Working with Educators

Become an Effective Educational Advocate

The Balanced Mind Parent Network is committed to providing information that will empower parents to increase their effectiveness as parent advocates.  Learning how to be your child’s advocate doesn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  In the process of reading this material, you will gain practical information that will increase your effectiveness and your confidence in advocating for a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) for your child.


In discussing educational advocacy, we all recognize that it is just one part of a parent’s role.  Before a child gets out of bed in the morning, while she is looking for misplaced homework, or frantic over a missing pair of shoes, we are there.  After the child comes home from school, with a book bag filled with assignments and crumbled letters we are there.  At dinner, when we are able to prepare it, and well into the evening hours when rapid cycling may make homework or even a good night’s sleep impossible, we are there, doing our best to cope, doing our best to parent our child.
To address the big picture of parenting and caring for a child with bipolar disorder, The Balanced Mind Parent Network invited Mani Pavuluri, MD, PhD, associate professor of child psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to offer insights into our larger role as parents.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network asked her to address the question, “How can we not only help our children in school, but also beyond?”  In this video, Dr. Pavuluri will discuss the Rainbow Program, a form of treatment that parents can practice at home in the course of daily life.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network is grateful to Dr. Pavuluri for sharing her expertise with all of us.  Note:  Be sure to watch her other presentation in the Brain and BP Section.

Becoming and Advocate for your Child

One of the biggest contributions you can make to the emotional well being of a child with bipolar disorder is to become an effective advocate for the child’s educational needs.  It’s not a small task, but the rewards can be enormous.  Obtaining the accommodations, special education placement and/or related services that your child needs can result in a major reduction of stress, both at school and at home.

The term advocate has different meanings. In schools the term advocate is most often used to describe a person who has training and specific knowledge to assist families as they navigate through special education screening, evaluation, placement, and any future decisions related to special education programs. Parents are advocates too. In every family, parents are recognized as their children’s’ first teachers. Parents are the primary decision makers to ensure their children’s safety, health, and education needs are met. Whether they elect to advocate for themselves or choose to work with someone else who holds the official title of advocate, parents have the right to be full partners in their children’s education.

As advocates in the school setting, it will take time and effort to develop an understanding of the process.  This process involves working with the school system, learning your child’s legal rights to a free and appropriate public education, and identifying the resources inside and outside of the school that can help you put in place the services and accommodations your child needs.

You’ve probably already learned a great deal about the symptoms of bipolar disorder and the medications commonly used to treat it.  In addition, you’ve probably learned some parenting techniques that help prevent tensions at home from escalating.  This resource will help you take on the other fundamental factor that influences wellness in your child, making sure that his/her school is a supportive and positive experience.

What does it Mean?

What does it mean to be an educational advocate?  It sounds overwhelming to me.  I am so exhausted from all the phone calls and visits to Tanya’s therapist and psychiatrist.  How am I going to take on the school as well? –Gemma, mother of Tanya, age 7

A dictionary definition of advocacy is “the act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy, active support.”  To advocate for your child in the educational system is to speak on behalf of your child and his or her specific learning needs.  To become an effective advocate for your child, it is important that you:

  • Develop a clear understanding of how your child’s illness affects learning
  • Become familiar with the vocabulary of education specialists
  • Learn the best ways to manage the complex relationship with the other adults on your child’s educational team, who often have divergent perspectives.

Learning how to advocate doesn’t happen overnight.  It doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  That’s why The Balanced Mind Parent Network developed these articles on advocacy.  You can work through each section at your own pace.  In the process of reading these materials, you will learn how to prepare yourself to become an effective advocate.

At first, I was so nervous whenever I met with the school.  I would vacilitate between fighting back the tears about my son’s behavior and trying to prove that I wasn’t a “bad” mom who was the cause of my son’s behavior.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network taught me how to approach the school with confidence and how to build a collaborative relationship. Today, school meetings are stress-free! –Susan, mom to Michael, age 12.

Qualities of Effective Advocates

By understanding the processes and laws that govern special education parents can be well equipped to participate fully within multi-disciplinary teams (MDT). Each State and school district has its own set of policies. But each will have established protocol that must be followed. MDT includes parents, classroom teachers, site administration, and special education staff members. All decisions must be made based on evidence to determine whether and/or what special education services are appropriate for each child on an individual basis. Working collaboratively, having knowledge of their rights, and being prepared all are factors that increase the odds children will be provided the most appropriate placement and services to ensure success. Parents can improve this process by building partnerships with staff, providing helpful information, and by coming to the table with a clear purpose along with an open mind. 
One thing that is important for parents know that not all students with mood disorders need special education. Obtaining an IEP or even a 504 does not automatically ensure an appropriate education. In fact it can be something that lowers teachers’ expectations and the likelihood of a quality education. Each child and every situation has to be considered based on one learner and his/her needs.

The more knowledge parents have about the processes and laws that govern school systems, the greater the likelihood that their children will be provided needed services available under special education legislation.  Parents who become effective advocates for their children are able to work within the system, building partnerships, providing helpful information, finding creative compromises, and, most importantly, ensuring that everyone involved is focused first and foremost on the needs of the child.  Research clearly demonstrates that at-risk learners whose self-esteem is encouraged, and who are offered opportunities for academic success in positive learning environments, are better equipped when the time comes to enter the work force as adults.

Deciding What to Disclose

I am a custodial grandmother.  At first I didn’t want to go into any details.  After all, it’s been a rough road.  Once I was able to tell Roberto’s story, I felt that the school could see my grandson as a child with a disabling illness. I felt less tension, too, because I didn’t have to hide anything anymore.  –Rosa, grandmother to Roberto, age 14

Privacy laws prevent any staff, including members of the MDT from disclosing any personal information about your child. Further, if an evaluation is conducted, these records must be stored in secure locations. Parents must provide permission in writing before any staff can access special education documents. You must give specific permission before teachers, counselors, administration, school psychologists can share information pertaining to your child’s case. This is true even as students move to a new grade level. Student information is confidential unless you specifically tell the school differently.

An important part of your role as a parent advocate is to educate the team of adults working with your child about your child’s disorder.  To become an advocate, a parent or guardian must begin to share his or her story as well as the stories of others.  Sharing your child’s personal story with others, and thereby refusing to wear the “shroud of shame” that often comes with having a child diagnosed with a neurological brain disorder, is essential to the advocacy process.  

Parents who withhold information from the school about their children’s diagnosis may be doing a significant disservice to all parties and to the child in particular.  It may be uncomfortable or painful at times to discuss the child’s struggles at home.  However, sharing a fuller picture of the child’s life allows others to understand the waxing and waning that is characteristic of pediatric bipolar disorder.  School personnel may not be familiar with bipolar disorder at all, or they may be familiar only with symptoms of late-onset bipolar disorder often seen in adults. Critically important is information about your child’s physical needs and potential side effects of medications, especially if you have recently changed medication.

The best advocates understand collaboration, which sometimes means compromise and finding unique solutions to best meet the needs of children.  IDEA requires a group decision making team with parents as full partners. These teams must follow guidelines and a pre-established protocol in every situation. This is for the benefit of learners so children are not unfairly labeled or unnecessarily restricted from access to general education programs. As part of this decision making process parents must recognize that it is almost always necessary to try a variety of interventions, accommodations and strategies, both at school and at home, before their child can be legally identified as a child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Seeing the Total Picture

If only the school could see what he’s really like at home?  As soon as he bursts in the door, the raging begins.  Sometimes, I think they don’t believe me. –Catrina, mother to Antoine, age 9

One potential source of frustration for parents and school personnel is that neither party sees the total picture of the child’s daily behavior.  Children with bipolar disorder are often able to “hold it together” during the day at school.  However, what parents often experience is that the child’s “letting loose” only occurs only at home.  A child’s behavior can be startlingly different in the two settings.  Parents sometimes hesitate to divulge the extent of disturbances at home.  Some may fear that some school personnel believe that if they don’t see the behaviors a parent describes, those behaviors do not exist.  Some may also fear that school personnel will assert that the child’s behavior at home is due to poor parenting or the household environment.  The more you educate the team about bipolar disorder, the less likely these attitudes will persist.

