For teachers, the IEP process can be second nature. However, for many parents, especially those who have just learned that their child needs accommodations, the process can be overwhelming. Helping parents navigate the process is just as important as helping the students achieve their IEP goals.
We asked Amy Dutsch, a teacher, special education advocate and parent of a special needs child, to create a resource for you that will help you help the parents of your students who have IEPs. Feel free to print out the article and distribute it to parents who need help. It’s a great starting point to help them learn how to tackle the IEP process.
Understanding the IEP Process and Keeping Your Sanity
by Amy Dutsch, Guest Blogger
In my former life as an early childhood educator, I sat in on my fair share of IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. “In the United States an Individualized Education Program, commonly referred to as an IEP, is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Canada and the United Kingdom, an equivalent document is called an Individual Education Plan. In the US, the IDEA requires public schools to develop an IEP for every student with a disability who is found to meet the federal and state requirements for special education. The IEP must be designed to provide the child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The IEP refers both to the educational program to be provided to a child with a disability and to the written document that describes that educational program.” (Wikipedia)
When your child is under 3 years of age, the plan is called an IFSP, an Individual Family Service Plan. The entity that governs this will vary from state to state, but is usually your state’s Early Intervention Program and not a school system. Generally, the school system takes over at age 3.
In basic terms, an IEP is essentially a road map for a child’s care. There is a misnomer that IEPs are only for children with delays or disabilities. Gifted/talented students may also need an IEP as their program of schooling will require them to differ from the normal stream of day to day schooling.
Whether your child has special needs or is gifted/talented, having a good IEP experience will help make all the difference. The specifics of getting a well done IEP will vary from state to state, but here are some tips I have learned in my time as both a teacher and as a parent of a child with Autism.
- You are your child’s first and best advocate. As the parent you know what is best for your child. Very likely, you were one of the first people to realize your child needed a little extra help. Do not be afraid to speak your mind. The teachers, therapists, and IEP coordinators are there to help you and your child.
- Ask questions. Many times educators get carried away with lingo and abbreviations that they use daily. Sometimes, teachers forget that parents don’t know the terms that they’re so familiar with, so if you are not sure what is being discussed in the meeting, don’t be afraid to ask. Teachers want to help you understand what’s going on for the sake of your child. The IEP is only as good if everyone involved is on the same page. In fact, there are should be a legal form for you to sign that indicates that you understand what was discussed.
- Be firm in your wants for your child, but be realistic too. Every parent thinks their child is the best. But, it’s also important to be realistic in what the child can currently achieve and his current development level, so that proper goals can be set. If you believe your child is at a 2nd grade level when really they are at a 1st grade level, it is best if you come to accept where they are academically, so the teaching staff can best work with you on goals. No one is perfect, including your child or the adults who are trying to help, but everyone wants what is best for your child.
- If you feel you are not getting proper attention or care in your IEP process, discuss it with your Family Service Coordinator or your state’s equivalent. This person’s job is to make sure your child’s needs are met (or the family’s needs in cases of IFSP). IEP’s are normally scheduled to be reviewed at certain times, but you are entitled to call for an IEP review at any time you feel is necessary. Obviously, you should not abuse this privilege, but if something has significantly changed for your child, then this is something the IEP members need to know about.
- Take an active role in your child’s therapies. Read suggested books, attend therapy sessions when possible, and follow up with teaching staff. This will vary based on your child’s needs and your school’s rules. You are still, and will always be, your child’s first teacher. No degree on anyone’s wall will change that. That is not to say we don’t need qualified educators for our children, but any good teacher will tell you that you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Recognizing where your child is academically and socially will not only make it easier for classroom teachers to help him, it will also make you a better teacher for him.
- Documenting Achievement. In many states, particularly for (EI) Early Intervention (birth-age 3), funding for services is being cut. One of the main horrors of working in special education, particularly EI, is that as the child makes progress, administrations want to stop services, because the child is advancing. This is incredibly frustrating for parents and teachers, because the goal of therapy is to help the child progress. One little trick to help keep this from happening is to make sure your therapists are documenting things ‘just so’. When they continually write “goal achieved” or “progress made,” they actually can make things more difficult. The state will see those “achievements” and potentially say, “Oh this child doesn’t need services anymore.” In actuality, that progress may just be baby steps, but on paper they look like huge goals. Wording in therapist notes, IEP/IFSP’s, and what not is very important. Remind your therapist to look at the final goal. For example, if your child has a goal to “Dress Self” and the child learns to put on socks, while this is progress, it is only a small step in the final goal. This is not deception in any way. We just need to remember the larger goals we have written on IEP’s and document progress accordingly. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the little achievements, but we need to remember the big picture in order to keep much needed services for our child.
- Remember this: The education staff may make suggestions on how the IEP should be, but if you are unhappy with how the IEP is written—DO NOT SIGN IT. An IEP is a legal document and by signing it you agree to uphold the goals, therapies, etc. on it.
It can be difficult to start this process, particularly if you are just finding out about your child’s special needs. Remember that your child having special needs is not a negative thing. Be open to recognizing what services schools can provide to help your child. Denial only harms your child.
Although the IEP process can be intimidating, it is a necessary part of your child’s education. As a parent of a special needs child, you will soon learn that often you have to fight for your child’s rights to a proper education, but that fighting is sometimes necessary. It is up to you to make sure your child is not left behind. All the schools, therapists and plans in the world won’t matter if you, as a parent, do not fight for your child and recognize what he needs. Your child can achieve his goals!
Amy Dutsch is a former Early Childhood Educator in a non-profit ECE program, currently working in the social services field and mother of two boys, one with Autism.