Recently, my husband and I went through a long IEP (that’s “individualized education plan”) process for our daughter. You’d think that, having done this a few times now, we would know what we were doing when it came to the IEP, right? Well, for reasons like stress, fear, worry, ignorance (but not the willful kind) and avoidance, it took us a (long) while before the light bulb in the attic finally flipped on. It also took the advice of some wonderful, giving souls who had walked in our shoes once, too. And, I promised each one of those wonderful souls we would pay their good deeds forward. So, here it is: Things You Should Know (and DO) Before Your Student’s IEP Meeting.
The IEP process is daunting to parents and caregivers for lots of reasons, but two big ones stand out for me. The first is that the IEP process is psuedo-legal. There are a lot of legal rules for what can and cannot be done to create, implement and change a student’s IEP. It is very important for you to know these rules. Make sure the school district provides you with the required IEP procedural safeguards for parents, then read it! But, don’t rely solely on district resources. Consult other reliable, parent or student-focused resources as well. I recommend the advocacy series of books written by Pam and Peter Wright. A student has certain rights, parents/caregivers have certain rights and school districts have certain rights. Every IEP team member also has obligations. Make it your business to know what those are.
The IEP process is daunting also because it involves making decisions about a student’s educational needs. If your student is newly diagnosed with a condition necessitating special education or learning accommodations, you may still be orienting yourself emotionally and intellectually. When IEP team members start talking about “generalizing” skills to the “mainstream” curriculum, using “reinforcers” to motivate performance, the “common core standards,” or providing a “slant board” for writing to assess “visual acuity,” this new, important-sounding vocabulary may reinforce feelings of inadequacy AND give the speakers an aura of trustworthy expertise. Don’t let this one-two punch take you down for the count or lull you into a false sense of reliance. There are many, many reliable resources out there — resources that don’t require a degree in cognitive psychology to read — that can help you become conversant in the vocabulary of special education and be an effective advocate for your child.
Ideally, a student’s IEP should be the product of a collaborative effort by the IEP team members. But, too often, a school-side team member hands the parent/caregiver-side team members the proposed IEP – already drafted and right before (or even at) the meeting. That doesn’t launch the IEP meeting on a collaborative note. I can’t say there aren’t circumstances where this is done deliberately. My experience, though, has been that a late-delivered IEP draft is the product of a lack of resources (read: only 24 hours in a day and too many IEP meeting clustered together). So be proactive and plan ahead. Tell your student’s classroom teacher that you want to help draft the proposed IEP, and set a meeting date to do that a couple of weeks before the IEP meeting. Come to this collaboration meeting prepared with a list of the things you think your student is doing well and things you’d like to see him/her work on. Then roll up your sleeves, open your mind and get to work. Be prepared to have divergent experiences when it comes to your student – you and the classroom teacher each see your student in a different environment for a good deal of time most days. This is also a very good opportunity for you to see and ask questions about the data your student’s classroom teacher, paraprofessionals and therapists collect over the year to determine your child’s present levels of performance. The data should objectively support the classroom teacher’s goal assessments, so it’s a good double-check against biases (good or bad / yours or the teacher’s)
Care About the WHOLE IEP, Not Just the Services Part
For the first two years our daughter was in special education, my husband and I worried only about the part of her IEP that listed where she would be placed and what type of services or accommodations she would receive (e.g., self-contained classroom, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc.) – the FAPE part. (That’s free, appropriate public education. Welcome to the land of alphabet soup …)
The “Present Levels of Educational Performance” (or some such variation) and actual goals/objectives section of the IEP barely registered with us. We figured that as long as our daughter had the services she needed, we’d leave the implementation to the professionals. This year, though, we knew our meeting wasn’t going to be about our daughter’s services, because those weren’t going to change. So, we finally sat down to really read the goals in her IEP. Imagine my horror when we realized we had it all WRONG. FAPE is important, but the most important of part of the IEP is the assessment of your student’s present levels of academic and functional performance, because that assessment determines the goals, and the goals (more specifically, the benchmarks for progress toward goals) determine the services.
