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Getting an Evaluation for a Special Learner

by Megan Allison

You have concerns that your child might be struggling to learn or communicate. Sometimes the signs present themselves early in a child’s development and oftentimes a student compensates for their struggles through the younger elementary years. Even among professionals the screenings for disorders and challenges may begin early or only happen after a parent’s request. In recent years, autism has received widespread attention; it is common for pediatricians to begin screening for Autism Spectrum Disorder at 18 months. However, what do you do when you suspect dyslexia, speech difficulties, ADD, or another learning challenge? In young children these are classified as developmental delays and identifying these early can equip you to assist your special learner.

Identify Signs of Delay

Identify the signs of a delay with the help of a number of great online resources.  See a list of typical dyslexia signs here: homeschoolingwithdyslexia.com. If you suspect dyslexia, Lexercise offers a free dyslexia test. Other families I have talked with recommend Susan Barton’s program. She manages Bright Solutions for Dyslexia. I found Dianne Craft’s website helpful in understanding how children learn differently. Her website has great videos describing right brain learners and how to teach to their unique learning pathway. If you are looking for speech, language or hearing delays visit asha.org.

Three Avenues for Evaluating Children

Some parents find it beneficial to have their special learner evaluated, and it’s helpful to know your options:

1) Public Evaluations

In the state of Arizona Child Find requires Public Education Agencies to locate, identify, and evaluate children with disabilities birth through age 21. Visit the Child Find website to have your child screened. Generally, evaluations are done periodically in group settings. If the school year has already begun, deliver a written request for evaluation to the school district’s office of your residence. It is important to include any documentation you have that will help the office determine the need for an assessment. Remember you have spent time with your child and should write down what you see him or her struggling with academically. In a school setting the teacher would normally document the difficulties. It can take up to 45 days after the request has been delivered before an evaluation is scheduled.

District Determination: A Team Effort

Once your child has been evaluated, the district determines if your child has needs that qualify for services. The school district is interested in determining whether your child can access their education. Their assessment is built around those parameters and it takes a team, including you, the parent, to determine if your child struggles with learning. When I say the district is focused on your child’s ability to access their education, it is important to understand that parents may have different expectations. For example, my son struggled with speech which is considered expressive language delay; however, he could hear (receptive language), follow directions, and point to what he wanted. Therefore, he could access most of his education even though I wanted him to speak in full sentences like his three-year-old peers.

It is also crucial to understand that the school does not diagnose your child because only medical doctors determine diagnoses. A medical professional’s opinion may be useful to the team in determining the academic needs of your child; however, again, the doctor’s criterion and goals may be far different than what the school decides.

If the evaluation team concludes that your child qualifies for services such as occupational therapy or speech therapy, then an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or a service plan is put in place depending on what the parents choose. An IEP is for students fully enrolled in public school and a service plan is for private or homeschooled students. Regardless of the child’s age, you can homeschool while your child receives services through the school district.

Services for Homeschoolers

Furthermore, it is important to know that services are limited for homeschoolers as the district determines funding on a yearly basis. This is known as proportionate share and is the share that goes to both private school children and homeschool children receiving services in each district on a yearly basis. Families might best utilize this path as a starting point especially if you know very little about your child’s struggles. This was the very spot I found myself in when my son was little and unable to speak, and I knew nothing about helping him speak.

This is typically the least expensive route; however, it was my experience that therapies are delivered in group settings. It was the least effective avenue for reaching the goals I had for my son. Although a child has an IEP (individualized program), group therapy is not targeted to each individual student.

Additional Resources

Three helpful organizations that come alongside you on this journey are HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association), SPED Homeschool  and Raising Special Kids. If you are a member of HSLDA, their educational consultants can go through the evaluation results with you and help you develop an IEP for you to implement at home. SPED Homeschool is an organization led by homeschool mom Peggy Ployhar, and excellent resources are provided for parents of special learners. Raising Special Kids is 501c3 in Arizona that was formed to support families of special learners from birth to age 26. It’s families of special learners helping other special learning families. Their website is full or resources, online parent training, periodic magazine, and you can connect with an experienced family for encouragement and support for the journey.

2) Find a Specialist

Another evaluation option is to visit your pediatrician’s office and ask for a referral to a specialist. A referral speeds up the process in scheduling an appointment with a specialist. You’ll need to describe your concerns to your doctor. Write them down ahead of time so you will not forget to share everything. If you’re familiar with delays and are seeing them in your child be sure to note these so you can discuss your concerns at your appointment. It can take up to six months to be seen by a specialist.

This is a more costly route; however, therapy is delivered to the individual child and was most effective for our family. The expectations were higher and my son quickly reached goals. I also had a more direct hand in communication between therapists and working on goals at home. We found faster results with our son going through a private practice.

