When your child has a learning disability--
Here you will find information on understanding learning disabilities, negotiating the special
education process and helping your child and yourself.
Parents are often baffled by the problems presented by a child with learning disabilities. Often this “invisible
disability” does not become obvious until a child reaches school age. Even then, difficulties may be subtle.
Learning disabilities are problems that affect the brain's ability to receive, process, analyze, or store information.
These problems can make it difficult for a student to learn as quickly as someone who isn't affected by learning
disabilities. About one-third of all children classified as learning disabled also have ADD.
There are many kinds of learning disabilities. Most students affected by learning disabilities have more than one
kind. Certain kinds of learning disabilities can interfere with a person's ability to concentrate or focus and can
cause someone's mind to wander too much. Other learning disabilities can make it difficult for a student to read,
write, spell, or solve math problems.
If you are a parent or teacher of a child with a learning disability – or have learning disabilities yourself - you are
not alone. Typical learning difficulties include dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia – often complicated by
associated disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Learning Disorders occur when the child’s reading, math, or writing skills are substantially below that expected for
age, schooling, and level of intelligence. Approximately 5% of students in public schools in the United States are
identified as having a learning disorder.
Students with learning disorders may become so frustrated with their performance in school that by adolescence
they may feel like failures and want to drop out of school or may develop behavioral problems. Special testing is
always required to make the diagnosis of a learning disorder and to develop appropriate remedial interventions.
Learning disorders should be identified as early as possible during school years.
Following are the types of learning disabilities. Learning disabilities fall into two major types, plus another
1. Speech and language disorders (the person is delayed by years in the development of one of these
o Difficulty producing speech sounds (developmental articulation disorder). The person might mispronounce
certain letters or letter combinations.
o Difficulty using spoken language to communicate (developmental expressive language disorder). The person
has difficulty with verbal expression.
o Difficulty understanding what other people say (developmental receptive language disorder). The person
hears the words, but doesn’t process the words correctly.
2. Academic skills disorders (the person is delayed by years in the development of one of these skills):
o Reading problems (developmental reading disorder, or dyslexia). The person cannot identify different word
o Writing problems (developmental writing disorder, or dysgraphia). The person has problems with handwriting
or with creating sentences that make sense to others.
o Arithmetic skills problems (developmental arithmetic disorder, or dyscalculia). The person has problems with
calculations or with abstract mathematical concepts.
Miscellaneous learning disabilities
o Fine motor skills problems (dyspraxia)
o Nonverbal Learning Disorder
Children do not outgrow a learning disability. However, with the right treatment they can learn strategies to
compensate for their disability.
The most effective approach is one that teaches with a focus on the students' strengths while remediating the
Most students with learning disabilities are educated in regular classrooms with support (usually the resource
room). However, the individual needs of the student must be considered when making a decision about class
The picture is not a bleak one however. Every person with learning disabilities can be successful at school, at
work, in relationships, and in the community -- given the right opportunities. There are hundreds of colleges
throughout the United States that have programs specifically for students with learning disabilities.
If you think your child has a learning disability, contact your child's teacher and the director of special education
and request an evaluation.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law which requires schools to provide
services to children with disabilities. That law requires schools to provide a Free and AppropriatePublic Education
(FAPE) to your child in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). A team of individuals with knowledge of your
child and special education is required to decide eligibility for services and what services your child needs. You
are an important member of that team.
If your child is found eligible for special education services, the team must write a plan called an Individualized
Education Program (IEP). The IEP team members must work together to reach agreement on what the IEP will
provide. The team process allows individual members to hold different opinions about what is appropriate for your
child. It is also the responsibility of the team to reach agreement in spite of those differences.
PREPARE TO NEGOTIATE
The first step in getting services for your child is being prepared to explain what you want for your child and
having information that supports your request. After you decide what your child needs, you must be able to clearly
communicate to the appropriate person what you are requesting. Communicating with the appropriate person is
the quickest, simplest way to resolve or address issues.
