Communicating with Your Child's School Through Letter Writing
By: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)
In this article:
Throughout your child's school years, there is always a need to communicate with school: teachers, administrators, and others concerned with your child's education. There are also times when the school needs to communicate with you. This is particularly true when your child has a disability and is receiving special education services. Some of this communication is informal, such as phone calls, comments in your child's notebook, a chat when picking your child up from school, or at a school function. Other forms of communication are more formal and need to be written down.
Letters provide both you and the school with a record of ideas, concerns, and suggestions. Putting your thoughts on paper gives you the opportunity to take as long as you need to:
- state your concerns,
- think over what you've written,
- make changes, and
- have someone else read over the letter and make suggestions.
Letters also give people the opportunity to go over what's been suggested or discussed. A lot of confusion and misunderstanding can be avoided by writing down thoughts and ideas.
However, writing letters is a skill. Each letter you write will differ according to the situation, the person to whom you are writing, and the issues you are discussing. This Parent's Guide will help you in writing to the professionals involved in your child's special education. The term "parent" is used throughout this Parent's Guide to include natural or adoptive parents, foster parents, surrogate parents, legal guardians, or any primary caregiver who is acting in the role of a parent.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is our nation's federal special education law. Under the IDEA, children and youth with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education, also called FAPE. Using the IDEA as a guideline, each state develops rules on how special education services will be provided to children with disabilities. Each local public school district in every state develops its own policies based on the federal and state regulations. Some states give parents more rights and protections than are in the federal law, so it's important for you to know about your state's special education regulations. Information on how you can get copies of federal, state and local special education regulations is listed at the end of this Parent's Guide.
Under the IDEA, each child receiving special education services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a written document that the school and parents develop together. Among other things, the IEP describes the child's needs and lists the services that he or she will receive. A flow chart on the next pages shows how the special education process works, beginning with "I think my child may have a problem" and ending with the services that are provided to your child. If your child is receiving special education services, there will be times you will need to write to your child's school. This Parent's Guide provides examples of letters you may want to write.
The basic special education process under IDEA*
*Note: The flow chart below is drawn from A Guide to the Individualized Education Program by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (2000), available on-line at www.ed.gov. The guide was reviewed by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs for consistency with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, Public Law 105-17, and the final implementing regulations published March 12, 1999.
The writing of each student's IEP takes place within the larger picture of the special education process under IDEA. Before taking a detailed look at the IEP, it may be helpful to look briefly at how a student is identified as having a disability and needing special education and related services and, thus, an IEP.
Step 1. Child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services.
"Child Find." The state must identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities in the state who need special education and related services. To do so, states conduct "Child Find" activities. A child may be identified by "Child Find," and parents may be asked if the "Child Find" system can evaluate their child. Parents can also call the "Child Find" system and ask that their child be evaluated. Or
Referral or request for evaluation. A school professional may ask that a child be evaluated to see if he or she has a disability. Parents may also contact the child's teacher or other school professional to ask that their child be evaluated. This request may be verbal or in writing. Parental consent is needed before the child may be evaluated. Evaluation needs to be completed within a reasonable time after the parent gives consent.
Step 2. Child is evaluated.
The evaluation must assess the child in all areas related to the child's suspected disability. The evaluation results will be used to decide the child's eligibility for special education and related services and to make decisions about an appropriate educational program for the child. If the parents disagree with the evaluation, they have the right to take their child for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). They can ask that the school system pay for this IEE.
Step 3. Eligibility is decided.
A group of qualified professionals and the parents look at the child's evaluation results. Together, they decide if the child is a "child with a disability," as defined by IDEA. Parents may ask for a hearing to challenge the eligibility decision.
Step 4. Child is found eligible for services.
If the child is found to be a "child with a disability," as defined by IDEA, he or she is eligible for special education and related services. Within 30 calendar days after a child is determined eligible, the IEP team must meet to write an IEP for the child.
Once the student has been found eligible for services, the IEP must be written. The two steps below summarize what is involved in writing the IEP.
Step 5. IEP meeting is scheduled.
- contact the participants, including the parents;
- notify parents early enough to make sure they have an opportunity to attend;
- schedule the meeting at a time and place agreeable to parents and the school;
- tell the parents the purpose, time, and location of the meeting;
- tell the parents who will be attending; and
- tell the parents that they may invite people to the meeting who have knowledge or special expertise about the child.
Step 6. IEP meeting is held and the IEP is written.
The IEP team gathers to talk about the child's needs and write the student's IEP. Parents and the student (when appropriate) are part of the team. If the child's placement is decided by a different group, the parents must be part of that group as well.
Before the school system may provide special education and related services to the child for the first time, the parents must give consent. The child begins to receive services as soon as possible after the meeting.
If the parents do not agree with the IEP and placement, they may discuss their concerns with other members of the IEP team and try to work out an agreement. If they still disagree, parents can ask for mediation, or the school may offer mediation. Parents may file a complaint with the state education agency and may request a due process hearing, at which time mediation must be available.
Here is a brief summary of what happens after the IEP is written.
Step 7. Services are provided.
The school makes sure that the child's IEP is being carried out as it was written. Parents are given a copy of the IEP. Each of the child's teachers and service providers has access to the IEP and knows his or her specific responsibilities for carrying out the IEP. This includes the accommodations, modifications, and supports that must be provided to the child, in keeping with the IEP.
Step 8. Progress is measured and reported to parents.
The child's progress toward the annual goals is measured, as stated in the IEP. His or her parents are regularly informed of their child's progress and whether that progress is enough for the child to achieve the goals by the end of the year. These progress reports must be given to parents at least as often as parents are informed of their nondisabled children's progress.
