There are many articles out there about IEPs and how to be a better advocate for your child. So I thought I would come at this topic from a different angle.
As a parent who has been through too many of these meetings, I can say I find them extremely stressful. I have a knot in my stomach for a week before the meeting and our school district is usually pretty good about meeting my children’s needs. So I am writing this for you parents that have to advocate for your child’s needs, especially when those needs aren’t crystal clear. Here are some tips to help you get through your child’s IEP without having a nervous breakdown.
1) Make a plan.
Before the meeting make a list of the things you feel are important for the IEP. Go ahead and write down your dream IEP, knowing that some of the requests may be unlikely additions. Then go through the list and number the items you feel are the most important. Choose your battles carefully surrounding your top few items. Politely give-in on number 10 on your list, but hold strong for number one.
An example of choosing my battles happened at a meeting where I felt strongly that my son needed speech therapy. The speech therapist informed me that he is capable of making the correct speech sounds, however, he just doesn’t do it. This was entirely true, but from my perspective, the fact that he was not doing it was a problem. I knew that I could fight and win for him to have speech at school, but I also knew that being pulled out for speech would put him behind in other subjects, and that I had bigger battles to fight at this meeting. Knowing that we could access outpatient speech services, I chose to give up that battle. He made remarkable progress, turns out he was capable of making the speech sounds, but just needed a little extra practice to generalize it to everyday. Now I know shower from sour, and am saved from a great deal of confusion.
2) Seek out support from other families.
I find step one isn’t always so easy. While I know my child, I don’t always know what the school is able to offer, or what the best way to handle a situation is. Asking other families of similarly challenged kids can be very helpful. With my son moving into middle school, I was a little stressed about how he was going to change for gym (ok, a little stressed about a lot of things but that’s another story). It takes him an inordinate amount of time to get dressed, and having to take off and put back on his shoes and brace, well he’d miss most of gym and the class afterwards as well. I asked some other families who came up with a host of great ideas to address this issue. The one I presented to the IEP team was that I would send him in gym shorts or pants and sneakers and he can change his shirt. A simple accommodation for a silly problem that had stumped myself and the rest of the IEP team.
3) Bring a friend.
There are no rules about who you can bring to the IEP meeting. Who can you think of that will be a strong support for you. Someone who can take notes and remember who said what because in the heat of the moment, you may forget. Maybe your spouse, your mother, a close friend. Whoever you can think of that will be a support to you. This person is not coming along to fight the fight for your child along side you, they are there for you.
4) Practice relaxation.
Before the meeting do something you find relaxing. Maybe listen to a relaxation or meditation CD, practice some yoga or workout. If all else fails, try taking three deep breaths, in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth.
5) Enter the meeting with confidence.
Bring your plan with you and go into that meeting with a feeling of confidence, the members of the IEP team are all experts in something, you are the expert in your child. Don’t forget that.
6) Take notes.
Bring a notepad and pen and take notes, jot down questions so you don’t forget to ask them.
7) Remember FAPE.
Your child’s public school is obligated to provide them a Free and Appropriate Public Education. If your child obviously needs modified physical education classes and the school is offering library time as an alternative to PE, this is not FAPE! Tell them so! If your child needs accomodations to get their ideas down on paper, such as a scribe or a talk to text program and the school offers them extended time to complete the task without assistance, this is not FAPE! Tell them so! Use the language, ask if they believe that a certain suggestion will offer your child a free and appropriate public education. Just understand that it goes both ways, for instance, if your child is a seizure risk and you are requesting an aide so that they are being monitored all the time, the school may offer a buddy system to the bathroom, and an accompanying adult when the child is leaving the classroom on their own. This might be FAPE even though it’s not what you were hoping for.
8) Find a good advocate.
Meet with the advocate before the IEP and discuss your IEP wish list. Ask them to be upfront with you, are you requesting anything outlandish? Anything they’ve never seen on an IEP before? Talk with them about your child’s needs and prepare them to join you in advocating for your child. An ill prepared advocate may actually backfire and make a situation worse. However, a well prepared advocate can be a secret weapon.
9) Ask for documentation.
If you feel strongly that your child demonstrates regression after a break from school and you want to fight for extended school year services, ask the school to collect data. Be specific regarding the areas you suspect regression and help them come up with behaviors to collect data on. You may find that the data doesn’t support the need for ESY, or an aide, or a modified curriculum, that’s ok, in fact it’s great! It means that your child is doing better than you thought, good for them! Requesting that the school collect data cools off many IEP meetings. It’s a reasonable request, and allows you and the school to make the most educated decision possible. Plan a date to meet again to discuss the results of data collection.
10) Know your rights.
Understand the rules of the IEP process. Do not sign anything you are not happy with. If you don’t agree with a reevaluation of your child, DO NOT SIGN IT! If you don’t feel like the IEP is right and the meeting end time is approaching, politely ask if you can table the discussion and meet again soon to finish up.
11) Remember it’s not set in stone.
Once you sign the IEP, it becomes the IEP in place to address your child’s needs. However, it is a fluid document that you can reopen anytime. If you don’t feel like the IEP is being adequately followed, or your child’s needs are not being met, request that the IEP be reopened and that the team meet as soon as possible to address your concerns.
12) Contact an education lawyer.
As a last resort, you may have to get in touch with a lawyer. I know we have been lucky. Our IEP meetings are fairly amicable. I don’t always get what I want, sometimes that turns out to be a good thing other times not so much, but for the most part we agree. However, I have heard horror stories from other families who have a very difficult time getting their child’s needs met. You cannot always be Ms. Nice Mom or Mr. Easy Going Dad! If you have tried without avail to create an appropriate IEP through the regular channels, it’s time to bring in the big guns. Go to due process, have a lawyer contact the school on your behalf, have your child’s doctors write notes documenting their needs. This can be a long and painful process so hunker down and prepare for a battle.
I understand how much can ride on a well written IEP, it’s so hard to know if we are providing an adequate balance of challenges and support. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect IEP, so don’t hold out for that. Trust your instincts, stay strong, breath and try to stay positive. And don’t keep your IEP survival tips to yourself, what has helped you get through the stress of your child’s IEP meeting?