It's that time. As summer winds down and hordes of Southland children gear up to head back to school, parents all over are bustling about making sure the kids are properly outfitted with school clothes, backpacks and other necessities of school life. But for some parents, the start-of-year scramble includes anxiety that goes way beyond clashes in clothing stores about totally unsuitable garments. These parents have kids with some kind of special need.
Maybe a child has asthma or diabetes or another medical condition that requires vigilance, regular blood tests or drugs to be administered during school hours. Maybe the child has a hearing or vision problem, is developmentally disabled, or has some kind of learning disability.
For these kids, it takes extra care to make sure they stay healthy and get the education they need.
Federal law mandates that the public school system properly provide for children with special needs. The provisions that schools can make range all over the map: There are some campuses devoted entirely to children with disabilities; special-education classes that a child can attend for all, most or part of the day; assistants who can be assigned to help kids in regular classrooms; equipment that can be installed--to amplify sound, for instance, for kids who are hard of hearing; and specialists who travel from school to school teaching speech therapy, lip-reading and more.
Meanwhile, school nurses and other staff members perform a wide array of services for kids: everything from dispensing drugs to feeding by tube and inserting catheters.
"Most people are surprised by the rather severe medical conditions that some of our children have, and yet the children attend school full time anyway," says Nancy Lawrence, director of special education for the L.A. Unified School District.
Usually, all it takes is a little help for a child with some special need to manage in school. That's how it's been for 14-year-old Laura Berghoff of Beverly Hills.
Laura was diagnosed at 3 with diabetes. Her body doesn't make the insulin it needs to keep blood sugar levels in line. She needs insulin injections, and several times a day must prick her finger and test her blood sugar level. It's dangerous if blood sugar levels get too low or high.
When Laura entered kindergarten, she would trot along to the nurse's office at her public school every lunchtime. Under the nurse's supervision, she would stick herself with a pin, place blood onto a testing strip and load the strip into the sugar-testing machine. Each year, her parents would meet with her teacher, and give a crash course on diabetes and the symptoms that would mean her blood sugar was falling too low.
"From the beginning the school was always very willing to meet her needs," says her mom, Linda Berghoff. "They were very diligent about watching her."
Some disabilities may need enough management to qualify children for special-education services. Eleven percent of the children in the L.A. Unified School District are receiving some kind of special education.
If you think your child may be eligible, call the school and arrange a meeting to discuss your concerns. You have the right to request an assessment of your child's particular needs.
After a child is assessed, parents meet with the teacher and other school representatives to figure out if the child qualifies for special education under the law. If so, parents and the school hash out an education plan to best meet the child's needs. Parental input is very important, stresses Lawrence.
A wide range of disabilities can qualify children for special education: speech and language impairments; vision, hearing, physical, developmental and learning disabilities; autism; emotional disturbances; and more. Your school district can provide more information.
Nine-year-old Kendall Jones of Anaheim, for instance, has apraxia, a condition that makes it difficult for her brain to carry out muscle movements the way she wants to. This makes speech, writing and various other tasks hard. She spends most of her day in a special education class and gets group speech therapy as well. She shares recess, lunch and physical education with her peers, and has a special P.E. teacher who helps her exercise at a manageable pace.
Schools can do a lot for a child with special needs, says Melissa Jones, Kendall's mother, but their staffs can't be expected to be experts in every disability.
"I feel it's up to the parents to do research and find out what would benefit their child," she says, and then come back to the school with what they've learned. "If you come in with a specific request, hopefully they'll listen."