Identify the Problem and What You Want
Understand the nature of the problem and the position of both sides. Determine whether there is a simple solution
to the issue or whether additional work is necessary for resolution. Determine if there is more than one way to
resolve the issue and remember that it is easiest to implement a solution that all team members support. If there
are many ways to resolve an issue, generally the school has the final say in which option will be used as long as it
is an appropriate option for your child. If the teacher and other school personnel agree with an option, it is more
likely that it will be implemented well and be successful for your child.
Communicate with the Right Person
Talk with the person who has the information you need or has the authority to make the changes that you want. If
there is an individual in the school setting with authority with whom you have established a good relationship, it
can be helpful to communicate problems with that person first. Avoid communicating with people with whom you
have a bad relationship if it is possible. Try to limit the number of people trying to resolve your concerns. Identify
the person who will follow-up on the issues and respond to you and agree upon a time-line for communication.
Make sure that everyone understands her role and responsibility in resolving the issue. It is helpful to write an
outline that everyone signs that indicates who will do what and when it will be done. Be a role model and be sure
that you complete what you agree to do.
Determine Who Has the Information You Need
A very important step in successful negotiation with your school is to know the facts of your situation. The ease of
getting the information and facts that you need depends on knowing who has that information.
Try to give your school officials the chance to resolve problems at the lowest level possible. People appreciate the
opportunity to work problems out at the lowest level possible.
How many times have you had someone say, “If you had let me know, I would have been happy to change that”?
Generally the person who is working with your child on a regular basis has the most information about your child.
In many cases, the superintendent will have no idea about the everyday issues regarding your child. This can
also be true for the special education administrator and the principal, unless a specific issue has been brought to
DETERMINE WHO HAS THE INFORMATION YOU NEED
TEACHER has information about the IEP and the general curriculum for your child’s grade level as well as the
classroom schedule and environment.
PRINCIPAL has information about building schedules and transportation, staff availability (aides, teachers) and
special building projects and themes.
SPECIAL EDUCATION ADMINISTRATOR has information about district resources for services for children with
disabilities, whether additional services can be provided, location of programs and services, and can generally
determine what the superintendent is willing to do.
SUPERINTENDENT has the ultimate decision-making authority together with the school board regarding resource
allocation and location of service.
It is always best to try to resolve any issue at the lowest possible level with the simplest means of communication
available. If you think you can resolve an issue by talking with the teacher, do it. If it doesn’t work, go to the next
It is good practice to ask people how they prefer to be contacted. Some teachers are comfortable with parents
contacting them in person (unscheduled) for minor matters. Some prefer telephone or e-mail contact, and others
prefer a scheduled conference to discuss matters. Determine the preferred method and try to use it whenever
possible. You should also make your own preferences for contact known. Many parents establish a regular
communication notebook or pattern with the teacher to communicate about the child’s daily/weekly progress or
problems that arise. Determine if the teacher is willing to communicate in this way. If so, you can request that a
communication notebook be added as a service to your child’s IEP. This is particularly helpful in situations where
children are unable to communicate or where children have regular problems in the classroom.
Good communication with the person working with your child can prevent many problems at school. Establish
rapport with your child’s teacher before problems arise. Make yourself available to volunteer in class and to
receive regular feedback.
This will help create an atmosphere of open communication. Try to work out problems with the teacher first and as
they arise. You can ask to talk with your child’s teacher or for a parent/ teacher conference. You can offer
suggestions to the teacher or provide helpful materials. Information should be offered in a manner that is careful
not to suggest that the teacher lacks knowledge, and should not be so voluminous as to overwhelm the teacher.
Communicating with someone in person allows you to interpret a person’s body language and demeanor and may
provide some insight into a person’s feelings about your requests, and willingness to follow through with them.
Proceed to the next level if you cannot resolve the issue with the teacher. Determine who the next person is who
can help you. If one person stands in the way of what you need, go to another person who can help you.
If it is inconvenient for you to get to the school to talk with the teacher or other staff, a telephone call can be made
to resolve issues. It helps to ask when it is best to call. Telephone contact should be initiated for brief
conversations and questions that can be answered simply. If the issue is more complex, a face-to- face contact or
meeting to discuss the issue is probably necessary.
