GETTING EXTRA HELP IN SCHOOL: A SOMETIMES CHALLENGING TASK
by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.
David is an eight year old third grader in the local public school. From the very start, the new school year echoes the previous few years of difficulty. David finds it hard to sit in his seat without getting up to move around the classroom to get a drink of water, sharpen pencils, get an extra book, check in the coat room, or just pass by another student – give him a playful poke, say something, “mess with someone”. Even sitting down, he is in almost constant motion in his chair, blurting out comments both on-topic and off-topic, frequently annoying his seatmates. Slight noises in the room, or objects always there, and other students’ behavior distract him. Many assignments are incomplete. Homework is often forgotten entirely, or if done, not turned in; if turned in, it is often mangled, folded, crumpled, and hardly legible coming out of a backpack that looks like a war zone. The storage area in his desk is a similar mess. While all subjects can be problematic, Spelling and writing are particularly troubling. His only saving grace is being outdoors for recess, lunch, and PE, where his athletic ability, abundant energy, and sociability have enough space and freedom for expression in positive ways.
When David’s parents inquire at school about his difficulties and what help might be available, they find the following responses: “Oh….he’s a boy. Boys develop more slowly. He just needs more time.” Or, “He’s an active kid. He’ll outgrow it.” Or more recently as expectations have begun to intensify in school, “He’s lacking motivation. If he tried harder, he’d work up to his potential.”
Lisa is a soft-spoken 11 year old sixth grader. Well-behaved in school, she is well-liked by her peers and shows particular talent in various artistic mediums: drawing, painting, working with clay, sewing, baking/cooking, hands-on projects of all kinds. Academically, her work is somewhat above average, but seems less than her parents and other adults would expect, given her motivation, effort, homework completion, and the quality of her verbal expression. Reading has always been a challenge, more so as she has advanced further in school. Longer assignments, more independent reading, and more literary material are frustrating, though she labors through them with acceptable results. She does not read on her own at all for pleasure.
Conferences at school about Lisa produce comments such as: “She’s such a delight to have in class. Very well behaved.” Or, “Creative. Verbal contributions are sharp.” Or, “Math is good. Science projects are excellent. Reading is OK – a bit weaker.”
Both sets of parents have a nagging feeling – more obvious in David’s case – that their child is not performing up to potential. Both parents worry that the future looks problematic: for David in that his behavior is already of concern as are his work habits; for Lisa in that as reading material becomes more challenging in junior and senior high, she may really begin to struggle. When they ask about additional help in school, the above staff comments are intensified by,
“You don’t want your child labeled, do you? If we try to qualify the child for additional services, they have to be tested and then diagnosed as learning disabled, severely emotionally disturbed, or ‘other health impaired’ (which covers ADHD). Do you want them to be singled out, embarrassed by an evaluation, and then labeled in this negative way?”
Parents like these, made very uneasy by these assertions and not-so-veiled threatening negative comments, often back off from pursuing more help inside the school system. They may seek tutoring after-school, but without a thorough evaluation to determine more carefully what the issues are for their child.
Federal law however protects such children and ensures more help. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975 (PL 94-142), guarantees every child an appropriate education to meet his or her needs in the least restrictive environment possible. Simply put, each child deserves an educational program suited to his/her needs, in a program as close to a regular (“mainstream”) setting as possible.
The procedures to follow are somewhat complicated and formal, perhaps, but very doable:
- Parents submit a request in writing that their child be evaluated to determine their eligibility for special education services. This request should go to the school principal and to the district’s central office for student services, guidance, counseling (or some similar name). If you call the central district office, they can inform you of the proper name for their district and give you a mailing address to either mail the request to, or take it in person. Keep a copy of all correspondence, of course.
- An evaluation plan should be developed and an assessment conducted by school personnel within 50 school days, or less. Parents should be informed of this plan and the schedule for the evaluation.
- A written summary of the evaluation results is formulated and then presented at a “team meeting” with administrators, teachers, and examiners matching that student’s needs. At this meeting with the parents present, the child’s eligibility for services is considered. If the child is determined to be eligible for services, a plan for such services is put in place. Specific services and/or accommodations are identified, goals developed for this child, and a follow-up meeting set up to evaluate the child’s progress. Follow-up meetings are usually about one year later.
There are three kinds of difficulties that qualify a child for additional help. There are very specific guidelines for each, which can be briefly summarized as:
- Severely emotionally disturbed. If we put aside the troubling label for a moment, this translates into psychological, emotional, behavioral, or social difficulties that interfere with a student’s academic performance, social interactions, or relationship with adults in the school setting. Anxiety, depression, anger, self-damaging behavior, or behavior that is potentially risky for others illustrate this. The child’s educational progress is impacted. Focusing on the specifics makes this less threatening to consider than the generalized label.
- Learning Disabilities. This involves difficulties with basic learning areas, such as reading, math, spelling, or writing due to some ways in which the student’s brain does not process information or function adequately. When there is a significant difference between a child’s higher intellectual ability and lower academic functioning, a specific processing difficulty may be identified.
- Other Health Impaired. A health issue that is significant enough to impact a child’s school functioning may include ADHD, Speech and Language difficulties (aphasia, stuttering, lack of language development for example), or developmental delays ( Autism).
Once a child is determined to qualify for additional services, there are two ways to plan this:
- An Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) includes all the above information, goes on to specify what special services the child will receive (per week usually), provided by what specific staff member(s), and targeted towards what goals. Progress will be measured regularly and then reviewed towards the end of each school year usually, so that programming can be planned for the next year. Every three years a more comprehensive review and re-evaluation (usually involving more testing) is done to more fully consider the child’s needs.
- 504 Accommodations. This is a briefer evaluation and plan, with more minor adjustments within the child’s existing classroom and program, such as seating in a particular place, extended time for tests or assignments, shorter assignments, technology assistance (perhaps a word processor instead of handwritten work), close monitoring of completion of work, and other modifications. This is more likely to be offered by the school for ADHD. While it does simplify the process and the ongoing efforts, it also lacks a more thorough evaluation of a child’s strengths and weaknesses as in an IEP, which may mean that some difficulties will be only partially helped.
If Lisa’s or David’s parents in the examples above are politely, but firmly insistent about an evaluation, the school must at least consider their request, conduct some kind of evaluation, and consider the child’s needs. This is dictated by law. The generosity with which this is done, how comprehensive the effort is, as well as how much special assistance is offered depends a great deal on each school administrator and school district. Some districts, which are more fully funded and more progressive in their educational programs, are more generous than others.
Dr. Alan M. Solomon is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Solomon can be reached at (310) 539-2772, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2017 by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.