From Bystander to Active Participant

Steps Every Parent Should Take Before Entering The Special Education Process

I felt like a bystander in the special education process.  Then I changed.

Entering this journey, even though I was physically present, I felt like an outsider, completely leaving it up to my sons’ schools to lead the way. I didn’t know the process or what to do, and I didn’t understand how to prepare myself.

As a result, when I started on this path I felt totally inadequate. I walked away feeling overwhelmed, disappointed, and quite honestly, very angry.

What went wrong?

  • I assumed the schools had all the answers
  • I took things personally
  • I wasn’t prepared

Notice the “I” statements? Moving from bystander to participant, I realized it meant taking accountability for the things I have control over. By taking an honest look at my role in the process, I was able to get educated, get organized, ask questions, and seek guidance from educator friends and parents that had already been down this road.

Last year, when we moved from Arizona to Washington State, a new school brought the opportunity for a do-over as we transitioned from private to public school. The school, however, was not the only thing that was different: I was walking into the process more prepared and with a completely different mindset.

I was informed, organized, and most importantly, prepared.

I was able to effectively communicate my childrens’ strengths, struggles, and needs. I walked away feeling like my input held value. This experience was far from the challenges I faced before—it was a tremendous success!

Being prepared and seeking understanding, I was empowered to be an informed and confident participant during the process. It’s a mindset that opens the door to a better experience and outcome. 

Most likely, it’s been a long road getting to this point​​—maybe even a bit of a bumpy one. Any conflicting and confusing guidance you may have received is officially in the past—now it’s time to leave it there. As you get ready for the evaluation, think of it as a new beginning, a chance to become informed and navigate the process as an active participant. 

Although the school will perform an array of tests to complete your child’s evaluation, the final decision is a collaborative one between you and the team of teachers and administrators involved in the process, based on the results of the evaluation, writing samples, academic history, input, and observations from teachers and parents. No matter if your child is placed on an IEP or a 504 plan–when it’s all said and done, you know your child best. Your input is imperative. 

Where do you start?

Get to Know the Process

The special education process is full of interconnected parts, strict timelines, complex decision making, and confusing jargon. Making sense of all the pieces and how they fit is essential. We are here to provide guidance. Check out our post, School Evaluation Process and FAQs [1], to learn more about the special education process.

Get organized

If you haven’t already done so, start a parent binder. As you embark on the process of getting your child evaluated, you want to have a clear picture of your child’s struggles. Gathering information and documentation will help clearly define them. Having this in hand will be useful for a private or school evaluation.

I’ll be honest—this is a step I missed until I was further in. Although it was helpful when setting up my boys’ accommodations, it would have made a huge difference earlier on for two reasons: 

  • First, as a parent it’s impossible to avoid the emotions that come with the stress of the situation. Being prepared with docs and information would have helped me organize my thoughts and establish a true picture of where my children were showing challenges.
  • Second, having the “evidence” in hand that supported my concerns would have helped me effectively communicate with my boys’ teachers and schools.

Remember the goal is to be an active participant.

Here are some records that will jumpstart your binder. Having this information on hand will be helpful as you enter the evaluation process and as you continue down the special education or 504 plan road:

Create a Communication Log

  • Conversations: Who, when, and summarize. Always follow-up with an email reiterating what was discussed. This ensures everybody is on the same page. Miscommunications happen and people forget things
  • Dates you sent and received important documents
  • Copies of emails

Parent Records

  • Relevant details of the history of your child’s learning challenges
  • Specific examples of challenges your child is experiencing
  • Create a Log—list concerns and the signs you are seeing (see resource page of this guide for examples and printable sheet)
  • Writing samples—anything that backs up your concerns
  • Reports/feedback (tutor, SLP, etc.)

Log Homework

For the most part, a child is supposed to be able to complete homework independently. As hard as it is, if you are able to, stop helping with homework. When your child is turning in completed homework, a teacher has no idea what it took to complete it. If you are helping and not communicating with your child’s teacher, their struggles are being masked.

  • Date and note how much time is spent on assignments and how much help was needed
  • There are homework norms on time spent by grade—check with the teacher or district’s website

School Records

  • Report cards and progress reports
  • Notes/emails from teachers
  • All tests
  • Any disciplinary action

When I put together my children’s binders, seeing all the “evidence” painted a clear picture so that I could speak to what challenges my children experienced and how those challenges impacted their education experience. This really helped me understand the types and how much support my children truly needed.

This information will assist you in preparing as you enter the special education process and will provide background on your concerns, as well as support when advocating for your child further down the line. 

Get Comfortable Talking About It

Having open communication with teachers, family members, and your child is critical for them to thrive. Talking openly ensures everyone is on the same page and proper supports are in place at school and home and is crucial to the messaging a child receives as they build confidence in who they are as learners.

You are now ready to be organized, prepared, and have a boost of confidence with your binder in hand.

For more information, see our post on School Evaluation Process and FAQs.

PDF for requesting an evaluation for your child.

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