There are two kinds of written communication that you can have with your school. The first is written
documentation of all of your communications with the school. You should keep written notes of all discussions,
telephone calls, meetings, and other communication you have with the school. It is helpful to have a notebook
(three ring binders work well) where you can document the date, time, content of the discussion, and name of the
person. All paperwork relating to your child’s education can be stored in the same binder (this can include your
child’s IEP, evaluations, progress reports, class work, etc.). This type of documentation is necessary to develop a
record of all interactions with the school. This information may become necessary for a more formal negotiation
with the school.
NEGOTIATION TIP: Keep notes of every communication: date and time, with whom you talked, and what was said.
The second type of written communication is to inform the school of your concerns about your child or to request
specific information or action from the school. If informal methods of negotiation fail, you can proceed with more
formal methods. The first step in the process is to send a letter to the school making a specific request with a time-
line for a response. You should send the letter in a manner which will verify its receipt (certified, registered mail).
You can also deliver it by hand and ask someone to initial a copy as received. Always keep a copy of all
correspondence for your records and never give anyone your only copy of a record.
Dos AND DON’Ts OF WRITTEN COMMUNICATION
DO SHARE ROUTINE INFORMATION. For example, use a communication book which goes from school to home
and back on a regular basis to share information about your child’s day or issues of concern.
DO MAKE SPECIFIC REQUESTS of the school regarding your child’s program or to object to specific proposals
made by the district especially when time-lines are involved and you need to document when you made the
DO SUMMARIZE PAST COMMUNICATION from meetings or phone calls where commitments have been made for
DO SAY THANK YOU. A card or note can go a long way to demonstrate your appreciation and support for the
work the school is doing with your child.
DON’T TRY TO SHARE COMPLEX INFORMATION which requires significant explanation and clarification.
However, a letter could be used to request a meeting to discuss this complex issue in person.
DON’T TRY TO SOLVE A VERY COMPLEX PROBLEM. A letter can be used to state the problem as you see it,
but the actual problem solving process is usually best conducted by phone or in person, depending upon the
DON’T SEND THE SCHOOL YOUR ONLY COPY OF A RECORD. Make another copy for team members.
DON’T SEND A LETTER TO THE SCHOOL THAT YOU WROTE WHEN YOU WERE ANGRY. Take time to cool off
so that your letter is written in a calm and clear way.
GET POSITIVE RESULTS AT MEETING
Sometimes it becomes necessary to request a meeting to resolve an issue. Meetings can be requested by a
telephone call, but the call should be followed by a letter of confirmation. A meeting may be necessary to resolve
a conflict that is complex or that involves a request for services that may be expensive or time consuming for a
school to provide.
There are certain steps that you should take to prepare for the meeting process. The more prepared you are
going into the meeting, the better your chance of leaving the meeting with the resolution you want.
Communicate with Experts to Seek Support for Your Position
An expert is someone who has specialized education and experience in a specific area. Experts often have a
license or certificate or other credentials to provide professional services. Experts can include, but are not limited
to, physicians, psychologists, educators, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists.
Having expert or professional support for your position will greatly increase your chance of a successful outcome
at any meeting. During the meeting, you should refer to documents from experts or professionals that support
If possible, have the expert or professional participate in the meeting. It is much easier for a school to ignore a
document than it is to ignore a person sitting in the meeting.
You can ask the school to pay for this expert if you are requesting an independent educational evaluation (IEE) of
your child. You can ask your school to pay for an IEE if you disagree with an evaluation the school conducted of
The school must either agree to pay for the IEE or request an impartial due process hearing to show that its
evaluation was appropriate. If you want to pursue an IEE at the school’s expense, it is best to reach agreement
with your school about the qualifications of the evaluator, what tests will be used, and who will pay prior to
scheduling the IEE. You can also get an IEE at your own expense at any time.
Many experts and professionals are busy and cannot come to your meeting. Explore whether the person can
participate in the meeting using a conference telephone. This would limit the amount of time that the individual
has to set aside to assist you. If your expert or professional can assist you in this manner, make sure to set up a
time and place for the meeting that is convenient to this person and make sure that there is a conference
telephone at the meeting. Determine who will place the telephone call prior to the meeting.
