When your child is struggling in school

| Posted On Jan 24, 2012 | By:

It is the first day of Kindergarten.  Your 5-year-old child walks into his or her class with a scrubbed face and new clothes.  You wipe away a tear, remembering the day he or she was born, and smile, thinking, “We did it!  We have made it to Kindergarten!”

The first few weeks go well.  There are some worries about new friends and separation from you, but they are manageable.  The teacher seems to be good, and relationships with the other children are developing nicely.  You are able to go to work and relax, knowing that your child is happy and learning until 3:00 every day. 

Then the notes or emails start to come home, documenting trouble following directions, or difficulty with social interactions.  Around mid-October, the phone rings.  “There is trouble in the classroom.”  “Things are difficult in Kindergarten.”  “We need to have a meeting.”  Your calm is gone and your sense of security evaporated.  What do you do now? 

Many children have trouble in school.  Perhaps a child has a behavioral, developmental, regulatory, sensory or social issue that makes school difficult.  Or perhaps there is a problem with the school environment, or with the teacher, or in the interplay between the child and the teacher.  Whatever the reason may be, parents and schools should work together as a team to provide the best environment possible for each child to reach his or her potential. 

Sometimes, when a child is struggling in the classroom, this teamwork can break down, leaving young students and their parents feeling overwhelmed and helpless.  Pediatricians, therapists and psychiatrists can help understand what is happening with the child, but how can parents better understand what can – and should – happen in the school?

Navigating the school system can be difficult, but there are resources that provide guidance and support during this process.  Children’s rights are protected by the federal and state government.  Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), and  the laws are designed to enable every child to achieve school success.  Parents have rights, too. These rights are also protected by both the federal and state government.  Additional information and resources can be found on the Massachusetts Department of Education’s website

This process starts with an evaluation to help determine each child’s specific emotional, learning and developmental needs, and services to make sure these needs are being addressed appropriately.  Within 45 school days of a request for an evaluation, the results of the evaluation should be reviewed with parents at a meeting to determine eligibility for special education services. 

These meetings should be interdisciplinary and may include teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and any therapists that are deemed appropriate, such as occupational therapists, speech therapist or physical therapists.  Parents are allowed to take anyone they wish to this meeting for support.  The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides resources for advocates who know the rules and the laws that schools must follow.

Early Intervention programs provide evaluations and services for children who meet criteria up until the age of 3, and an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) may then be developed based on the results and findings of your child’s evaluation.

After the age of 3, the public school system of the district in which the child resides begins to provide special education services for eligible children.  An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 plan may then be developed to document the accommodations needed to address the child’s specific learning needs.  A written copy of the IEP or 504 plan must be given to parents at the meeting.  IEPs and 504 plans are reviewed yearly and children should be reevaluated every three years, but parents can request meetings at any time.

If the school seems unwilling to provide educational assessments, if they are not following through with the accommodations outlined in the child’s plan, or if they are not adhering to any of their other mandates, parents may have to pursue matters legally.  The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights provides free legal advice, and if needed, legal representation (for the Boston office’s phone number, please see below). 

Pre-school, Kindergarten and the grades that follow should be fun and supportive experiences; most of the time they are.  When this does not occur, parents should know their rights and the rights of their children.  At Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, we have clinicians in Behavioral Health and in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics who can evaluate children, support and counsel both parents and children, and assist parents as they determine how best to advocate for their children.

Helpful phone numbers and websites:

The Federation for Children with Special Needs: (617) 236-7210 or toll free at (800) 331-0688
The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Boston Office: (617) 289-0111

American Academy of Pediatricians website for parents
New Hampshire’s Parent Information Center on special education
KidsHealth – topics written for parents and for children
Massachusetts Dept of Education
Concord-Carlisle’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SPED PAC) website has a link to other town-based groups in Massachusetts, which can be great resources and supports for parents


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