Educators: Early intervention, diagnostic testing available at schools

Published 12:16 am Monday, November 6, 2017


NATCHEZ — Mississippi law provides services to children with different learning abilities starting at birth, but local mental health professionals fear parents are not taking full advantage of that aid.

Delarious Stewart, director of special services in the Jefferson County School District, said he has recently met a parent who did not understand the evaluation and educational services available through the district.

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“We had the parent of a 3-year-old come in and ask if we knew where the child could be tested for autism,” Stewart said. “The kid could be evaluated right here in our office. I don’t think parents really know that.”

Karen Noone-Yvon, who began work this year as the Natchez-Adams School District’s school psychologist, said early identification for children is critical to their education.

“Early intervention and early identification are key,” she said. “Like any concern, you want to nip it in the bud.”

Stewart described the benefits of early intervention as being like the foundation of a house wherein learning disabilities manifest themselves as cracks or frailties.

“If you’re able to intervene early, you can pour cement in the cracks,” Stewart said. “Hopefully, at some point that child moves out of special education because they’ve learned the skills to master their learning disability.”

If the cracks are left untouched, however it may cause long-term structural instability, he said.

Stewart and Noone-Yvon said the respective districts have the capability to diagnose and begin treating dyslexia, autism, auditory processing disorders, dyscalculia and a wide range of others.

Each different ability, Noone-Yvon said, receives different testing and treatment.

“We have neurocognitive assessment tools to understand what their particular abilities are,” she said. “A child with a reading disability would get an entirely different test than a child who had problems with math.”

Stewart said if a district is not equipped to handle whatever services a child may need, it is charged to purchase or hire professionals who can provide those services.

Though cases exist wherein a student’s needs are too severe to handle within the district, only two students are sent to alternative educational facilities in Jefferson County and approximately 12 in the Natchez-Adams School District.

In the majority of cases, Stewart said, the district designs care to fit the needs of the child.

Unfortunately, Stewart said, parents often stand in the way of a child receiving special services from the district.

Stewart said parents often do not want their children to be labeled as a “special needs child” or to be patronized by their peers.

The stigma, which Stewart said reflects a national misunderstanding of mental health and treatment, is simply wrong.

“The stigma is a misnomer of what special education is,” he said.  “Special ed used to be a place; now it is a set of supports and services that benefit a child.”

Children are no longer isolated in rooms with other students who have learning disabilities, he said. Instead, the services are brought to the general education classroom.

The move of support services into the classroom, Noone-Yvonne said, is a part of a national mandate to provide special-needs children with the least restrictive environment possible.

“Let’s say I have trouble in math, but I might be a voracious reader,” Noone-Yvon said. “Twenty years ago, it was all or nothing. Now, we know if a child has a learning problem in one area, it doesn’t mean they will in another. It’s our mission to give them the least restrictive environment, which is normally the general education classroom.”

Noone-Yvon said the inclusion of special services also benefits other students in general education.

Outside of perhaps more completely understanding concepts and learning strategies, Noone-Yvon said a moral benefit exists as well. “These students are our friends and neighbors,” Noone-Yvon said.
“We learn acceptance. We learn that we don’t come in a one-size-fits-all; we have differences. We learn tolerance and understanding.”

Noone-Yvon said some parents also fear that they will not have control of where their child is placed, but this, too, is often misunderstood.

“We tell them exactly what we’re going to do,” she said. “We require informed permission for this process.”

The process for getting a child evaluated is simple, Stewart and Noon-Yvon said.

A parent can visit the Office of Special Services at the Jefferson County School District or the Special Education Department at the Natchez-Adams School District or with the teacher of his or her child and a staff member will help them initiate an evaluation.

“We are here to serve children,” Stewart said. “My heart and my advocacy is with children with disabilities, and we need parents to know.”