Before the Meeting
Prior to any meeting, you should identify the persons with authority to resolve your dispute and request that they
attend the meeting. Clearly identify the issue(s) and gather as many facts about your problem as possible. Be
sure to seek expert support for your position.
Explain clearly to the school what you think would resolve your concerns. You may be asking to review your child’s
IEP because the goals are not appropriate, or you may be asking that a service be added to the IEP to address
unmet needs. Come to the meeting prepared with one or more possible resolutions to your concerns.
Request written notice from the school about its position on the issue. If school personnel refuse to do something
that you have asked them to do, or if the school is proposing to do something with which you disagree, ask the
school to provide written notice of its reasons for the action or lack of action. This notice, which is required by the
law, should clearly explain the basis for the school’s action or inaction.
At the Meeting
Take a prepared outline or notes to the meeting. The outline or notes can help you remember the issues and
cover all topics for discussion. Remember to discuss current issues and not to dwell on mistakes of the past.
Dwelling on the past can inhibit the team’s ability to focus on ways to resolve the current dispute, can waste time,
and can create an uncomfortable environment.
Try not to start conversations with yes-or-no questions. For example, if your child needs more support for
transition, do not begin by asking for an aide.
Ask the team what can be done to provide support for your child during transitions from one activity to another.
Allow the conversation to develop, including multiple ideas about possible solutions to your concern. Yes-or-no
questions limit options particularly when the response to your request is no. You are left with an answer but not a
If you are requesting that the school change your child’s IEP or write a new IEP, you can prepare your own draft
goals, objectives, and services to take to the meeting. This can be helpful in guiding the team process to your
desired outcome, and can save time at the meeting that would otherwise be used to draft the IEP. It is acceptable
for the school to come to the meeting with a prepared draft IEP as long as there is open discussion about the
draft, participation in the IEP process by all team members including the parent, and the ability to change and
modify the draft as necessary. Remember that you have the ability to make changes to the draft IEP even if it is
presented to you in typed format.
All meetings should be documented in some way. Decide prior to the meeting whether to audiotape the meeting or
to take a friend or advocate as support. If making an audiotape of a meeting will create an uncomfortable situation
for the participants, then you may choose to take a friend to the meeting instead. People can be less forthcoming
while being taped because they are afraid that the tape may be used against them at a later time.
One way to document a meeting without taping it is to have a friend or advocate for support at meetings. This
person can take notes so that you can focus on discussing the issues at the meeting. The friend or advocate can
also serve as a witness to discussions that occurred at the meeting and can provide emotional support in a
setting where you are discussing emotionally charged issues.
It is normal to feel emotional during these meetings. After all, it is your child who is the topic of conversation and
you want the best for your child. Emotional outbursts can make team members uncomfortable. If necessary, take
breaks to keep your control. All discussion should occur in a courteous manner without emotional outbursts.
However, you must remember to be reasonable in your requests for services for your child. Negotiate for the
things to which your child is entitled under the law, and for which you have supporting data (e.g., evaluations,
medical/psychological recommendations, progress notes) if you hope to be successful in the process.
After the Meeting
If agreement is reached at the meeting make sure that there is written documentation of the agreement. If the
agreement is for services for your child, make sure that the services are written on the IEP. Any document can be
attached as part of the IEP if the team agrees to attach it. Make sure that any attachments include the signatures
of the team members and date of agreement. If full agreement is not reached at the meeting, make a list of the
next steps to take and who is responsible for them. Create a timeline for the completion of the meeting process.
Remember that some issues take more than one meeting to resolve. Do not sign an IEP unless you agree with it.
The school cannot refuse to serve your child because you do not sign the IEP, unless it is your child’s first IEP.
Remember to thank people for their participation in the process and for their efforts in serving your child. This can
be done in person or with a thank you note or card. A thank you note or card demonstrates your appreciation and
support for the work the school is doing with your child, even when things may be somewhat tense.