Advice for Navigating Through Special Education


special education

Having been a classroom teacher, school administrator, and mother to a child with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), I know what a child’s rights are when it comes to their education.  I know what all of those acronyms are (FERPA, LRE, IEP, SL, OHI). I know what accommodations and modifications are.  I know the responsibility the school has to a child. And more importantly, I know how and when to ask for help.  But if you have no understanding of the world of special education (especially in the 21st century) then you are at a disadvantage.  

There are many things that as a parent, we do not want to hear, and for me, it was “Your daughter qualifies for our autism preschool program.”  Fifteen years ago, there was even less known about autism, especially how it affected girls. Even though that hit me like a punch in the gut, I knew that early intervention was key and I knew having an IEP would save us heartache and grief down the road as she was faced with standardized testing, middle school, transitioning to high school, and college (yes you can have an IEP in college). 

As moms, we are always talking about our gut instinct and to trust it.  So if you feel at any time in your child’s school career that there is something interfering with their ability to access the curriculum, speak up! Talk to your child’s teacher for their thoughts and ideas. If you are not satisfied or see no progress after a certain amount of time then take it to the next level. Put in writing your concerns and your desire to have your child evaluated. The school must have a process in place to address your request.

Not every child will be eligible for special education (read more here) but having the information from a special education assessment is an important tool. It is data that you can share with your child’s pediatrician and data that can help you find the best solution for your child’s education.

Whether faced with special education or not, never be afraid to ask questions of your child’s teacher or other school personnel. Find out about what they do to help kids who are below grade level in math and/or reading. Ask about speech and occupational therapy options. Ask about inclusion in the general education classroom. And ask about what accommodations or modifications they are willing to make if your child does not have an IEP.  There needs to be less Us vs. Them when it comes to parents and school and more Us + Them.  

You do not have to navigate this by yourself.  There are many helpful resources, groups, and people out there—all who want to see every child reach their full potential. Unfortunately, many people have a negative mindset when they hear “special education.” We need to change that! In some states, even children who are gifted qualify for special education services.  Personally, I think every child should have an IEP. Think of it—an Individualized Education Plan for each child so when they enter the next grade or change schools, the teachers and staff are armed with information about the best ways a child learns. 

Be an advocate for your child and their education.  For great information on special education, bookmark this website Wrights Law. It can arm you with the information you need to navigate special education.  And to the teachers, administrators and schools that are doing special education right, thank you!


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Tracy is the Director of Programming and Partnerships for Darkness to Light, a child sexual abuse prevention organization. She grew up in northeast Ohio, and has lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Northern Virginia and has worked in the arts, in education, in non-profits and in ed tech. Her husband's job brought them to the Bay Area and there's no looking back! Tracy is mom to two trans teens who are just beginning their journey. Self-care includes pedicures, reading, cooking, crafting, and just being with her family. She also serves as Chair of the Board for the Attachment and Trauma Network, a national non-profit.


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