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Before you walk into your next IEP meeting
Written by Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler
It’s anxiety-provoking for many parents: the thought of sitting down with your child’s case manager, principal, teachers, therapists–and people you may not even recognize–to talk about what your child’s school program will look like for the coming year. It’s not that you haven’t prepared. You have spoken with your child’s teachers throughout the year about your child’s progress. You have organized your three-ring binder in chronological order with your child’s schoolwork, report cards, progress reports, standardized tests and evaluations (school or private) that relate to your child’s disability. You will use these documents to make your case for what your child needs.
Unless this is your first IEP meeting, you probably know by now that your child who attends public school is entitled to an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, if he or she has a disability that adversely affects his or her educational performance and he or she requires special education and related services. Keep in mind that, under the law, education is a broad concept. It includes not only what parents typically think of as education–learning to read and do math–but also social, emotional and behavioral needs that impact a child’s functioning in school. (The Federal special education law is codified in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004.)
What can you do to help this year’s IEP go smoothly? As hard as it can be when the child you represent is your own child, try to keep these principles in mind:
You are Your Child’s Best Advocate
Special education law lists parents first among the IEP participants because you are the most important person in the room. In fact, you have the most power at that IEP table when it comes to insuring that the IEP addresses your child’s needs. You, as the parent, have the ability to ask any question, free from administrative concerns, politics or budget constraints.
You need to walk into that meeting with confidence. You have a unique perspective on your child–valuable information that the case team needs to hear. Only you know if your child is crying for hours about homework or refusing to go to school. You know if your child is demonstrating social skills at home that the teacher is not seeing in class. You know if your child is bored, or is saying that he feels “stupid.” These events are all reasons for a team to reconsider a child’s school program.
To do so, the school needs to hear your input. Make sure your voice is heard. If meetings are usually rushed, politely ask, at the start of the meeting, for air time and the opportunity to respond to what you hear. Know that if you do not get a chance to speak, you can ask for the meeting to be continued at a later date.
While the school is accustomed to having these meetings, they are uncommon events for you. Don’t hesitate to look to other areas of your life to summon the courage to engage in a dialogue with the team, to problem-solve to create, together, a program that addresses your child’s needs.
The IEP Meeting Is a Starting Point
Consider the IEP meeting as the beginning of a conversation with the school. It is a negotiation that may continue after the meeting. Remind yourself that you need not sign the IEP document that the team gives you at the end of the meeting. Take a copy home to review with family or a trusted friend. Give yourself time to process the conversation at the IEP meeting to see if any part of the IEP is inaccurate or incomplete.
Knowing that you can take time to process what happens at the meeting may help you take some pressure off yourself at the meeting. It will free you to listen to the information that the team shares with you, to their viewpoints and interests, and it will help you be open to their ideas. This will help you respond better to the team’s concerns and, in the end, get to the best plan you can for your child.
The best negotiations are problem-solving sessions in which both parties understand the other’s interests and find solutions that satisfy both sets of interests. Work towards that, but don’t expect to achieve all your goals. As in any negotiation, you will achieve some of what you seek, and it’s important to be gracious about what you concede.
Your Relationship With the Team Matters
The IEP will have to change many times as your child grows. You will need to be able to work with this team again. At future meetings you will return with new data, and make new arguments that you will ask the team to consider. Caring for the relationship means helping to ensure that you can work effectively as a team in the future.
One way to care for the relationship with your IEP team is to take the the time to point out what is working and to thank individuals whenever it’s appropriate. Teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals work hard throughout the year. Many go above and beyond.
If things are not going so well, be wary of placing blame. Issues are complicated, and no one is perfect, even with the best intentions. Your goal is to make the team want to help you. And rarely do people feel like helping when they are being attacked.
If you encounter someone who seems to be at odds with you, don’t make a personal attack. (That goes for emails, too.) Try to find common ground and win that person over. As in life, you usually get more with sugar than with spice. If you know you will get upset during the meeting, it’s a good idea to bring a friend to the IEP meeting to give you a signal to breathe deeply, or to take a break. You can ask for one at any point in the meeting. IEPs are emotional for the parent. Know that that’s normal.