Sharing your child’s story also legitimizes the disability.  By not providing full disclosure to the school about their child’s illness, parents send an unconscious message to the child that bipolar disorder is something to be ashamed of, or that the child did something wrong that caused this disorder to happen.  Many parents experience feeling of guild as well as self-doubt upon receiving a diagnosis.  Accepting one’s grief, recognizing the challenges ahead, and becoming a “stigma buster” as coined by NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness) helps a parent become an affective advocate and a strong member of the child’s treatment team.

Building a Support Network for Yourself

I couldn’t bear the isolation any more.  Once I joined a support network, I felt immense relief.  Meeting other parents of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder gave me support I couldn’t find anywhere else. –Jim, father of Stephen, 16 and Sherri, 14

It is important for parents to develop support networks for themselves.  Joining local support networks or online support networks offered by The Balanced Mind Parent Network allows you to share resources, build alliances, and find support to deal with the stress of raising a child with a long-term medical condition.

The Balanced Mind Parent Network has a vast Find a Professional Resource directory where parents can research and share resources, locate schools, support services, and doctors.  Sharing information with other parents, as well as teachers, school officials, therapists and doctors, helps educate them to become advocates for your child as well as other children who may be experiencing symptoms of pediatric bipolar disorder.


The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents try to work collaboratively with their child’s school to address the child’s educational needs.  However, there are times when parents and schools cannot agree concerning the programs and services a child needs.  There may be many reasons why a parent’s advocacy efforts may not result in an appropriate education for the child.  In those instances, The Balanced Mind Parent Network strongly urges you to contact an attorney who is experienced in handling special education matters.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not recommend that a parent attempt to handle adversarial proceedings (such as due process hearings) without an attorney.  This article is not intended to offer legal advice or detailed instruction in the law.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not offer legal advice and this article will not teach you how to act as your own attorney.

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Pediatric Bipolar Disorder: A Brain Illness

When teachers and school administrators witness students exhibiting conduct such as tantrums, defiance, refusals to do work, and school avoidance, they typically address the conduct as a behavioral problem that can be eliminated with traditional behavioral modification practices.  However, in a child with bipolar disorder, the normal rules do not always apply.  

Many of the objectionable behaviors are actually due to neurological instability in the brain, rather than willful conduct.  Often the behavior is a secondary response to some stressor, which leads to overwhelming frustration, anxiety, sadness or anger that the child cannot control.  With an understanding of the biological underpinnings of bipolar disorder, it is possible to appreciate the degree to which behavior is influenced by the physiology of the brain.  These behaviors can then be viewed as possible clues to a child’s current level of functioning, wellness, and stress.  In your role as parent advocate, you will likely need to make this point more than once.“

The more I learn about bipolar disorder, the more I can help my daughter.  Whether I am at the psychiatrist’s office, the pediatrician, or an IEP meeting, a strong understanding of bipolar disorder has served me well.  I don’t try to be know it all, but I do try to learn whatever I can when the opportunity presents itself. –Karen, mother to Paige, age 5

Children At-Risk:  Children with bipolar disorder are at risk for school failure, substance abuse, and suicide.  The lifetime mortality rate of bipolar disorder from suicide is higher than that for some childhood cancers.

Depression:  According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 1.5 million children under the age of 15 are severely depressed.  Bipolar disorder in children often begins with major depression, marked by not wanting to play, chronic irritability and sadness.  Preschoolers may talk of wanting to “make myself dead.”

Early Onset:  Fifty-nine percent of adults with bipolar disorder surveyed by the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association in 1993 reported that symptoms of their illness appeared during or before adolescence.  The time between onset of symptoms and proper treatment is often 8-10 years, longer for pediatric-onset cases.

Pediatric Bipolar Disorder and ADHD:  The symptoms for bipolar disorder often resemble symptoms of ADHD, with some important distinctions.  About 15% of children diagnosed with ADHD may also have bipolar disorder.  Bipolar disorder may first emerge with an episode of depression.  Treatment with stimulants or antidepressants may trigger mania or mixed states in children with bipolar disorder or a family history of the illness.

Major Symptoms of Pediatric Bipolar Disorder

Informed parents are simply more effective in advocating for their children. Tasha, school psychologist and mother to Nafisa, age 8

Until recently, doctors rarely diagnosed bipolar disorder in childhood.  They were unaware that the presentation of mood disorder symptoms in children usually differs from the more widely recognized adult presentation.  Symptoms may present during infancy or early childhood, or may suddenly emerge in adolescence or adulthood.

Bipolar disorder influences mood, energy, thinking and behavior.  Unlike adults, who experience episodes of distinct “highs” and lows,” many children with the disorder have an ongoing, continuous mood disturbance that is a mix of mania and depression.  This produces chronic irritability and a few periods of wellness or clearly discernible episodes.

Mothers often report that children later diagnosed with the disorder seemed extraordinarily clingy, and from a very young age often had uncontrollable, seizure-like tantrums or rages out of proportion to any event.  The word “no” often triggered these rages.  Many children with this disorder exhaust their self-control during the school day.  Therefore, they may exhibit this much more aggressive behavior in the relative safety and privacy of the home.

In adult bipolar disorder, a person’s mood cycles in well-defined phases that can last for hours, days, or months.  In most children, the mood cycles may be less defined.  It is not uncommon for children to cycle many times a day.  Researchers believe that bipolar disorder is a spectrum disorder and have identified our subtypes of the disorder.  These subtypes differ in the intensity and duration of mood episodes.

For some children, a loss or other traumatic event may trigger a first episode of depression or mania.  Later episodes may occur independently of any obvious stresses, or may worsen with stress.  Puberty is a time of higher risk for the onset or worsening of symptoms.  In girls, the onset of menses may trigger the illness, and symptoms often vary in severity with the monthly cycle.

It is theorized that once the illness starts, episodes tend to recur and worsen without treatment.  The theory is is called the “kindling effect”.  Graham Gooddard, MD, first discovered the kindling effect in 1969 as he was studying seizure disorders.  Robert Post, MD, of the National Institute of Mental Health is credited as first applying this theory to bipolar disorder.  Researchers have discovered that children who are identified early and treated prior to multiple periods of cycling are less treatment resistant and appear to stabilize.  The more mood episodes a person experiences, the more difficult it is to treat the disorder.

There is a high heredity rate for bipolar disorder.  Some researchers estimate an 80% genetic linkage, meaning heritability is mostly due to genetic causes.  Having the genetic predisposition for the illness does not automatically mean that the illness will manifest itself in the child.  Kiki Chang, MD, of Stanford University, has completed a number of studies of offspring of parents with bipolar disorder.  He has found some benefit to early intervention in offspring with early symptoms of bipolar disorder using mood stabilizers.

Symptoms of mania include:

  • Elevated, expansive or irritable mood
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Racing speech and pressure to keep talking
  • Grandiose delusions
  • Excessive involvement in pleasurable, but risky, activities
  • Increased physical and mental activity
  • Poor judgment
  • In severe cases, hallucinations; and
  • Irritability

Symptoms of hypomania include:

  • Milder symptoms of mania with less impact on functioning
  • Unlike mania, no psychosis (hallucinations or delusions indicative of loss of touch with reality)

Symptoms of major depression include:

  • Pervasive sadness and crying spells
  • Sleeping too much or inability to sleep
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Withdrawal from activities formerly enjoyed
  • Drop in grades and inability to concentrate
  • Thoughts of death and suicide
  • Low energy
  • Significant change in appetite
  • Poor concentration, diminished ability to think, indecisiveness; and
  • Feelings of worthlessness or exaggerated feelings of guilt

The symptoms of bipolar disorder overlap with some of the symptoms of other psychiatric disorders.  This is particularly true of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Dr. Geller and colleagues in 2002 identified the presence of grandiosity, elated mood, flight of ideas, hypersexuality and decreased need for sleep as symptoms specific to bipolar disorder and not ADHD.  In 1997, Dr. Wozniak and colleagues found that the symptoms of irritability, mood lability and aggression often seen in Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) might be easily mistaken for bipolar mania.  Comorbid behaviors are common in children diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder.  This adds to the challenge of identifying and treating the disorder.

