As a private consultant I have the pleasure of supporting families as they work to become knowledgeable members of their son’s or daughter’s IEP team. They are often anxious weeks before the scheduled date, worrying if their student will receive the supports and services they need or if they are going to lose a service that has been helping. They worry about their struggles in understanding what the assessments mean and they become anxious over whether or not goals will be written in the areas of need. They worry if they will have prepared enough to fight for everything their students need. They can become intimidated and withdraw or defensive and lose their tempers.
We all know that the parents’ commitment to the education of their child with special needs does not stop when the school bus comes to pick them up or when they drop their child off for school. It is an ongoing commitment to understanding the learning differences of their child, the latest research and strategies developed to help their student and to the learning of the complex system involved in the preparation of IEP documents, the individualized special education plan for their student.
Being a knowledgeable partner at the IEP table means understanding how to be prepared for these meetings and how to participate at them. It means having a calm and professional voice. This means parents must
1) Understand the current level of performance on each goal area being addressed.
2) Review the quarterly reports that are sent home and when the benchmark has not been met . . . Ask why not and ask what needs to change in order for your student to make progress. It might be time to identify different teaching strategies or make accommodations in teaching materials.
3) Observe each part of your student’s program (classroom, therapy, lunch, recess) before the meeting.
4) Set up appropriate ways that teachers and therapists can communicate progress and challenges from the school day (email group, daily log, face to face, phone calls).
5) Learn to understand that the child’s assessments identify the strengths and learning challenges. Then goals are written to address the challenges. Services are then offered to support the goals written. Parents need to be sure that there are enough goals written to truly get the services needed. Parents also have the right to obtain outside assessments and offer them at the IEP meeting to help determine goals and services.
6) Not forget that the evaluation of their student does not move forward without their signature on the assessment form, so be sure to sign them as soon as possible.
7) Prepare for meetings by keeping consistent and accurate records on their student (IEP documents, assessments, progress reports, correspondence and requests). It is always best to put all requests in writing with signatures and current date of the request. Prepare their own agenda to keep them focused at meetings when their emotions are high. Use a highlighter on assessments to identify learning challenges. Ask for breaks at meetings when needed. If they do not understand a goal or how the child is going to be measured, ask for clarification. They can also take documents home to review and process before signing.
8) Develop a positive relationship with the teacher, therapists, instructional assistants, principal, program specialist and the director of special education.
9) Think in terms of outcomes when determining needs: “What do we want for our child?”
10) Prioritize their student’s needs. What is the most important thing to see addressed?
11) Try finding common ground and work towards developing shared understandings when there is a difference between you and the school team. Keep your student’s need in focus as you address one difference at a time.
12) Respect, value, listen and offer appreciation to teachers, therapists and instructional aides. Offer thanks at IEP meetings.
13) Bring a picture of your student to keep everyone focused on his or her needs and to build a connection to a real person being served.
When this process becomes too overwhelming, some families will choose to work with a local disability family network and bring an advocate with them. Some families will hire a private consultant and others will bring a special education attorney with them.
In recent years, due to the decrease in special education funding, the tensions have increased between the families and the districts. Multiple student IEP meetings, each over 2 hours long, are being held with 6 to 10 people at the table presenting, discussing and arguing about assessments, needs, goals and services. Meetings get tape recorded for later legal use and in some cases decisions are sent to mediators to determine a solution when the team is unable to come to an agreement.
These types of solutions can destroy partnerships. When the partners cannot find a common ground and work together, trust is lost and the long-term partnership sadly destroyed.
So, my advice to families is to acquire the necessary knowledge required to be an equal partner early. Understand your student’s special education needs and establish positive, clear communication skills with every member of the team early. Document, document, document, and get involved in your student’s education by volunteering, observing, and demonstrating respect and appreciation.