Parenthood is a scary, scary adventure. Every parent worries about if they are doing things right and if they are helping their child be their best self. Sometimes though, the realization that maybe your child’s best self is a little bit different than most children can be extremely devastating. No parent wants to hear that their own child may be developmentally delayed or have some sort of disability. It is the reality though for many families, as according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 children in the US ages 3-17 have at least one developmental disability.
What exactly is a developmental disability?
Developmental disabilities are a large group of conditions that include being delayed or impaired in any of the physical, learning, language, and behavioral areas of development. While that may sound scary, you won’t be alone in the process of figuring out what all of this means for your child. When a child is diagnosed by a professional with any sort of disability, parents become part of a team of experts that will guide them on the path to helping their child be as successful as they can be with both their education and daily life.
What should I do if I have concerns about my child’s development?
My own advice and that of many other educational professionals, is that if your child is not yet school aged, you need to share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician or child care provider. In Iowa, you can contact your local Area Education Agency and request to speak with someone on the Early Access team. Many states have similar programs, with all of them catering to children ages birth-3. The great part about working with the service providers of the Early Access program is that they will come to your own home to meet with you. You can express your concerns to them and they will work with your child in the comfort of your own home. If your child qualifies for Early Access services, they will then be able to receive the support they need in their delayed area in order to help them progress and gain the skills they need to prepare them for transitioning into a school setting at age 3.
What is an IEP?
Once a child turns 3, the family and service providers can then begin to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is specific to your child’s own needs. An IEP is a legal document that becomes the basis for your child’s educational programming. Parents meet with a team of people that work together to create a plan for the child with goals and to document what accommodations a child may need to learn and grow within the school setting. Typically besides parents, an IEP team includes a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator, and any specific service providers that your child may be working with. This could include speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists.
Sounds like a crazy amount of people, right? It is and can be pretty intimidating for most parents. Just remember that everyone is there to help your child and you all have their best interest at heart. You are the only real true “expert” when it comes to your child, so your input and contributions to your child’s IEP are extremely important. A parent is their child’s first advocate, so you have many legal rights as part of the IEP team. Your input on your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests are extremely important and that information helps anyone that will be working with your child know them as a whole being, not just by their disability.
What does “Special Education” mean?
When a child qualifies for an IEP, they then also qualify for special education programming. When you think about special education, you may have a very dismal impression. You probably think about the kids at your own school growing up that were in a secluded, special room, maybe all the way down the hall, away from where your general education classroom was. You probably never really interacted with the kids in special education very often and if you did, it was mostly passing them in the hall or seeing them coming and going to lunch.
Special education has come miles from that today! The US has a law about special education (called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) that states that every child has a right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. What that means is that your child should be educated with their peers as much as possible, with as little or as much support as they need. Full inclusion into classrooms is the main goal for every child. The days of kids being in a separate classroom away from everyone else are long gone.
Full inclusion into classrooms is the main goal for every child. The days of kids being in a separate classroom away from everyone else are long gone.
It still can be difficult though for many parents to accept that their child has a disability and needs an IEP, because they don’t want their child to have the stigma that often comes with special education. Many educational professionals and teachers advise and encourage parents to visit their child’s school. It is helpful to see what their child’s daily schedule is and how their services are provided to them on a daily basis.
As a teacher for 15 years, with 7 of those years in special education, I can personally tell you that most every accommodation or support that my students need, is taken care of right in my general education classroom. Most of the time peers don’t even know that any sort of learning accommodation is being made or that the child has specific skills that they are working hard on to reach a certain goal. These days, most classrooms will have at least one child who receives special education services in the class. It’s the opposite of what it once was, and I, for one, think that inclusion benefits everyone involved.
What can I expect for my child’s future?
While having a child with a disability or developmental delay can be a tough road to travel, the good news is that you will not be alone on that journey. Your child and your family will have a supportive team of people to guide you along the way. Positive goals will be created and met with the help of qualified service providers that will help your child be as successful as they can be. And that’s what we all want for our children, right? Every child’s path to success will be unique, and special education services can help ensure your child finds theirs.