I believe that setting goals for the future should start whenever a child with learning disabilities first communicates his or her frustrations, disappointments and helplessness in school. For us, that moment occurred when Sal was in the third grade. As we were outside enjoying the sunshine, he turned to me and said that he hated his brain because it didn't do what he wanted it to do. That began a very open and honest conversation about learning differences. I reassured him that he would find, with the help of the school, his family and all those that loved him, different ways to learn and succeed. From that day forward, we've had frequent conversations about his learning differences.
I have involved Sal in all aspects of his education. In the seventh grade, I invited him to attend his first Annual Review and sit as a member of the Committee on Special Education, designated by New York State. This multidisciplinary team determines a student's abilities and needs and implements an appropriate IEP for eligible students. This first meeting for Sal served as a confirmation that he did have a learning disability.
Attending subsequent meetings allowed him to see how the system worked, find out who was on his "team" and learn how the committee decided on his specific IEP and accommodations. By the time he was in the tenth grade, Sal not only embraced and "owned" his learning disability, he demonstrated confidence and self-assuredness in his ability to request needed support. He understood the process.
Over the years, Sal has benefited from a number of accommodations and program modifications. In ninth grade, his resource room teacher noticed that he performed better if test questions were read to him and/or rephrased. Double time ensured even better success. These and other testing accommodations made a tremendous difference in the ensuing school years.
Preparing for the SATs was a big challenge. Although we enrolled Sal in a well-recognized preparatory course, our request for testing accommodations was a first for them. They could not accommodate double time, but they did accommodate time and a half. For six weeks, he took practice SATs with accommodations. When necessary, questions were read out loud to him.
With the help of his school guidance counselor, Sal applied for testing accommodations for the real SAT according to The College Board requirements. The College Board allowed him to take the test over two days. He tested by himself and, when necessary, questions were read to him. He took the SATs twice. Sal's efforts to achieve an acceptable score were tremendous.
Passing the English regents exam for graduation was no easy task either. Sal spent additional time working with his English and resource room teacher to prepare. Then one day, he called me from school, almost in tears. He had received a passing score of 80!
During our transition planning, Sal learned to own his learning disability, to embrace it, to not be embarrassed of it, to succeed in spite of it and to feel special. And now, this spring, Sal will be graduating from high school with an advanced regents diploma. For this distinction, he had to take a more comprehensive course load and pass eight regents exams. In the fall, Sal will be attending college and playing football on the school team. Here is how he concluded his college essay:
"Special education has actually taught me to think out of the box, to go beyond the conventional way of learning, and to find my strengths. To my peers but more importantly to myself, I have proven that I have the ability to overcome challenges. Special education should not be a limitation; it is a jumping point to an endless world of life's lessons. Individuals with special needs are just different; no better, no worse - just different."
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This story originally appeared in the IDEA Parent Guide.