Zoey is a perky, talkative third grader. She regularly updates school staff on her afterschool plans, how many times she has seen them in the hall that day and which kids are absent from class. Her worldview is completely unique.
As the speech pathologist at her school, I began seeing Zoey in kindergarten, focusing on goals related to her language disorder. Along with her teachers, I worked with her on reading and . We also helped her practice how to explain things in a way that makes sense—telling events in order, staying on topic and including details.
Early on, it seemed that Zoey might only need support for language. But midway through second grade, she began struggling with math and writing, too. Her mother, Caroline, requested a evaluation.
Our special education team doubted Zoey needed additional IEP services. But we agreed that an evaluation might reveal needs we just weren’t seeing.
That’s exactly what happened. Zoey’s academic needs were more severe than we realized. We wrote a new IEP, including math and writing goals. It actually felt very good to learn more about Zoey. We all loved working with her, and she was making progress. We saw her as a success story.
But when Zoey started third grade, it became clear that Caroline wasn’t so sure. As Zoey’s parent, Caroline was a full member of the IEP team. To discuss her concerns, she requested an IEP team meeting.
“I think Zoey should repeat a grade,” Caroline said at the meeting. Zoey’s teachers and I were quiet for a moment. We knew that retention, or holding a child back, can often do more harm than good for kids with learning and thinking differences.
Then Caroline continued. “Third grade is a big step. The homework is much harder and Zoey needs a lot more help to get it done.”
The classroom teacher spoke first. She said Zoey was on grade level for reading and progressing in math and writing. Then Zoey’s special education teacher shared the research on retention and its effect on kids.
The team suggested alternatives to meet Zoey’s needs in her third-grade classroom. After much discussion, we agreed to increase her IEP time in math and writing, measure progress more frequently and report to Caroline on a weekly basis.
At school, we thought things were going well. But at a midyear school conference, Caroline painted a different picture: “Zoey’s having nightly meltdowns. The homework is too hard for her. Every morning, she tells me she doesn’t want to come to school. That’s just not like her.”
Caroline wondered aloud if Zoey would have been better off repeating a grade.
Again, the school team offered ideas, such as services from the school psychologist or modified homework assignments. Caroline liked our ideas, but wasn’t convinced they would make up for Zoey’s challenges. She was still very concerned.
At the end of the conference, Caroline thanked us for our hard work and support. Then she told us she had made an appointment with the principal to request that Zoey repeat third grade next fall. There was no anger in her voice. We disagreed, but we understood what she was saying and we respected her.
I’ve had the privilege of working with many families in my career. And you can’t work in a school for all the years I have and never have a disagreement in an IEP meeting. It just won’t happen.
There are so many amazing and unique kids out there. And there are so many parents and school staff who have their best interests at heart. But not everything will be perfect. Sometimes there is no magic bullet.
I believe that sometimes good people disagree. But I also think we can still work together as a team, in a child’s best interests, even when things get very hard.
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About the author
Kelli Johnson, MA is an educational speech-language pathologist, working with students from early childhood through 12th grade.