The first sign may be that your bright child is having trouble reading, or organizing school assignments, or concentrating on homework. Your child may be frustrated with school, and you may find yourself frustrated with what looks like a lack of effort. And a teacher may also notice that something is amiss.
If you suspect that your child has a learning disability, and you’ve ruled out distractions like bad chemistry with the teacher or a social issue, your best recourse is to have the child tested.
The cost of getting a thorough assessment by a trained professional can be steep, often as much as $5,000. But that financial burden is not necessarily yours to bear: under federal law your local school district is obligated to assess your child free of charge, even if he or she attends a private school. That said, if you go through the process with a school district, it might take a bit more effort than hiring a professional. Below, we discuss both options.
First, though, some context. By some estimates, about one in seven Americans has a learning disability, a neurological disorder that can make a basic task like reading, writing or organizing information more difficult than usual. Disabilities cannot be cured, but if identified early they can often be ameliorated. Parents, teachers and specialists can help children develop strategies for dealing with them.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted in 1975 and updated frequently since, is meant to ensure that all children receive an “appropriate” education. The law, generally known by its acronym, IDEA, states that local schools are obliged to help identify children who may have learning disabilities and then have them assessed, with the parents’ consent.
But what the law promises and what the schools can realistically provide are sometimes at odds.
“The law was created with the idea that parents and schools would collaborate on their child’s education,” says Neal Rosenberg, an education lawyer in Manhattan who worked for the New York City Board of Education when the law was first drafted. “But the relationship can sometimes turn adversarial.”
In this column, I will discuss how to determine whether your child has a learning disability and help you navigate the local school system’s obligations in that assessment. In next week’s column, my colleague Walecia Konrad will explain how to help learning-disabled children get the education they need.
GETTING STARTED If your child is having difficulty in school, don’t delay in arranging a meeting with your child’s teacher and the school principal.
At this meeting, explain your concerns about your child’s uneven academic performance. Perhaps your child is bright, but is reading below grade level. Or he reads fluently but is a poor speller. (Eighty percent of people with learning disabilities have problems with reading.) The school may first want to gather more data about your child’s performance and even try adjusting the classroom instruction before formally assessing him or her.
At this point, it is crucial to know your legal rights. Every state has a Parent Training and Information center that is financed by IDEA. Contact your state’s center to learn your school’s responsibilities and your child’s rights under the law.
To find the center in your state, go to the Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers Web site. Wrightslaw.com, a Web site focused on special-education law and advocacy, is another good resource.
SPURRING ACTION A common complaint among parents is that the school is not moving swiftly enough to address their children’s problems or is reluctant to provide testing at all. Given the budget challenges for most schools, that reluctance is understandable. Besides the cost of testing, a finding that your child requires specialized instruction can lead to additional expenses.
But this is your child you’re talking about. If the school seems to be dragging its feet, make a written request to the school’s director of special education saying that you would like a comprehensive assessment. And provide reasonable evidence to support your request.
That’s the advice of Kyle Karen, a parent with a learning-disabled child who also volunteers as her school’s parent-teacher liaison for special education in Shelter Island, N.Y.
“The only thing a school district wants to do less than pay for an evaluation is to be involved in a lawsuit,” Ms. Karen said. “So if the school is aware that you have a paper trail, they tend to be much more responsive.”
DIAGNOSIS As with any health condition, an accurate diagnosis is crucial to developing an accurate treatment, which in this case is an education plan. Yet learning disabilities are notoriously tricky to uncover and identify. If your child has trouble reading, for instance, more than one issue could be at play.
“People often think of reading as one thing,” says Nanci Bell, co-founder of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, an education testing service. “But it takes a cascade of skills to read. You have to be able to integrate imagery and language.”
Ideally, then, you want the school to perform a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation. This workup should include an I.Q. test to determine a child’s strengths and weaknesses, tests that measure your child’s academic skills and interviews with the child, the parents and the teacher.
If the evaluation confirms that a child indeed has a learning disability, the school principal should arrange a meeting with the parents and teacher to describe the results and to discuss a course of action.
If the diagnosis sounds inaccurate or incomplete, you should say so. You have the right under IDEA to request an independent educational evaluation, a type of second opinion, conducted by an examiner who is not employed by the school district.
“You must have a very good reason for the request,” Mr. Rosenberg said. The test results must seem wildly inaccurate or you must be able to demonstrate that the examiner was not competent or not objective.
And even if you do have a good reason, it might take months for the school to agree to your demand, if it does at all.
If you are getting resistance from your school, talk to an education lawyer. Many lawyers will provide you with a free initial consultation and can advise you how best to proceed with your complaints.
You can request a list of free or low-cost legal services in your area from your local public school; by law the school must supply you with this information. If you want to hire a lawyer on your own, ask other parents or even your pediatrician for names.
HIRING AN EVALUATOR Some parents simply bypass the school system altogether and hire a private evaluator to test their child, or to augment the tests the school has completed. Ask your pediatrician and other parents who have had their children tested for recommendations. The benefit of hiring your own evaluator is that you can be more involved in the process and are likely to receive a more in-depth, nuanced diagnosis. Independent testers are likely to spend more time with your child and may be more creative in their approach.
“I recently was testing a very bright 5-year-old who could only pay attention for 10 minutes at a time,” Laura Solomon, a special-education consultant, recently told me. “So we did 10 minutes of testing and five minutes of play. It took us three mornings to finish the tests.”
Ms. Solomon, who has been assessing children for 27 years, said “testing is an art and a science.”
Ms. Karen, for instance, arranged for her son to have additional functional vision testing — which can help determine how well the eyes converge, track and scan — for about $800, including a report.
Private evaluators provide parents with a lengthy report that explains their findings and their suggestions for educational interventions. Some will even go into the classroom to observe your child.
Private assessments, though, are expensive. Fees can range from $500 to as much as $5,000 for a comprehensive evaluation done by a top-notch professional or at a well-respected institution. Some health insurers — but not all — will reimburse you for tests that are conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist and that have a psychological component.
In general, your school should be responsive to the report created by a private evaluator. If the school disagrees with the report, you can request a hearing with the board of education. You should definitely include your lawyer in this process.
"Finding Help for Learning Disabilities", New York Times