The call I received, from the father of a child with a "learning disability," was not unusual. He was confused, overwhelmed, and angry.
"My 12-old has always done pretty good at school, is great at sports, and has friends, but the last year or so has been a mess. He's stopped doing his homework and his grades have gone south. He used to be a really outgoing kid, but now he's often quiet and moody. His teacher thinks he's depressed."
The pain and frustration in this father's voice weren't new to me. I've heard this profile from many parents, all of them concerned about their child and unsure what to do next.
"The teacher thinks my son has a learning disability. She said something about auditory memory and a processing problem. He has always been very meticulous, but now that he is in junior high, his homework seems to take all night and then he's even further behind. It sure seemed easier when I was in school, when there wasn't so much homework and kids didn't have to take so many standardized tests."
Homework and the quantification of American education. My opinions about how education has lost sight of its real purpose in the mad rush to show progress through numbers, the frustrations I have shared with my wife too many times, were ready for delivery, but that wasn't going to help this parent or his child.
"I don't know what to do. I don't know how to help him -- and he won't listen to me, anyway. He was suspended last month for fighting and he no longer qualifies for the football team. We're no longer thinking of a good college for him -- we just want him to make it through high school."
"Is your son in specialeducation?"
"No, but you know, I'd be happy to pay your legal fees just to help with tonight's algebra. This learning disability stuff is so vague, its like a jellyfish. It isn't like a broken arm -- we can't take my son to the doctor, get a cast put on him, and know that he'll be fine in a couple of months. How do you fix these auditory memory and processing problems?"
The pain of this father and son is shared by the almost three million children (and their parents) in this country who are dealing with learning disabilities. Late nights, bad report cards, tears, yelling, frustration -- this wasn't what we thought school would be like for our kids.
The fundamental purpose of this book is to help these children and their parents or guardians through the maze that is special education -- including the special twists and turns that apply to kids with learning disabilities.
What Is Special Education?
"Special education" is the broad term used to describe the educational system available for children with disabilities. A learning disability is a specific disability category covered by special education law and addressed by special education programs.
As discussed in greater detail later in this book, learning disabilities can range from minor differences in learning style to serious difficulties processing information. A lot of people, many of them highly intelligent, have learning disabilities. There is no relationship between native intelligence and the existence of a learning disability. Your goal as you wind your way through the special education system is to make it easier for your child to achieve academically, despite his or her learning disability.
There are three fundamental questions to consider as you begin the special education process:
- Where is your child now? How is your child doing at school and at home?
- Where do you want your child to be? What are your specific goals -- for example, do you want your child to read more fluently, to write legibly, or to do schoolwork more efficiently?
- What does your child need to reach these goals?
The federal law governing the special education system is the individuals with disabilities Education act or IDEA. This law creates a formal process for evaluating children with disabilities (including learning disabilities) and providing specialized programs and services to help them succeed in school.
IDEA entitles children with learning disabilities to an "appropriate" education that meets their unique needs. You'll have a better sense of what constitutes an appropriate education as you read this book. Broadly speaking, an appropriate education includes all of the following:
- The specific program or class (called "placement") for your child. Placement is more than just a particular classroom; it can also include characteristics such as location, class size, teacher experience, and peer makeup. For example, a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) might be placed in a regular classroom with a teacher who has experience working with kids who have ADD.
- The specific support help (called "related services") your child needs, including who will provide it and how often. For example, a child who reads well below grade level might work with a reading specialist for one hour each day.
- Other educational components, such as curricula and teaching methods. These can be particularly important for students with learning disabilities. For example, a child with dysgraphia (handwriting problems) might be allowed to answer test questions orally, rather than in writing.
But how do you figure out what constitutes an appropriate education for your child? Special education law provides a process for evaluating your child and developing his or her academic plan through an "individualized education program," or IEP. You'll find this term used frequently throughout this book and by your school district, your child's teachers, and others familiar with special education. The initials IEP refer to several related things:
"Learning Disability" Is a Loaded Term
- the meeting where the school district determines whether or not your child is eligible for special education (the IEP eligibility meeting)
- the annual meeting where you and school representatives develop your child's educational plan for the coming school year (the IEP program meeting), and
- the detailed written description of your child's educational program, including specific ways in which your child's learning disabilities will be addressed through programs, teaching strategies, and support services.
Webster's New World Dictionary defines disability as an illness, injury, or physical handicap that "restricts" or causes "limitations" and "disadvantages." Advocates in the field of special education and disability rights understandably object to the term "disabled," preferring the term "child with disabilities" -- this is the term used throughout this book.
More important, all human beings come into this world with a variety of qualities and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Having special education needs does not mean that your child should be treated as "different" or denied the care and respect that all children deserve. Because human beings are complex, determining who is "able" and who is "disabled" is an effort in futility. Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill both had learning disabilities, but Dr. Einstein certainly had a way with the universe and, besides being a pretty good Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill was a fairly effective painter.
It is not a cliché to say that we all have some kind of disability, even as we realize that the difference in degree between one disability and another can be significant and life-altering. Terms that define should not be terms that judge.
Special education laws give children with disabilities and their parents important rights not available to children and their parents in regular education. These include the right to:
- have the child evaluated
- attend an IEP meeting
- develop a written IEP plan, and
- resolve disputes with the school district through an impartial administrative and legal process.
While children's special education needs may vary -- for example, one child with a learning disability may need placement in a private school while another needs a one-to-one aide for full-time participation in a regular class (called mainstreaming) -- all parents should master the IEP process to help secure an appropriate and individualized education for their children. Even though the rules governing the IEP process are the same for each parent and child, your child's particular IEP will be entirely individual. The program you and the school district develop must fit your child, not the other way around. What works for other students is irrelevant if it won't work for your child. What may be appropriate for a child with hearing loss, autism, or emotional difficulties may not be appropriate for your child and his learning needs. IDEA does not tell you or the school district specifically how your child will be educated. Rather, IDEA provides rules to govern the process, so the IEP team can decide what is appropriate for your child. IDEA provides the outline; the IEP team -- you and the school -- fill in the details.
Special Education and Learning Disabilities
A child with a learning disability has different educational needs than a child with mobility problems or emotional difficulties. And different learning disabilities require different educational strategies -- a child who has reading difficulties, for example, will need different types of assistance from a child who has trouble with auditory processing.
Within the world of special education, there are specific laws, rules, and requirements that apply to learning disabilities. A child with a particular learning disability may require specialized classroom techniques, strategies, and methodologies -- for example, a child with ADD may need extra help when classroom activities generate lots of activity or noise, or a child with memory problems may benefit from using mnemonics to remember important facts. Later chapters explain what constitutes a learning disability, how it differs from other types of disabilities recognized by IDEA, and how a child becomes eligible for special education based on a learning disability.
As you go through the special education process with your child, you will no doubt hear a variety of terms, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); auditory, short- and long-term memory problems; processing, spelling, reading, and math difficulties; and multisensory development. As is often the case, these words may sound intimidating and/or vague.
Regardless of whether we like these terms, they are part of the learning disability world -- and you'll need to master them to become the best possible advocate for your child. As you go through this book, you will learn about broad special education rules and processes as well as specific items that relate to learning disabilities. You'll need both types of information to successfully navigate the IEP process. Don't worry about memorizing any of these terms; you'll become familiar and even comfortable with them as you move forward.