“Parents are facing a lot of uncertainly right now,” said Sara Freedman, director of disability services at JF&CS. “Everyone wants to know what school will look like this fall, but plans are constantly shifting and evolving.” As school districts weigh the benefits and risks of in-person classes and virtual learning, there are no easy answers to be found.

For children with special needs, both in-person and remote learning present unique challenges. Kids with sensory sensitivities or co-occurring medical conditions are sometimes unable to wear masks, which complicates their return to a classroom setting. On the other hand, many children with special needs have found it difficult to meaningfully engage with virtual classes. Without the predictable structure of school this spring and summer, some kids have started to plateau academically and regress in their behavior.

“We are hearing from so many parents who are afraid that their children aren’t getting the support they need,” said Sara. “In these situations, a special education advocate can help assess what services a child needs and advocate for the right supports.”

Identifying Challenges and Finding Solutions

The special education advocates at JF&CS follow a three-step process when working with families. First, we help parents identify the specific issues holding their child back from learning and making progress, both before and during the pandemic. As part of this step, the advocates review previous assessments and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and make referrals for updated evaluations as needed.

Next, our advocates work collaboratively with parents and other members of the child’s team to strengthen and clarify the child’s IEP to ensure that it addresses all of the student’s needs. During this time, we track and document progress in all areas and may connect the child with outside therapists. “Typically, advocates observe the student in school,” said Sara. “Now, they may join a remote learning session to see firsthand how a child is faring in the virtual classroom.”

As the student’s progress is monitored, the advocate will work with the child’s team to increase or modify supports. If the student is still not making effective progress, the advocate will encourage the parents and school district to evaluate if the child requires an out-of-district placement at a school that offers more support in the documented areas of need. Advocates help parents identify appropriate schools and advise them as they decide which one would be the best fit for their child.

Supporting Growth

“When a child starts to receive the right services, the transformation can be remarkable,” said Sara. Last school year, JF&CS worked with Alex*, a 12-year-old boy who was struggling academically and socially. One of our advocates reviewed Alex’s IEP, performed classroom observations and attended several team meetings with his parents and teachers.

Ultimately, it was decided that Alex required a school with more intensive supports. Since switching schools, Alex has excelled academically and, for the first time in his life, he has friends. “It’s what we always knew he needed, but we never knew how to get it for him,” said Alex’s parents. “Thank you so much for all your time and work getting us to this point for Alex.”

Although details about the fall are still hazy, the mission of our advocates remains the same. “Whether children are learning at home or in-person, we’ll be working closely with parents and schools,” said Sara. “Now more than ever, kids need the proper supports to stay on track as they learn and grow.”

*Name changed to protect privacy.

If you’re interested in learning more about our special education advocates, please contact JF&CS Disability Lifespan Solutions at 781-693-5640.

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