Sensory Issues and the IEP: How To Meet Your Child’s Needs When Your School “Won’t Do For Sensory”

If you are the parent of a child with sensory issues, I can almost be certain that at some point you have been told by your child’s school that “they don’t do” anything for sensory needs. No matter how much your child may struggle in school, when it boils down to giving out services, almost all school districts will say that they do not provide services for a child’s sensory needs. This message can come in different forms..some will say that occupational therapy is for academic or fine motor skills only, others may suggest that your child’s issues are behavioral and suggest interventions along that route. In my case, our district went so far to say that it is “against the law” to give a child occupational therapy for sensory needs only. Whatever the case and however it may be presented to you, I am here to tell you that this message we receive from our schools is not entirely true. And in the years that I have been raising awareness for SPD and communicating with sensory parents, this lack of resources for sensory kids in school is the most common problem that other parents present to me. It is always my pleasure to help a sensory family in need. I have had a long road as a sensory parent and if what I have been through can help another child, I am always happy to do so. So, in the spirit of it being Annual Review season in schools, I thought it best to share what I know about where a child’s sensory needs fit into an IEP and how the law can protect your child from being denied services that can help them succeed in the classroom:

1) What to say when districts “won’t do” for sensory: When you go to your district for an evaluation or to meet in regards to the outcome of an evaluation and they say they “won’t” do for sensory, ask to see the legal regulation that backs this up. While most districts set up their own guideline for what they will and won’t do, it is New York State law that governs a child’s right for special education services and any district who denies a child must do so under the state guidelines. So, when denied anything from an evaluation or a service, ask to see the law that supports the district’s ability to deny. If there is no law (and in my case there was not), then you can pursue your child’s right to service further.

2) Part 200 regulations of IDEA: I refer to this 200 plus page document as my bible as it is the part of New York State Special Education Law that outlines the rights of a child with a disability. If you want services for your child, become familiar with the law.

3) Occupational Therapy Defined: Almost always, a district will tell you that occupational therapy is for fine motor skills so, if you’re child doesn’t have fine motor delays, it would seem you are out of luck. However, Part 200 regulations defines occupational therapy as ” the functional evaluation of the student and the planning and use of a program of purposeful activities to develop or maintain adaptive skills, designed to achieve maximal physical and mental functioning of the student in his or her daily life tasks.” Didn’t see anything that says this service is for fine motor skills only??? Me either..so let’s move on! If you are getting an occupational therapy evaluation through your district make sure it includes a sensory profile. If your child scores in the deficient range as defined by the law, your child can qualify for occupational therapy through the school. Basically, if your child exhibits problematic behaviors in the classroom that interfere with learning, and it can be documented that the basis for these behaviors is sensory, then your child is entitled to related services to target the function of those behaviors..and occupational therapy is the way to target that.

4) Data is Key: In any case where you are trying to get special education services, data is needed. And by data, I mean a lot of it. The law states that one single standard of measurement cannot be used as sole basis for services. So, while you may know that your child needs OT to help them in school, you have to prove it. You need data from teachers about these behaviors, where they are occurring and for how long. If possible, go for an outside occupational therapy evaluation. They can provide a much more thorough evaluation of a child’s sensory needs then a school based evaluation. And, by law, the school must consider any and all reports (both school based and otherwise) when making a decision about services. Also, if your child receives services and your district wants to take it away, data is key also. Look at your child’s progress report? Are they meeting their goals? If not, services may still be needed, regardless of what one standardized evaluation says. The more data to support your child’s needs to keep or qualify for services, the better chance you have at the service being granted.

5) Learning DOES NOT EQUAL Academics: One of the most common responses from schools to a parent seeking services is that the behaviors “do not interfere with learning.” They will tell you how smart your child is and that they are academically on grade level or beyond. However, they are the ones coming to you about this behavior, right!? That’s because the behaviors are interfering with learning because learning does not always mean how well you do on a test. Learning means a lot of things and eligibility for services cannot be based on academics alone. The law states that a child’s functional performance, social development, physical development and management needs all must be considered along with academics. Management needs have gotten lost in the world of special education in the last few years but the way your child manages themselves and any behaviors relating to their disability is a very important part of school success. And while a child’s academics may not be interrupted yet, they can be if the child doesn’t have the proper tools to manage him or herself. So, if your child is academically appropriate, do not think that it is an automatic disqualification. There are many factors that must be considered and make sure you are getting all of the pieces of the puzzle before you are told your child doesn’t qualify.

