Saturday, August 16, 2014

An IEP Tutorial: 13 Tips

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) process can be daunting. I was very intimidated those first few years. I have been in some very tense meetings with less than desirable outcomes and I have been in some very relaxed meetings where everyone left with smiles. I have learned a lot and no longer feel sick before I go to those meetings these days. I have some words of wisdom for you if you are still struggling with anxiety before you go to those awful IEP meetings. Following are my tips. The first few are pretty basic and you’ve probably heard some of these before. But the bottom half of the list are things that are a little more unique I think. Hopefully, you can learn from my experiences and some of my mistakes and successes.

1. This is very important: Never go alone. Hire an advocate long before the first IEP meeting so that the advocate has time to get to know your child and his/her needs and the two of you have time to go over goals. I was so lucky because my son had a Board Certified Behavior Analyst working with him. She knew him very well and has come to almost every IEP meeting since he was five. There were many times when I did not know what to ask for or did not understand some of the jargon but our advocate did and my son has benefitted greatly from her expertise. If you absolutely cannot afford an advocate then find SOMEONE (even another parent who has already been through the IEP process and has some experience) to go with you so you and your spouse are not alone. An advocate can be intimidating (without being scary) and can make a lot of difference in how the IEP looks at the end of the meeting.

Tate with Dad's glasses and laptop
2. Educate yourself about the IEP process. Before you go to your first IEP meeting read a book about the process and your rights. I recommend the Wright’s Law books. This is doubly important to the parent who does not bring an advocate with them.

3. Be on time. It looks pretty bad when mom and dad walk in late. I usually try to be early. Because, in our first IEP experiences, meetings sometimes started late (due to missing equipment or people) and I had complained, I did not want to be the one who caused our meeting to be delayed. One time I actually had to rearrange furniture for a meeting; then wipe glue and glitter off the table we were to use before our meeting could begin. Every minute of the meeting is valuable. Sometimes substitute teachers have been hired so your kid’s teacher can be there.  

4. Do NOT let anyone rush the IEP process. If enough time was not allotted for the meeting then you can ask for another meeting. You have the right to call an IEP meeting yourself anytime you want one. Put your request in writing though because if it is not in writing then it never happened. My kids’ schools used to schedule one hour for our meeting, ninety minutes if I was lucky. We never got finished in that amount of time. Apparently, some IEP meetings only require one hour but teachers have told me some parents go into the meetings accepting what they are offered and giving little or no input. Don’t be that parent. You need enough time to ask questions, get the answers, and help plan the IEP. You know your child better than the teachers do.  

5. You may be hoping for the best but you need to prepare for the worst. Take off your rose-colored glasses but don’t wear your boxing gloves into the meeting either. Keep them hidden just in case you need them but don’t go in ready for a fight. Sometimes things go bad quickly and unexpectedly. My son started at a small rural school where I knew almost every teacher and staff member very well and considered most my friends. I never dreamed we would have any problems coming to an agreement over what my son’s IEP should entail. I was wrong. It only takes one person on the IEP team sometimes to stand in the way of progress. Your goal is not to intimidate anyone so behave humbly and keep a smile on your face if at all possible. Be friendly. Be nice. Be sweet. Be kind. Set a dish of chocolate in the center of the table. Compliment everyone. THEN if you cannot catch your flies with sugar, bring out the vinegar.

6. Go into the meeting with a list of goals you would like to see on your child’s IEP. The school representative will be bringing their own list of goals, and probably even a rough draft of what they want the IEP to look like. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), which is part of the Department of Education, discourages schools from bringing draft IEPs into the IEP meeting but IDEA is silent on this. Coming up with a draft IEP before involving parents is mind boggling to me but it is common practice. You can find sample goals online or in the Wright’s Law books. And… IDEA does not limit the number of goals an IEP can have. I once took ten or twelve tentative goals to an IEP meeting and was told that the school typically only allowed three goals on an IEP. Don’t believe it folks. Your child is there to make progress. Set your expectations high.

7. Have your questions written down and take them with you. You don’t want to walk out of there and later remember all the things you did not talk about. It is important to ask things like, “How much and what kind of training will the para professionals have?” IDEA says that para professionals are to have ongoing education throughout the year. Sometimes that does not happen. Ask about lunch and recess. Ask who will have access to your child’s IEP. Privacy laws are strict and your child’s diagnosis or IEP may not be shared with all the people who work with your child. Initially, my child’s diagnosis and IEP were not shared with substitute teachers or specials (Music, PE, Art, Library) teachers. That was unacceptable. My son needed accommodations and modifications for many activities. He also needed help during fire drills, tornado drills… Protecting a child’s privacy at the expense of keeping them safe and educating them is ridiculous in my mind. Now we have to put it in the IEP that everyone is to be told. I actually try to make sure that even the janitors, secretary, the cafeteria staff, and bus drivers are told about my children’s disabilities. If it really “takes a village” then the villagers ought to be given a clue about their little charges.