Brain Chemistry and Bipolar Disorder

After Joshua was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I kept hearing words that I didn’t understand… neuro this and neuro that.  I finally decided it was time to learn the basics.  Now, I can explain the prefrontal cortex to anyone who will listen. –Renee, mother to Joshua

To properly transmit information from one neuron (nerve cell) to another within the central nervous system, neurotransmitters—molecules carrying the chemical messages—must be generated, dispatched, and delivered to the right destination cells.  A complex balance of brain chemicals allows the efficient passage of these messages within the system to produce organized thought, movement, emotion, and behavior.

Scientists have pinpointed six primary brain chemicals that are implicated in bipolar disorder.  When the levels of these six substances are out of balance, the normal flow of information between neurons is disturbed, and a person’s normal activity, feelings, and thoughts cannot be processed in the usual way.  In the brain of a person with bipolar disorder, several substances can be affected.  Read more about brain chemicals in the drop down menu.

Serotonin:  A neurotransmitter found in portions of the brain related to mood, anxiety, and cognition.  A decrease in serotonin interferes with message delivery, causing constant, repeated, and exaggerated worry or tension.  A decrease in serotonin is often seen as depression, which has such physical symptoms as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headaches, and nausea.  A lack of adequate serotonin may be the cause when a child is tired, or complains of frequent stomach aches and headaches.

Dopamine:  A neurotransmitter responsible for movement, attention, emotional response, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.  One area of the brain that uses dopamine is the basal ganglia, specifically the substantia nigra, which plays a major role in controlling body movements.  An excess of dopamine is found to bring about disturbances in thought, mood, sense of self and feelings about one’s relationship with the external world.  Delusions, disorganized thinking, and hallucinations can occur when dopamine is low.  A child with irregular dopamine levels might behave in a very grandiose, belligerent manner, combative with the teacher, or may be fearful of activities for no apparent reason.  

Noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine):    A neurotransmitter that controls alertness and the sleep cycle, and regulates drive and motivation.  When noradrenaline decreases, depressive symptoms increase, and drive and motivation fall.  A child with inadequate noradrenaline may have difficulty starting and finishing assignments in class and at home, appearing disinterested in work, and seeming to be unwilling to put effort in or event trying to begin work.  Some children, particularly during winter months, may even lack the ability to wake up and get dressed to attend school until pharmacological intervention can re-establish a balance of noradrenaline in the brain.

Monoamine oxidase:  An enzyme that breaks down the brain chemicals noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.  The action of this enzyme affects the availability of these other chemicals to perform their respective functions.  In general, a shortage of monoamines results in depression; an excess can cause mania.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA):  A neurotransmitter that acts as an inhibitor within the synapses of the brain.  One GABA system is in the hippocampus and is involved in memory formation.  GABA is believed to be involved in the movement of memories from short-term to long-term memory.  This is believed to occur during a person’s sleep cycles.  The child who has inadequate levels of GABA may have difficulty with memory consolidation and moving learned material from their working and short-term memory to long-term or permanent memory.  In general, low GABA levels in the brain might lead to overactivity, such as mania.

Glutamate:  Glutamate is an amino acid neurotransmitter that acts to excite neurons within the brain.  Glutamate stimulates N-methyl-D-asperate (NMDA) receptors that are actively involved in learning and memory activities.  Reduced levels of glutamate are found in major depression often associated with bipolar disorder.  The over-stimulation of NMDA receptors can cause nerve cell damage or death.  It is believed that during bipolar mania that the high levels of glutamate are responsible for some of the structural changes that occur in the prefrontal cortex.  This further demonstrates the importance of early intervention and pharmacological stabilization.

Affected PArts of the Brain

Using increasingly sophisticated neuroimaging technologies, including Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, scientists are now able to identify physical differences in the brain that are associated with bipolar disorder.  While it has been known for some time that the disorder results from a “chemical imbalance”, researchers can now also identify specific areas of the brain that show changes in person with bipolar disorder.

Prefrontal cortex:  The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe of the brain.  It is one of the three sections that specialize in conscious voluntary behavior.  The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain in which a person’s executive functions are regulated, including the ability to plan for the future, solve complex problems, and express and control emotions.  It is in the portion of the brain that the skills needed to be successful in school are located.

Limbic system:  The limbic system is a collective term referring to several parts of the brain, including the amygdale and the hippocampus.  The limbic structures, which underlie the corpus callosum, are essential in the regulation of visceral (instinctive) motor activity and emotional expression.

Amygdala:  The amygdale is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter that controls automatic, emotional and sexual behavior.  It lies in the front part of the temporal lobe, in front of the hippocampus.  In children with bipolar disorder, it appears that the amygdale is smaller than in children without the disorder.  This further supports that positive and negative emotions are activated in this region of the brain.

Hippocampus:  The hippocampus is a neural structure located in the limbic system, which is involved in motivation and emotion.  As the “filing cabinet” of the brain, it performs the central role in the formation of memories.  It consists of gray matter and is shaped like a sea horse.

Thalamus:  The thalamus is a component of the forebrain that sends sensory information to the cerebral cortex.  This structure helps make complex thought processes, emotions, and problem solving occur.

Basal nuclei (also known as basal ganglia):    The basal nuclei is a group of cell bodies located in the white matter of the cerebral hemisphere, functioning primarily or organize motor behaviors.

Occipital lobe:  The occipital lobe is located in the back of the brain.  It is responsible for sending and receiving visual messages and information.  Deficits in the occipital lobe appear to be involved in the visual-perceptual deficits that are often seen in children with bipolar disorder.  Children with visual-perceptual deficits complain of eyestrain.  They have difficulty with reading, letter formation and writing, and tracking between a horizontal and/or vertical plane.  They also have difficulty completing fine motor tasks such as gluing, cutting, and writing.

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Key Educational Staff and Their Roles

I wasn’t clear about all the different people involved at the school.  Once I had a better idea of who they were and how they worked together, I felt more comfortable communicating with people at my daughter’s school.  –Marguerite, mother of Dora, age 9

The best advocates understand collaboration.  They know that working with others sometimes means compromising, finding alternative solutions, and accepting group decisions.

In your interaction with the school system, you will be working with an array of educators and administrators.  To be most effective, you should understand the roles of the various school system personnel who influence your child’s educational experience.  This can decrease the frustration level for many parents and allow parents to make specific requests to the appropriate persons.

Classroom Teacher

The role of the teacher has changed drastically in the last 20 years.  Many educators are finding that the changes are due to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation are difficult.  They are under tremendous pressure from their school principals to produce students who score well on mandatory statewide tests.  Many states are adopting teacher evaluation policies that punish or reward teachers based on the outcomes of their students’ performance on these tests. In almost every state all students must take these tests every time they are offered. It is generally required students take the test form for the grade level in which they are enrolled, even if they are working below grade level.  This remains true whether or not students are placed in special education. In response, many teachers are required to conform to a preset curriculum program and follow a standardized pace. As a result, teachers have been forced to eliminate the majority of the creative activities from their instruction. By the middle elementary years a major focus of instruction is to ensure mastery of skills to optimize test scores.

Teachers today face many additional stressors.  Her are some examples:

  • The growing numbers of at-risk learners and the philosophy of including these children in mainstream classrooms has resulted in increased responsibilities for which teachers feel unprepared;
  • A decrease in parental involvement and changing standards of behavior and social mores has increased classroom management difficulties;
  • Frustration of teachers being required to ensure all learners master the same material at the same time regardless of their personal development and needs;
  • School administrators require classroom teachers to complete additional paperwork, stick to a rigid program and maintain an orderly environment at all times, sometimes without permitting students much needed breaks such as recess;
  • Budget cuts have led to increasingly overcrowded classrooms and reductions in support staff, less time to plan adequately for instruction, and a lack of access to necessary resources.

