It shouldn’t take a graduate degree and a lawyer to get your child special education support

Back to school time is approaching, and with that comes all the “to-do’s” and “suggestions for parents” that make huge assumptions about parents, about kids, and most importantly, about the causes, symptoms, treatments, and solutions for children who are “misbehaving.”

The biggest mistaken assumption is that if a child is misbehaving, especially if that child is black or brown, that the misbehaving is because of poverty, parents, lack of structure, lack of self-discipline, uneducated parents, or my favorite stereotype, lazy parents.

I am convinced that many poor, black and brown children who are labeled “bad” or do poorly in school have not been properly diagnosed for special needs. I know this because I lived it. I know what it feels like to be wrongly judged as a “bad parent” because of the behavior of your child.

Last fall, my 3-year-old daughter, who had received early intervention services for a language delay, began acting out in her preschool classroom.

My husband and I realized our suburban school district hadn’t made any plans to transition her from early intervention to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) even though she still clearly needed support. The mismatch between their expectations and the lack of support meant my daughter received two disciplinary actions. The first time, I was asked to pick her up from the principal’s office and take her home early from school. She was 3 years old!

I know the shame of having a school call you to pick up your child because they are misbehaving. Even if you know your child can’t help it, the shame is still there. I know what it feels like to attend IEP meetings with more than 10 school personnel present and not understand one thing that they are saying because of the jargon and the acronyms.

Getting labeled a bad parent

I know what it feels like to have friends, family and total strangers tell you that your child’s problem is you don’t punish, spank, or discipline them enough. I know what it feels like to wish desperately that punishing, spanking or yelling at your child would magically make their special needs go away.

Instead, it took a year, a lawyer and a lot of time and money, but we did reach an agreement with our district to get our daughter the services she needs, including a one-on-one aide in the classroom.

In spite of the struggles, I realize how lucky and blessed our family is. We have been able to get our daughter an early diagnosis. We have quality health care that will provide in-network specialists for her who aren’t far from our home.

I came into the situation with a graduate degree and years of working with bureaucracy, which gave me a basic understanding of the disaster that is special education in public schools. I have a supportive husband and family. We have friends and family members who are administrators, speech therapists and occupational therapists. They could translate most of the lingo that was unfamiliar to us.

We are fortunate to have just barely enough resources to provide additional, private therapeutic services for our daughter that will help her. I am comfortable enough to understand, challenge, and fight for my daughter without any self-consciousness with school administrators. We have the option to change school districts, move, or supplement treatments.

Yet, even with all the resources I have at my disposal, this process still really sucks.

I’m so sorry that parents who are already dealing with a tough situation have to fight wrongful judgment, shame, and bad treatment at schools. I’m sorry they have to fight the stigma of having a child labeled “bad” or “naughty,” and to counter the logic that it is because “you are a bad parent.” All of this takes time and energy from what they really should be doing: getting their child evaluated to see if they have special needs.

I believe God wants us to help one another. So, I’m hoping that my experiences can help others as they prepare for the difficult process that is educating a child with special needs.

It’s a hard job being a parent of a child with special needs. It’s frustrating for any parent who has to deal with it, even parents with resources.

I believe we should be doing more to educate parents about early warning signs and provide low-cost or free therapy for all children who have special needs.  Those resources should be in a location and during a time that is accessible to working parents.  Finally, you shouldn’t need a lawyer or an advocate to explain to you as a parent your children’s legal rights to services.

It’s heartbreaking for me to try and make sure I am doing the right thing. I still get lost and need people to explain things to me. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.

No one who has a child with special needs should have to jump through all these hoops to give their child the services they need to be successful. No one.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson currently resides in the west suburbs of Chicago with her two girls, ages 8 and 4, and her husband, Brian. She received her masters degree from The University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, with an emphasis on management and public policy. ShaRhonda also has over 15 years experience in nonprofit program management. She also has worked over 20 years as a political organizer, focusing on engaging youth, and people of color.

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