Parents often report that they feel like the school is saying that their child’s issues are the parents’ fault. Know that no parent is responsible for their child’s disability. Even if the school does not see, in school, your child’s issues that are of concern to you, that does not mean that you are imagining them, or that they are not school-related. More information may be needed to make the connections or figure out what is happening. If you do feel assailed during a meeting, you don’t need to give up, or give in. Just stand your ground. Try to act cool and collected–whether or not you feel that way. One of your jobs is simply to be professional, and to not take any comments personally or let them distract you from your goal: getting your child what he needs.
Be Open to New Ideas
You can also foster a good working relationship by showing the team that you are open to hearing their ideas. Being open to new ideas also shows that you respect the team members, and that you are reasonable. It’s also smart. The team may have ideas you haven’t thought of. And it will make the team more likely to hear your ideas. You can–and should–be open to hearing anyone out. You should also use that binder of documents you brought with you to make the case for what you believe your child needs. Show the team a comparison of recent test scores with past test scores, pass around samples of your child’s schoolwork and handwriting samples, and share the written recommendations from the outside professionals as to what program and services are appropriate for you child in school. Data–especially standardized test scores and reports from outside professionals–are persuasive of your child’s needs.
After you have heard the school out, and they have heard you out, you may still disagree. Know that if you disagree with the rest of the team as to your child’s level of functioning, you have the right to ask for school evaluations and independent evaluations of your child’s abilities and functioning. In contrast to what most parents believe, you do have the right to help select the evaluator. You may incur some costs depending on the evaluator’s fee, but you do not need to accept the evaluator that the team suggests.
Remember that getting the appropriate education for a child with special needs is a marathon, not a sprint. You may need to try the school’s plan for now. That is not losing, or giving up. If you try what the school suggests, and keep a record of how your child does, then you will have data to work from the next time you meet with the team to determine what the team needs to do next.
Understand Your Rights
It is easier to be open-minded and conciliatory when you are secure in the knowledge of what your child is entitled to. The language you use at the meeting should reflect your knowledge of what the law guarantees. Doing so indicates that you will be asking for what your child is entitled to. And if something comes up that you are not certain about, ask for as much time as you need to inform yourself about your rights.
You may know that many children receive the benefit of special education and related services to address cognitive impairments, autism, ADHD, speech and language delays, specific learning disabilities, dyslexia and dysgraphia. Many children also have IEPs to help them address their ability to function in school in light of issues relating to anxiety and depression, auditory processing disorders, gross and fine motor delays, inability to perform activities of daily living such as toileting and feeding, behavioral issues, genetic diseases and learning issues relating to traumatic injuries such as concussions.
In fact, the effects of emotional, social and behavioral issues on a child’s ability to access their education can be great. Do not hesitate to bring up these types of issues as ones for the team to address at your IEP meeting.
A Free, Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment
Your child is entitled to “FAPE”–a free, appropriate public education in the “LRE”–the least restrictive environment. That means that your child, to the extent possible, is entitled to receive an appropriate education at no cost to you and that this education, to the extent possible, is to be alongside typically developing peers, and close to home. An appropriate education is one in which your child is able to make meaningful gains, in other words, progress. You child is not entitled, under the law, to receive the “best” education or one that ensures he or she will reach his “potential.” The law does require that your child receive what he or she needs, or what is appropriate for that child. The IEP is the vehicle through which what your child needs–the special education program and related services–is delivered to your child. The IEP document itself is a contract between you and the school in which the school agrees (and becomes legally required) to provide programming and services to your child. The IEP should be individualized to your child. You will brainstorm with the IEP team about what your child needs. However, it helps to have a list of possible interventions written down that you want to bring up for discussion. Speak to other parents of children with special needs throughout the year, to learn what programs and resources your school has in place. Know that each school district is required to have a continuum of services available to meet students’ needs.
What Special Education and Related Services Can Look Like
Starting with the least restrictive environment, accommodations can be provided to your child in the general education classroom setting. Children may receive special accommodations in class such as reduced homework, extended time, written notes, preferential seating, and the use of FM systems for those with processing issues. Occupational therapists and speech therapists can “push in”–which means they visit the child in class, instead of one-on-one outside of class. They can help children work on skills in the class environment where they are needed, and prevent lost class time and difficult transitions. Children also have been provided one-on-one or shared paraprofessionals in various classroom environments.
Many schools have inclusion classrooms. In these classrooms, for the entire day or for certain subjects, a second teacher who is a special education teacher is present to provide assistance to those children with IEPs who require greater support. The students in the class are a silent combination of mainstream and special education students.
