Educate yourself to help your child

Short stuff: EducationIf you are a parent of a school-aged child with disabilities, learning to navigate the educational system can leave you feeling like you just moved to a foreign country with its own language, customs and laws.IEPs, Section 504, flex teams—what does it all mean and which one is best for your child? It all comes down to knowing what’s available and what is required by law, says Charlotte Des Jardins, executive director of the Family Resource Center on Disabilities.

Here are some basics you will need to know, but realize it is only the beginning.


An IEP is an individualized education program, a plan carefully orchestrated to help a specific child with disabilities overcome his unique educational challenges. The IEP process and all of its requirements fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975. Not all children with special needs require an IEP and a request for evaluation must be made before the process can be started.

The request usually comes from the parent, though it may be the teacher who makes the need known. Once a request is made, the school determines whether or not an evaluation is warranted. If an evaluation is approved, the child will be observed and often given tests. If the child is found eligible for an IEP, a team is formed to determine what services, accommodations and modifications will be needed to help the child succeed. The school must follow the written plan that is created. If the school does not feel a child needs an IEP but the parent does, the parent can appeal.

However, Des Jardins says,"Parents may want to consider avenues less intrusive and consider other options before going to IEP. You can always go from less to more once you’ve started with the process.”

Flex team

Some schools, like Meadow View Elementary in Plainfield, become proactive even before IEPs come into the picture.

If they have a child (with or without a disability) struggling academically or with behavior, with the consent of the parent, they will set up a flex team. Teams are made up of four to five grade level teachers and peers who meet regularly to talk about the challenges and needs of specific students, then work with the classroom teacher to help the student.

Section 504

If your child’s needs fall somewhere between a flex team and an IEP, he may qualify for a Section 504 plan. A Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. With a Section 504, the child’s disability is taken into account and a plan including accommodations and modifications is made. The procedural criteria a school must meet is less stringent than with an IEP.


Experts suggest parents do their homework and know their and their children’s rights. Do that by surfing the Web, talking to other parents of children with disabilities and knowing the terms, your rights and your child’s specific needs before you meet with the school.

Don’t assume help will be given to your child and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The Family Resource Center on Disabilities in Chicago offers free special education rights training seminars every month, including one in Spanish. For more information on dates, times and location, call (312) 939-3513 or go to

Ateacher to knowJim Price is a retired teacher and principal specializing in children with behavioral disorders. He is a winner of the Kohl International Teaching Award.

Best tip for parents

“Play dates, parent-child play groups, preschool attendance—all can be highly valuable for young children. Equally important is having enough time‘just to hang’ with a parent or other favorite adult. Those times offer endless opportunities for teaching and learning some of life’s most important lessons. During my early years, I was never taught to use a hammer, saw, nails, drill, etc. My learning began just by‘hanging’ with my dad and helping when he was working around the house. I was not taught to cook. I learned many things by‘hanging’ in the kitchen during meal preparation, grabbing a taste (usually with approval) and sometimes helping. Mainly, though, I learned the importance of people helping, encouraging and respecting one another. I learned what I lived. I encourage you to read (or re-read) Dorothy Louise Law’s poem,"Children Learn What They Live.” And when you think about your child’s weekly schedule, ask yourself if it’s balanced with enough time to be with family.”

A teacher’s thought:

“… Recent research suggests that life satisfaction is closely tied to one’s sense of gratitude. That sense is acquired by what a child lives, by the examples of the significant adults in a child’s life. Of course, the capacity to be grateful is girded by basic values, such as tolerance, patience, forgiveness, fairness and compassion. Those values are passed amongst us in countless daily interactions; they are not taught in a formal way. Adults need to be self-aware. Children see and listen and learn, more often when we are unaware of them than when we consciously teach them. We want future generations to live successfully in their communities and their world. We set the example.”

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