Supporting Special Needs in School

Navigating the school environment for a child with needs can be challenging.  Dr. Angela Axelrod, a school psychologist, met with Cole to discuss how schools are set up to help kids with a variety of needs and how to navigate available resources.  Dr. Axelrod points out that there are eight categories of needs that schools legally recognize which include vision/hearing impairment, learning disabilities, developmental delay, autism, and traumatic brain injury.

Regardless of the nature of a child’s needs, Dr. Axelrod notes that there must be an educational impact for a school to provide resources.  For example, if a child has a diagnosis of Autism but can function in the classroom, function socially, and achieve at grade level, the school would not be required to provide special education services.  However, there are resources outside of special education to bolster a child’s school experience (such as a guidance counselor to help with social skills).  Schools assess educational impact in a variety of ways, Dr. Axelrod points out, such as classroom observations, behavior rating scales, and academic and social progress.

Problem Solving School Needs

If a parent is noting difficulty at home or a child is reporting challenges, Dr. Axelrod recommends parents look to the classroom teacher first (especially for K-5 students).  The classroom teacher in elementary school is spending 7 hours a day with students and can be a wealth of information.  Some important questions to ask the teacher are:

  • How long has this been happening?  Is the problem sudden or ongoing?
  • How would a typical age matched student handle this?  How are age matched students performing?  In this situation, how would another grade level student behave?
  • What has already been tried to handle the issue in the classroom?
Help Beyond the Classroom

If the classroom teacher is not able to provide the answers necessary to understand how a student is functioning in the classroom or at grade level, a parent can reach out to the school guidance counselor or school psychologist.  Other resources Dr. Axelrod recommends are parent liaisons (in some larger school districts), reading specialists, special education teachers, and school principles.  Outside of school, Dr. Axelrod recommends starting with a child’s pediatrician who often has a network of professionals in the community that they can refer children and families to.

Common Misconceptions

Dr. Axelrod also points out a few misconceptions when it comes to special education.  For example, many people assume that 100% of the funding needs for special education services are covered.  However, that is not the case.  While special education is supported by federal funds, it only covers a portion of each school district’s costs.  For example, Dr. Axelrod’s current school district receives federal dollars that cover about one-third of special education costs, but schools remain legally required to provide adequate services.  Another common misconception is that the more services a child receives, the better.  However, schools are actually required to provide services in the least restrictive environment possible.  For example, a parent may think a student could benefit from a full-time aid but because that is a relatively restrictive environment, the school will aim to meet needs in less restrictive methods first.

Start to Finish

So let’s look at this process from start to finish.  First, a parent recognizes a concern.  Completed by a child obtaining resources and putting them in place at school. (The very condensed version of a complex process.):

  • Parent recognizes issue – behavior, reading, social challenges
  • Gather information from school.  Start with classroom teacher –> Guidance counselor –> School psychologist –> Principle –> Schools problem solving team/process which child could be referred to
  • Determine simple classroom interventions (coordinated with classroom teacher)
  • A special education evaluation can be requested by parent (or school may recommend to family) if simple interventions are inadequate.  Schools require parent permission for special education evaluation (paperwork required)
  • Evaluation is necessary to determine student eligibility.  The evaluation also guides possible interventions.
  • School and parent meeting to discuss results- parent must sign-off on recommended interventions.  An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is developed at this time between school and parents.
  • Yearly review of plan
  • Re-evaluation every 3 years

The above outline makes the process look simple but certainly, it is not so cut and dry.  The landscape of school is different in every district, every building.  Dr. Axelrod advises being open and honest with schools so that together parents and schools can offer what is best for students.  To hear the full conversation, see below.

Recommended resources:
  • Individual state education website – criteria for eligibility and other resources
Picture of Dr. Angela Axelrod

Dr. Angela Axelrod

Angela Axelrod is the Pupil Services Director and School Psychologist for the Augusta School District in Augusta, Wisconsin. Angela also holds a license for private practice in school psychology and is an adjunct faculty member at UWEC in the Department of Psychology and Department of Special Education. Angela earned her B.S. in Psychology from Iowa State University and her Ed.S. and Ph.D in Educational Psychology from Indiana University. Angela grew up in Des Monies, Iowa and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin with her husband and two school-age sons. She has practiced school psychology in districts in Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.