Classroom teachers can help children with special needs by providing simple accommodations within the classroom.  Many times these are referred to as “generally accepted good teaching practice” Examples include:

  • Allowing a water bottle on a student’s desk
  • Providing bathroom passes
  • Placing the student’s desk in a location that minimizes distractions
  • Giving permission to a child to take a quiet time out from work
  • Routinely reducing the amount of class work and homework and providing homework waivers or extensions
  • Allowing use of a calculator, computer or other technology aids

School Administrator

A school administrator needs to be an instructional leader, but some are simply building managers.  In the current educational climate, an effective school administrator needs to be both an instructional leader and an effective manager.  The school administrator is responsible for:

  • Ensuring that students pass state-mandated tests
  • Maintaining  a balanced budget
  • Complying with district directives, initiatives, and policies
  • Encouraging family involvement and maintaining good community relations
  • Ensuring staff compliance with all state and federal regulations

The building level administration has the power to:

  • Assign staff within the building;
  • Change classroom assignments;
  • Provide a second set of textbooks;
  • Assist with ensuring teacher compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Section 504 of American Disabilities Act;
  • Waive tardies and discipline actions;
  • Make decisions about site based funding allocations, sometimes earmarked, and at other times at administrative discretion.

The school principal can be an important ally, particularly in situations regarding discipline and the allotment of educational aides.  In larger facilities, schools sometimes have a building principal and multiple assistant principals that deal primarily with student discipline.

School Psychologist

The school psychologist is responsible for completing the educational assessments as well as explaining the results of the testing to the parent for the child study team.  The school psychologist has the potential to be an effective ally for the parent and advocate for the child if they are well-informed about bipolar disorder and well versed in current treatment practices.  He or she can also be a difficult roadblock for a parent if they are not informed about pediatric bipolar disorder or if they do not believe in or discount the child’s diagnosis.

The school psychologist is responsible for:

  • Collaborating with others to ensure that a child succeeds academically, socially and emotionally;
  • Assessing/evaluating student strengths and weaknesses by completing assessments, observations and review of outside reports and data;
  • Working with individual students and teachers to help develop techniques to manage behavior at home and in the classroom, develop effective teaching and learning strategies as well as prevent or manage crises.

Some, but not all school districts will also have their school psychologists assist with related matters.  This can include:  intervention; prevention; research and planning; developing or providing programs for children at risk of school failure who are struggling with social skills; anger management; or providing individual and group counseling to assist with family and school crises such as death, illness or community trauma.

School Social Worker/Guidance Counselor

In many districts, the school social worker plays a similar role to the school psychologist. They are generally assigned to secondary schools and sometimes at elementary sites with a large percentage of at-risk learners and those that receive federal funding under the Title I program.  He or she is part of the child study team and becomes involved at the point when concerns are raised about a child’s emotional/behavioral issues.

A social worker is responsible for:

  • Collaborating with others to ensure that a child succeeds academically, socially and emotionally;
  • Evaluating student strengths and weaknesses by completing assessments, observations and review of outside reports and data.  These are usually related to the emotional and behavioral component, whereas the school psychologist’s assessments more often have to do with academic performance;
  • Working with individual students and teachers to help develop techniques and to manage behavior at home and in the classroom, develop effective teaching and learning strategies, as well as prevent or manage crises;
  • Prepare a “Functional Behavioral Assessment,” which most districts require for students who demonstrate emotional or behavioral difficulties and are being assessed for placement in a setting which assists students who are emotionally impaired (in schools where there is no social worker, the school psychologist sometimes fills this role). Providing individual and group therapy as identified on a student’s IEP, as well as assessing crises situations for students on their caseload.

The school social worker can be an invaluable resource for parents.  It can be helpful to be in touch with him or her on a regular basis, since the classroom teachers do not generally have the time or knowledge of the issues to call the parents and provide an update on the child’s emotional status.

District-level Personnel

The mandate of the Director of special Education or Superintendent is to ensure a continuum of learning opportunities for all students within the district.  This may mean managing a variety of programs within the district or developing collaboratives or consortia to provide special education services as needed.  The Director of Special Education is responsible for:

  • Ensuring compliance with IDEA, NCLB, and ADA as well as other state and Federal regulations;
  • Ensuring special education services are provided to students within the district’s budget;
  • Working directly with building administrators and school psychologists to ensure that student needs within the district are evaluated and met.

The Director of Special Education has the authority to:

  • Hire new staff as needed to ensure that a student’s FAPE (right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education) is provided
  • Oversee the appropriate teacher credentials are in place so that every student is taught by a highly qualified educator
  • Authorize a change in placement for a child including out of district, in-district and homebound instruction

Parents who are struggling with school personnel should speak with the Director of Special Education before filing a formal complaint.  This key administrator can correct problems occurring within the child study/IEP team, and can pressure reluctant building administrators to provide necessary services.  When a parents feels the team is ignoring a child’s need or is not providing the level of service the parent feel is appropriate, contacting the district administrator in writing to request an informal due process hearing is a good idea.  The district administrator can resolve issues and prevent the IEP team from becoming adversarial.

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The First IEP Meeting

First IEP Meeting

I was very nervous about my first meeting with the school.  I was afraid they didn’t understand and that I would forget what to say.  Bringing an advocate to the meeting really helped.  She took notes and asked questions for me.  –Sonia, mother of Melissa, age 11

The first meeting with the school to discuss your child’s diagnosis and needs can be stressful and difficult.  It can also be comforting and refreshing.  It is usually recommended that you have someone accompany you, a person who can provide emotional support and who can take notes for you while you focus on participating in the discussion. However, you will need to inform staff ahead of time if someone who is not a parent or legal guardian plans to attend, as your privacy is guaranteed by law. All staff, parents, and advocates attendance will need to be documented as part of the IDEA regulations.

The following five elements will increase the likelihood of a successful meeting:

1.  Be on time!  The greatest area of discomfort for parents and school personnel is timeliness.  Many times teachers are meeting during their lunch, planning period, or before or after school.  Their time is usually limited by the classroom schedule.  When a parent arrives late, school personnel can feel frustrated about the difficulty of trying to compress important information into a reduced time period, be distracted by other work that is not being completed or resentful if they miss planning time or lunch periods waiting for a meeting to begin.

Similarly, when teachers get up and leave in the middle of a meeting because they need to return to the classroom, parents can often feel frustrated, rushed, unheard, or believe that the teacher “doesn’t care”.  Remember that the teacher’s time is not her own. When your child’s class returns from gym period, for example, the teacher is responsible to be there to ensure the needs and safety of the class, and other staff schedules are impacted when teachers are not timely.

If you are going to be late, you should call at least 15 minutes before the scheduled meeting to inform the school.  If you are going to be more than 15 minutes late, ask if it is best to reschedule the meeting to ensure adequate time to complete all the meeting objectives. Remember too that time is always a commodity in the schools. In the event your meeting needs to be rescheduled, it is to ensure you and the school staff will have time to devote enough attention to your child and to answer your questions.

2.  Dress for Success.  Your appearance affects others’ perceptions of you.  It’s important to present a professional image when going to your child’s school.  Schools are often fairly casual because teachers need to be working with children in various ways. However, attending a school meeting in “gardening clothes” or “gym attire” can give the impression that you don’t care, are uniformed, or don’t respect the education process.

3.  Distribute essential information about pediatric bipolar disorder to the team.  Documents that we suggest you share with the school include:

About Pediatric Bipolar Disorder

Educating the Child with Pediatric Bipolar Disorder

A brochure entitled, “Parents and Teachers as Allies:  A Guide to Recognizing Early Onset Mental Illness in Children and Adolescents for Parents and Educators” Available in the NAMI bookstore

4.  Develop a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish at the meeting. Come prepared with a written “vision statement” for your child’s future. A paragraph or two will set the tone and communicate your depth of concern. Clearly identifying your child’s strengths and weaknesses in writing helps the team understand you goals and demonstrates that you are a thoughtful, concerned, and realistic parent.  Putting in writing your hopes and dreams for your child allows the team to see your child’s educational needs in the larger context of the sum of life experiences.

