Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to Prepare for an IEP Meeting

It's getting near the end of the school year, which means that many of us are going through our annual IEP meetings to set up or finalize arrangements for our special education kids. If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you've probably been through one or a few of these meetings. You know they are not a lot of fun, but you understand how important they are.

Even though my child is only six years old, I feel like an old hand at these meetings. Last year alone, we had three IEP meetings. One of them involved a room full of lawyers (mine and the school district's), therapists, administrators, an educational consultant, and a county special education supervisor. That was a tough one.

Regardless of situations that could have created an adversarial situation with my school, both sides have remained friendly, supportive, and dedicated to helping my son. It's been incredible, but it's been hard. I regularly get asked about how to prepare for IEP meetings, so have decided to share what has been successful for me.

Know that you have to prepare. I had been to a couple of IEP meetings already when confronted with one where I knew I was going to ask for things they weren't going to want to give us. I freaked out on my blog and my special needs community came back with advice. It was a revelation. I realized then that you can't just walk into a meeting and get what you want. You have to prepare. You have to know what programs are out there. You have to know what your child needs. You have to think out how your child's disability affects his ability to learn, his ability to access the curriculum, and how it affects his safety. You don't have to know everything—you can't know everything—but you have to prepare.

• So what is the first step in preparing? Well, you have to get organized. Get all of your evaluations, reports, school communication, and documents organized and labeled in a binder. Have everything ready so when you need to find, for instance, your private speech therapy evaluation, you can locate it immediately.

Know the law. This is a tough one, but you have to have a basic understanding of your rights. Your school district should give you a packet about procedures and regulations. Read it. Find out if there is a local organization that will provide a free or low cost parent navigator to help you figure out the nuances of your case. (In my county the Montgomery County Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health is a good place to start.

Read up about special education. The absolute best resource I have found relating to special education law is From Emotions to Advocacy by Pete and Pam Wright. As far as I am concerned, this is a must-read for anyone who will be attending an IEP meeting on behalf of their child. It covers basic special education law as well as tips for how to succeed at your meeting. Pete and Pam Wright's organization Wrightslaw is an excellent place to find answers to questions about specific issues.

• Now that you have general information about special education and your school system, you need to know what you want. Does your child need a one-to-one aide? Maybe she needs weekly speech services. What about a lunch bunch social skills group? Does he need Extended School Year (ESY) services? Think about your child and figure out what he needs to be successful at school. It is vital that you have this solidified in your head when you walk into the room so that you know what you are advocating for.

• You will probably not walk out of the room with everything you want. Prioritize your wish list. Which of your child's needs is a must have? Create a list for yourself of deal-breakers, things that would be nice to have, and things that you are willing to let go. For instance, at the meeting where I took a lawyer, we were asking for a one-to-one aide, increased speech services, and occupational therapy. The aide was our must-have, more speech therapy was something we really wanted, but didn't insist on, and we were willing to let the OT go.

Be flexible. In the meeting I mentioned above, we got an aide, but not exactly a one-to-one. However, the solution we came up with worked for our son, and we are able to work with the school to make sure it fits his needs. Had we pushed for a literal one-to-one aide, we probably wouldn't have gotten one, and we would have alienated the school in the process. If you expect the school system to give a little, you're probably going to have to give a little too. But know when you shouldn't give. We were adamant that our son have direct support and not just access to support during the day. Somebody needs to be with him during certain times, even if that aide is also helping another child in the class at the same time.

Know that you are part of the IEP team. You will often walk into an IEP meeting to find that the school has already set out the plan. That is NOT the final plan. YOU are part of the team and YOU help create the plan. Don't be afraid to speak up. It is your legal right. Not to mention that you know your child better than anyone.

• You know your child, but all the people on the IEP team may not. Some of them have met your child once for an observation or evaluation. Some, such as her teacher, may know her very well. Others may not be able to pick your kid out of a line up. Help them see your child as a person instead of just a stack of documents. There are many ways to do this. I have a friend who creates a power point with photos to show to her team. I personally create a document that I call "Who is Jack?" that I pass out to every person in the room and that goes into his file. I put his photo on it and I start with information about Jack's likes and dislikes, then go on to add his strengths and weaknesses, what he struggles with in school, pull quotes from evaluations and documents supporting my case, and then I end with our larger goals for Jack's life. That always ends with, "Help Jack learn how to be a happy, successful autistic person in a non-autistic world." Every single person I have shown this to, from lawyers to the county special education supervisor at my most adversarial meeting, has loved this. It shows who your child is and it shows you are an involved, thoughtful parent.

