5 Things to Do Now to Help Your Struggling Student (PLUS 3 Mistakes to Avoid!)
Updated: Jan 16
"Ask the Advocate" is our forum to bring you answers to questions that are timely and important to families of students with disabilities. I will ask Lorraine Hightower, Dyslexia Advocate & Consultant, your top questions and bring her answers to YOU!
The effects of almost two years of virtual or hybrid learning are beginning to come to light this year, as children adjust to in-person learning again. Many parents are watching their children struggle in school and are not sure what to do to help them. What are the top 5 things parents can do now to help their children?
1. Schedule a Parent-Teacher Conference
Reaching out to your child’s teacher is the best first step. As the person who spends 6 hours a day with your child, they can often lend insight into your child's strengths and needs, as well as the way that their disability may be manifesting itself in the classroom. Teachers can provide valuable work samples and progress information that can be used to document your child’s needs. They can also give anecdotal reports of your child’s behavior and frustration levels when doing work that is difficult for them. If your child already has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place, their case manager can provide progress reports that show how your child is progressing towards each of their IEP goals. Having this information from teachers is critical when advocating for your child, as it is always important to have both informal and formal data to help support your concerns.
You can also use this time to share your concerns with the teacher. You may want to share what you are seeing at home, and what you know works for your child. By having an open discussion about your child, you can build a partnership with your child’s teacher and, hopefully, work together to help your child be more successful in school.
While a conference is a good first step, if your child has a disability or you suspect your child has a disability, do not stop here! Children with disabilities require an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to identify, remediate, and accommodate their unique needs. Getting an IEP in place for your child begins with a referral for special education services.
2. Make a Referral or Schedule an IEP Meeting
If you suspect your child has a disability, begin the special education process right away. It takes months for the school to evaluate your child, so you do not want to waste any precious time. In the case of children with dyslexia, they require a very specific methodology of instruction. The longer you wait to begin the eligibility process, the longer it will take to begin that instruction, and your child risks falling farther behind.
The formal process begins with making a referral. I recommend parents write a letter requesting an evaluation and consideration for special education services.
In that letter, you’ll want to outline your child’s struggles, any information you have to support these academic or behavioral skills as suspected areas of need, and the impact these struggles are having on your child in the classroom. Attach this formal letter to an email to the special education designee in your school; often that is a member of the administrative team such as the Special Education Dean or Assistant Principal.
If your child already has an IEP and is still struggling to make progress, I recommend that you reconvene your child’s IEP team. You can still request a Data Review meeting at any time. You do not have to wait until your child’s annual IEP meeting to review your child’s progress or to amend your child’s IEP if necessary.
3. Request Additional Assessments
School teams should make decisions for your child based on data. Parents often say they “just know” that their child has a disability, or they have a “gut feeling” that a particular service is not working for their child. While I encourage parents to trust that instinct, I also recommend that they seek the assessments and data necessary to prove to the school team that their concerns are valid. Assessments can confirm that your child is not meeting grade-level expectations within your areas of concern. Conversely, they can also prove that your child is meeting grade-level expectations and can put your mind at ease.
Speak to your child’s team about the concerns you have and ask how the school can help gather data about your concerns. For example, in the areas of decoding and spelling skills, your school can do a CORE Phonics Survey or a Wilson Assessment of Decoding and Encoding (WADE) with your child. In some cases, the school team will know what ‘quick checks’ they can offer and can help you figure out what assessments are right for your child.
If your child does not have an IEP and therefore is not assigned a case manager or school team, you will want to start with that referral for special education services and request the evaluation we mentioned above. When the school conducts an evaluation, it is a comprehensive educational, psychological, and socio-cultural assessment. This is a crucial starting point necessary for gathering information about your child’s unique needs.
4. Consider Additional Services and Supports
Children without an IEP who are in the process of determining eligibility for special education services may also receive interventions. These interventions are informal but may help your child until the eligibility process is complete and a formal education plan can be put in place.
I urge parents not to wait to see if these informal services or accommodations “work” before submitting your request for evaluation. If your child is found to have a disability, they will most likely need a formal plan to ensure that they receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Informal interventions are not guaranteed by IDEA and can be removed at any time by the school. The majority of children with dyslexia will need individualized services and accommodations protected with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). You can learn more about students' right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education that is individualized to their unique needs at the US Department of Education site.