5.  Carry a copy of your state’s policies and procedures for special education with you.  Not only will you have a handy reference with you, but also the other members of the team will observe that you are knowledgeable about the special education process.  This document can be accessed online at your state’s Department of Education web site.

Parents who arrive at the meeting with these essential elements in place have a greater chance of finding a receptive school team and developing a positive relationship with the team.

Bonus Suggestion:  Bring Food!  Often teachers and school personnel skip their lunch or come in early before breakfast in order to meet with you about your child’s IEP.  Food helps create a friendly atmosphere and teachers are appreciative of your efforts.

Summary:  Building a Bridge to a Collaborative Relationship.  Some parents may have already met with the school numerous times prior to receiving the child’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and are experiencing difficulties with school personnel.  It may be helpful to enlist an educational advocate to assist you.  An advocate can assist in refocusing the child study team and beginning the request for services process again.  An advocate can assist the team in understanding the disorder as well as providing the opportunity for the parent and school to build a bridge to a collaborative working relationship.  It is important that the focus of any meeting with the school be on the needs of the child and not on placing blame on any particular person or program.

The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents try to work collaboratively with their child’s school to address the child’s educational needs.  However, there are times when parents and schools cannot agree concerning the programs and services a child needs.  There may be many reasons why a parent’s advocacy efforts may not result in an appropriate education for the child.  In those instances, The Balanced Mind Parent Network strongly urges you to contact an attorney who is experienced in handling special education matters.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not recommend that a parent attempt to handle adversarial proceedings (such as due process hearings) without an attorney.  This program is not intended to offer legal advice or detailed instruction in the law.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not offer legal advice and this program will not teach you how to act as your own attorney.

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Mastering the IEP Process

Mastering the IEP Proces

In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) was reauthorized with substantial changes and is now known as IDEA 2004.

To become an effective advocate for your child, you must understand the eight-step process that is required under IDEA.  Certain activities must be completed at each step in order to obtain and implement an appropriate Individual Education Program (IEP) for your child.

This article describes the IEP process.  It also provides references to many different sections of IDEA 2004.  Some of these references are to parts of the United States Code (U.S.C.), which is the official publication of laws passed by Congress.  Other references are to the regulations issued by the Department of Education (C.F.R.) to help schools and parents interpret the U.S.C. in a practical way.  Both are very important parts of the law.  To learn more about the current status of this legislation, go to

What You Need to Know About IEPs and IEP Meetings

Eight Steps

1. Child Find

Parental Checklist:  Make a dated written request for an evaluation and IEP.

When a child appears to need special education or related services, the school district (LEA) has a legal obligation to attempt to identify the nature of the disability and accommodate the child’s need.  In IDEA this is called “Child Find.”  Child Find is meant to protect all children with disabilities, even children who are homeless, are promoted from grade to grade, attending private schools, or frequently moving from place to place.

It is the responsibility of the state to identify, locate, and evaluate all children living in the state who are in need of special education services.  This is often done through cooperation of a number of children’s services organization, medical professionals, and schools.  Parents may be referred to the Child Find system in the community if their child is suspected to need services; or a parent may request an evaluation through the local school system.  A parent, teacher, or other school official can make a referral to the child study team for evaluation.  IDEA requires that this request be made in writing.

The school district must respond with 10 days to a request for evaluation by obtaining parental consent for an assessment.  Consent for evaluation does not constitute for placement in special education if the child qualifies as a child with a disability.  If the parent withholds consent or does not make the child available for evaluation, the school district is under no obligation to continue to pursue assessment.  A child with a disability will have not protection or any right to procedural safeguards under IDEA 2004 if the parent withholds consent.

2. Evaluation

Parental Checklist:  Sign consent for evaluation and make sure all areas of suspected disability will be evaluated.

The evaluation process begins when parental consent is signed and must be completed within 60 days unless state law provides a shorter time limit.  The initial evaluation must consist of assessments to determine if the child is a child with a disability.

and, if so, to establish the education needs of the child.  IDEA requires that a child be evaluated in all areas of suspected disability.  No single assessment tool can be used to qualify or disqualify a student as a child with a disability.

At the first Child Study Meeting (CST, sometimes called IEP or ARD) with the school, you will receive the permission for evaluation form and the assessment plan.  The LEA must provide a notice to the child’s parents describing the evaluation procedures to be used, as well as the domains that the child will be assessed in.

The procedure used for assessing the child must be compatible with the child’s suspected disability.  IDEA 2004 requires that the child be assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including if appropriate: health/medical; vision; hearing; social and emotional status; general intelligence; academic performance; communicative status; and motor abilities.  These eight areas of testing are known as “domains.”

For a child with pediatric bipolar disorder, The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents request assessment in all eight domains to ensure that all the needs of the child are accurately identified.  Some children with bipolar disorder may have severe learning disabilities while others are identified as gifted and talented; some may have communication disorders while others may have executive functioning deficits.  Some children with bipolar disorder have other co-morbid conditions that may influence the child’s ability to learn.  Researchers have found a significant percentage of children with bipolar disorder also have sensory integration deficits.  These can be addressed by an occupational therapist with sensory integration certification.

Certain classifications require specific assessments to be completed as part of the evaluation process.  Examples:
For a child to quality under the Other Health Impaired (OHI) classification, a physical examination, general intelligence testing, academic assessments, and tests of vision, hearing, motor abilities, communication skills, and social and emotional functioning are required.
For a child to quality under the Severe Learning Disability (SLD) classification, all of the above are required.  Additional assessments in communication skills are required in the areas of oral expression, listening comprehension and written expression.  Academic assessments in the areas of reading skills, reading comprehension, math calculation, and math reasoning are also required.
For a child to qualify under the Severe Emotional/Behavioral Disability classification, the basic assessments for OHI classification are needed.  In addition, a comprehensive social history covering the child’s educational, family and medical history are provided.  Informal behavioral observations by team members and the current teacher, as well as various behavioral and personality assessments are also needed.

IDEA requires that an evaluation be comprehensive and measure the child not against other children but against that child’s individual potential.  Many parents of children with disabilities hear from school personnel that their child is not eligible for special education services if he or she is moving from grade to grade.  However, this is not in agreement with IDEA. Under IDEA 2004, a child suspected of being a child with a disability and in need of special education can be identified as a child with a disability even though the child is advancing from grade to grade.

3. Eligibility Determination

Parental Checklist:  Watch calendar.

After developing the evaluation plan in step 2, the school professionals will begin assessment of your child.  A variety of professionals from the school nurse to the school psychologist will be pulling your child out of class at different times to assess and evaluate the child.  IDEA requires that an IEP be developed in no more than 60 days from the date consent for evaluation was signed.  However, each state may shorten the time period.

4. Eligibility Meeting

Parental Checklist:  Attend eligibility meeting.  If eligibility not found, request a 504 plan.

After all the assessments and evaluations are completed the IEP/CST Team will schedule a meeting to review the testing data and determine eligibility for services.

A child may be found eligible in any of thirteen classifications.  If a child is found NOT eligible for services under IDEA but due to a health impairment is in need of support as a disabled American, a parent may request an accommodation plan under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The main difference between an IEP and a Section 504 accommodation plan concerns the definition of “appropriate.”  Under IDEA, “appropriate” means a program that is calculated to provide educational benefit.  Under Section 504, “appropriate” means an education comparable to the education provided to non-disabled students.

At this stage in the IEP process, a parent may request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).

Parents have the right to obtain an independent educational evaluation of their child if they disagree with the evaluation provided by the public agency (school system, or LEA).  Upon request for the IEE, the LEA must provide to parents, without delay, information about where an independent evaluation may be obtained and the agency’s criteria for independent evaluations.  This must be provided to the parent at no cost.  If a school district does not agree with the parent’s request for an IEE, it must file a due process complaint to request a hearing to show that its evaluation is appropriate.  The LEA does have the right to ask the parent’s reason for objecting to the evaluation.  However, the parent’s explanation is not required, nor can it be used by the LEA as a reason to delay the IEE.  The parent’s reason may not be used against the parent at a due process hearing to defend the LEA’s evaluation.  

