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Advocating for your child: Getting Kids Through the School System

Published on: September 24, 2013

Advocating for your child with learning disabilitiesI knew my now 8-year-old daughter, Annie, had learning issues before she started kindergarten at a Seattle-area Catholic school. And even though I expected Annie’s teacher to pull me aside and voice her concerns, when the moment arrived, I felt overwhelming angst.

I couldn’t stop myself from crying as we discussed how my daughter wasn’t learning the way the other children in her class were. This unavoidable emotional outpouring was my first lesson in how difficult it is to be an advocate for your child.

Perhaps you don’t have a diagnosis yet — but you suspect your child may have a learning disorder, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD or Asperger’s.

If your early-elementary-school-age child needs help learning within a classroom setting, you need to understand that you have a new job, says Seattle parent Susan Denning, whose daughter has dyslexia and mild ADHD. “You are a mom of a kid with learning difficulties.”

Whether you suspect your child needs special services, or if a teacher recently approached you to voice his or her concerns, these tips will help you advocate for your diverse learner.


In public schools, the district uses a testing process to determine if a student qualifies for special education services. Ask your child’s teacher to help you file an application to find out if your child qualifies for testing.

If the teacher doesn’t see a need for testing but you do, write a letter to the school district about your concerns. Make this step easier by using the form letter called “Request for IDEA and 504 Evaluations” in the free handbook Basic Education Rights and Opportunities in Public Schools, which you’ll find on the Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman website. Your pediatrician can test for ADHD or Asperger’s.

Children who attend private schools can qualify for free special education screening at local public schools. If private-school children qualify for services, they can attend private school and still receive special education services at an area public school.

Private testing

Getting your child tested privately will provide more information than results from public school testing, says David Kipnis, director of the learning center at the Hamlin Robinson School, an independent school in Seattle that offers a program for students with dyslexia and related language difficulties. “You will learn more about the diagnosis, as well as about your child’s specific weaknesses and strengths,” he says.

Private testing also offers more data about how your child is processing information, which will help you make decisions regarding schools, education and tutoring, Kipnis says.

Free testing services at the University of Washington’s school psychology program offers an alternative to private testing, which costs an average of $2,500. Graduate students in the program administer tests and explain the results.

Talking to professionals

Learning how to talk to the people who are on your child’s team takes practice. Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., a Harvard neuropsychologist, recommends that parents say, “I want you to know from the outset that I value all the professionals working in my child’s life.”

Bring a friend to important meetings, suggests professional advocate Kelly Warner-King, director of Synapse Learning Solutions. Choose someone who is less emotionally invested in the situation and ask this person to take notes.

Listen to the professionals. “You want to know what their perspective is of your child. Say, ‘Tell me how you experience her,’” says Schultz. “Concerned parents may feel compelled to fill up the time giving their perception of the child, but it is important to understand the other adults’ perceptions of your child.”

Be sure you talk about your main concerns for your child. “Put it on the table, whatever it is,” says Warner-King.

Dealing with your emotions

The early elementary school years are a good time to grow your support system. “I had to give up the image I had in my mind of the normal learner: just like the kids who sailed through school like I did,” says Denning. “I had to accept the reality she [her daughter] and I learn very differently, and we are going to have to take a different route to success.”

When the worry floods your mind, ease your anxiety by learning as much as you can about your child’s issues and taking action. For Denning, finding a good tutor for her daughter helped her accept her child’s learning disabilities: “The magic happens every time we go to tutoring,” she says.

Professional journalist Nancy Schatz Alton is co-author of two holistic health care guides. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two elementary-school-age daughters. Find her blog about learning difficulties here.

How to Talk to your Child

Living with a child with a learning disability means fielding hard-to-answer questions: “Why do I have to go to tutoring?” “Why do I have to learn to read?” “Why is math easier for everyone else?” It would be nice to have an on-call specialist to guide your replies. Here are the best tips culled from experts in the special education field.

Think of your child’s learning disability in terms of explanation instead of an excuse, says clinical neuropsychologist Jerome Schultz, Ph.D. Explain that your child’s brain works differently than those of people who don’t share their disabilities. “When a child has a better understanding of what makes learning difficult, he is less likely to think that he’s deficient or stupid,” says Schultz.

“More importantly, teach them there is a way around it and through it: ‘You are going to tutoring because she teaches you how to use your brain to be more successful.’”

“I like to approach it from the angle that people are different in all different kinds of ways: height, size, skin color, cultural aspects, and learning styles and the way you process information,” says David Kipnis, director of the learning center at the Hamlin Robinson School.

Most of all, experts encourage finding activities that your child excels at and enjoys, whether that means singing, playing soccer, swimming with a friend, or just hanging out and enjoying family time.

Terms You Should Know

IEP: An individualized education plan (IEP) is the formal accommodation plan for special education students. Even if your child attends a private school, a plan may be created (although it might not be called an IEP).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) is the federal law that give kids with disabilities access to special education.

The IEP describes the learning goals for your child, how progress will be measured and how the school will help meet these goals. Services provided by an IEP could include tutoring sessions in or out of the classroom, social classes, speech services and occupational or physical therapy. For example, Seattle parent Shane Gabriel says her 7-year-old son’s IEP includes a twice-a-week, 30-minute social behavior class; allows him to chew gum or place a bouncy cushion on his chair if he feels antsy; and offers additional services that help her son focus in the classroom.

504: A 504 plan falls under a different set of federal rules and casts a wider net, says Kelly Warner-King, a professional advocate for children and their families. If your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP, he or she may qualify for a 504 plan, which offers special accommodations for students who have a disability that affects a “major life activity.” Learning is considered a major life activity. “A 504 plan can help if a student is in a wheelchair, needs extra time to take a test or has mental health issues,” says Warner-King.

Ombudsman: If you need extra help navigating the special education landscape, talk with an ombudsman at the Office of the Education Ombudsman (OEO). It’s an ombudsman’s job to understand education laws and explain them to you. The OEO’s publications Web page is an excellent source for information and contains free downloadable guides on how to advocate for your child. Warner-King also recommends Wrightslaw for valuable information on special education advocacy.

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