If your child already has an IEP, reconvene your child’s team to discuss if revisions are necessary for their current services or what supplemental support your child may need. I am finding that some clients have had to add services or accommodations to their child’s IEP to help them adjust back to in-person learning. If there is an issue that is affecting your child’s performance in school, whether it be emotional, medical, or academic, the school may be able to provide additional services and support to help your child.
5. Consider Working With an Advocate
If you feel like you are not being heard by your child’s school team, or are having difficulty having your child found eligible for special education services, you may want to consider working with a professional advocate. Advocates fully understand the special education process and can often represent the family in school meetings. I recommend finding an advocate who specializes in your child’s disability. These specialized advocates can help you navigate the special education system as well as develop an educational plan that fits your child’s needs.
For example, I am an educational advocate who specializes in serving families of students with dyslexia. That means that not only am I an expert in the special education system but am also a Certified Dyslexia Advocate. My expertise in both areas allows me to fully serve and educate families of children with dyslexia.
My team and I work with families in two ways. I provide personal advocacy services so that parents “Don’t Go It Alone” when advocating for their child. This service includes a deep dive into your child’s educational profile to understand their needs, ‘behind the scenes’ meetings with parents to answer all questions, our expert recommendations for an appropriate learning plan, and meeting representation to
be sure that the plan is implemented and effective. We also provide The Dyslexia Advocacy Advantage group coaching program where I teach participants how to use the signature framework I use every day with my private clients. Participants learn how to understand their child’s needs and how to create an educational plan that will result in real progress. We meet live twice weekly to support our course participants as they apply that framework to their own children. This allows parents to advocate for their child year after year, and have professional advocacy advice at an affordable price.
Educational advocates work at very different price points and have very different levels of training and expertise. I encourage parents to research and interview potential advocates to fully understand their qualifications and area of expertise to ensure that the advocate will be able to provide the services your family needs. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPPA) provides a list of advocates that you can search to find advocates near you.
To supplement this blog, my team and I also present a LIVE Facebook Series, called Ask the Advocate LIVE. In the next episode, we will focus on the topics in this blog and answer your questions in real time on Facebook. This is a complimentary service I like to offer to the community. If you have any questions about this blog, or anything else special education or dyslexia related, I hope that you will join us!
(If you can't make it live, you can submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer them live on the air. You can then watch the replay here on our website.)
What are common mistakes you believe parents make when they do decide to take action?
1. Parents often do not fully understand their child’s disability.
Parents often do not fully understand their child’s disability and its effects in the classroom. For instance, dyslexia is a language processing disorder that affects children’s ability to read and spell. However, it can show up in other ways too. Students with dyslexia often have difficulty sequencing events when retelling a story. They might struggle with a music class because they cannot read the sheet music. Their disability can show up in math class when they are unable to copy problems correctly and recall math facts. When parents fully understand their child’s disability, they feel empowered and can speak to its effects on their child’s performance in school.
2. Parents do not understand how to gather and interpret data that speaks to their child’s disability
Parents are also at a disadvantage if they don’t know how to gather and interpret data that speaks to their child’s disability. As I mentioned above, there are specific assessments schools can provide to determine present levels or progress in specific academic skills. You will want to work with your child’s school to help you get the assessments necessary based on your child’s needs. Then you will need to interpret those results. This can be very overwhelming to parents, but I encourage you to take the time to look at the assessment scores and compare them with norms for your child’s grade level. You can often find the ranges or norms of performance for the assessments given to your child online. You may also ask the team to provide you with the information they use to determine if your child's performance is on grade level. Do not take for granted that the school has interpreted the data correctly.
Gathering and interpreting information is so important that we spend two weeks learning about data in our group coaching program, The Dyslexia Advocacy Advantage. We provide our participants with score charts to determine percentiles as well as the national norms for many of the assessments given to individuals struggling with reading and spelling. We also provide an Action Plan to help you organize all of the data in one easy-to-understand document. If your child has dyslexia, or you suspect they do, we provide the tools and support parents need to understand their c