible for special education services (MARSE, 2013).
Parents play a vital role in ensuring that the services specified in the IEP are provided. Communicating frequently with their child’s special education team is a great way to accomplish this. Parents can also help by educating the school staff about TBI, especially as it relates to their own child’s situation. The effects of TBI may not be commonly known, even among professionals.
Education advocacy at Rainbow
Sue Finney is a school liaison and divisional director for Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers. She administers tutoring and after-school programs to support the educational goals of Rainbow’s student population. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Eastern Michigan University and has worked in the field of traumatic brain injury since 1992.
In speaking with Sue, it is evident that she wants the best possible education for the children in Rainbow’s care, and she has been instrumental in helping many of our clients reach graduation. She loves to see students succeed and flashes a wide smile as she talks about a girl who was the first person in her family to attend prom and to earn a diploma. “It was so nice to see; to watch her walk across the stage,” she remarked.
Sue attends IEP meetings as an advocate for our pediatric residential clients and their parents who often find the IEP process intimidating. “Some parents don’t understand the system. Sometimes they are far removed—her son is here (a residential client at Rainbow) and Mom is at home dealing with the rest of her life. It’s hard to find your voice as a parent, to speak up, to be able to say, (in an IEP meeting), ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘No, that’s not right’ or ‘I disagree.’ I try to help them to do that when they come to the meeting.”[/two_third]
2013 Update. Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education. Retrieved from http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/2013_OSE_Update_430438_7.pdf
Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (MARSE). (2013). General Provisions. Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education. Retrieved from http://michigan.gov/documents/mde/MARSE_Supplemented_with_IDEA_Regs_379598_7.pdf
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 | ADAAA & Section 504. (2014, May). National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.ncld.org/disability-advocacy/learn-ld-laws/adaaa-section-504/section-504-rehabilitation-act-1973