How Do I Know If My Foster Child Needs Special Education Services?

By June Bond, B.A. M. Ed and Stacey Prusak, B.A. M. Ed

    Advocating for your foster child in the educational system may be one of the most daunting tasks that a foster parent undertakes. This is especially true for a first time foster parent that may have a wealth of child rearing experience, but no experience in the world of determining the need for and routes to accessing special education services.

      First of all…what is special education? Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of children who have disabilities. This is done at no cost to the parents in the public school system.    

Special education can include special instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals and/or health-related institutions. Special education can start before a child enters the school system and is not limited to just a classroom. It is estimated that over 5 million children receive special education services each year in the United States. So, take heart, you and your foster child are not alone!

     If you are fostering an infant, do not think that special education is off your radar screen due to age.  There are special education programs (interventions and therapy) from birth to three years old that can make a huge difference in the educational outcome of your foster child. Make certain that you have as much information on your foster baby as possible.  There may be risk factors in the child’s family history or prenatal/birth history that may be an indicator for early intervention services. These factors include a family history of poverty, learning disabilities, prenatal substance abuse, prematurity, low birth weight, low APGAR scores, and delivery complications. While these factors do not necessarily lead to learning disorders, there may be other factors that need to be brought to the attention of a pediatrician.

      With a very young child, the late attainment of developmental milestones can be a trigger for assessment. There are five major areas of developmental called domains. They are: motor, cognitive, language, social-emotional and adaptive.  Development of these milestones typically occur in a natural progression of skills and can be associated with age ranges.

Motor skills include gross (large) and fine(small) movements. A newborn will instinctively move their legs, arms, head, fingers and toes. They will also move their eyes but are not capable of tracking an individual or object. Infants will develop head control and deliberate reaching at about 2 – 4 months, sitting at 6 months, crawling at 9 months, standing with support at 10-12 months, soon followed by walking. Running and holding a crayon will occur anywhere from 12-18 months, kicking a ball, walking up stairs, and copying circular and vertical strokes at 18-24 months, catching a ball, riding a tricycle and cutting a line with scissors at 3 years, skipping, hitting a ball with a stick and printing first name at 5 years.   

Cognitive development is the process of learning and obtaining information and is associated with individual neurological development. Logical thinking, reasoning, gathering and organizing information are all cognitive skills. Cognitive development is closely related to the development milestones of all the other domains.     

Language development begins at birth with crying and responding to noises. Children begin to vocalize sounds at 1 month, babble consonant and certain vowels sounds by 8-11 month, say 5-10 words and express wants and needs by 12 months. By 18 months a child can name familiar objects and there is an increase in intelligible speech. A child at the age of 2 will use two-word phrases and uses language with more purpose. A 3 year old will often have 80% intelligible speech and use four-word sentences.

Social-Emotional development is the maturation of individual emotional and social skills. They are interconnected components of human development. Social-emotional development is influenced by interactions with others; adults and children. Caregivers can positively impact this development by providing a safe, reliable and nurturing environment. Lack of these factors or social isolation can negatively impact development.  Children from 1-6 months will laugh and smile. At 6-12 months, a child will display separation anxiety from their caregiver.  Tantrums or protests as well as exhibiting a sense of humor are common from 12-18 months.  Children will begin to play individually at 18-24 months. By 2 years of age a child will follow simple rules but also become more dependent and possessive of the caregiver. A child that is 3 years of age will play with one or two other individuals.

The Adaptive domain are skills that increase personal independence such as toileting, dressing and feeding.  Adaptive skills are closely aligned with motor and cognitive skills. A child must possess the cognitive skills and be proficient with the gross and fine motor skills necessary to complete the task. The ability to synchronize sucking, swallowing and breathing occurs between 1-4 months, holding a bottle and swallowing pureed foods at 4-8 months, and drinking from a cup and self-feeding with fingers at 8-12 months. Children from 12-18 months cooperate with dressing and washing. They can also indicate when they are wet or soiled. Children from 18- 24 can unzip zippers, wash and dry hands with supervision and begin to potty train. By the age of 24-36  months children can undress themselves, use the toilet with supervision, independently wash hands and recognize common dangers.

The Center for Disease Control website and Healthy Children website from the American Academy of Pediatrics are both additional resources that provide information on developmental milestones.

There are also specific medical/emotional conditions that will warrant services from birth to age twenty-one. There are thirteen general categories of disabilities listed in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  These categories include autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, emotional disturbance, speech and/or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, visual impairments, and “other health impairments,” which can be defined as affecting a child’s life functions, of which learning is one of life’s functions, such as ADHD.

     It is also important to note that as the foster parent of a young non-school age child (birth – 3 years of age),  you should also think outside the classroom in terms of early intervention services that can be offered. Some of these services for a young child can include speech therapy, play therapy, orientation and mobility services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, training services for the family, as well as social work services.

