First steps toward getting help for a child



Having a child with challenging behaviors can at times seem overwhelming. It can seem even more so if the child is having difficulties in school. Parents and caregivers may receive frequent calls or letters from school regarding their child’s behavior, as well as requests to meet with school staff. The following steps can start you on the path to dealing with your child’s challenging behaviors:

Step 1: Start by contacting your child’s teacher. Work to develop a plan to deal with the behavior.

Step 2: Give the plan some time, then check in with the teacher to see how it’s working.

Step 3: If the plan is not working, work with the school team to develop a structured plan of strategies called a pre-referral plan.

If your child’s problem at school doesn’t improve after developing a plan with the teacher (i.e. your child is still struggling with academics, has bad grades, is frequently being sent to the office, is being suspended, etc.), these may be signs that something more serious is going on.

It could be a sign your child has a learning disability or another problem that gets in the way of his learning. Your child may need more specialized help and may need to be evaluated to see if special education services are needed.


Special education — what it is and who is eligible

Children between the ages of birth to 21 who have a disability that is ongoing and significant enough to get in the way of learning may be eligible for special education and related services.

Special education refers to specialized teaching and other services that are designed to help students learn and do well in school. Specialized instruction means using special teaching strategies or classroom approaches to help your child learn. Materials may be changed, homework may be modified, or your child may be allowed to use technology such as a tape recorder or a computer.

Related services might include things like working with a social worker to learn social skills, with a speech therapist to help with language development, or even working with an occupational therapist if needed. These services are designed to meet the unique needs of each child.

To be eligible for special education, a child has to meet eligibility requirements in at least one disability area. The disability areas considered for special education are:

• Deaf and hard of hearing

• Blind and visually disabled

• Speech or language impairments

• Physically impaired

• Other health disabilities

• Developmental cognitive disability

• Autism spectrum disorders

• Traumatic brain injury

• Severely multiply impaired

• Deaf-Blind

• Developmental delay

In addition, children ages three to seven who are experiencing developmental delays, and who need special instruction and services because the child has a significant delay or has identifiable physical or mental conditions that get in the way of normal development, are also eligible for special education.


How to get special education help

The process of getting special education usually starts with a request for an evaluation.

The request for an evaluation can be made by the parent or guardian, or by the teacher. Parents can also talk with the child’s teacher, social worker, or principal about their child’s learning concerns and start the process that way.

Parents are encouraged to put the request for an evaluation in writing and make sure to sign, date, and keep a copy of the request for themselves. The school will then conduct a special education evaluation.

The school collects information from the child and adults who know the child (the parents, caregivers, grandparents). The evaluation should include observation of the child at home and at school and should look at all areas that may affect a child’s learning. The evaluation may include hearing, vision, social and emotional health, general intelligence and school performance. You are an integral part of the evaluation process.

Your participation in the evaluation meetings is essential. Parental participation ensures more complete and accurate information is used in developing a plan to meet a child’s needs. It is not uncommon for a child to have different behaviors at home and at school, behaving well at home but having behavior issues at school, or vice versa.

Without parental input, this valuable information would be missed. A thorough evaluation looks at the child’s behavior at home and at school, and at strategies that are successful or unsuccessful in each environment.

A special education evaluation is different from a “diagnostic assessment.” Schools cannot diagnose your child; only a mental health professional can. If your child already has a diagnosis (such as ADD or ADHD, autism, etc.), schools can evaluate what your child needs in order to learn and do well in school.

For example, a school should not tell you that your child has ADHD (this would be a diagnosis), but the school can evaluate that your child has a hard time focusing which gets in the way of his learning.

If the school does the evaluation and you do not agree with the results, you have the right to get an evaluation by a professional who is not an employee of the school. This is referred to as an Independent Educational Evaluation or IEE.

The school must pay for the IEE if it is done by a qualified professional. The school must inform you of its policies and rules for getting an IEE. To ensure the school will cover the cost of the IEE, check with your child’s teacher or school social worker to get information about how to arrange for an IEE before you make an appointment.


Next column: what happens after completing a special education evaluation.

Cynthia Fashaw is Children’s Program and Multicultural Outreach director for NAMI Minnesota. For more information, call 651-645-2948 or go to