6 Pieces of Advice for Parents New to IEP Meetings
As a resource specialist teacher, I speak in acronyms like IEP, DIS and LRE. To someone who is inexperienced in this world, I must sound like I am speaking some secret code language that only a select few know. That’s not what I mean to be. I actually mean to be a resource — really. I am usually the first stop when a child is diagnosed with a disability, and in meetings I mean to give parents the language and tools to support and advocate for their child’s education.
What many parents new to IEP meetings don’t know when they begin working with me
is that I was their child, too. My mother, like many of them, was a recent immigrant and not a native English speaker. She attended those meetings on my behalf and felt like a first-time parent despite having raised four children before me. Since beginning my career, I have listened to her stories about her dealing with my teachers and other professionals at these meetings to get her insight into the mind of a parent. I promised myself as I started this career I would not forget the parent perspective.
After 15 years of meetings, countless sheaves of paper and collaborating with a plethora of parents with one common thread — a love for their child and concerns for their future — I have developed a list of things I wish to communicate during these meetings:
1. You can do this.
When your child was born, you may not have envisioned sitting in on these meetings. I’m sure any baby books you read didn’t include a chapter on the IEP process. But like with any new stage of your child’s life, you can figure it out. Trust yourself and cultivate people who have experience or who can support you in your decisions. Most of all, forgive yourself when you make a mistake and try again.
2. Ask, ask and then ask again.
There’s a fine line between deferring to the expertise of the IEP team and being a passive participant in these meetings. Whether you agree with the team or not, please ask questions. Ask for clarification, ask about your options, ask about the future or what you can do now. If we don’t have an answer, ask us who might. Just remember, periodically on your journey, there may be no answer — ask anyway.
3. Connect to community.
Whether you are a “joiner” or not, seek out community. This can take so many forms. The point is to cultivate support. Join an online support group or newsfeed for your child’s diagnosis. Subscribe to a professional organization’s website. If you can find an in the flesh support group — go. Talk to other parents at your child’s school or clinic with the same diagnosis and discuss their common issues and triumphs. Family, church, friends — anyone you can share freely with. Outside support will help you move along in this process.
4. Remind us that you know your child.
I will admit in our quest to “diagnose” and “treat” your child so that they can find success, we at times can forget to distinguish between the child and their diagnosis. Remind us that your child is a child — tell us what they like, what they do outside of school. Tell us even about their feelings and fears. We need to remember your child is in fact — a child first.
5. Think outside the box.
While the meeting ultimately results in a structured plan for your child’s education, to get there some brainstorming needs to happen. We know your child’s diagnosis is new to you — your child is new to us. From your perspective as a parent, make suggestions based on your child’s interests, predict their reactions, tell us what you can do and have access to. But also, what would you do if you could dream for your child? The best plans can be created from the most unexpected notions.
6. Ignore the negative — accentuate the positive.
Remember your child has both strengths and weaknesses — as does everyone. The nature of the IEP is to ultimately ameliorate the weaknesses and create strengths. Let us worry about the weaknesses. As a parent, concentrate on developing the strengths your child already has and give your child opportunities to show them off — to you and to us. Believe me time spent on that, will help us in creating the strengths your child needs to succeed in school.
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