First, they need an understanding of the terminology used by schools and originating in the federal laws that give students with learning and other disabilities specific rights. It is also important that families understand the difference between the two laws that require schools to offer specific services to students with learning difficulties. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) both can be used to help struggling students. They both require that a student have a specific disability, but then impose different standards.
If a student has a disability AND because of such disability he or she requires special education or related services, then that student will be covered by the IDEA. An example would be a student with a reading problem, who needs specialized reading instruction. Without such instruction the student would not be able to make regular progress and move on from grade to grade. However, if a student had a visual impairment that required him or her to use special software and large print books to be able to access the classroom materials, but otherwise did well in school, that student would fall within the protections of Section 504. Students with attention difficulties who do not need other academic support generally fall under Section 504; those who have attention problems together with academic difficulties are most often eligible for IDEA services. The two laws are very similar for students in grades K-12, but parents are required members of the team that develops the IEP under IDEA, but are not necessarily part of the 504 Team that develops the 504 Plan.
So, once you know the terminology and are somewhat familiar with the laws that will apply to your child, what else can you do as you prepare to deal with your child's school? One important step is to create a record of your child's achievement and testing and of earlier steps you have taken to deal with your child's issues. Keep a folder, by year, of report cards, earlier IEPs or 504 Plans, testing, etc. Keep a log of who you spoke to and why and when. Document the results of all conversations (eg: 12/3/2010 - Called guidance counselor about setting up a meeting of the IEP team; she said she would get back to me. 12/15/2010 - received notice of IEP meeting to be held on January 20, 2010 -- see notice in file).
Do not attend meetings of the IEP Team by yourself. Bring a spouse and/or a friend or advocate. You need to be able to focus on what is being said while someone else takes careful notes, including the names and titles of all those at the meeting (or get a copy of the sign-in sheet, but be sure you can read all the names and positions). If you are not certain that you agree with the decisions of the IEP Team, you should tell them that and state that you need some time to consider this information. Remember, no matter how helpful the school personnel may be, the only person at the meeting who has no other consideration than what is best for your child is YOU. Even the most caring school staff has to consider the needs of other children, the financial impact of your child's needs, and staffing issues. So, plan for your meeting and you will find that your journey through the IEP or 504 process will be more likely to be a positive one.