This Year IS Next Year: Back to School Advice for Parents of Students with Special Needs

by Charles P. Fox, Attorney

For many parents and students August means that thoughts turn to back-to-school sales on clothes and school supplies.  While those items are on the minds of parents of students with special needs, they often have much weightier things on their minds; how to make this school year experience significantly better and different than last year. At the annual review IEP at the end of last school year, schools often make promises that the issues from last year or the unmet goals will be accomplished, or progress will be made, next (school) year.  Well it is time to make good on those promises and representations, as this year IS next year.  Those promises need to have more meaning than the average New Year’s resolution.  Here are my thoughts on some things to consider, as an attorney who practices in the area of special education law, at the start of this new school year:

  1. Get your school records together and make sure you have the most recent copy of the last IEP.  A number of parents come to me and realize that at the end of the last annual review IEP meeting the “printer was not working” or “the network was down” and they were promised a copy of the IEP–but it simply never arrived.  It is obviously not good to start the year off with no IEP in your hand. When you get it, review it and make sure that it contains all that was stated and promised.  Even more importantly, review it with your student so he or she understands what the goals are and what accommodations are available.
  2. Consider whether there is a need for an early year meeting to review how things are going and to consider additional items.  Among the most common things that often get put off  are issues related to assistive technology, sensory and behavioral planning, and goal writing for development of self advocacy skills.  A brief word about each of these items.
    1. Assistive technology is not only for students who are not verbal and need a voice output device, though that is part of it.  In this age of iPad with new apps being added every day, students with a variety of needs such as organizational, reading, writing and even behavioral, can be better supported through assistive technology.
    2. Sensory and behavioral planning get put off to the next year, which is NOW.
    3. Development of self-advocacy skills can be one of the most critical skills a student develops, even from early grades forward.  Think about having your student come to the next annual review and make a brief presentation on what their disability is and on what worked that school year to support them.  It will not happen unless plans and goals are written early in the school year, which is NOW.
  3. Set time frames for things to happen and get those in writing.  Very often promises are made in the IEP meeting, or even informally, but there is no time commitment—which frequently means 6 months from never. School personnel often have good intentions, but with large case loads time slips away and things are forgotten.  As a general rule, get goal dates in writing.  Even if you need to send a confirmatory email and follow up at appropriate intervals.
  4. Establish avenues for effective communication.  One area of dispute for both schools and parents is communication.  School personnel feel harassed with requests for daily emails or weekly classroom visits.  Parents, on the other hand, feel that school has no transparency, and at worst is hiding something.  Establishing a protocol of communication can alleviate many disputes.  One approach is to mutually agree upon a form of communication that is easy for school personnel to complete and provides parents with the critical information that is needed to move ahead for an effective school year.
  5. Find the back door to the school. I do not mean that literally, but metaphorically.  Sometimes you will encounter personnel who are more forthcoming with information and willing to engage with parents and students than others.  If the building principal is more sympathetic than the special education director, then work with principal as the primary point of contact.  Schools strongly frown upon parents using non-certified staff (i.e., teacher’s aide) as the main point of contact.  But typically on every team there is one person who understands your student more than others.
  6. If your student is in a new building or placement, do not assume everyone is aware of the IEP or even understands him or her.  Things fall between the cracks.  It is best to politely inquire if staff members working with your student have been given a copy of the IEP.  In may also help to provide a written summary about your child, what his or her needs are, and what your concerns are for the upcoming year.  It is generally best to keep it positive and not dwell on past mistakes.  At this point in the year everyone is trying to start fresh.  Rather than use this written statement to whitewash past errors, use it to state essential information and keep it positive.
  7. Make sure all previous equipment and materials are in place. Parents are often greatly surprised and disappointed when they realize that important elements such as seating, technology, visual schedule and other materials that worked so well last year are not the same or not available for the new school year.  Because you do not want school personnel to feel like you are checking up on them, always make inquiries in a polite and non-accusatory way.
  8. Transportation is another area that can frequently develop into disputes.Transportation is not a “bus company thing,” as if to distance the school from full responsibility for the safe and appropriate provision of bussing. Transportation is part of the IEP and is part of the student’s entitlement to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education).  Conflicts can arise when: that bus aide that was discussed and agreed to is not present on the bus; or needed harness and bus restraints are missing or used incorrectly creating potential strangulation risks or risk of elopement from the bus.  Have the bus personnel received any information about life-threatening allergies or seizures or other medical issues or specific training? Too often the answer is no.  Transportation can be the weak link in the team that can have potentially catastrophic consequences.  Definitely pay close attention to the bus and other transportation needs – from day one forward!

Time spent focusing on these key issues before school begins will ensure a smooth and successful transition into the new academic year.

Charlie Fox is an attorney specializing in education law.  The “catalyst and defining principle” for Fox when he entered special needs law was when his son, Cole, was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and needed an advocate.  Now considered “my hero” by Cole, Fox works to assure that his son and other children with special needs receive an appropriate public education.  Find more information about Charlie at

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