Ramsey mother-of-two Stephanie Doyle first noticed her first-born son had sensory issues when he was 6 months old. "He was very sensitive to bright lights and loud sounds and was overall a very fussy baby," she says. More alarming still to Doyle was his lack of language development.
By the time he was 2, he was in an Early Intervention Program, a federally mandated program for children with special needs from birth through age 3.
Now 9 years old, he is "classified" with an auditory processing disorder. "His delayed language development changed into trouble reading," she says. "This was then diagnosed as APD when he was 7 years old. He receives services at school, which include speech therapy, small group instruction and accommodations in the classroom."
Once aware of the signs, Doyle identified similar delays in her second son. He was part of Early Intervention at 16 months and, now 5 years old, receives speech and occupational therapy as part of his public preschool program.
Sometimes, however, a special-needs issue is not immediately identifiable. Laura Impomeni of Allendale, a resource specialist for children with disabilities, says, "Outside a very obvious delay in speech, walking or following directions, a learning difficulty might not be apparent."
Even when a child is struggling to read in the classroom or is placed in a before-school basic-skills session in kindergarten or first grade, a larger problem might not emerge until much later. Impomeni, who is also a pediatric social worker at the Valley Hospital Center for Child Development, says, "Typically in second grade, a problem that might have been given time for the child to 'grow out of' may still be there, which is an indicator of a bigger problem. And I have a lot of parents calling me when their child is in fourth grade.
"In fourth grade, it's hard for a child to 'fake it' anymore," she adds. "A student may have been relying on his parents to help with homework, for example, until that point. In fourth grade, it gets to be too much."
Lynnette Joy Goodman, a psychotherapist and parent/child advocate based in Fair Lawn, works in collaboration with parents, children and school districts to make sure families with a child who has special needs receives the most appropriate services to meet the child's individual needs.
Diagnoses are not always easy, says Goodman. "Boys especially may need extra time, and the expectations of children from kindergarten through elementary school are much higher now than a generation ago," she says. "Some concepts that were taught in fifth grade are being taught in third grade now." Determining whether some children are actually learning-disabled or are just slower learners in a fast-paced, demanding academic environment can be a challenge for any professional or parent.
Before a child can be found eligible to receive special education and related services, or even before an evaluation can take place, the parents have to meet with the district to discuss the proposed evaluation and agree to it in writing. The same is true of a proposed declassification, should that occur. The school may approach the family or the family may approach the school with any concerns.
It is possible the school will refuse a parent's request for an evaluation, preferring to "wait and see," says Impomeni. "In that case, parents can go to see a private educational psychologist who will do the same evaluation a school would do. Those results can be presented to the school for further discussion if necessary."
Once classification takes place, the family and school will work together to create an Individualized Education Program. Once the IEP is created, placement will be determined – that is, where the special education services will be delivered.
But it is also the parents' right to say they don't want the services being offered. "I can completely understand a parent worrying about the stigma of having their child classified," says Impomeni. "But the truth is, it opens the door to get help."
Doyle has similar thoughts. "It's just like if a doctor says 'we'd like to try this' – you have the right to say 'no, we don't want to do that,'" she says. "But in my experience, nobody is pushing services that a child would not benefit from.
"It is an emotional process, realizing your child might need help," says Doyle. "But there are support networks and many other parents who are going through what you are going through. Every child needs something."
SPAN Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, www.spannj.org, seeks to empower and support families and inform and involve professionals and others interested in the healthy development and education of children and youth.
NJDOE Office of Special Education Programs www.state.nj.us/education/specialed/
Wrights Law Parents, educators, advocates and attorneys use www.wrightslaw.com for information about special education law, education law and advocacy for children with disabilities.
IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) Students with disabilities are protected under federal law as well as state law. Children with disabilities are entitled to special education and related services depending on their individual needs.
FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) School districts are required by law to provide FAPE to eligible students.
IEP (Individualized Education Program) Parents can request their child be evaluated by their school district if they believe they may need special education services. The parents then become part of a team to make decisions on their child's education as part of an IEP.
PRISE (Parental Rights in Special Education) PRISE is a publication developed by the Department of Education to assist parents in understanding their role and their rights under the law to better enable them to advocate for their child.
OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) OSEP implements state and federal laws to ensure pupils get full educational opportunities. The office is responsible for administering all federal funds for educating those in need aged 3-21 years old. OSEP also monitors special education programs, provides mediation services and processes hearings and complaints.
LRC (Learning Resource Center) Funded by OSEP, LRCs provide schools and parents with information and services
SLD (Specific Learning Difficulty) There are 14 specific categories defined by IDEA, which can be found in their entirety with definitions at www.nhvweb.net/cst/index.php/in-plain-english/nj-classifications
LRE (Least Restrictive Environment) By law, students with disabilities should be educated along non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible as part of a FAPE.
Section 504 plan (refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act) In the same way an IEP helps a student with specialized educational planning, a section 504 sets modifications and accommodations, including wheelchair ramps, blood sugar monitoring or a talking iPad device, to meet FAPE levels.