I have sat on both sides of the IEP meeting table: the annual planning meetings for children in special education. Many times I was one of the teachers representing the school district. Most recently, I was the parent, trying to make sure my son got exactly what he needed.
I started blogging with the hope that I could use my teaching experience to help parents. I am so grateful to Indigo Bey for sharing her story on the blog today, and asking me to help parents in similar situations.
My kids are in Special needs programs due to their hearing loss. We are in a great school now but prior years have been tough. For a long time, I didn't realize all of my special education rights. The district personnel will accompany parents to ARDS [annual IEP meetings] and break down the inner-circle lingo to inform you of what is going on with your child's education, future and what you are signing up for, as well.
It is easy to feel that the special education IEP process is stacked against parents. The terms and abbreviations the teachers and school officials use are akin to a foreign language (I experienced this even as a teacher moving to a new state), and there are a bevy of professionals weighing in on what they think is best for your child. Not every parent learns to navigate the system as Indigo did.
So I had to ask Indigo what happened. "What changed?"
Well, I stopped the ARD [annual IEP meeting] after getting very emotional and stated I wanted legal representation. Silence. After leaving the room a counselor ran after me and told me to be stronger in those meetings and to contact the special ed department to represent me. It was chilling...how she said it. Next semester, she was gone from that school.
This is the ugly side of special education. Some children get more than others, and it's not always based on need.
Special education is built on federal laws that require children with disabilities to be provided with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which means that children are entitled to an individualized education that meets their needs so they can make progress. They are to be educated with their non-disabled peers as much as possible. The IEP is the individualized education plan that details the goals, schedules and supports for the individual child.
In theory, schools collaborate with families to plan the best possible programming for each child with disabilities. The reality is that resources are limited and often teachers, administrators and districts are forced to make choices about what programming they can staff, what interventions they can fund, and which assistive equipment they can afford.
It is easy for children to end up with less than they need.
Let's say that your child has a disability, and in the annual IEP meeting the school proposes doing A, B, and C. This might be a great plan for your child, but what if it would be really beneficial for your child to have something else, an option D? Maybe option D is a specific learning intervention or a piece of assistive technology. Sometimes the school is unaware that option D exists. Or maybe the teacher thinks it would be great, but the school or district administration is unwilling or unable to fund or staff option D.
If the parent in the meeting listens carefully and says, "Yes, A, B, and C sound like a good plan," then the child never gets access to option D.
How can parents get the best possible programming for their children with disabilities?
Like Indigo, parents have to become advocates for their children. This is not easy. Often, parents feel that they don't know enough about special education. Or parents appreciate and respect the teachers and schools and don't want to challenge them.
What I can tell parents now, that I sometimes couldn't tell them when I was a teacher in their child's school, is that maybe the teacher at your child's IEP meeting is sitting quietly in her chair, hoping that the parent will say something. Hoping that the parent will ask for option D.
Here are my suggestions to advocate for your child in special education:
1. Keep copies of everything. Special education comes with a lot of required paperwork. Clear out a drawer or a large binder and keep every IEP, notice, progress report or other communication. Keep copies of any requests or concerns by emailing the teachers and schools. If you have a conversation in person about something important, follow up with an email so that you have a record of what was said.
2. Reach out to school district resources first. Indigo found help within the school district's special education department. If you are unsatisfied with your child's program or progress, start by asking the special education teacher, school counselor or administration for support. If school-level staff can't help, look up the department of special education and ask for a meeting. School districts are incentivized to solve problems before they escalate, so just asking for a meeting can be very effective.
3. Remember that you are an expert, too. No one else knows your child like you do. You know what she loves to do at home, how she handles social situations out in the world, how she sleeps and what made her cry yesterday. It is easy in special education to get caught up in the school based reports and data, but don't be shy about sharing what you know. The best programs and teachers consider the parents' expertise and take the time to learn about the child's home life and culture.
4. Share your goals. What do you want for your child? What could be improved? Ask the IEP team to help you come up with solutions. The IEP process can be a productive collaboration when parents and schools work together to problem solve and make a plan. Sometimes simple changes can help a lot: an extra day to do homework, more communication between home and school or social stories to work on problems at home.
5. Prepare for IEP meetings. Ask for a copy of of the draft IEP before the meeting. Read it through, make notes, write questions in the margins and google unfamiliar terms. Dig into your files and compare it to last year's IEP. The IEP is a draft until the meeting is over and it has been signed, so anything can be changed.
6. Don't go into an IEP meeting alone. You can bring anyone you want to an IEP meeting, just let the school know in advance. It can help to have someone familiar with the process, like a friend who is a teacher or another special ed parent. If you don't know an expert, just bring a friend. IEP meetings can be overwhelming and emotional.
If you have done all you can and you are still unhappy with your child's program or progress, you have rights. You can file a complaint with the state or hire a special education advocate or attorney. These options are a last resort, but sometimes they are necessary.
7. Work to maintain positive relationships with the school. Advocating for your child doesn't have to be a negative experience. Most teachers and staff work in education because they want to help, and ultimately want the best for your child, too. It is great to be known as a parent who will ensure his or her child gets what she needs, but you don't want teachers to be scared of you. The best parent-teacher-school relationships are collaborative.
Here are some of my favorite resources about parents rights and advocacy:
- Wrightslaw is my go-to resource for special education law and advocacy information.
- Amanda Morin's Everything Parent's Guide to Special Education is a comprehensive resource worth buying to keep on hand
- Understood.org has great resources about your child's rights as well as learning and attention issues
Thanks again to Indigo Bey for sharing her story. What's your story?