    Special Education services are provided by the local school districts rather than state early intervention programs for children starting at the age of three. These services are part of Free And Public Education (FAPE) mandated by IDEA all the way through secondary education. These services are designed to meet the needs of the individual in the least restrictive environment possible.

     Remember — If the child comes into your home and did not receive services in the birth home or the home of another foster parent, it does not mean that the child does not need assessment for special education and related services. This is a repeated mantra. Just because the child is not getting services when they come to you DOES NOT mean the child does not need services…Err on the side of caution for assessment.

     If your foster child is age five and over when they enter into your care, there are several steps that you should take in the initial weeks of placement to ascertain if your foster child is getting needed services or if an assessment (or reassessment) should be scheduled.

  • Read the child’s reasons for coming into care and birth family history. What is listed in these documents that may cause the need for special educational services?
  • Read the child’s medical reports.  Are there any medical issues that may warrant special education services that have not been implemented?
  • Read notes from the previous foster parent. There may be anecdotal information that may indicate a need for special education assessment.
  • Look at any psychological reports that have been completed on the child. Does the IQ of the child indicate a need for services? Does the IQ of the child and the performance of the child in the classroom indicate that there may be a learning disability? The disparity between ability (IQ) and performance (grades) may indicate a specific learning disability.

     Once the child is in your home and settled in, there are other indicators that you will need to monitor that may trigger the need for special education services or additional services. Look at the pace in which your foster child is attaining developmental milestones in all five areas. If your foster child is “lagging behind” in attaining developmental milestones, an educational assessment may be warranted. Look at your child’s current grades at the new school in relationship to his or her ability to perform. Remember, the disparity between ability (IQ) and performance (grades) may indicate a specific learning disability.  Standardized state and national test results should be reviewed in regard to the ability of the child and the child’s performance.  There may also be other signs of the need for special education such as multiple suspensions, behavioral referrals, and detentions.  Please note that if your foster child has a disability, but is performing well at school, the child may still receive some special education services.

     Now that you have ascertained that your foster child has cause for a special education assessment what is the next step? Official assessment would require an evaluation by the school. Many of the foster children that come into your home may already have been evaluated and deemed eligible for special education services. However, a very young child OR a child that is in foster care for the first time may not have been evaluated for special education services. Likewise, it is not unusual for a child that is in the US illegally to have not been in the school system long enough to have a full and thorough evaluation.

    The first stepping stone to receiving special education is to ask the school to evaluate the child. Request in writing that the school evaluate your child as soon as possible. (Remember to date and sign the request –  save everything that relates to your requests.) A foster parent may ask, “what happens during an evaluation for special education services?” The full evaluation TEAM should look at a host of factors. This evaluation should include assessing the child’s health, vision, hearing, social and emotional well-being in addition to their general intelligence, performance in school, and communication and physical skills. Remember that YOU are one of the most significant people on the evaluation TEAM.  Once the evaluation is completed,  the evaluation team will determine if your foster child meets the definition of a child with a disability as determined from the IDEA and the state and local policies. If your child is determined eligible for special education and related services, the foster parents should receive a copy of the evaluation report and the eligibility determination. If your child is found eligible for special services, the next step is to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address the child’s basic disabilities. The IEP is a written document that outlines the educational program designed to meet the child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP. The IEP will: (1) set learning goals for your child; and (2) state the special and related services that the school district will provide for the child. A child’s IEP will contain: 1) Present levels of achievement and educational performance.  This includes how your child’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general curriculum. 2) The IEP must state annual goals for your child, which he or she can reasonably accomplish in a year. 3) The IEP must also list the special education and related services to be provided to your child, such as speech-language pathology, audiology services, psychological services, physical therapy, occupational therapy, early identification and assessment, counseling services, orientation/mobility services, medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes, school health services, social work services and parent counseling/training.  4) The IEP must also define how much of the school day the child will be educated with non-disabled children, as well as testing modifications or changes in how tests are administered. 5) The IEP must include “Transition” (making plans for what will happened when the student exits public school) the transition plan will include measurable post secondary goals related to training, education, employment, and/or  independent living skills.

      In closing,  remember a few key points: 1)Special education can begin in very young babies and can continue until age 21, 2) Special education is not just for the classroom setting – think outside the school room box, 3) Birth family history, prenatal and birth history, and ability to meet milestones can be signs to seek special education, 4)Failing grades, and huge discrepancies between ability and performance are indicators that an evaluation is in order, 5)Never assume that there is no need to readdress the need for added services when a child comes to your home, 6) Never underestimate YOUR ROLE in getting the services that your foster child needs to be successful in school.