Improving Your Child’s IEP Month by Month
A monthly article series by Jacqueline Lembeck, Esq.
In talking to parents of children with disabilities, I’ve realized that answering the question, “where do I begin?” is sometimes the hardest part. Navigating special education can feel like drowning in a sea of acronyms (IEP, RR, PTRE, NOREP, LEA . . .) or climbing an endless mountain of paperwork, or both! For those of you who have a resolution to make 2017 a more organized, successful, and peaceful year, this article series is for you! Month by month, I’ll discuss a way to improve your child’s IEP and give action items to focus your journey. It will still be a mountain, but I hope these tips will provide some trail markers along the way.
Requesting, Preparing for, and Attending an IEP Meeting
Once you feel that you have enough information to start revising your child’s IEP, it is time to request and prepare for an IEP team meeting. If you are waiting for a new evaluation, and you feel that it is OK for your child to remain in his/her current program until you have the new results, you may want to wait for the evaluations to be completed before charging into the IEP revision stage. If you are waiting for a new evaluation, and you feel that aspects of your child’s current program absolutely must be changed before the evaluation results, you can always request an IEP team meeting to create an interim plan pending the results of the new testing.
Parents are able to request IEP meetings whenever they feel their child’s program should be addressed or modified. Parents are not limited to one IEP meeting per year. While it is important to be respectful of the team’s time—when teachers and service providers are in IEP meetings it takes them away from providing instruction—it is also important that the team set aside a reasonable timeslot for your IEP meeting to address your concerns.
Requesting an IEP meeting
Parents should make requests for IEP meetings in writing. (You may be sensing a theme here: As we like to say, if it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist!) Keep your request polite and professional. While you may want to preview some of the big ticket items you’d like to address, this is not the time for an angry ten page essay on the failings of the school’s program. What you want is a productive, cooperative IEP meeting and that angry letter will set you up for anything but!
You should ensure that there is sufficient time set aside to have a meaningful discussion at the IEP meeting. While schedules can be tough to coordinate, thirty minutes is barely enough time to get through introductions and housekeeping items. The IDEA requires that parents have an opportunity to participate in the meeting. If parents require an interpreter for the meeting or an alternate way of participating in the meeting (like a conference call), the school must provide these accommodations.
Parents should also be aware of who will be in attendance. At a minimum, the IEP team should include a LEA (someone with the authority to commit resources on behalf of the school district or charter school), a regular education teacher (if your child may be in the regular education environment at times), a special education teacher, and the parent. 34 C.F.R. § 300.321. If you are going to be discussing related services like speech or OT, the therapist should be in attendance, as well. In some circumstances, other individuals are required, for example, when making a Specific Learning Disability determination. See 34 C.F.R. § 300.308.
Although your child is able to attend the meeting, parents may decide whether that is appropriate. Your child’s maturity and the nature of the topics to be discussed at the meeting should be considered. Parents should also be aware that children, who are used to trying to please their teachers, sometimes offer unhelpful input when they are put on the spot in the meeting. For example, it is not uncommon for a student who is struggling with his/her homework to downplay that struggle when a teacher asks about it. Often, parents are left confused why a child who is in tears over homework at home will suddenly say it’s not a big problem during the IEP meeting. Additionally, sometimes the presence of the child deters IEP team members from making open and candid statements about areas of deficit in an effort to spare the child’s feelings. Overall, parents should weigh all of these considerations before deciding whether the child should attend.
Finally, parents are able to bring other individuals to the IEP team meeting such as advocates, lawyers, outside service providers, or outside evaluators. Other family members may attend to offer support and input about the child, as well. You should give advance notice if you plan to bring others to the IEP meeting.
Preparing for the IEP Meeting
Preparing for the IEP meeting is all about turning your “punch list” (or a list of all the areas of concern relating to your child’s program) into a “wish list.” First, take every area of concern on your punch list and ask yourself “how should we address this?” Does your child need an updated goal, the addition of new Specially Designed Instruction (“SDI”), additional supports during transportation, more or less time in related services, more or less time in the regular education environment, new Assistive Technology (“AT”) devices, or a new transition plan? Are you concerns more overarching, meaning that your child may need a different placement in a more or less restrictive environment? You should take the time to brainstorm how you would address each item on your punch list. Feeling like a fish out of water? That’s normal! Most parents are not educators/school psychologists/related service providers. It is OK to have some areas in which you are not sure how to address the problem. Write down those areas as questions for the IEP team. I recommend having a separate list of questions for the IEP team for those items that you are not sure how to address.
Once you have turned your “punch list” items into “wish list” or “questions list” items, you can go through and add any other change you would like to see for your child’s IEP. This is a brainstorming phase so don’t hold back! We often ask our clients, “If you were the King/Queen of the universe, what would your child’s program look like?” Make the list as that King/Queen would now; later you will choose where to make cuts.
Once you have a master wish list and a master questions list, you should prioritize them into three categories: (1) Most Important (this HAS to be addressed); (2) Somewhat Important (this should be addressed, but you could live without it in order to get your Most Important items); (3) Less Important (this would be nice, but it’s not critical). I recommend typing the list so you can easily cut and paste into categories or using three different colored highlighters if you prefer visual representations. Be prepared to make some tough choices. Making these choices about the most and least important items now will set you up to strategically discuss these items at your IEP meeting. IEP meetings are negotiations and you should be prepared to “give up” some of your Somewhat Important or Less Important items to get your Most Important items. You should categorize the questions you have, too, so you can focus during the meeting on asking the Most Important questions if time is running out.
Attending the Meeting
During the meeting, if both parents are attending, you may want one parent to act as a scribe taking notes and the other parent to go through the list checking off the items as they are discussed. If your wish list items do not come up organically during the conversation, make sure you return to all of your Most Important items at the end.
When you attend the meeting, you should sign the attendance sheet only. Parents do not and should not make program decisions on the spot without time to go home and review/digest what happened at the meeting. It is always OK to say “I’d like to take this home to review it” if you are asked to sign something at a meeting.
I recognize that this next tip is a hard one: always be polite and professional even if someone is saying something that you find frustrating or upsetting. It is completely natural to experience intense emotions when you are discussing your child with a disability and what he/she needs. This is especially true if you do not feel that you are being heard or taken seriously. Add to that the feeling that many parents have of being “outnumbered,” and it’s no wonder that IEP meetings can be such a tough experience. That said, parents who can calmly express that emotion (e.g. “I find it frustrating that you are recommending X now, when I have been requesting it for a while. Can you tell me what changed?”) will ultimately develop better relationships with the team and often achieve better results. If you are told that something you are requesting is not possible, always ask why. Understanding the reasons behind the no can help you get to a yes by offering a creative solution to the school’s problem.
Leave the meeting with a plan to see how the new changes shake out over the last few months of school and to readdress the program in the fall to tweak it.
April Action Items:
Request an IEP meeting in writing if you are ready
Find out who is attending from the school and provide advance notice of anyone who is attending with you
Take your punch list from February and create a wish list and a question list
Prioritize your wish list and question list into three categories:
Attend the meeting and sign only the attendance
Take home any other documents to review in detail at home
Set up the expectation that you will see how the end of the school year goes and reassess the program in the fall