• When you're going through your documents to create your Who is My Child document, comb through your current evaluations for phrases that support your case. When you talk to your private experts before they create your documents, ask them to use strong language when they write out their recommendations. Ask that they not use phrases such as, "Jack would benefit from..." or "The best environment for Jack would be..." You should ask them to write (truthfully of course) "In order to be successful in a school environment, Jack needs..." Make sure to type out a list of these supporting ideas to take with you to the meeting. It is easy to get flustered and forget something important, but if you have a piece of paper in front of you that states, "Her math scores have declined from a 90% average to a 60% average over the course of the past six months," you won't forget to mention it. Check off everything you've discussed.

Don't forget about the goals. Goals drive the IEP, but are notoriously badly written. Do some research on how to write goals and what kinds of things you want your child to accomplish. Make sure they are quantifiable, relevant, and make sense. Again, Wrightslaw is a wonderful resource for information on goals.

Don't overlook safety issues. Even more than making sure that your child can access the curriculum (and if the school says her disability doesn't impact your child academically so she doesn't qualify, figure out how it does), the school's main responsibility is keeping your child—and the other children in the school—safe. My son put staples in his mouth on a regular basis. That, more than anything, helped us get direct support for him.

• I mentioned above that you might get flustered. Know that you likely will. You might even cry. I have cried at probably two-thirds of my son's IEP meetings. Just be prepared by bringing someone with you to the meeting. That person can be a partner, a professional advocate, or just a friend. Have that friend type up notes for you on a computer so you don't have to worry about it. Plus, if you get overly emotional, they can help with questions or comments you might be too overwhelmed to utter. Just be sure to tell the team ahead of time that you are bringing someone.

Know that nothing is written in stone. If you agree to 15 minutes of speech services a week, but your child is not improving, you can call another meeting at any time. There are laws that specify that the school has to respond to your requests. Do it in writing and keep copies of all of it.

Stay amicable. Don't forget that the people at the IEP meeting are the people who will be working with your child for the next several months or years. It is okay to disagree with the team, but keep it on a professional level. Do not get personally antagonistic. If someone in the meeting gets nasty to you, respond civilly, hard as it may be. (As a side note, you are within your rights to tape record the meeting. Just let them know ahead of time that you will. If you end up in mediation or due process, you want your tape to show that you maintained civility even if the other side didn't.) I sicced a lawyer on my school system, and we are still on hugging terms. It's all about how both sides are able to relate as human beings. Let the IEP team know that you are doing this because you are advocating for your child, not because you dislike the team.

Recognize that the IEP process doesn't end when you leave the table. Carefully read your IEP document to make sure it reflects what was agreed to in the meeting. Know that it is a legal document that the school is required to comply with. Make sure that they do so. I find that volunteering in my child's classroom is not just a good way to get a sense of how things are going and how his goals are implemented, but it lets the school know that I want to be involved and that I want to help. If your child's teacher does not like having parents (or you) volunteer in the classroom, or you can't because of your work/childcare schedule, volunteer in the library or head a committee on the PTA. Be a presence at the school.

• Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, know that you are your child's best advocate. Hopefully your child's school legitimately and sincerely wants to help your child. However, their goals are not necessarily the same as yours. They have to look out for hundreds of children. You only have to look out for one. They are trying to teach and protect the entire school. You are trying to teach and protect one. Until he can advocate for himself, he needs you to do it for him. Don't let personality clashes, uncooperative staff, or anything else get in the way of your doing that.

Jean would like to mention that she is not an attorney or a professional advocate. None of this should be interpreted as legal advice. If you are in a contentious situation, please consult with a professional. You can find advocates and attorneys on the Council of Parent Attorney and Advocates (COPAA) website.