“Is your kid in special ed?”
This was a question thrown at me during a mothers gathering when my kids were in elementary school. Yes, all three of my kids were considered “Special Ed” in the sense that we had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each of them. Three kids with IEP plans translated to tons of paperwork and meetings. We killed a lot of trees over the years drawing up IEP plans.
In the beginning of our parenting journey, my husband occasionally attended IEP meetings. As the years went on, I became the primary parent to attend the meetings. For the most part, our IEP meetings have been smooth ones, but there were some meetings that brought out lots of tears or disagreements. I have just one kid left at home now and the meetings have become pretty routine at this point. It’s a wonderful thing when your IEP team is on the same page as the parent/s.
I’ve also advocated at many other IEP meetings for families and I’ve come to learn what makes a parent a powerful part of the IEP team. Here are some tips to guide you at your next “Special Ed” IEP meeting:
Share Your Child’s Story
Introduce your child to your IEP team by sharing something unique about your child. One of the most popular “trends” is to create a binder with your child’s medical, developmental, and other info, but I’ve found that teams often don’t have the time to read through it all. A colorful, one-page flyer with a photo of your child and some interesting bullet points can go a long way. Share some personalized stories of your child–these stories will keep the focus on your child, and not just the disability.
Identify Your Child’s Educational Needs
As a parent, you know your child well. Before you meet with the IEP team, identify your child’s education needs. What do you want your child to achieve during the school year? What are your goals for your child? What does your child need to “level the playing field” with his/her disability or learning challenges? If you are new to the journey with your child’s disability, consult with professionals, other parents, and adults with similar disabilities and gather information. As a parent, you will be the constant player on the IEP team–consider yourself as a manager on this team. The players will change from year to year, so it helps to be knowledgeable, resourceful, and empowered.
Know the “Special Ed” Laws
To effectively advocate for your child, it is important to know and understand both state and federal laws and how the laws apply to your child’s special education needs. One of the most helpful sites and resources for that is Wrightslaw. I often recommend the book, “From Emotions to Advocacy” by the Wrightslaw authors as a starting point for parents. Email is an effective way to create a paper trail to keep track of discussions, progress, or any changes. If you interact with your team via phone, follow up with an email to clarify and document what was discussed.
Embrace Your Team
Get to know everyone on the team and in your school district. When my oldest child started school, we moved to a brand new subdivision with a new school. I went in to meet the principal before the school year started and continued to connect throughout that first year. The principal ended up becoming an advocate for me at one of the IEP meetings and recognized a service that my child needed. The team was on board because the principal was as well. When my youngest son started Kindergarten, he scored in the 15th percentile for expressive language. The IEP team expressed their concern. I just wanted to hide under the table–I felt as if I had failed in my role as a parent. My third child certainly didn’t get the time and attention that my other two children had at the same age. I made a quick decision right then and there at the meeting: I would embrace my IEP team and call on their expertise and training to help me help my child. What did I need to do? What could they do? We came up with a plan and outlined the approach each of us would take. A year later, my son was in the 82nd percentile. It was a blessing to be able to work together and tune into each other’s expertise to help my son.
Network far and wide to put together the resources and expertise for your child.
Bring in Support
There may be times when you and your IEP team are not on the same page when it comes to your child. This will be the time when an advocate can be beneficial. The advocate can range from another parent with expertise in the field to attorneys who specialize in Special Education law.
From the cradle until your child graduates, you as a parent will be the one on the entire journey with your child. Choose to be a powerful parent on the IEP team.