Schooling Your Child’s Education: Getting the System to Work for You

All children in Canada have the right to public education, but getting educational needs met is easier for some than for others. Special ­needs children may require adaptations to the curriculum or extra support from paraprofessionals. Often, advocacy and collaboration with schools will be necessary for parents of these children, but both these tasks require some knowledge of how to navigate the system.

Many of the parents who come to our clinic find that this can be a complex and frustrating process. As such, we’ve outlined some basic tips for parents below. Whether you’re just familiarizing with your child’s school or already have them on speed­ dial one, having good communication and a good sense of your child’s learning needs can only help your child have the best experience possible in the public school system.

1. Terms of the Trade: know the ABC’s of IEP’s (etc).

Like all institutions, the education system has it’s own lingo and set of acronyms which aren’t necessarily obvious. Below is a list of some common terms you might encounter:

Term Definition
IEP (which stands for: “Individual Education Plan”) A plan which outlines the special educational programs and services that the child will receive.
Psychoeducational Assessment An assessment completed or supervised by a registered psychologist which can help describe the learning strengths and needs of the student. These confidential reports require the guardian’s consent to be completed.
Team Meeting A meeting is scheduled to review problems with a child’s learning. These problems may be related to academic, social and/or behavioural issues. Team members may include teachers, principals and paraprofessionals (e.g. occupational therapist, school psychologist etc.) who may have expertise or knowledge to share.
IPRC Committee (which stands for: “Identification, Placement and Review Committee”) A committee which reviews students with exceptional learning, behavioural or other needs. This committee identifies these students, determines their needs for placement and reviews them yearly. All students who are identified as “exceptional must have an IEP in place.
Special Education A modified educational program for students with exceptional behavioural, communication, intellectual and/or physical needs.
Applied Course (grades 9-12) A course which covers the core content and has an emphasis on concrete and practical learning.
Academic Course (grades 9-12) A course which covers the core content and has an emphasis on theoretical and conceptual learning.

2. Get heard: Acing Cooperative Communication

The beating heart of collaboration is good, two­ way communication. Meeting the educational needs of exceptional children will nearly always require some amount of problem­ solving. This may involve the child’s teacher, you, a school psychologist, or any number of other professionals. Here are some tips for encouraging good communication between you and your child’s school:

  • Be proactive, polite and persistent. Teachers are experts on education. They also have their finger on the pulse when it comes to your child’s academic performance, but you know your child best. When you identify an issue with your child’s learning, don’t be afraid to speak up. Be sure to make your needs known in a way that’s calm, clear and direct.
  • Lend an ear. Communication is a two­ way street, and collaboration requires a full understanding of the other person’s needs. If you’re not clear about a policy or a concern made by the school, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. The better you understand the parameters you’re working within, the better the position to you’ll be in to advocate for your child.
  • Get back on the horse. Breakdowns in communication with the school system can happen. When they do, try to keep an eye on the prize. Keep in mind that your objectives are the same: to have your child’s learning needs met. Getting back on the horse by restarting communication will be key for keeping up collaboration with the school system.
  • Know the chain of command. In other words, share your concerns first with the lowest person on the totem pole who can address your needs. This practice helps to show that you have followed reasonable steps to have the issue addressed, which can go a long way. The chain of command goes from teacher, to principal, to superintendent of special education, director of education, trustee, all the way to ministry of education.

3. Know Your Rights

Most parents aren’t familiar with their school’s special education policies, and may be surprised to learn that they have many protected rights under these policies. Knowing these can help you understand your role in the process and what to expect. Some examples include:

  • Confidentiality. Sometimes schools will need to share information with other agencies or professionals, especially for students with complex needs. For example, for a school board to obtain information about a child’s assessment reports from an outside agency, the parent must sign a consent for release of information. A consent for release of information authorizes information­ sharing between the other agency or institution and the school.
  • Schools required to hold IPRC meeting. If a parent makes a written request for an IPRC meeting, the principal must follow the procedure in arranging an IPRC meeting ­ neither the principal or school board can deny this request.
  • Parental involvement in IPRC. Parents have the right to be present at all IPRC meetings involving the student and the right to appeal a decision made by the IPRC.
  • For special education services. Special education services are required by law for students identified as special needs. This means that if a student is identified as special needs, they are legally entitled to the appropriate services.

4. Talk with other parents

Talking with other parents who have faced the same challenges is a good way to find out what has worked for them, and what hasn’t. This can also be a way to find some support during potentially frustrating and challenging experiences.

5. A Fork in the Road: Understanding the choices between “applied” and “academic” courses for students entering high school.

In the past, the school system “streamed” students according to their presumed work/educational destination. This policy was abolished in 1999 with the adoption of a system which offers a range of courses for students to choose from which may be either “applied”, “academic” or “locally developed” (designed to meet student needs).

In grade 7 students begin a process of selecting high­school level courses. Research shows that parents are an important factor in the choices students will make. A guide for navigating these courses can be found here:

Speaking to guidance counsellors and other parents are other helpful ways of gathering information that can help you and your child make the choice that’s right for them.

6. Know what the school can offer

Some students will require a psychoeducational assessment to identify their learning needs. The cost of these assessments may be covered when done through the school, but there may be a waiting list. Alternatively, psychoeducational assessments can be done privately.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it’s a starting point for parents with special needs children. In part because school face financial and time constraints, many parents become experts at advocating and finding accommodations and supports for their special need children.¹¹ We suggest that good communication and having a good understanding of the system are critical for getting the system to work for you, so that your child’s special education needs are met in an often complex and challenging system.


Guide to Special Education (2014). Toronto District School Board. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from,­ 2014.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education (2015). Policy/Program Memorandum No. 59. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from

The Association of Chief Psychologists with Ontario School Boards (2012). School Psychology Services. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from

Ontario Ministry of Education (2015). Special Education. Retrieved March 27 from,

Ontario Ministry of Education (2015). An Introduction to Special Education in Ontario. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from,

Toronto District School Board (2015). Courses. Retrieved April 9, 2015, from

Quickstart (2013) Special Needs Roadmap. Retrieved March 27, from, 8/1410452170231/School+Roadmap_landscape_Sept+10.pdf

Ministry of Education (2001). Special Education: A Guide for Educators. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from,

People for Education (2013). Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from­content/uploads/2013/05/annual­ report­2013­WEB.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education (2013). Creating Pathways to Success: An Education and Career/Life Planning Program for Ontario Schools ­ Policy and Program Requirements, Kindergarten to Grade 12. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from,

Canada Education (2015). Parent Advocacy: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from, http://www.cea­­canada/article/parent­advocacy­good­bad­and­ ugly

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