8. Remember that the I in IEP stands for Individual. There may be very specific anxieties or behaviors that are unique to your child that should be addressed in the IEP. If your child does not communicate well then you need to ask for insist on a note coming home every afternoon telling about his/her day and answering some routine questions about their behaviors… If your child has dietary needs then those should be listed in the IEP… Social skills training might need to be a part of the IEP. Don’t let the school push you into signing a standard IEP with goals recycled from the last student who had a similar disability.

9. Take notes during the meeting or bring someone with you to take notes. Do not rely solely on the notes taken by the staff. I once got my son’s IEP in the mail and was blown away. It looked nothing like the IEP we had discussed and I had the notes to prove it. The school note taker will probably ask you to sign their notes. Don’t be afraid to ask them to sign yours as well. You might even want to exchange copies of notes before you leave the building.

10. Usually we accentuate the positives but not today. The IEP meeting is not the best time to boast about your child’s strengths and progress. The child’s strengths are mentioned on the IEP and that is enough. The IEP meeting is a time to examine your child’s weaknesses under a microscope and try to collaborate on how to help him/her make progress. Do not minimize your child’s sensory needs, behavioral issues, physical disability, social skills deficits, or academic limitations. The school psychologist and the others on the team may come prepared to talk up the progress and give your child a very limited amount of services. Don’t get caught in that trap.

11. You cannot make it about the money. The school may try to make it about the expense of the services your child needs but the law says that your child is to receive an “appropriate education.” Parents sometimes hear, “We don’t have that available” or “There is only one O.T. in our district and she has to serve the needs of all the kids that need O.T.” Here’s the thing: If a hundred kids need occupational therapy (for example) and the occupational therapist is spread too thin then the district SHOULD hire another O.T. but instead they often suddenly decide to graduate a bunch of kids right out of their occupational therapy sessions. It all boils down to money. Don't let your kid be the one that is pushed out of services they need. 

Science Experiment, Tate was in 3rd grade
12. Don’t be pressured or tricked into doing something you do not want to do. A lot of these educators have been doing this a long time. Most are honest and want what is best for your child. Some are not. I learned early on that when I heard the words, "promoting independence" or "facilitating independence" come from someone on the IEP team it meant that I was about to be told that they wanted to pull support for an activity or a class that my child currently had support for. Facilitating independence; Yeah, right. Call it what you want. It still meant my kid was going to be without support and floundering on his own. If you are surprised to hear that your child suddenly seems to make enough progress so he will lose para support for an hour, it could be that the school is struggling to find enough paras or the money to hire them. Make sure you do not agree to “facilitate independence” unless you are sure your child is ready for that. BEFORE you sign off on it, go and observe. Send your advocate to observe. Learn from one of the biggest mistakes I made early on in this game... No matter how many times you hear, “We can always add the support back in,” know this: you will have to fight tooth and nail to get back anything you let them take away. AND, you may not succeed. The goal for all of us is independence but don’t ask a fish to climb a tree! Some kids will achieve independence and some won’t. Asking a kid who is not ready or able to do the things they cannot do is cruel. If you feel pressured to sign something or make an amendment to the IEP, tell them you need a couple of days to think about it.

13. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. I hear it all the time. Other parents have asked me why my kid has more services than their kid or how I was able to get full support for my son. I first point to the advocate we have (Tip #1). Then I tell them that they have to make a lot of noise. For four long years I wrote complaint letters, sat in the principal’s office, made phone calls, took notes, and made a lot of noise. I also gave gifts, sent cards, volunteered in classrooms, bought school supplies and other things the school needed, and was very visible at the school. I can hardly believe it but some parents meekly take the services the school offer and ask for nothing more. They do not get involved or ask questions. I suppose that there are some wonderful schools out there where all the staff does what is best for all the special needs students. ?? I love my kids’ schools. I love my kids’ teachers. I love my kids’ therapists. I am happy with my kids’ IEPs and the services they are receiving currently. It took a long time and a lot of noise to get here.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like 15 Truths of Parenting Special Needs Kids

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  1. Thank you for sharing this invaluable information!

    1. You are so welcome. These are definitely things I wish I had known from the beginning. IEP meetings are so intimidating.

  2. My son has a myriad of special needs and a really good IEP. However, I am definitely adding the part about making sure that everyone in the school knows (especially the music teacher). Thank you!