Special needs advocates urge parents to get services their children are entitled to

The special needs community is encouraging parents to advocate for their children as they head back to school, making sure students are getting the services the
Published: Aug. 22, 2022 at 6:31 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - The special needs community is encouraging parents to advocate for their children as they head back to school, making sure students are getting the services they are entitled to and may have missed out on over the pandemic.

11-year-old Charlie showed off his skills on the court. Sinking baskets seems to come easy to him, but learning to read did not.

“It was clear he couldn’t communicate as clearly as other children his age,” said Charlie’s mom, Diana Schwartz.

She noticed Charlie’s language was lagging at an early age, but literacy screenings in first grade failed to catch his dyslexia. He was not diagnosed until the end of third grade, though kids at risk of reading disabilities can be identified much earlier.

“Which, in our case, would have made a tremendous difference in getting him help sooner,” Schwartz told us.

Early detection leads to early intervention, and that is much more effective during the kindergarten to second grade years.

“It’s easier to work with those skills when kids are younger and their brains are more adaptable,” said reading specialist Ben Tobin. “The older a kid gets and the more their habits build up, the harder it is to get through.”

Tobin, who tutors Charlie, said children with special needs slip through the cracks all too often.

“If a kid is struggling with reading in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, that doesn’t go away unless it’s addressed, because reading is not a natural skill,” he told us.

Just last year, DESE released new statewide guidelines requiring kids be screened for dyslexia in kindergarten, first, and second grade. The change was the result of a 2018 law, prompted by the advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia, which Tobin belongs to.

“We have to make sure that this doesn’t keep happening and we don’t have this pipeline of students coming into higher grades who are missing skills,” he said.

He added that if you suspect your child has a learning disability, do not wait and ask your school district to conduct an evaluation. The district has an obligation to diagnose and evaluate the needs of a student and then propose an individualized education program, or IEP, to get them the services they need.

“When you have a child with a disability, we were very aware that being remote was not a good option for him,” Schwartz said.

She told us that Charlie experienced learning loss over the pandemic across the curriculum. Studies show that students with special needs saw a greater rate of regression.

Parents Together Action surveyed 1,500 families throughout the pandemic and found only 20% of students were receiving the services they were entitled to under their IEP, while 39% were not.

“We all have to make sure that we are working to provide the resources needed to make sure all of our students are receiving the support that they need to make up for the learning loss that was experienced,” Schwartz said.

Tobin told us that kids not getting the extra help they need can often manifest depression, anxiety, or behavior problems.

“During school, you’ll see kids be like a bully, class clown,” Tobin said. “They’re going to do something to take the focus away from the fact that they can’t read or they are struggling with reading in a way that’s very visible.”

Charlie is headed to middle school this year with all the tools he needs to be successful, and his mom is urging other parents to know what they are entitled to under state law, including services they may have missed out on over the pandemic.

“You are their biggest advocate, and it can be very exhausting and lonely and upsetting, but at the same time, it can be the most rewarding experience that you have as a parent,” Schwartz said.