If the child is found eligible, the school will begin to develop the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and begin providing special education services.  Some school districts will combine the eligibility meeting and writing the IEP into one meeting.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network advises parents to prepare and share a parent vision statement with the team for inclusion in the IEP.

5. Scheduling

Parental Checklist:  Parents need to decide who is needed for support at meeting.

When the IEP meeting is scheduled, IDEA requires certain procedural safeguards.  These include written notification to the parent regarding the meeting time and location, the purpose of the meeting, and who will be attending the meeting.  The parent also must be notified of the right to bring along any person that may be able to assist the parent in developing the child’s IEP.

Parental Checklist:  Provide vision statement.

The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents provide a written vision statement for their child and ask that it be included in the written IEP.  The parent should include in this statement any accommodations that the parent believes assist the child to succeed in the classroom.  If the IEP will change the child’s current placement, the parent may have already been asked to visit some proposed classrooms.  If the parent is unsure if a proposed change of placement is appropriate for the child and has not been given the opportunity to visit the proposed classrooms, the parent has the right to table the IEP meeting until there is an opportunity to visit and evaluate each of the recommended placements.

A parent does not have to sign the IEP document at the meeting.  A parent may request time to work out any disagreement, provide alternative solutions, or to file a request for resolution with the state education agency.  IDEA allows parents up to 10 days to sign the IEP or formally disagree with the educational program.  If a parent does not sign the IEP, the school system is under no obligation to provide services or otherwise protect the child’s right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

The development of the IEP is a team activity and the parent is an integral member of the team.  The school may develop a draft IEP to assist in optimizing an IEP meeting and provide a starting point.  The school may not demand that a parent sign an IEP that was prepared ahead of the meeting with the parent’s participation, because this would deny the parent the right to participate as a full member of the team.

Law mandates the content of the IEP.

It is important for a parent to be familiar with these requirements:

Components of an IEP

Current Level of Performance (Present Levels of Educational Performance):  This section of the IEP summarizes the evaluation results, including formal assessments, classroom evaluations, individual test results, and current classroom performance and parent and teacher observations.  This section should include a statement of the ways in which the child’s disability interferes with his or her ability to benefit from his or her education.

Annual Goals:  Goals may be academic, behavioral, social-emotional, and/or physical.  Goals must be stated in measurable terms and address those areas of the child’s disability that interfere with his or her progress in the general educational curriculum.  Goals should contain a description of how the child’s progress will be measured and when reporting on the child’s progress will be made.  IDEA requires that a parent be informed of the child’s progress towards his or her annual goals.  Progress is to be reported at the same time as report cards are issued to non-disabled students.  IDEA 2004 has eliminated the requirement of short-term objectives for each goal.

Special education and Related Services: The IEP must contain a statement of the special education and related services to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child.  These services must be based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable.  This section of the IEP lists all services or modifications that will be provided to assist the child in making progress towards his or her annual goals.  It also lists those services or modifications that will enable him or her to participate and make progress in the general education curriculum.  This section must also list any accommodations, modifications, and services necessary to allow participation in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities with non-disabled children.

In this section of the IEP, a parent may want to request training in bipolar disorder for the child’s teachers.  The supplementary services or aids listed in this section can range from the use of a calculator to a scribe for written assignments.  It is vital that this section be comprehensive and complete.  The IEP must describe the service, how often, by whom and where it is to be provided.  These should be stated in writing in order to protect the child if the service is withdrawn or not provided. If the service or accommodation such as a 1-1 aide, laptop computer, modified homework, or occupational therapy is outlined in the IEP then it must be provided, even if the district is in financial difficulties.  A service cannot be withheld because of the LEA’s budgetary restrictions.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network offers a CD to assist educators in budgetary restrictions.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network offers a CD to assist educators in understanding pediatric bipolar disorder and providing appropriate accommodation to their students.

Participation with Non-disabled Students:  This section states the amount of time and extent to which a child will be participating in special education and/or regular education.

Participation in State and District-wide Tests:  Most states and districts give achievement tests.  The IEP must list what modifications the child will have in the testing situation, as well as modification in the manner of administration of the tests.  If a test is not appropriate for the child, the IEP must state why it is inappropriate.  The IEP must then specify which alternative assessment will be provided to measure the child’s progress.

Dates and Places:  This section must state the beginning and ending date for the IEP, where the services will be provided and how long they will last.

Transition Services:  Beginning no later than the first IEP in effect when the child turns 16, the IEP must address the child’s post-secondary needs.  The IEP must include appropriate, measurable post-secondary goals based upon age-appropriate transition assessments.  The goals should be related to training, education, employment and (where appropriate) independent living skills.  Transition services may include courses of study and skill development needed to assist the child in reaching his or her transition goals.  If the child will need services as an adult, the parent should begin referrals to the appropriate agencies prior to the time the child leaves high school.

Age of Majority:  One year prior to children reaching the age of majority the IEP must include a statement that he or she has been informed of his or her rights under Part B of the Act.  The IEP must state that the rights will be transferred to the child on reaching the age of majority.

The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents of children who will NOT graduate prior to their 18th birthday request that they retain educational rights of their children until graduation.  Most states have a document that the student and parent must sign.  This must be completed 365 days prior to the child turning 18.

7. Progress Reports

Parental Checklist:  Parent needs to request reporting frequency.

The IEP must state the frequency and manner of reporting the child’s progress towards annual goals.  A parent can request to be notified of a child’s progress weekly, monthly, or quarterly, however, the school is not required to comply.  The parent can ask to be notified by email, phone, or meeting.

8. Re-evaluation

Parental Checklist:  Parent may initiate a new request.

At least once a year the IEP team will come together, review the student’s progress, and revise the IEP.

Every three years a child must be reevaluated for services.

This evaluation is often called the “triennial.”  Its purpose is to verify that the child continues to be “a child with a disability” within the meaning of IDEA and to establish the child’s current educational needs.  This reevaluation can occur more often if the child’s needs drastically change, or if the parent and LEA agree that a reevaluation is necessary to ensure that the child is receiving FAPE.

At the IEP Meeting

IDEA specifically defines the members of the IEP team as follows:

  • Parent or guardian
  • At least one regular education teacher
  • At least one special education teacher
  • School district representative authorized to commit resources (usually the Principal, Director of Special Education, or Special Education Coordinator)
  • Individual able to interpret evaluations, such as a school psychologist
  • At the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate
  • The child (as appropriate)
  • Any other individual invited by the parent or the school who has knowledge or special expertise about the child

Attendance of IEP Team Members at the IEP Meeting:  A member of the IEP team is not required to attend an IEP meeting, in whole or in part, if the parent of a child with a disability and the school district agree, in writing, that the attendance of the member is not necessary because the member’s area of the curriculum or related service is not being modified or discussed in the meeting.

Even if the IEP team member’s area of curriculum or related service is involved, the team member can still be excused from the meeting in whole or part if the parent and the school district consent to the excusal in writing.  Prior to the IEP meeting, any excused member must submit, to the parent and the IEP team, written input towards the development or modification of the IEP.

Parent Participation

The LEA is responsible to ensure that one or both parents of a child with a disability are present at each EIP meeting or afforded the opportunity to participate.  The LEA must send notice of the meeting early enough to ensure that the parents will have an opportunity to attend.  The LEA should attempt to schedule the meeting at a mutually agreed upon time and place.  The school district is required to provide written notification to the parent of the purpose, time and location of the meeting, as well as who will be attending the IEP meeting.  If neither parent can attend the meeting in person, the school must use other methods to ensure parent participation, including telephone conference calls.    A school district may conduct an IEP meeting without a parent in attendance if the LEA is unable to convince the parent to attend the meeting and has documented its attempts to arrange a mutually agreed on time and place.  A parent must be provided a copy of the child’s IEP at no cost to the parent.

