By Nicola Frost, Understood.org Regional Field Manager, National Center for Learning Disabilities (ncld.org)
My son has always been inquisitive and full of life. He loved to build structures out of recycled materials, playing with friends and asking “why”. But in first grade his curiosity began to be replaced with fear. He struggled to write his name, was frustrated by simple books, and didn’t like going to school. I asked the teacher how I could help, and she said my son was fine, he has a late birthday, but it would work itself out as he develops. In 2nd grade we asked the school to have him tested for special education supports and services, but they declined. Instead, we paid for a private evaluation because we knew that we couldn’t waste any more time.
The test results indicated that he had advanced vocabulary skills but low processing speed. We shared this information with the school, the teacher refused to accept the report’s recommendations. How was it possible the school didn’t recognize the signs? By third grade the school agreed that there was an issue, but told us they weren’t quite sure how to help. While most students were reading to learn my son was still learning to read. His self-esteem began to decline and I was at a lost on how to help him best, we were all hurting.
It wasn’t until middle school that he received an evidence-based program that helped him become fluent in reading and writing. His response to this system was immediate, however, I wondered why it took seven years to get him the support he needed? Imagine the stressors and emotional turmoil that could have been avoided if intervention would have happened earlier.
Early intervention is essential for students with learning and attention issues. Waiting years to evaluate a child’s learning needs and then spending years negotiating the system to get proper supports is an unacceptable approach when 1 in 5 students in the U.S. have learning and attention issues. The cost of delayed interventions–stress on families, delayed learning, and reduced graduation rates–is not sustainable.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ recent report, The State of Learning Disabilities, delayed identification means students with specific learning disabilities are likely to enter middle and high school settings without the essential literacy skills needed to meet rigorous academic standards.
The good news is that there are ways that school districts can avoid these delays and there is federal education funding to support those approaches. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is our country’s flagship education law and it governs a lot of what happens in schools, including professional development opportunities for teachers. One new development is that ESSA requires teacher training to focus on helping educators learn evidence-based practices—strategies that are proven to help students learn.
One example of an evidence-based practice that could help children like my son is implementation of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). MTSS is a framework for schools that includes providing high-quality instruction and interventions based on what a student needs, regularly checking to see if he is making progress towards his goals, and making changes to how educators teach a child if they are not making appropriate progress. MTSS cannot delay or deny an evaluation for special education where a parent requests one. Instead, these data-driven interventions are supposed to happen early–as soon as teachers notice a child is falling behind or not understanding certain concepts–and should be regularly reviewed to identify when strategies aren’t working and find a better one.
As parents, we need to get involved and urge our districts and schools to do more to support students by providing teachers with training in the strategies that we know are effective for our kids, and by focusing on the need to intervene early. No child should have to wait seven years to get what he needs in school. Ask your child’s principal about how your school supports teacher learning and development and how that may change this school year as a result of ESSA. Talk to your child’s teacher about the training he or she receives, and find out if they learn about MTSS and early intervention.
Getting involved helped me make sure my son was successful, and weighing in on ESSA and teacher professional development is our opportunity to make sure our schools support all kids with learning and attention issues. For more ideas on how to get involved, you can review Understood.org’s toolkit on ESSA advocacy.