Parents of a child with a learning disability can feel like they're on a "detective mission" within the education system.

The first clue they need is an individual education plan (IEP), which outlines what a child needs in the classroom and should suggest ways to help them learn.

But the IEP doesn't solve the case.

In fact, the bigger mystery for parents and teachers is often how to actually put the document to practical use.

Janet Ridsdale's been lucky navigating the education system with her 18-year-old son Derek, who has autism, cerebral palsy and an anxiety disorder.

Derek has attended schools specifically for children with disabilities and a typical school, and at both he's had the support he needs.

Michelle McCullough

Michelle McCullough is a special education teacher in Ontario's York Region. She says it's a struggle to meet the needs of the children she's supposed to support, and classroom teachers can't do it all by themselves. (Courtesy Michelle McCullough)

But the mother from Calgary might be the exception, partly because she was able to search out what Derek needed and be his advocate.

She's heard from many parents who are frustrated, confused and exhausted from trying to figure out the mysteries of the system.

"It's almost like you have to go on a detective mission to figure out what you're going to have to do to make the IEP something useful for your child," she said. "Not everybody has the time or the knowledge to do that."  

Michelle McCullough, a special education teacher in York Region, north of Toronto, is supposed to spend half her day teaching a class of nine students with special needs and the other half in regular classrooms helping not only her students, but other children with less severe learning challenges.

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In some cases, students might have individual education plans, but without the support of a specialized teacher or educational assistants, an IEP alone won't help students, experts say. (Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com)

It's also part of her job to assess students, write IEPs and have meetings with or about her students, but she says there's no time allotted for many of those tasks.

She says it can be a struggle for teachers in a typical classroom to meet the recommendations of various IEPs as well as the needs of all the other students.

"A lot of kids' needs are not being met," she told CBC News.  

A nationwide problem

Canadian Teachers' Federation president Heather Smith says teachers can't teach to 30 students individually.

"A classroom teacher can't be an expert on every type of disability," she said.

Smith says teachers need access to other teachers who specialize in helping children with learning disabilities, as well as educational assistants and psychologists or social workers. She says the lack of support is a nationwide problem.

Heather Smith

Canadian Teachers' Federation president Heather Smith says the lack of support for students with special education needs is a problem across the country. (www.ctf-fce.ca)

"Funding is based purely on numbers [of students] and not on need."

In her home province of New Brunswick, Smith says the only students with access to an educational assistant are those with serious medical needs or major behavioural problems, and children who need some extra support or attention aren't receiving it.

In B.C., teachers have lost the right to bargain about class composition, a ruling headed for the Supreme Court. This means teachers can have classrooms with more than seven students with IEPs, Smith said.  

An education report in Newfoundland and Labrador released in June found the province has a serious lack of resources for students with special needs, which puts the entire system "under serious stress." The report recommends more student assistants and psychologists, and that funding decisions be based on needs and "generous in application."

Manitoba started to review its special education policy in 2015 and announced changes in January, including how schools apply for support funding.

The Saskatchewan government announced in June it will eliminate 14 teaching positions and 60 educational assistant positions

Terminology without treatment

Judith Wiener, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, says there's a lot of terminology for children who struggle in the classroom, but schools aren't always using the best treatments and methods to help them.

"There's no point in giving a label unless you're also providing services," Wiener said.

For example, a child may have an IEP because of a learning disability that affects reading, Wiener said. A teacher modifies a test so the child has more time, but extra time isn't going to help if the child can't read it to begin with, she said.

Jacqueline Specht

Jacqueline Specht, the director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education and professor at Western University, says a lot of money and resources are spent on coming up with identifiers and IEPs for students, but it’s not really helping teachers. (Courtesy Jacqueline Sprecht )

"It isn't often enough that we're providing intensive help at that time."

Heidi Bernhardt, the executive director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada, says implementing an IEP doesn't always require additional resources.

It can be as simple as having a teacher check with a student about how to start a project, go over instructions or make slight modifications to homework.

"Most [ADHD] students are fine in a regular classroom. A lot of it has to do with the knowledge of the teacher and the goodwill of the teacher," she said.

Jacqueline Specht, the director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education and professor at Western University, says a lot of money and resources are spent coming up with identifiers and IEPs, but it's not really helping teachers.

"I think a lot of times we do some damage when we identify and make people think that by having this identifier you know exactly what to do with a child," she said. "If you say, 'Here's a label, here's an IEP, you have to do something totally different,' we're giving that false sense that that's going to help people in a general kind of way."