6) Just because your child is sensory doesn’t mean they will qualify for OT: Last, but not least, I want to stress the importance that sometimes a child will not qualify for service. Sure, they may have SPD and there may be certain behaviors that present in school as a result. But, sometimes, a child can succeed without formalized service. Getting a child occupational therapy in school is just one small part of a web of interventions that a sensory child needs to be successful. And just because a child may not get occupational therapy doesn’t mean that their teachers cannot provide sensory input throughout the day. In fact, I am hearing more recently of how teachers are providing more movement opportunities in the classroom because it is clear how movement benefits all children, not just the sensory ones. Teachers are incorporating multi sensory experiences in classrooms through science experiments, or by using music to enhance a lesson. Some teachers will do yoga positions during transition times. And even if a teacher doesn’t do these things as a whole group, there are simple sensory strategies a teacher can provide to a sensory child to help satisfy their need for input without making it a formal intervention. So, if you explore all your options and your child still won’t qualify for formal OT (and some won’t) work with your teacher on how you can meet your child’s needs in an informal way. Any good teacher will want to do what they can to help a child be successful.

Now, it is important to remember that just because I was able to use all this information for my child and get her services that you will automatically do the same if you follow my advice. That is not the intention of this piece. However, my point in writing this is to express the importance of knowing your child’s rights. Last year, had I taken the word of our district that giving my daughter occupational therapy in Kindergarten was “against the law” I would not have been able to get the proactive strategies we have on her IEP that have been key in her success this year. But, even though my daughter has formal IEP accommodations and occupational therapy services, I still see a lot that her teachers do for the whole class to provide sensory input for all the children. However, I still continue to see far too many children get disqualified for services that evaluations, data, and classroom performance dictate they most certainly need. Just last week I must have communicated with at least six parents, all in various stages of trying to get sensory strategies and services for their children in school. A few days ago I took part in an IEP meeting for a child whose mother has spent the last few years trying to get  a sensory evaluation for her son through her school district. Together, after reviewing his reports and in educating all parties involved as to this child’s rights under New York State Law, this long awaited evaluation was granted. I had never met this parent or child and in one of our conversations, mom asked me why I would be willing to do so much for someone I have never met. The answer was very simple…because I have been there. I have been that parent fighting for my child to be set up for success, for her extra needs to be acknowledged and dealt with in a proactive way. This year I got the luxury of watching my daughter succeed in school for the first time since she started nursery school three years ago. I couldn’t have gotten to this point without help from others and I have promised to pay it forward. So, to all you sensory parents out there, consider this my payment to you. I hope that you find your own path to your child’s success. If I have said it once, I have said it a million times..change for one, is change for all. Be the change you want to see for your child! I will be happy to help you along the way.

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4 thoughts on “Sensory Issues and the IEP: How To Meet Your Child’s Needs When Your School “Won’t Do For Sensory”

  1. Sensory challenges DO often interfere with learning – but not always to the standard required (here – 15th %ile…). So if you have a “smart” kid who’s doing 50th %ile that’s supposed to be “good enough”…Argh. Been there…
    The more information and awareness the better! Thanks!

  2. Do you know if private schools are required to provide the same services? We have both of our children in private school as our public schools here are woefully inadequate when it comes to dealing with children outside of the box. Their small private school is much better at handling their behavior and helping them succeed, but they both still need OT, especially my younger one. I have no idea how to go about getting services.

    • Private schools are not required to provide special education services. Most do not. 😦 but if you know what your child needs you can push your district to provide your child what he/she is legally entitled to under the law. If a child’s evaluation determines that a child needs services a district must provide. Simply saying they can’t or won’t is not adequate. An educational advocate may be a good choice for you as they are well versed in law and policy and can advocate for your child. Good luck.

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