If I were to take a poll of special needs parents asking them what they believe is the most important ingredient to a good IEP, the overwhelming response would most likely be “Goals” or even “Services.” I would have to agree. After all, these things are the reasons we want the IEP in the first place, right? However, I would argue that there is one thing even more important to the IEP – communication. Very often if there is something holding up the IEP team from creating solid goals and selecting appropriate services, it is a break down in communication.
These breakdowns can be avoided if parents feel empowered to apply some very simple principles.
You are The Expert on Your Child
I am certain you have heard this before, but I know from experience that sitting at the IEP table with numerous degrees looming over me, this fact can be easily forgotten. In my daughter’s latest IEP meeting the lineup was extremely intimidating. It included the school principal, the school psychologist, the special education teacher, two ESL (English As A Second Language) teachers, the assistive technology teacher, the speech teacher, the physical therapist and the head of the bus garage. That is a lot even to just type. And even though this room was filled with people holding specialized degrees in this-and-that and such-and-such, I came prepared with the most important degree of them all – the Doctorate Degree in MY daughter. I am certain that you hold a doctorate degree in your child too.
I have been developing my degree since the moment I laid eyes on my daughter, as have you with your’s. As parents, what we lack for in formal education, we more than make up for in experience. The other players in the team do come with valuable education and experience working with children with needs similar to yours, so we can feel like our opinions aren’t weighted as heavily. This is simply not true! So, if you can see flaws in the plan being suggested, please do not remain quiet. Which brings me to the next principle we need to remember.
We all know that saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” And, in this case, it is very true. School staff is very busy, and your child is not their only student. They might need reminders, and they definitely need all the information they can get regarding your child. Communicate with the school often! I am not saying to be the annoying thorn in the school’s side either. What I am saying, is make your needs and the needs of your child known. If you know that your child is more focused right after lunch, or if your child would work better with a cardboard desk cubicle, make sure to voice this to the group. Don’t be afraid to mention accommodations you provide your child at home. If they work at home, they may very well work at school as well.
Expect the school to be in communication with you too! You need to know and you have the right to know what is going on with your child at school. Put a plan in place for how you will receive this information and how often, and then document this in the IEP. Once this is in the IEP, it becomes part of a legal binding contract that must be enforced. If your child does not communicate well on their own or cannot be trusted to bring this information home, a communication plan becomes even more essential. As I mentioned, school is overworked, so this is a piece that can get missed as the school year gets underway. If you have it written in the IEP this is less likely to be forgotten.
Use “I Statements”
We all have been in that dreaded situation where we have said something that sounded really good in our heads, but we quickly noticed that it did not play out the same in reality. Chances are we put the other person on the defensive, and we didn’t even realize we were doing so. When the conversation we are having is critical, it is extremely important to select our words wisely. This is where the “I Statement” comes in very handy.
Maybe I am in a situation where I feel that the school is not hearing me, does not fully understand my child, and I am quickly becoming very frustrated. I could say, “You are not hearing me, and you don’t understand my child.” However, even as I am writing this very truthful statement, I can feel the school staff going on the defensive, and rightly so. I sort of just attacked them. They are now only left the the option to react to my frustration, and not really address my valid concerns.
What I should say is, “I feel like you are not hearing me, and I also feel like you do not have a clear picture of my child’s needs.” This statement holds the same information as the first one, but this one has a completely different tone. It also presents a real problem that can be solved. I am letting the school know how I feel, and I am owning my opinion of the situation. This way the school is aware of how I am feeling and has a chance to respond appropriately rather than react.
“I statements” can feel a little awkward at first, so you may need to practice them before the meeting, especially if the previous meetings have been heated. Go over what you would like to say to the school, and let someone critique you. Have them provide feedback so that you can feel confident that what you are saying will be received well, and you can go into the meeting feeling well prepared.
Remove the Emotions
I totally get it! These are our babies we are talking about, and we want the very best. As the advocates for our children, we feel utterly responsible to ensure they receive everything they need to flourish. Because of this, we are extremely emotionally invested. Most of the time, these emotions work for the good to help propel us through our stressful days. However, they can also be the roadblock to effective communication, so our emotions must be checked at the door.
We all know how to do this too. In fact, we do this every single day already in our work lives. We have all dealt with that one person on the job that makes your day just a little bit longer. You know that person that you would be justified uncorking too, but you don’t? That is the skill we need to employ when emotions run high, and it looks like your child will never have a working IEP in this lifetime. Take a deep breath, step back emotionally and try to see things from another perspective. If this does not work, use the next principle on the list.
Take A Break And Reconvene
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and sometimes an effective IEP that fits your child’s individual needs isn’t either. Do not be afraid to ask for an additional meeting, ask for additional documentation, or anything else that will help to resolve the issues at the table. Taking a break allows everyone to clear their heads, review the materials, research better or different strategies, and hopefully return with a better perspective and less emotion. Yes, this means that your child will have to go a little longer without a plan in place, but getting it right the first time is worth this extra wait. Taking the time necessary to ensure that the correct goals and services are in place from the beginning will benefit your child so much more than trying to settle for something mediocre simply because emotions are running too high to think clearly.
We had three full meetings prior to finalizing my daughter’s IEP, and the process took four months. Why? It took that long to get things right. In our case, things were all very civil, and the delays were not due to strong emotions, but it is easy to see that sometimes things just take a little longer to get things done. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of players on my daughter’s team. Putting this puzzle together wasn’t very easy, and short changing my daughter’s education wasn’t an option. This meant multiple meetings, many phone calls, lots of paperwork, and that is Okay!
Listen More Than You Speak
I remember preparing for the final meeting prior to implementing my daughter’s IEP. I told my husband I had put my “big girl panties” on, and I was ready to give the school everything I had. I was getting tired of waiting and felt that the school was dragging their feet to keep from providing the services my daughter needs. Thankfully I took my deep breath, checked my emotions at the door, and listened, because I was pleasantly surprised. Each player took their turn explaining to me how they planned to serve my daughter. I never even had the chance to get my “big girl panties” out. When it was my turn to talk, I used “I statements,” and they listened. It was wonderful, and my daughter now has a working IEP with attainable goals and services in place to meet those goalsl I have a good working relationship with the school. and we both feel like the doors of communication are open, so we can talk and tweak things as needed.
Bring an Advocate to Assist You
I was able to sit in the many meetings for my daughter and navigate the IEP system by myself, but this is only because my daughter is not my first and only special needs child. I have been sitting in these meetings advocating for my children for over 20 years. I have four children who either have or have had IEPs and one child with a 504 plan. I was able to draw on all of this experience to help me in my navigation. But, I remember the early years, not knowing what my rights were. Yes, they gave me the packet with my rights, but who can read that wonderfully confusing pile of information? What I didn’t know, is that parents have the choice to bring someone with them, and I have done this. For my other daughter, I had her pediatrician attend the meeting by phone. That really made the people at the table listen closely.
You can choose an advocate to help guide you through this process, and there are a number of advocates out there. Their job is to guide you, educate you, and advocate on behalf of you and your child. They may even write advocacy letters, do the research you don’t have the time to complete, and even attend the meetings with you. They have been where you are sitting, they know the system and they have the map to help you find your way peacefully. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! We all need it sometimes.
So if you find yourself staring down the long road of IEPs, please don’t forget that the driving force in all of this is effective communication. Try these principles, and if you have any other strategies that have worked for you, please share them in the comments. We special needs parents need to stick together!