Each LEA is required to have an IEP to be at the beginning of each school year for each child with a disability within the LEA.  Teachers, related service providers and others responsible for the implementation of the child’s IEP must be provided access to the child’s IEP.

Each LEA is required to have an IEP to be at the beginning of each school year for each child with a disability within the LEA.  Teachers, related service providers and others responsible for the implementation of the child’s IEP must be provided access to the child’s IEP.

The rights of a parent include:

  • The right to participate in all meetings with respect to identification, evaluation and educational placement of child
  • The right to written notice before any change in the child’s placement, initiation or change in identification, evaluation or placement
  • The right to mediation
  • The right to present a formal complaint or due process
  • The right to a hearing if a due process complaint cannot be resolved

Aboute Due Process: What is it?
A Due Process complaint is similar to a court proceeding.  It is a legal proceeding to enforce a child’s right to a Free and Appropriate Public education (FAPE) under IDEA.  CABP strongly urges parents to retain an attorney with experience in special education matters if they are not successful in obtaining FAPE through collaborative means.

Under IDEA, parents have a number of rights that ensure that the public schools provide appropriate services to all children with disabilities.  At times, the school and a parent may be at odds as to what educational services are appropriate.

How to Avoid Due Process:  The best way to avoid having to use IDEA procedural safeguards, due process hearings, or mediation is to ensure that the IEP is written in precise, clear language.  An example:

Jeff needs to have a multi-sensory educational program.  It is important that the IEP clearly identifies this need and names a specific program or type of program that will be used to address that need.  If the IEP is not specific, a parent may have difficulty determining if there is a factual discrepancy or a legal violation concerning the terms of the IEP.

To demonstrate the difference, let’s look at three accommodation statements addressing the student’s need for a multi-sensory educational approach:

  • Jeff will be provided a multi-sensory approach by the teacher to address his learning deficits.
  • The teacher will use visual, auditory and kinesthetic activities to reduce Jeff’s learning deficit.
  • Jeff will be provided a multi-sensory approach such as Slingerland to address his learning deficits.

All three examples are an attempt to provide Jeff with an appropriate accommodation.  The first two examples are vague and open to interpretation as to whether a particular accommodation meets the child’s need.  In writing the IEP, it is vital that all goals and services are clearly identified and specific so that no area is left open to interpretation.  The clearer the language used in the IEP, the less likely a due process complaint will be necessary.

When is it Necessary
IDEA provides parents the right to resolve disputes using a Due Process Complaint (a procedure for filing a complaint in respect to identification, evaluation, placement or provision of FAPE.)

A due process complaint must be filed within 2 years of the date the parent or LEA allege a violation occurred unless state law specifies a different time.

The complaint can be handled either through mediation or through the hearing process.  If the hearing process is used, a resolution session must occur prior to hearing.

A parent has the right to file a due process complaint, agree to mediation, or continue on to a hearing or court proceeding if an agreement cannot be reached through mediation.

In mediation, the parent and a representative for the school district meet with a third party, who is the mediator. Mediation is a completely voluntary for both parties and cannot be used to delay a parent’s right to file a due process complaint.

The mediator is a neutral party and is present to help the two sides reach a compromise or consensus.  The mediator has no authority to impose a ruling, but is there to assist with communication.  If an agreement is reached at mediation, the parties will execute a legally binding agreement setting forth the changes to the child’s educational program and how they will be implemented.  This agreement is then enforceable in any State court or district court in the United States.  If an agreement cannot be reached, the parent has the right to an impartial due process hearing.

The parent must forward a copy of the written due process complain to the LEA and to the SEA.  The content of the complaint is very specific under IDEA 2004.  Once again, The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not recommend that parents attempt to handle their own due process proceeding.  CABP urges parents to contact an attorney experienced  in special education matters if it appears a due process proceeding may be needed.

The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents try to work collaboratively with their child’s school to address the child’s educational needs.  However, there are times when parents and schools cannot agree concerning the programs and services a child needs.  There may be many reasons why a parent’s advocacy efforts may not result in an appropriate education for the child.  In those instances, The Balanced Mind Parent Network strongly urges you to contact an attorney who is experienced in handling special education matters.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not recommend that a parent attempt to handle adversarial proceedings (such as due process hearings) without an attorney.  This program is not intended to offer legal advice or detailed instruction in the law.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not offer legal advice and this program will not teach you how to act as your own attorney.

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Educating the Child with Bipolar Disorder

Comprehensive brochure covering bipolar disorder--what it is, signs, and how it can effect a child's learning capabilities.

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Your Child's Rights

Last year, the school said that they didn’t have the money to pay for the assistive technology that Sammy needed.  We wish we knew then what we know now, that Sammy has a right to a free and appropriate public education. –Simon, father of Sammy, age 6

Knowing your child’s educational rights is the foundation of educational advocacy.  Those parents who learn the basics of federal laws affecting their child’s education are better positioned to help their children than those who do not.  This doesn’t mean you have to memorize a lot of facts, but rather, understand how local school districts are bound by federal education law.

All children, including those with disabilities, have the right to receive a free and appropriate public education.  All persons are entitled to equal protection, not just citizens.  But that just means the state cannot discriminate arbitrarily.  When applied to discrimination based on disability, the standard is not very strict—the discrimination just has to pass a “rational basis” test.  Can the state articulate some rational basis for the discriminatory law or practice?  It is much easier for the state to justify than discrimination based on race, for instance.  That is why federal education law to protect the rights of the disabled was even necessary.  It was not until the 1960’s that the federal government began to pass legislation ensuring that children with special needs could be appropriately educated.


The federal government did not become directly involved in primary and secondary education until 1958, when the National Defense Education Act was passed to strengthen instruction in mathematics, science, and foreign languages.  The bill was passed after the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, when the quality of the American education became a matter of heightened and competitive concern.  With the enactment of federal education law, states became required to meet the federal requirements for education along with their individual state requirements for the education of children.

Idea: The Foundation of Education Law Today

"Most parents don’t have time to read about all these laws. But if there is one law that parents really need to know about, it is Idea. I’ve learned that knowledge is power. I want to know everything I can, to help Daleesha get the education she needs." –Keisha, mother of Daleesha, age 13

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the precursor to the individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Idea), was a groundbreaking piece of legislation for parents of children with disabilities.  It continues to be the foundation of special-education law today.  This legislation, finalized in 1977, mandated a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children with disabilities, established due process rights for parents and children, mandated the development of Individual Educational Program (IEP’s) and the placement of students in the Least Restricted Environment (LRE).

In 1983, services were established to facilitate school-to-work transition through research and demonstration programs, parent training and information centers.  Funding was provided for demonstration projects and research in early intervention and early childhood special education programs.  In 1986, these services for preschoolers were mandated and funding was provided to assist states in developing a comprehensive, multidisciplinary statewide system of early intervention services for infants.

Idea (1990-2004)

Idea 1990:  In 1990, with the reauthorization and broadening of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, the legislation was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Idea).  Idea expanded the number of discretionary funding categories by adding the following:  autism and traumatic brain injury, added assistive technology as a related service available through IEP’s, required IEP’s to include transition-to-work planning or transition plans for further schooling; and provided funds for development of disabilities programs for infants and toddlers.

Idea 1997:  Idea 1997 clarified the definition of “child with a disability” and specified that children with Attention Deficit and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may qualify for services under the “other health impairment” category.  Idea 1997 also strengthened the requirements for what must be included in an IEP and extended important discipline protections to children whose behavior is a manifestation of a child’s disability.

Idea 2004:  The U.S. Department of Education describes the 2004 reauthorization of Idea as legislation that “strengthens academic expectations and accountability for the nation’s 6.3 million children with disabilities and bridges the gap that has too often existed between what children with disabilities learn and what is required in regular curriculum.”  Among the more specific goals of the reauthorization were:

  • Ensuring access to the general education curriculum and innovative instructional methods to ensure academic growth
  • Focusing on teaching and learning while reducing unnecessary paperwork requirement
  • Creating stronger guidelines for identifying and placing children in special education classes and developing procedures to prevent the mislabeling of children of racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity
  • Ensuring that schools are safe and conducive to learning by allowing for the suspension and expulsion of students who bring weapons or drugs to school, or violate a student code of conduct.

