Written by a National Board Certified Teacher who worked at the elementary level for ten years
In the ten years I worked for a public school district in Washington state, I learned how some families were getting more from their public education than others. I wish every child and family received everything they needed, but that’s unfortunately not how it works. Here are some tips from my time as a teacher.
1: Teachers love your children
We got into teaching because we wanted to change the world. We wanted to empower the next generation and we knew we wouldn’t get rich doing it. Many of us didn’t know how many barriers there would be in this endeavor. Unions are structured in a way that pit us against administrators, government policies tie our hands in helping kids, and lack of funding gives us overloaded classes and responsibilities. The bottom line is that teachers want what’s best for kids, and we are on your side.
2: School resources are stretched to the max
Schools are in a real crisis. Let’s take kids who need help with speech for example. The free speech therapy offered by your child’s school is minimal. The speech teacher is wonderful and highly qualified, but there are too many kids on her caseload. She doesn’t have the opportunity to check on your child to see if he is practicing what she taught him in the classroom. Her tight schedule can’t ensure that he doesn’t miss an important lesson during his therapy time, and the actual therapy time with her is quite brief.
The classroom teacher may or may not make up the material that he missed. There are just too many kids coming and going throughout the day, and there are too many kids in her classroom overall. I have so many more stories about kids who need a challenge as well as those who need extra help but are falling through the cracks due to funding.
3: Laws passed at the state level effect your child individually
There are many laws that tie educators hands from helping children in need. For example, children who speak a language other than English cannot have certain sounds corrected with speech therapy. Children who have and IEP will receive no grades in related content areas on their progress report because that data is confidential. All children are tested (progress monitoring) about every six weeks starting in kindergarten to ensure that all children are ready for the standardized test in third grade. These examples are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ridiculous policies that tie up funding is ways that doesn’t help the children who need it. There are so many more situations I could describe where schools know what’s best for a kiddo, but the law dictates another approach.
4: Sometimes qualifying for support services has side effects
When your child qualifies for ELL, or special ed, enrichment, gifted, or speech, it usually means that a highly qualified instructor will be working with your child in a smaller group or one-on-one environment. This is great, but there are some things to consider. When an overloaded classroom teacher sees that the child will be receiving math from the special ed teacher, it means that your child is off her caseload for that subject. This can bring subtle, nuanced changes in your child’s ability to fit into the classroom community. There could be days when your child leaves the classroom during the usual math block but instead the class is having a party. Another example is that there’s an assembly during her time with the special ed teacher and so your child sits with her instead of the rest of the class. These types of differences become more noticeable as kids get older. At the elementary level, it’s up to you to advocate for your child in these situations.
5: In Middle School there are more precautions
Another issue might be in middle school, where she won’t have as many electives as her peers because these services take the place of her electives.
Yet another issue is that the curriculum in math in special ed is completely different form the curriculum taught in the mainstream classroom. It isn’t intended to help your daughter catch up with her peers, it’s intended to help her learn in the way she learns best, so there’s little hope of returning to the mainstream classroom for math instruction in the coming years. In my ten years of teaching I saw one child considered to return to the mainstream classroom.
6: Advocating for your child makes a HUGE difference
This I’m not saying that special education is bad! Support services are there for a good reason! It’s important, though, that parents know they have a say in what is done, when, and how. Parents who advocate for their children receive 110% better services, services that actually meet children’s individual needs. You as a parent know what those needs are very well, and it’s okay to be a little pushy to help the school listen and understand.
7: Double check that schools are following through on the support they promise to your child
If the school is telling you that your child receives gifted enrichment in the classroom alongside her peers, double check that it’s actually happening. No one is intentionally lying to you, but educators are extremely overwhelmed. Offer your support to the teacher and help ensure all of the student’s needs are met. As a teacher, I was so touched by one parent whose child was quite needy, but the parent also researched grants that I could get to support all of the learners in my classroom.
8: You have a say in your children’s education
There IS a limit to what parents can and can’t do, and there are limits to volunteer responsibilities. However, if there is something that is negatively effecting your child, you can say something. You should say something! Chances are, your child isn’t the only one effected. I had a dad complain about the snack time in my class because of his son’s low blood sugar, and I saw a huge improvement in the whole class when I made a change. There was a student with behavior issues who wasn’t allowed to take the gifted test, and because of his mother’s advocating, all children in her district who qualified for support in behavior were allowed to take the gifted test! I had a parent ask that their child never had recess withheld, and I found out that it’s better for ALL kids to always go to recess!!! In fact, I learned more about my students, by watching them interact on the playground than I ever did from any standardized test.
9: There is help outside of the district
If you are having trouble navigating school policies, acronyms, and getting your child’s needs met, you are not alone. Contact your school’s PTSA for the subgroup for special needs children, or a non-profit organization like Washington Autism Alliance and Advocacy for help with your specific situation.
I hope this helps you out! If you have more questions or need resources, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.