How to Start a Conversation & Support a Child with Special Needs         

This time of year, many parents might find themselves contemplating feedback from the fall parent-teacher conference where they learned that their child is experiencing delays in playing, thinking, talking or learning; and looking ahead hopeful to the next conference.

“Parents are key in the process of helping identify development or learning delays with their children,” explains Grant Wood Area Education Agency Special Education Director Maria Cashman. “Parents or caregivers typically are the first to notice developmental or learning challenges in younger children, but sometimes learning disabilities aren’t identified until children are in a classroom or academic environment when the demands on their skills and time are increased.”

Grant Wood Area Education Agency staff serve children ages birth - 21 in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn, and Washington counties. In the seven-county area served by Grant Wood AEA, the staff is assisting more than 8,000 children with physical, mental, emotional, and learning supports.

Some challenges are apparent before a child enters school, and Grant Wood AEA staff provides services to those children through a program called Early ACCESS. The support starts with an assessment of the needs of that particular child, and providing support for children from birth until they start preschool. This support addresses concerns that connect back to intellectual, physical, communication, behavioral or emotional challenges.

“Kids are so complex that it can be hard to assess,” commented Dr. Cashman, “but sometimes we find that the difference between a student’s expected performance and behavior, and how the student actually performs or behaves, is the result of a learning disability.”

The process for supporting kids who are of school age is related to the district the children attend. Anyone can request an assessment for a child, but often teachers start a conversation about educational testing or assessment to help identify why a student is not working up to his potential. Grant Wood AEA staff work alongside district staff to assess and support these students in the areas specifically identified for his or her growth.

“It’s a great partnership that’s focused specifically on the needs of the students, and can include AEA staff like psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and other specialists,” said Dr. Cashman.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Child Has a Learning Disability

Start a Conversation Early
•  With early intervention, children with learning disabilities can be taught strategies to help them achieve academically and socially as well as other youngsters do. If your child is not yet in school, reach out directly to Grant Wood AEA for assistance by calling 319.399.6700. If your child is in school, contact your child’s teacher, counselor, or an administrator in your child’s building.

Participate in the Process
•  One of the first things parents are asked to do is meet with their child’s teachers, AEA staff, or other school personnel to understand the child’s challenges. Parents and caregivers are important participants in this meeting by explaining what has been observed at home related to a child’s play, study habits, homework, and other interactions. 

Consider Testing or Assessing Your Child
•  Parents are encouraged to be open in conversations with their school and AEA staff, and to request an evaluation of their child if they feel it’s needed. This process might include interviews with parents or child, direct observation of a child in the classroom, a review of your child’s educational history, and testing that can help assess a child’s strengths and weaknesses. Either a parent or the school can request the evaluation, but it can only be given with a parent’s written permission.

Learning a New Language: IEP Services
•  If the results indicate that your child has a learning disability, she or he is eligible for special education services. You will work with a team including your child’s teacher to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This is a written document that summarizes your child’s educational performance, plans the short-term educational goals and outlines annual goals.

The Grant Wood AEA Family and Educator Partnership (FEP) team is a partner for both parents and educators during this process. The team’s focus is to develop and sustain effective partnerships between families, educators, and community providers to promote success for all children and youth with disabilities, and has great resources available. They can help parents understand the terms and processes related to special education including family/student rights and responsibilities, and can help parents prepare for IEP meetings. They also work as a link to help families and educators connect with services within the AEA and the community.

Support is Available
•  If your child does not qualify for special education, it is still important for you to know that support is available to help your child. Your child’s teacher might have suggestions about how changes can be made in classroom routines to help your child, or how you can help at home.

Grant Wood Area Education Agency provides programs and services designed to support quality education for all students by improving teaching and learning. Learn more about Grant Wood AEA at gwaea.org .

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