How to Use IDEA 2004 to Improve Your Child’s Special Education” Wayne Steedman, Esq., Wrightslaw 

Section 504 or IDEA?  What’s best for my child?

It depends on what your child’s need are, and in order to effectively advocate, it is important to understand the similarities and differences between the two laws.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.  It is designed to level the playing field by eliminating barriers and providing equal access to an education.  Section 504 protects all people with a disability who:

  • Have a physical or mental disability which limits one or more major life activities
  • Have a record of such impairment, and
  • Are regarded as having such an impairment
  • Section 504 does not provide funding aid to schools even if they need to implement accommodation in order to insure non-discrimination.  This is important to note in that there is less incentive for schools to qualify students under Section 504 as opposed to IDEA.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)  goes beyond eliminating barriers by granting students additional services and requiring schools to do “more” for children who qualify under IDEA.  Unlike section 504, schools are also eligible for additional funding from the Federal government.  The eligibility requirements under IDEA are more stringent and specific with a narrower definition of what constitutes a disability.

Under IDEA, a child with a disability is defined as:

A child with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this title as “emotional disturbance”), orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities.

A visual comparison may be helpful:

Picture a circle representing all children in public education.  Within that circle is a somewhat smaller one showing all children with a disability.  Within that is a yet smaller circle of the children with disabilities who fall under the umbrella of Section 504.  Then, within that is a smaller subset of children who qualify for services through IDEA.

For more information on Section 504, click on these links:

LD Online

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

No Child Left Behind

I have heard about No Child Left Behind so many times, but wasn’t sure what it meant.  It’s good to know all the details, but practically speaking, the important thing is understanding how NCLF impacts our local school district, my nephew’s school, and his education. Thelma, custodial aunt to Bobby, age 9

When Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, the new legislation was the first major overhaul to the reform in 25 years.  The reauthorization legislation was renaming the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Current policy changes in our public school systems are being driven by the stipulations of this legislation.  The movement towards corrective actions against local and state education authorities that do not meet the basic requirements of progress as defined by NCLB has forced many states to take legal action by challenging the constitutionality of the law.  The basic premise of the law is to ensure that all students have access to educational material.  However, the unfunded costs of this legislation have created an even greater divide between wealthy and poor school districts and states
There are 10 sections, called titles, comprising the bill.

Ten Titles

Title I:  Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged ensures that all children have fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach at a minimum the state standards.  This is to be achieved by requiring high-quality academic assessments, installing accountability systems, increasing focus on teacher preparation and training, and examining the educational needs of low-achieving schools serving economically disadvantaged students.

Title II:  Preparing, Training and Recruiting High Quality Teachers and Principals provides grants to State Educational Authorities, (SEA) Local Educational Authorities (LEA), and state higher-education providers to improve teacher and principal quality through staff development.

Title III:  Language Instruction of Limited English Proficient and Immigrant Students focuses on English language acquisition, language enhancement and academic achievement of the individual students.

Title IV:  21st Century Schools aims to ensure safe and drug-free schools, allocating monies for violence-prevention programs in and around schools, and for prevention of illegal use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs around schools.  It provides early intervention services for students needing drug, alcohol and anger management treatment and who are unable to qualify for services through their insurance or state welfare programs.

Title V:  Promoting Informed Parental Choice and Innovative Programs provides grant supports to local educational authorities to support state educational reforms, funding programs including an educational clearinghouse for gathering educational reforms and school improvement programs for educational researchers with special interest in class size reduction and reading readiness.  This legislation also provides funding for library and media services for schools, and mandates the development of choice or charter schools and state and district report cards that enable parents to make informed school choices.  Comprehensive and directed professional staff development programs are funded in order to improve teacher performance and student outcomes.

Title VI.  Flexibility and Accountability provides grants to states to develop learning assessments and educational standards as well as funding to administer the state-mandated assessments.

Title VII.  Indian, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native Education provides funding to run reservation schools and to establish cultural training for educators working with native populations.

Title VIII.  Impact Aid Program makes available additional grant funds to schools where more than 20% of the student population receives Aide to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and provides compensation to school districts that have military and government installations within their district boundaries.

Title IX.  General Provisions defines the terms used in describing the components of NCLB.

Title X.  Repeals, Redesignations, and Amendments to other Statutes includes the McKenny-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvement that guarantees homeless children equal access to the same free and public education as others, allowing them to remain in the school system they were in prior to losing their residence.  This provision also provides for access to school services for children living in homeless shelters.

Important Rights

NCLB provides a number of rights for parents.  These include:

Requesting Professional Training for Teachers Parents have the right to request professional training for teachers in the area of a child’s disability to ensure that the teachers are able to meet the educational needs of the child.

Moving to a Safer School Parents have the right to place a child in a school of their choice or to move the child out of a school if the child is a victim of a crime.  If a child is at a school that is considered unsafe, parents can request that the child be moved to a safer school.

Nondisclosure to Military Recruiters Parents have the right to request that personal information is not released to military recruiters.

Information about Your Child’s Teachers and Their Training Parents have the right to be given information about their children’s teachers and their training and to be informed if their children are in classrooms with teachers who do not meet the highly qualified requirements under NCLB.

Yearly School Report Card Parents have the right to receive information, in the form of a yearly report card, about their children’s school, how it compares with other schools in the area, and whether their children’s school is meeting the assessment standards of the state.

Supplemental Services Under Certain Conditions Parents have the right to receive supplemental educational services for a child who has not passed the state-mandated tests two years in a row.

Additional Tutoring Under Certain Conditions Parents have the right to receive additional tutoring services outside of the school for a child whose skills are lagging and who attends a school that is not making adequate yearly progress.

In many states and districts, despite these provisions, parents are faced with little or no alternatives within their school districts.  Charter schools, as the only alternative for parents, further deplete the limited funds available to the public school district.

Children who are economically and educationally underprivileged, the very children that the original ESEA was attempting to assist, are the population most affected by and disenfranchised under NCLB legislation.  Where all agree that the children of our nation have a right to a quality education and a right to qualified professionals as teachers within their classrooms, the underfunding of this legislation has further increased discrepancies between the wealthy and the poor in society.

The right to an education has been a great equalizer within this country.  It has allowed individuals to improve their circumstances of birth by following the basic beliefs of the American dream: work hard, become educated, and follow your dreams.  Yet, the gates of the schoolhouse are being locked around many at the very time that we need to be increasing the resources to educate children, our countries greatest resource.  All U.S. citizens, including those with disabilities, have the right to a free and appropriate education.

The Balanced Mind Parent Network recommends that parents try to work collaboratively with their child’s school to address the child’s educational needs.  However, there are times when parents and schools cannot agree concerning the programs and services a child needs.  There may be many reasons why a parent’s advocacy efforts may not result in an appropriate education for the child.  In those instances, The Balanced Mind Parent Network strongly urges you to contact an attorney who is experienced in handling special education matters.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not recommend that a parent attempt to handle adversarial proceedings (such as due process hearings) without an attorney.  This program is not intended to offer legal advice or detailed instruction in the law.  The Balanced Mind Parent Network does not offer legal advice and this program will not teach you how to act as your own attorney.

Recommended Resources 
About No Child Left Behind

History of Education

Elementary and Secondary Education Act

U.S. Department of Education on NCLB

No Child Left Behind

Education of All Handicapped Children Act

IDEA Practices

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act

Families and Advocate Partnership for Education

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities

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Personal Future Planning: a Step by Step Guide to Planning for the Transition to Life Beyond High School

Developed by Cinda Johnson, Ed.D., this planning document assists students and their education team in identifing strengths, experiences, aspirations and fears and how these can be applied to setting goals for post graduation.

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