AFHE members suggest getting evaluated at

While some specific therapies may need to be outsourced, especially in the beginning, observe the specialist, research and educate yourself so you can deliver therapies at home. This, ultimately, saves your family money and guarantees that you are a vital part of your child’s success. Many of the brain balance activities, speech therapy homework, and dyslexic challenges that my son has we worked on at home. I was shown some of the therapies to work on at home. Some I utilized resources from the internet. Finally, others I implemented after reading books about my son’s challenges.

Did you know AFHE has a number of recommended resources for Special Needs Education?
afhe.org/resources/special-needs

3) Consider the Division of Developmental Disabilities

Finally, your child may qualify for services through the Division of Developmental Disabilities. Families of children who have a child with an intellectual (cognitive) disability, autism, epilepsy, or cerebral palsy should consider reaching out to DDD to determine if the child is eligible. I recently spoke to one mother whose child receives habilitation services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy as well as respite and habilitation care on a regular basis. As her child has aged goals have included life skill training. Because she has other typically developing children at home, she expressed that the respite and habilitation care has allowed her child with special needs to have activities outside the home while she spends time with her other children.

Continue Learning Every Day

On a final note, as you wait for your evaluation appointment date, as you execute therapies and throughout your child’s education, he or she does not need to postpone any learning. Lessons continue by hearing the English language read aloud. Education not only happens through print but also through auditory medium. This was life changing for me to know we didn’t need to pause or delay learning because he couldn’t read on his own yet.

I highly recommend incorporating audiobooks into your regular school day. All special learners benefit from this as it increases their vocabulary, allows them to hear the natural rhythms of sentence structure, pick up rhyming words as well as learning about the world around them. Sometimes we use solely audiobooks and at other times pair them with the printed text. It can be helpful for early readers and struggling readers to both hear and see the sentences in a book. There are a number of free and affordable audiobook resources, including:

Looking for encouragement as you teach your special learner? Read Teaching Special Learners: A Good Work

Disclaimer: The author strives to give up to date information regarding special education, but parents should verify details as they seek evaluation(s). Laws and regulations change frequently. This blog post is for guidance and informational purposes only and does imply an endorsement of the websites or professionals mentioned. Article updated 4.15.20

Megan Allison lives in Glendale. She enjoys raising her three boys to love and serve the Lord. Megan actively serves on the board of her local support group where she encourages families in their homeschool journeys. She is passionate about equipping homeschoolers with the tools for success in their homes and communities. She desires to live out Titus 2:3-5. In her spare time, Megan likes to jog, spend time in nature, and date her husband Tim.

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Teaching Special Learners: A Good Work

by Megan Allison

Do you get excited when your child sounds out words and reads a favorite children’s book back to you? What about when he or she starts rhyming words out of the blue? Sings a nursery song? Counts to 20 all on her own? When he says “Mama” for the first time? Wonder, joy, and overflowing love is how I have felt.

How do you feel when your child does not say a word? One year passes and sounds are not turning into words. Second year: sounds, but very few words. Lost words. Concern, fear, dread, frustration. This is where I found myself almost nine years ago with my second beautiful baby boy. A happy, smiling all the time, quiet toddler. A boy without words.

Parents are eager for their children to learn. Reading great stories together bonds a family. Being able to talk and share with one another seals and deepens our relationships. When learning is cumbersome and difficult, don’t we as parents want to drill down to the problem and solve it? We quickly search for answers, wanting to waste no time getting to a solution. We search the Internet, talk to our spouse, consult friends, ask a teacher, express our concern to the pediatrician, and seek out other professionals’ opinions. When we really think there’s an issue, we want to find a diagnosis and get right to executing a plan to help our children on their educational journey. Here are six tips that I’d give myself if we were just starting out:

Take an expert’s opinion with a grain of salt 

Experts are human, too. We’ve had the same pediatrician for almost fifteen years, but when he told me that my middle son was just being lazy about talking, it didn’t make sense to me. Don’t get me wrong, experts can help us rule out diagnoses and narrow our focus. By partnering with specialists, we learned from an audiologist that our son didn’t have anything wrong with his ears and another professional determined our son has childhood apraxia of speech. We’ve tried sign language, fish oil, and crossing the midline activities. Some of these have helped, and with others I’m still debating the benefits.

I found it helpful to consult with specialized doctors, but ultimately my husband and I decided what road we would travel. I enjoyed researching about speech apraxia and many of the suggested activities because I believed I needed to educate myself in order to assist my son. I could do many of the therapy suggestions at home at no cost. Additionally, having researched apraxia, I could dialogue better with the professionals we were seeing on a regular basis. I was equipped when the time came that we decided to go ahead with speech therapy, but not pursue vision therapy, occupational therapy, or physical therapy.