Step 9. IEP is reviewed.
The child's IEP is reviewed by the IEP team at least once a year, or more often if the parents or school ask for a review. If necessary, the IEP is revised. Parents, as team members, must be invited to attend these meetings. Parents can make suggestions for changes, can agree or disagree with the IEP goals, and agree or disagree with the placement.
If parents do not agree with the IEP and placement, they may discuss their concerns with other members of the IEP team and try to work out an agreement. There are several options, including additional testing, an independent evaluation, or asking for mediation (if available) or a due process hearing. They may also file a complaint with the state education agency.
Step 10. Child is reevaluated.
At least every three years the child must be reevaluated. This evaluation is often called a "triennial." Its purpose is to find out if the child continues to be a "child with a disability," as defined by IDEA, and what the child's educational needs are. However, the child must be reevaluated more often if conditions warrant or if the child's parent or teacher asks for a new evaluation.
Letter-writing in General
- Put all your requests in writing, even if it's not required by your school district. A letter avoids confusion and provides everyone with a record of your request.
- Always, always, always keep a copy of each letter you send. It's useful to have a folder just to store copies of the letters you write.
How long will it take to get an answer to my letter?
Some special education guidelines give the amount of time a school has to respond to a parent's request, some don't. The IDEA says that schools must respond in a "timely manner" or within a "reasonable" period of time. Some states and districts actually define this period by a certain number of days. To find out what is true in your area, check your state and local regulations.
If you have not heard from the school within ten working days of sending your letter, phone the office to make sure the school received your letter. Ask when you can expect an answer. If you have asked for a meeting or other services that require coordinating with several other people, it may take some time to do this. However, it is reasonable for the school to let you know that your request is being worked on.
If you need a letter answered in less than ten working days (for instance, if you are moving or have other urgent reasons), let the school know that you have sent--or are delivering--a letter and need a response as soon as possible (or by a specific date). That way, the staff can try to get you a quick response.
To whom do I send my letter?
Many letters will go to your child's teacher. You will send others to the school principal. In some instances, the letter may need to go to the local Director of Special Education or other administrator. Call the person's office to make sure of the spelling of his or her name and the correct mailing address.
Some school districts handle special education requests at the local school level. Other districts assign this job to different administrative people who don't work right in your child's school building. If you are not sure to whom to send your letter, or cannot get good information on who to write, you can always send your letter to the principal. If the principal is not the one directly responsible for answering your request, he or she still is responsible for giving your request to the right person.
Also, send a copy of your letter to your child's teacher, so that he or she will be aware of what is going on and know of your concerns.
In general, what do I say in my letter?
- Why am I writing?
- What are my specific concerns?
- What are my questions?
- What would I like the person to do about this situation?
- What sort of response do I want: a letter, a meeting, a phone call, or something else?
- Put the date on your letter.
- Give your child's full name and the name of your child's main teacher or current class placement.
- Say what you want, rather than what you don't want. Keep it simple.
- Give your address and a daytime phone number where you can be reached.
- Always end your letter with a "thank you."
What are some other tips to keep in mind?
- After you write your first draft, put the letter aside for a day or two. Then look at it again and revise it with fresh eyes.
- Read your letter as though you are the person receiving it. Is your request clear? Have you included the important facts? Does your letter ramble on and on? Is it likely to offend, or is the tone businesslike?
- Have someone else read your letter for you. Is your reason for writing clear? Can the reader tell what you are asking for? Would the reader say "yes" if he or she received this letter? Can your letter be improved?
- Use spell check and grammar check on the computer. Or, if you don't have one, ask someone reliable to edit your letter before you send it.
- Keep a copy for your records.
Who can help me with this?
- Local chapters of state, regional, and national disability advocacy organizations can work with you. Most disability organizations are concerned with issues related to a specific disability as well as broader issues of raising a child with a disability. Their membership often includes both parents and professionals.
- Each state has a federally-funded Parent Training and Information Center (PTI). The PTI staff can help explain the laws, policies, and procedures for special education in your state. They can also help with problem-solving ideas.
- Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) also serve families of children and young adults with disabilities. They provide information and training to help families obtain an appropriate education and services for their children with disabilities. They help families connect with community resources.
- State agencies, like the Developmental Disability (DD) Council, Protection and Advocacy Agency (P&A), or state Department of Education can also help explain procedures and make suggestions.
- Many states now fund parent resource centers in local school districts. Ask your Director of Special Education if there's a local parent resource center in your area.
- NICHCY's State Resource Sheets lists a selection of state agencies, including PTIs, CPRCs, and P&As, disability organizations, and parent groups for each state and the U.S. territories. If you need more information or contacts in other areas, call or write NICHCY (1.800.695.0285) or visit their Web site.
Writing letters is an important part of communication. As your son or daughter goes through school, you may have many occasions to write a letter. In advocating for your child's needs, it is important to be able to write in a way that is effective and to the point.
When you communicate your thoughts, ideas, and concerns, you define your child's needs. When you emphasize the positive aspects of your child's education, you develop a good working relationship with the professionals in your child's life. When you convey "what works" rather than spending time and energy on what doesn't work, you become a stronger advocate for your child. When you need to state concerns or problems in writing, do so in a factual, non-emotional, and businesslike way; this will ultimately help you get the results you want for your child.
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Readers are encouraged to copy and share it, but please credit the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY). NICHCY Parent Guides are published in response to questions from individuals and organizations that contact us. We encourage you to share your ideas and feedback with us!
Publication of this document is made possible through a Cooperative Agreement between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
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National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. www.nichcy.org (2002). Communication with Your Child's School Through Letters. Washington, D.C.: Academy for Educational Development.