What you need to know about disabilities and public schools

Jun 29, 2012 at 4:00 p.m. ET

Wondering how an IEP and a 504 plan are different? Overwhelmed by red tape? You're not alone. Learn the ropes so you can fight for your child's rights when it comes to accommodations in the public school system.

Between shopping for school supplies and worrying over all the little details, getting a child prepared for school can overwhelm any parent. For parents of a child with disabilities, preparations are rarely straightforward. Every special needs child requires an individual approach. Learn how to navigate the system to get your child the most appropriate accommodations for her disabilities.

Be your child’s greatest advocate

No one will fight for your child as hard as you will, and no one is going to teach you everything you need to know to advocate for your child. It’s up to you to do the research and push for services and accommodations. Jennifer Little, Ph.D., of Parents Teach Kids, recommends that parents begin by seeking parents’ rights pamphlets online or in person at the district’s department of special education. Your child may require an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, to receive additional assistance in the classroom, or she may require a 504 Plan, which provides special accommodations for individual disabilities to allow kids access to appropriate education.

Discover 5 ways to prepare for your child's IEP meeting >>

Work with the school system

When fighting for your child, try not to think of it as a battle against the school system. You’ll encounter frustrating roadblocks and delays, but those delays will rarely be the fault of the individuals you’re dealing with. “Special education personnel must deal with many regulations, laws and demands on their times and their caseloads may be high and demanding,” Little says. “Have some compassion for the demands made on them by hours and work environments.” Make an effort to develop a good relationship with your child’s teachers and special education providers.

Take responsibility

The school’s responsibility is to provide your child a free and appropriate education. The accommodations you seek should be reasonable, and there may be times when your child struggles due to behavioral factors that may not be the school’s responsibility. Work with your child at home and with his health care providers to prepare to meet the demands and expectations of the classroom. “School personnel are trying to prepare your child for adulthood and adult responsibilities, but they are not responsible for everything,” Little says. Keep careful documentation of the things that help your child succeed and share those factors with all of your child’s teachers and support personnel.

Recognize the school’s limits

No matter how hard you fight for your child’s needs, there will be limits to what the school can provide. Some therapies may not be available and not every teacher will have a full understanding of your child’s individual needs. School accommodations cover a very wide range of disabilities, from learning disabilities to physical disabilities like severe asthma and allergies. Make yourself available as a resource to the school, through volunteering when you can and providing as much information about your child as possible. Check in frequently with the school district officials responsible for monitoring your child’s progress. These can be rough waters to navigate, but you can make it through as a team.

More on special needs

Parenting a child with a disability: Welcoming your child to the family
Special needs siblings
Help your child with Sensory Processing Disorder at school