With that wake-up call and the profoundly important support of my fellow IEP-meeting survivalists, here’s my best advice for scaling Mount IEP:
- Read and scrutinize the Present Levels of Educational Performance (PLOEP) section. Identify each skill described (good or bad) in the PLOEP, and write it in a separate line of notebook paper or type it into a line on a spreadsheet. When we did our daughter’s list, we typed progress in green and not-so-much progress or regressions in red. Then, analyze the list to determine whether it paints an accurate picture of where you believe your student’s educational performance is. (Trust me, you are absolutely qualified to do this.) if there are things missing, add them. If you disagree with parts, highlight those for discussion. If your student is old enough and capable / interested, get his/her feedback, too, and incorporate it. The abilities and skills identified in this section of the IEP are the foundation on which the goals are built and the services or accommodations needed to meet those goals determined. It is the first most-important part of the IEP. If the entire IEP team is not in agreement on the PLOEP, you cannot move forward. So, don’t stop until the whole team green-lights this section.
- Read the Goals and Cross-Check against PLOEP, SMART, Strangers and Dead Men.
- PLOEP – Review the list of abilities and limitations the team agreed on in the PLOEP. Then draft or double-check that there is a goal in your student’s IEP to address each area of need. If the abilities your student demonstrates are improving but still not at grade level, is there a new goal that challenges your student to reach a little higher? If your student is missing an important functional skill, is there a goal to address it? There must be a goal to address EVERY area of need. For some students, that may mean 2 goals. For others, that means 32 goals. There is NO rule regarding how many goals an IEP requires except that the goals must address every area of need.
- SMART, Strangers and Dead Men. Okay, not real strangers and dead men. First, goals should be SMART. Yes, they should be smart as in a good idea. But, SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-limited. A good goal should meet each of these criteria. My husband and I created this chart to assess our daughter’s proposed IEP goals (or the ones we offered to the IEP team as alternative goals). The chart explains what each of the SMART criteria means:
- The chart also explains the Stranger Test, the Dead Man’s Test the Relation Back Test and the Educational Progress Tests. Any of these will help you determine whether a proposed goal is written clearly enough for ANYONE to follow it. (Except the dead guy. If the dead guy can meet the goal, no bueno.) Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Turnover for paraprofessional staff in special education classrooms is high, and unexpected events happen. Last year, our daughter’s classroom teacher was in a terrible auto accident that kept her out for a month. You want to be sure that the substitute (or substitutes) can read and immediately understand how to implement your student’s IEP. A month is a very long time when your student’s been around for only 48 of them. For a great primer on how to write meaningful, clear, SMART IEP goals, I recommend Barbara D. Bateman and Cynthia M. Herr’s book, Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives.
- Determine Services based on the Goals. Once the team agrees on the goals, the services and accommodations nearly select themselves. Still, there may be accommodations or interventions your student needs beyond what is specifically identified in a goal. When looking at the goals, ask yourself what accommodation would make it more likely your student will accomplish this goal. For us, this was one of the more difficult aspects of the IEP, because we didn’t really know what was available. Call on every resource you have: your pediatrician, your outside therapists, your Regional Center case manager, other parents, social service agencies in your area, the Internet (cautiously), the bookstore or library. Think about the types of assistance you provide to your student at home and how that might be incorporated into the classroom environment. I found two books especially helpful: School Success for Kids with Autism by Dr. Andrew L. Egel, Dr. Katherine C. Holman and Dr. Christine H. Barthold and Understanding Motor Skills in Children with Dyspraxia, ADHD, Autism & Other Learning Disabilities by Lisa A. Kurtz. (P.S. If you’re in the bookstore, check the children’s book section for books such as these. Last place I would’ve looked … )
Don’t Be Afraid
It’s an unfortunate reality of the IEP system that it’s designed more to be antagonistic than to be collaborative. But, it is truly meant to be a project for the entire IEP team. YOU can make that happen.
- Make nice. Make a point to learn something about your student’s teacher, and let your actions show him/her you remember it. Did he mention a summer trip to India? Pick up a paperback travel guide and give it as a “just because” gift. Did she mention orange as her favorite color? Have your student make a special project and frame it in orange-painted popsicle sticks. You get the idea. Send a message that says, I value you as a person and teammate.
- Communicate early and often. Nothing is harder than getting through an IEP meeting with a room full of strangers, because you are forced to talk about emotionally charged issues. Don’t let this happen. Collect email addresses, telephone numbers and office hours information for all the members of your student’s IEP team – then USE THEM. If your student has a communication folder (s/he should!), read the notes that come home and RESPOND to them, even if it’s just to say “thank you.” Ask for advice. For a while, our daughter was “chipmunking” her food in her checks. I wrote her OT a note asking for her thoughts. She was thrilled to respond to me, and she had some great advice. Send a message that says, I value the experience you bring to this team.
