School’s start means time for planning ahead

The backpacks, pencils and reams of notebook paper are filling the store shelves, which means that another school year is […]

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The backpacks, pencils and reams of notebook paper are filling the store shelves, which means that another school year is about to start. It is a time for planning for all children, especially if your child has a disability.

If a child is going to a school for the first time, visiting the school and meeting teachers before the start of classes is a must. Being familiar with a school will make the first few days of class go more smoothly. 

If a child is riding the bus or able to travel to a school on his or her own or with other children, do a practice run or runs of the route to school. Be familiar with the route or the bus stop. Traveling the route can add to a child’s comfort level.

Does the route or bus stop feel safe? Is it accessible? Report unsafe sidewalks or curbs to city officials. Let school officials know if there are concerns.

Will there be construction that affects a trip to school? Getting to school late on the first day is no fun and can add to stress. Many cities and counties now offer road closure information on their websites. It is a good idea to check that before school starts. Be aware of anything at the school that could possibly affect a child or his or her physical access. Comfort levels are a key consideration. Something that may be innocuous to some children may be frightening or a distraction to others. Parents or guardians have the most knowledge or what may or may not affect a child.

Make sure the school supply list is followed and that school supplies can be used by a child. Some school asks that specific supplies, such as large “trapper keeper” notebooks not be used because they do not fit into a desk, cubby or locker. Something may look fun in the store but it may best be kept at home.

It never hurts to have a “practice day” at home with school supplies. Find the best school supplies that work for a child. Some scissors, crayons and pencils are easier to grip than others, or may need modifications. Make sure items that need to be labeled are labeled with a child’s name and a phone number or email address.

If a backpack or book bag is used, make sure it can be easily opened and closed. A cute or fun backpack or book bag isn’t useful if it is too heavy or has tricky snaps or zippers.

Families of children with disabilities need to take extra time to plan for new classes and a student’s individualized education program (IEP).

IEP is part of an alphabet soup of acronyms that spell out education options. An IEP is required by IDEA, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law ensures full and equal services for children with disabilities. IDEA and  other education rules require students who receive special education services to have an IEP.

An IEP is sometimes confused with an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The IFSP is a written plan for children and their families. An IFSP focuses more on the children and family, and the needs for a child’s development. When a child reaches age three, he or she needs an IEP. The IEP is in place until age 21.

An IEP is developed and monitored by a team. The student’s IEP team must meet at least once a year. The meeting is a chance for the parents or guardians to work with the school. Parents and educators decide what is best for a child’s education. If the school and the parent disagree about what the school is doing, they can talk about their differences at the IEP meeting.

A variety of people involved in a child’s education can be at the IEP meeting, along with the parents or guardian and any special education teacher. If a student spends any amount of time in a regular classroom, at least one regular education teacher must come to the meeting.

A representative of school administration must be present for at least one meeting per year. Anyone who can share information on how a student learns or has expertise on a specific disability should also be present, as can anyone with information on assistive technology. If a student and the family don’t speak English as their primary language, someone must be there to translate.

The student is invited, but attendance is up to the parents or guardians. Including students in meetings on IEPs is crucial. It helps them understand where they are at academically and why they need educational assistance. By having a grasp of what is in their individualized education programs, students will be able to decide what services they need and what they do not require.

It is essential to balance educational services that emphasize students’ academic strengths. Dropping educational services can give students the opportunity to focus on their strengths. If students have had educational services for a number of years but they no longer require some of them, services being dropped can lead to a sense of satisfaction. A representative of school administration must be present for at least one meeting per year.

An IEP provides specific information about a student’s disability, special education services the student might need, and academic goals that the student needs to reach in order to be on the same academic level as grade-level peers. For a student who has dyslexia an academic goal might be the ability to read at his or her grade level. That goal may be difficult to reach. A student with dyslexia might not be able to see letters correctly, meaning it is harder to put letters together to form words.

The IEP must be very detailed about services and how the student will be helped. The plan should tell when all services will start, where and how services will be provided, how often services are provided and for how long a student will receive services.

Students with disabilities are likely to need accommodations in certain academic areas, so they and their families need to be ready to ask for what is needed. Example of accommodations could be verbal instruction for children who have dyslexia, or a space to do stretching exercises for children who have cerebral palsy.

In an IEP Educators can make academic adaptations for students to help them achieve goals as best they can.

A key part of the IEP is the Present Level of Educational Performance (PLEP). It is a description of the student’s strengths and needs. This part of the IEP provides details that the team needs to write the student’s annual goals.

Students need more direct involvement in IEP meetings from age 14 on as discussion turn to how to transition to work, higher education and life in the community. It is important for students to work on their academic strengths as well as their weaknesses.

If students do not work on their strengths, they could fall behind on their grade-level education. Sometimes students fall behind on their education because of having to leave the classroom to receive an educational service or too much of their time is spent on their academic weaknesses.


This article includes material that has been previously printed in Access Press.

Emma Wagner has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and epilepsy. She attended meetings on her individualized education programs and had several types of educational services in school. Her services included occupational therapy, physical therapy, and adapted physical education in elementary school and learning disabilities services, adaptive physical education and physical therapy in middle school and high school. 

Wagner is majoring in psychology at UW-River Falls. She has academic accommodations and enjoys focusing on her general education studies. College has given Wagner the opportunity to work on her academic strengths and feel the satisfaction of not having educational services.




Learn about the IEP


Learn about Individualized Education Plans or IEPs at upcoming events sponsored by PACER Center. The workshop IDEA: Understanding the IEP will be held in the Twin Cities metro area and outstate. Dates and places had not been finalized when Access Press went to press. Please check  for more information or call 952-838-9000.

Other resources can be found at:

  • Wash your hands! Hands that look can still have icky germs!
  • Work with your care provider to stay healthy. Protect yourself. Vaccines are your best protection against being sick.

You are not alone. Minnesota Autism Resource Portal.