It's astounding to me that we have had 11 IEP’s for Ryan so far!
The first one was when he was almost 3 years old, and not even walking yet. He began his education journey at Sunrise Preschool in Palos Verdes, a special education pre-school, full of caring, skilled teachers, therapists and staff. I can still see us sitting in the physical therapy clinic on the floor for his evaluations. "Miss Jan," his forever-loving-PT, is the face I remembered the most that day. Fast forward to now, and Ryan is finishing his first year in middle school at Palos Verdes Intermediate School. He loooooves being in middle school, and I am told is beloved there by peers and teachers. Even if he has had a few "blips" as I call them, (incidents with difficult behaviors), he is loved and taken care of.
I must say we have always had a positive experience with our schools and our school district. It’s never gotten litigious ever, not even close. I am grateful that we have had good relationships with Ryan’s special education teachers (ANGELS!) and aids (ANGELS!).
Now let's talk about you, dear Mama (or Dad), as you embark on your very first IEP:
1). Set the tone positively. Go into it BELIEVING the school/district team will be collaborative, helpful, and truly work with you. They may have budgets and resources to deal with, but most likely the group of people at your IEP signed up to work with special needs kids because in their heart they want to make a difference in the life of YOUR child. You’ve just begun a new marriage with them and divorce isn’t in the realm of options unless you elect to leave the school district.
2). Bring coffee, donuts or pastries. You are planning for your child’s success, so make it festive. Again, it helps set the tone positively.
3). Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Get copies of all evaluations or reports and proposed IEP goals AHEAD of time to review. Bring those reports and your notes to the IEP.
4). Don’t go alone. Bring a spouse, a friend, or an informed parent or friend.
5). Find out who will be attending the IEP. Make sure ALL key people will be there like special education teacher(s) and regular education teachers, and therapists (OT, PT, Speech, Behaviorist Lead, APE), school psychologist.
6). Put aside all pride. Even though it is emotionally exhausting to talk about ALL the things that are wrong with your child, its important to lay it out because it drives the need for services. You are there because your child needs help. This is the time to highlight the weaknesses, not the strengths.
7). Be clear in describing what you want and why. Remember the catch phrase SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. If you are asking for a particular service, like speech therapy, tell how it will help your child learn and progress this year. An assessment of your child, previously done by a professional, should support this need. Sometimes an independent assessment (covered by you/your insurance is needed to support this.)
8). Know resources are available elsewhere, such as the local Regional Center. Schools are only responsible for education-related matters. For example, if you are needing in-home behavior therapy, that might not be covered by the school district but might be available from the Regional Center or other.
9). Take the IEP home and review in detail before you sign. Even if you agree with it, take home to review. Talk to others to verify you like all that is offered for your child’s education plan. It’s not all or nothing. You can agree with some parts and disagree with some aspects. You can write in any part you disagree with.
10). Speak as part of a team. Parents are part of the team and the school needs to listen to them. Try NOT to be confrontational. Speak expecting they agree, not asking if they agree. For example, avoid saying, “Why won’t you give any speech therapy?” That invites an answer to support why there should be no speech services. Instead say something like "I am concerned about his speech compared to his peers - how should we address it?" Even if it comes down to a compromise, parents should feel satisfied with the outcome, even if it wasn't completely what they wanted.
11). Attach an addendum with specific instructions or requests unique to your child’s diagnosis. For example, I have it written in that I need to be notified anytime there is extra food in the classroom. You can attach a bunch of handouts from PWSA/PWCF (your foundation/organization/doctor/specialist) and list them in the addendum as being required reading. Of course there's no way to make the team read the material, but if you've made it an addendum to the legal document they have to follow it and are responsible if something in there comes up.
12). Know your legal options. Know your legal options and alternative steps to take if the school is unwilling to provide appropriate services. Find and learn from other parents who have gone through administrative proceedings for recommendations and tips. Legal action may be a last resort, but your child is worth the battle if his or her needs are not being met.
13). Take a deep breath. You did it!
**A big thanks to my husband, Chris, and my friend, Julie Casey, for giving valuable input on this post. :)