- Assert yourself, but keep an open mind. Collaboration means there are not “sides” in an IEP meeting. As soon as you start to view the IEP meeting as a win/lose or us-versus-them proposition, it doesn’t matter how you score the meeting results – your student loses.. Without collaboration, your student doesn’t benefit from group’s collective wisdom on how to create the best environment for access to educational and functional skills. My husband and I went into our daughter’s last IEP meeting in agreement that we would demand and get a one-to-one aide for her, because we believed she needed one. We didn’t didn’t get one, though — not because we “lost” the argument — but because after two hours of discussion, we had a much better understanding of why our daughter was experiencing classroom anxiety, and we realized an aide might actually make it worse. If we hadn’t been willing to listen, we may have pushed hard for something believing it to be right for all the wrong reasons.
- Don’t judge based on a first (or even second) encounter. You may not realize how often a teacher encounters a parent/caregiver who is very angry and embarrassed by his/her student’s need for accommodation. Remember that a teacher’s seemingly callous or cavalier initial approach to you in fact may be apprehension. Some teachers are really open and relaxed around kids; not so much around adults. Give him/her the benefit of the doubt until you get to know one another. Also, pick your spots. Don’t spring involved questions or start what should be a confidential conversation with your student’s teacher while she’s trying to corral the kids onto busses and can’t give you her undivided or personal attention. And don’t sandbag – as soon as you feel like something merits discussion, discuss it. Don’t hold on to “little” things until you have so many you just unload. Give team members a chance to address your concerns before you assign fault. By the same token, be prepared to swallow just a little pride when it comes to your student. Nobody is perfect. (Except my kid. She’s totally perfect. *ahem*)
- Bring a comfort object and a support person. You thought comfort objects were only for our kiddos? Nope. When I go to my daughter’s IEP meetings, I bring coffee in a mug my older son made for me many years ago. It helps me visualize how the IEP meeting would go if we held it around my dining room table instead of around a U-shaped table outfitted with chairs about 10 sizes too small for grown people. That mindset helps me feel less like arguing and a lot more like listening — after all, that’s what I do at my dining room table over coffee. You may also bring anyone you’d like to an IEP meeting to act as a support person or an advocate for you. I highly recommend this. Even if your IEP meetings go smoothly, a trusted friend can take detailed notes for you during the meeting so you can give the team members your full attention. And, even if your student can’t really participate, bring him/her to the meeting. At one recent meeting, I brought my daughter due to lack of child care, but having her in the room really kept us on our best behavior, because her presence was a constant reminder that we were there for the best possible reason and with the same ultimate goal: her success!
- Listen to your instincts. There are a lot of experts in the room during an IEP meeting, and that includes YOU. YOU are an expert about your child. So, if you’ve tried everything you can to set the tone for a successful, collaborative meeting but the process breaks down (or never really gets off the ground), call a time-out. Take a 15-minute break or a 15-day break. You never have to sign an IEP with which you do not agree, and you can leave the meeting at any time. It took FOUR separate meetings before our daughter’s IEP team finally reached consensus on her goals, and there was definitely some butthurt along the way. But, at the end, I believe our daughter’s classroom teacher, her speech therapist, her occupational therapist, and the principal shared our feeling of an enormous sense of accomplishment. We all feel invested in her success now, and we will all feel a lot less defensive if her next round of assessments don’t show as much progress as we’d like. It’s called buy-in, and its value cannot be underestimated. If you can’t get buy-in from where things sit at the moment, take a break, come back with a fresh perspective and try again.
I’m sure there are other things I’m not mentioning that I should. So, here’s a list of other blogs you might want to visit for more on the IEP process:
IEP Season, at Anybody Want a Peanut?
Ways to make your next IEP awesome!, at Mostly True Stuff (when you need a little comic relief from IEP season … and you will)
Pretty much anything ever written over at snagglebox.
IEP without Tears, at Pancakes Gone Awry
One Inch Closer, at Both Hands and a Flashlight
Integration – Why is it needed, and why is it so hard?, at Autism from a Father’s Point of View
The M-word, at Autism and Oughtisms (the m-word being “mainstreaming”)
Dear School District: My Son is Not Just Another Brick in the Wall, at The Connor Chronicles
Flashback Friday, at This Side of Typical (lots and lots of fun new vocabulary!)
What are IEPs made of?, at Maternal Instincts
I know there are more, and I will try to add to this list as I locate them. In the meantime, keep your head up. And, remember: just like every student is unique, so too are IEP meetings. Take every story of failure and success with a grain of salt. You will learn to cull from them the cautious optimism that will get you through each IEP season. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.