By Melanie Sandidge
The very necessity of having a meeting to develop an individualized education plan (or IEP) can be stressful. Walking into a room full of educated professionals can be intimidating. If you believe your child’s needs are at odds with whatever cost efficient solution being offered, preparation is mandatory. These meetings are not designed to make it easy for you to be an effective advocate.
Over the years, I have learned what works for my child, how to create effective partnerships with educators, administrators, and support staff, how to empower my child and increase his investment in his education, the crucial elements to a successful IEP and how the laws pertaining to special education function. Here is what you need to know.
There is no copy and paste answer for helping your child have a beneficial educational experience. Inclusivity is amazing, when the climate and culture of the typically developing children in your child’s school system is healthy. It can be tempting to get excited about inclusion and think that it is always the preferred option for special needs children. But, the sad truth, in my experience, is that some schools have way too many toxic scripts governing the culture of their student body. If bullying is commonplace and accepted, inclusivity may not be right for your child. If fear and pressure are expected outcomes for typically developing children within the school system, inclusion could blow up in your face.
Do your homework. Visit the school. Pay attention to the atmosphere. Make note of how the staff interacts with both typically developing students and special needs students. Ask for information about the entire range of services offered. Often there are many options available that are not even presented. What kind of functional skill building activities are possible? What does supported academic achievement look like? Is there a special olympics team? Are there sports teams that might welcome a non-typically developing teammate?
Try to form relationships with your child’s teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators by opening up and communicating with them. Send notes when your child has a bad night or morning, ask questions about staff’s observations of your child’s behavior both positive and negative, and show appreciation for willingness to communicate and work together. It is so much easier to work with people when mutual respect is present. Look for ways to honor the work that educational professionals perform and show them that you appreciate their hard work. It will go a long way towards creating a team atmosphere.
Communicating with your child is absolutely invaluable when developing a plan that helps them to feel engaged in their education. This can be especially challenging when your child is nonverbal. Ask anyway. Take note of your child’s body language, facial expression and the tone of their vocalizations. Vocalize your interpretation of that information.
Me: “Beau, school wants you to work on using a picture schedule. Do you think that is a good idea?
Beau: Smacks the table. Makes a deep vocalization and stands up.
Me: “You seem frustrated by this. Is that true?”
Beau: Waves. Smacks the table again.
Me: “Would you like the picture schedule better if it included breaks or choices?
Beau: Stares through me.
Me: What if you could choose to add something to the schedule everyday?
Beau: Laughs. Squeezes my hand.
This interaction helped me to help his special education team get his picture schedule functioning in middle school. It also allowed data collection on another goal I suggested: make choices independently. Learning to understand your child’s nonverbal cues can take time and you will make errors. That’s okay. Keep trying. You can give your child a voice and help them feel in control of their lives with patience and practice.
Although you can be sure that your child’s teachers, administrators, and support staff will have ideas about appropriate goals, I urge you to develop some of your own. Educators are much more likely to listen to active and engaged parents. Good communication between home and school is imperative to creating integrated plans which give your child the greatest chance of building critical skills and retaining them.
Writing your ideas down is critical. Make a written list and take it with you to the meeting. Present each idea independently using the most clear and precise language possible. Making friends, socializing at clubs, and exploring talents and abilities are very often overlooked by educators under pressure to produce standardized testing scores. As the parent, remind them of these imperative activities.
You are a vital part of your child’s education team. You are an expert on your child and your input is crucial to developing a plan that gives your child the best possible chance at success. Give yourself a pep talk, meditate, or go for a walk before the IEP meeting. Remind yourself that your job is advocating for your child’s best chance at success. Try to practice non-reaction at the meeting. Before allowing yourself to become upset at any obstacles or disagreements, try to hear the other party out and understand their perspective. Be willing to listen. Ask lots of questions.
But, don’t allow yourself to be railroaded or bullied into agreeing to interventions or programs that feel wrong to you. You can refuse to sign an IEP if you do not agree with it (though you should be aware that most states do not allow special education services to be provided without a valid and signed IEP.) You can call for an addendum to the plan at any time. You can invite an advocate or family member to attend the meeting with you. You can request a copy of your rights and consult with a human rights advocate if you feel your child’s rights are being violated.
Although the process of developing an individualized education plan can be stressful, seeing your child develop self confidence and faith in themselves is worth it. Putting together a great IEP can help your child unlock their greatest potential and live in their unique strengths. Learning to navigate the process can teach you how to actively listen, collaborate, communicate effectively with your child and others and improve your self confidence.