Starting school with special needs

Parents of students with special needs may face individual challenges and concerns. Here are tips for a successful school start. 

Learning Stages


By Dr. Bob Pasternack, Ph.D.

Special Needs Educator

Dr. Bob Pasternack is the former State Director of Special Education at the New Mexico State Department of Education and Assistant Secretary for Special Education Rehabilitative Services for the U.S. Department of Education. Dr. Pasternack is the guardian for his developmentally disabled brother and has been active in working with parents of students with disabilities for over twenty-five years.

Cries of "Welcome " echo across the United States. Parents rejoice, teachers eagerly anticipate another school year, and students approach with a mixture of excitement and regret that summer has ended. While most parents worry about school supplies, immunizations, and what school uniform policies exist, parents of students with special needs face the new school year with additional challenges and concerns.

To make this school year as meaningful as possible, here are some important tips to help you go with your child:

Parents are Professionals

Remember that you are a professional. As a parent, you know more about your child than anyone else. While meetings at school can be an intimidating experience, remember that you have earned your place at the table. In fact, you belong at the head of the table. Parents have a critically important role to play in making all decisions that affect your child in school, including setting realistic, measurable, achievable goals you would like your child to accomplish this year.

Parents are Partners

In order for your child to receive the free and appropriate public education he is entitled under federal law, you should try to approach the teachers and administrators as partners. Partnership requires collaboration, honesty, open communication, and mutual respect. You are an equal partner, with rights and responsibilities designed to make sure that your child has all of his identified special needs met during this new school year. Students receiving special education at a public school will have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Working with teachers and administrators, you have an opportunity to craft a more useful IEP for your child.

Parents are Case Managers

You must learn your rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in order to be the most effective advocate for your child with special needs. You must make sure that your child receives all of the services agreed upon by you and the school. Being a case manager means that you are actively involved throughout the school year, working to make sure that your child is getting the help he needs. This work includes regular visits to the school, making sure that agreed upon services are actually being provided.

Parents are Active Participants

You should be actively involved throughout the school year with the people who work at the school to help your child with special needs. Establish communication with school personnel on a regular basis, not just when problems arise. Compliment your child's teachers when you see your child making progress. You should also feel confident in approaching the school staff when you feel your child's special needs are not being met. You should feel comfortable in asking questions of any school staff working with your child—and keep asking until your questions are answered in words you understand.

Parents are Observers

You watch your child every day and are in the best position to suspect possible special needs which may exist. What we have learned from twenty-five years of special education is, early identification and early intervention work. In other words, if you feel that something is wrong with your child, or suspect that he is having problems in school, watch your child and talk with the professionals at school. The earlier we can identify special needs, and the earlier we can begin to provide specially designed services and instruction, the better the results for children with special needs. Don't wait too long to talk to the professionals at school if your observations suggest that something is wrong.

Parents are Researchers

In your efforts to help your child with special needs, keep looking for resources and help. Stay informed of current research exploring what works for children with special needs. Use online resources to learn about how school staff can help your child learn to the best of her ability. Go to the local library and read all you can. Take classes at the local college or university to learn more about your child. Remember that the schools must provide training opportunities for parents, and can pay for you to attend workshops and other professional development activities.

Parents are Supports

As a parent of a child with special needs, you are not alone. You should seek out the support of other parents who are having similar experiences. The newspapers in your community offer daily announcements of different support groups, including groups that support parents of children with special needs. Every state has at least one federally funded Parent Training and Information Center (PTI), which offers support and information to parents of children with special needs. Ask the Special Education Director at your school about parent support groups and parent resources in your local area. Be willing to offer support to other parents who are meeting the unique challenges of parenting a child with special needs.