Have patience

Our children are keenly aware that they are having difficulty. I’ve learned and I’m still trying to do better that our children are watching us and need to see us giving them grace. Even when we’ve explained the information for what seems like the hundredth time, grin and bear it, and explain it again. Have patience with yourself, too. You are much stronger and able to do more than you’ve ever thought yourself capable. 

After hours upon hours of speech practice, I know more now than I thought possible about the development of speech, how to teach a person to talk, good advice and bad advice for parents of children with speech difficulty, and I can lip read now, too. That may seem like small potatoes, but to this gal who is more inclined toward math and science and has difficulty remembering what a demonstrative pronoun is, this is a big accomplishment.

There is no one-size-fits-all or easy solution

When a child learns differently, it can take considerable amounts of trial and error before finding what works best for your child. Research takes time, and a method that works for one family may not work for another. One of the gifts of homeschooling is that you spend the majority of the day with your child, so you know your son or daughter intimately.

One recommendation I received was to read every day to my son. I just shake my head now thinking back on that advice, because for my son the solution had nothing to do with reading to him more. The language connections between the brain, tongue, palate, and ears weren’t happening for him, and he wasn’t able to produce the sounds in order to speak no matter how many times he heard my words. He needed to be taught how to speak. 

Teaching our children is good work. Any work worth doing is going to take grit, determination, and sacrifice. I try to remember it’s like growing a garden. You don’t plant today and harvest tomorrow. It’s going to take time with days of watering, weeding, fertilizing, more weeding, removing bad bugs, and finally harvesting. The fruit is a result of the hard work put in. I’m a few years in now with teaching, and the blessings and rewards have made all the work worth it.

Don’t give up too quickly on a method

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes a memory, so keep repeating grammar rules and math facts over and over again. Each time you practice, the brain is making those synapses fire, and it’s laying down that pathway for memorization to happen. I encourage you to keep plugging along with the basics. Keep it fun, make it a game, use it with something your child is interested in, or let your child be the teacher.

One of the best gifts of homeschooling is that time is on your side. You’re able to tailor your child’s education, and there’s plenty of time for repetition and review. I’m not convinced that there’s one program that will quickly solve learning difficulties. You’ll have to decide if it’s time to persevere or, if you’ve given a program a lengthy, thorough trial, then it may be time to tweak it or look for something new.

Resist fear

The unknown can be scary. Panic can set in if we let ourselves entertain all the what-if questions that reach our minds. Fear is a sales tactic, and I saw it used often when we were navigating our options. But what happens when you embrace the child that you have and the situation that you’re in? Fear can immobilize, or it can motivate you to move to research, to advocate, to ask lots of questions, and to not stop at anything to help your child.

Look back over the tips. Decide where you are in your journey and identify your next step. Are you just beginning and need to research? Are you knee deep in a method that you should keep persisting in, but with some adjustments? Today, decide to look fear in the face and use it to propel forward: use it as a call to action.

Find a friend

Look outside your immediate family for who can support you. It’s heartbreaking to see your child struggling, and there is a time for grieving over your child’s difficulties. It is often a lonely walk, especially when your child looks normal from the outside, and few people truly understand what you are going through. Even among your family, it can be hard to share one another’s burden.

I found it helpful to get connected to a homeschool support group to make a friend. It may be as simple as reaching out to others in similar situations through Facebook or meeting regularly with someone who will listen to you. There are many in the homeschool community eager to offer support. A kind friend can encourage and refresh you, so you can return home with new strength to meet the challenges with determination and grace.

Homeschooling can be a great experience in teaching special learners.

Our son turned 11 in July. He enjoys Legos, model airplanes, and erector sets. He is still a quiet, sweet child, but has occasional moments when he talks a mile a minute. He graduated speech therapy a few years ago. He seems to struggle with memorizing for the long term, but we call him our walking thesaurus because he can impressively change out words he’s supposed to memorize for a similar word. He understands the big picture. We’re in a season of repetition and review.

Homeschooling has been a great experience for us as we explore the things he likes and spend extra time as needed on memory work. There are no monthly educational assessments, and I love that he has plenty of time to play, take field trips, build all kinds of things, be a boy, and work at his own pace. Surprisingly, this work I am doing is changing me, molding me into a stronger, more disciplined, and more patient, compassionate person. My hope is that you find encouragement in my story and the strength to press on another day taking it one day at a time, knowing each step is a step forward.

Megan Allison lives in Glendale. She enjoys raising her three boys to love and serve the Lord. Megan actively serves on the board of her local support group where she encourages families in their homeschool journeys. She is passionate about equipping homeschoolers with the tools for success in their homes and communities. She desires to live out Titus 2:3-5. In her spare time, Megan likes to jog, spend time in nature, and date her husband Tim.