Leaving Special Ed Behind

By Ellen H. Parlapiano


As your child becomes adept at managing his learning differences he may reach a point where he no longer needs Special Education support • Transitioning out of the system is a process that should be done gradually while establishing a safety net to ensure success

It was one of the proudest yet most nerve-wracking moments of my life when my eighth-grader was declassified from Special Education. Though I knew my son was ready, it was still hard to leave behind the occupational therapy and resource-room help that had been his lifeline. But by using self-advocacy skills and retaining important accommodations, Matt was able to soar without Special Ed, leading him to believe that being declassified was one of his greatest achievements.

Knowing When the Time Is Right

We spend so much effort securing services for our children with LD or ADHD that it’s sometimes difficult to know when they’ve reached a point where they can do without that support. Often, as in my son’s case, the school will suggest terminating services if triennial testing shows significant improvement. But sometimes the child will lobby to exit the system. This is common in middle school when kids become acutely self-conscious, and don’t want to do anything that sets them apart from their peers.

If you believe your child is ready to handle school without Special Education support, the key to successful declassification is to step back slowly. Don’t pull services away abruptly, but do allow your child some autonomy if he or she is ready. Here are six points to keep in mind when deciding:

1. Look to the Past

Don’t focus only on the current year’s performance or test scores. Make sure there is a pattern of consistent improvement over the past several years.

2. Envision the Future

Do you and your child’s team agree that he can handle increasing academic demands as he progresses through higher grade levels? While there’s no way to know for sure, can you envision him stepping up to more rigor on his own, or will he need support to keep up? And, if so, what kind?

3. Set Up Safety Nets

When the time comes, request an IEP meeting to discuss the process of transitioning, while still providing accommodations and monitoring. Your child may no longer be eligible for occupational therapy, but other accommodations and modifications may always be necessary. When Matt was declassified, we kept testing accommodations and the use of a computer and calculator on his transitional IEP throughout high school. Before doing away with resource-room services, we cut back to every other day in ninth grade.

When your child exits special education, it is essential to put in place a 504 plan. Although it does not call for services, a 504 plan will protect your child’s access to needed accommodations in school, on standardized tests such as the ACT or SAT, and in college.

4. Listen to Your Child

Kids know when it’s time for a change. A friend’s child had been receiving daily resource-room help since second grade. By seventh grade, he wanted out. “He had high-achieving friends, and felt stupid in the resource room,” said his mother. “He became so unhappy there, his self-esteem plummeted.” She hired tutors at home, and worked with the school to phase out the resource room by eighth grade. As a safeguard, she kept him classified until midway through ninth grade.

When another child we know developed a tic after years of being on Ritalin, doctors wanted to switch him to Adderall and anti-depressants. “Jeffrey cried and said, ‘I can’t do this any more,’” recalled his mother. He begged to try eighth grade without medication and his parents agreed, as long as his grades weren’t affected. He did so well, he made the National Honor Society and eventually graduated with the highest grade-point average in his class.

5. Work with the Teachers

Communication with the school is especially important when your child is transitioning out of the system. At the beginning of each school year, consider scheduling meetings with all his teachers to explain his learning style and particular challenges. Even better if he’s able to join that conversation. Encourage your child also to act proactively in other ways, including setting up regular teacher meetings in the classes that are likely to present the greatest challenges, going in early or staying after for extra help, etc.

6. Foster Self-Advocacy Skills

Children must understand their strengths and weaknesses, and be able to speak up for themselves. When a friend’s son was put in a low-level math course because of weak standardized test scores, he insisted on taking an algebra readiness test. He scored high enough to get in the more advanced class. He ended up finishing high school with honors calculus and AP physics on his transcript.

It’s all about trusting your child’s abilities, and allowing him to take steps toward independence, while putting protections in place in case he stumbles.

The author is a journalist and author who writes frequently about learning disabilities.

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