More restrictive are replacement classes. Parents often refer to these as resource rooms–and they are often for certain subjects, usually language arts and math. The child would leave the mainstream classroom for the designated subject–say, math–and be taught that subject by a special education teacher in a smaller class of usually 4-8 students.
Children may also be pulled out of class for one-on-one or group speech, occupational therapy, or physical therapy–all within the school building. In addition, if a child struggles with behaviors that affect his ability to learn, the team can have a behaviorist visit the child in various school settings, and help to devise a plan to incentivize that child to pay attention, persevere, or accomplish other social and emotional goals.
Self-contained classes are more restricted than replacement classes. Self-contained classes are comprised of special education students only, and are taught by special education teachers. Even in those settings, children may have opportunities to join typical peers in specials like gym or at lunch.
When the school cannot meet a child’s need in district, the school is required to look to other districts, and then to private school placements where necessary, to meet the child’s educational needs.
Additional IEP Considerations
Parents should know that the school follows an educational model, not a medical model, as hospitals do. Schools will sometimes say that a child’s need is medical, and not school-related. You can help your child by being prepared to explain how your child’s needs affect his ability to access his education like his typical peers. And remember that education includes not just class time and test scores, but the ability to interact with teachers and peers in a school environment that enables the child to engage in that environment, make progress, and feel successful and confident.
Part of your job as your child’s advocate is to ask about what combination of services will meet your child’s needs, and to encourage the team to engage in creative problem-solving. The possible accommodations for children are numerous, and some may be creative solutions that do not cost the school a lot of money. Big buddies–older students–can sometimes give younger students direction. School psychologists can meet with children one on one, and offer social experiences like “lunch bunch” to help children develop social skills.
Don’t forget to ask about assistive technology, which can help children who have difficulty with spelling or writing, or who have difficulty communicating. Ask about extended school year programs. Ask about testing accommodations that are appropriate for your child on standardized tests.
Take to the IEP meeting your written list of what you want to ask. Don’t forget that an important outcome of the meeting should be to set goals for your child that are specific and measurable so that at next year’s meeting you and the team will be able to look back together and see if new measures need to be added for the following year. Goals can be written in any area of need, and usually contain numbers. For instance, a social skills and communication goal might read: “Sally will initiate a conversation with a peer during free play, once, during a 20 minute period, 80% of the time.”
After the IEP Meeting
Make sure to send a follow up letter to the IEP team thanking them for meeting with you, and recording the status of any open issues, or any agreements that are not part of the IEP document. Review your IEP document carefully at home. Know that you are entitled to ask that the team insert your statement of how your child is functioning and a statement of your requests made that have not been met. Write this statement to address anything you think the proposed IEP leaves out. Send it to your case manager and ask for a revised IEP that incorporates your written feedback.
Know that if you still disagree with the IEP, you need not sign it. It will go into effect after 15 days (unless it is your first IEP for your child), but you will not be on record as having agreed to every provision. You may also sign the document to enable services to begin, but note in writing next to your signature that you are signing so that services may start, but that you reserve your right to object to provisions in the IEP.
Know that You Will Not Give Up When It Matters
While you need to be flexible, some issues are too important not to pursue. If you are ever unable to reach agreement with your team, the law does entitle you to file for mediation or due process, and have a mediator or administrative law judge involved to help you get your child what he needs.
Most parents navigate the special education system without speaking to a lawyer. It is always best to work cooperatively with your school district, if possible, and effective attorneys often have positive working relationships with school officials and school board attorneys. With patience and diligence, a parent can use their greatest power–their caring–to work with the school to get their child an amazing education.
Parents should know that, in difficult cases, a special education lawyer can help you better understand your rights, understand the perspective of the school, and understand the options that exist for your child. A special education lawyer can go with you to school meetings or work behind the scenes. A special education attorney can help you to monitor your child’s progress as he grows and his program changes, and review your child’s IEP. He or she can help to define meaningful progress for your child, help set appropriate IEP goals, work with you to figure out how to present your child’s needs, and help you to be prepared for meetings with your school. He or she can recommend evaluations and experts that will help assess your child’s needs and help you design an appropriate program. And, in cases where you and the school simply cannot agree on a program for your child, a consultation with a special education attorney can help you determine how you can exercise your legal right to work within the system to achieve your goal: the education your child needs to become an independent, successful and happy adult who is a contributing member of society.