I have been in countless individualized education program (IEP) meetings since my middle schooler first entered the school system as a tiny preschooler. While special education is intended to make school and learning accessible to all children, I quickly learned that the process itself is incredibly complex. So complex, in fact, that I used to joke that IEP stood for “in English, please” because the jargon and acronyms went ridiculously over my head.
Over the years, I’ve gradually learned how to navigate the land of IEP meetings for my child with special needs. Sure, I’d still rather go to my annual OB-GYN or dental appointment, but I’ve learned enough about my daughter’s rights to feel comfortable as her advocate.
It doesn’t matter if your child’s IEP is three pages or 100, walking into a room of already seated educational professionals, all of whom have a stack of papers with your last name on them and become quiet when you enter, is a bit like having the lights suddenly go out.
It’s surprisingly unsettling, even as a grown-up. Perhaps it’s the endless acronyms (OMG) and procedural formalities. No matter how prepared I felt in the past, I was unsure of the best way to navigate through it when I seemed to be the only one in the dark. Then, a few years ago, a light switch flipped on in my head: I am the one person in the IEP meeting who knows my child the best, and my voice is her voice. That made all the difference to me when thinking of what an IEP means, since it’s far more empowering to think of an IEP as “I’m an Expert Parent.”
While I have no business giving advice based on my professional background, as I’m not an attorney or a consultant, my hourly rate is simply me giving you my two cents worth as a mom who has decided that we are all experts. If you have a child with special needs, I hereby grant you permission to consider yourself a professional advocate with a masters in no nonsense. We don’t have time to figure out the meaning of each acronym, let alone what exactly schools providing free appropriate public education (FAPE) looks like for our children. But, as parents and participants in IEP meetings, we do need to understand the lay of the special education land.
My daughter has 22q11.2 deletion syndrome which means she qualifies for an IEP that should theoretically help her with everything under the sun. I would love to say our experience with special education has been seamless because when our daughter entered school, we already knew her challenges required additional support. But there is a universal truth to receiving individualized education for your child, no matter when their challenges are identified. You understand your child better than anyone, but when it comes down to knowing your rights and how to help your child succeed, the truth is that participating in an IEP meeting is overwhelming and like playing a game without having all the cards, or even the rules.
The school isn’t offering a menu of a la carte items that your child may or may not benefit from. They give you, well, what you ask for. It’s a Catch-22 for someone who has never navigated the far off lands of special education.
As my daughter’s annual IEP meeting approaches, the lessons I’ve learned about special education are foremost in my mind. Here is my two cents worth:
1. Brainstorm a list of questions and concerns for the team prior to the IEP meeting and have a hard copy of the list for each team member. Walking into the meeting with something to hand out and a list of things to address at the beginning of the meeting is both empowering and helpful. The typed copy of my concerns makes me feel more in control and we stay on task. A win-win.
2. Ask the team at the beginning of the meeting how they think the services are going and what support or modifications they find most helpful for your child. I think all of the teachers and specialists benefit from hearing the answers, and I benefit from learning how the IEP essentially comes alive (or falls flat) during the school day.
3. Use a compliment sandwich if you have a specific sticking point. If I start with a small compliment, address my concern and end with a compliment (thus, the sandwich analogy), I am far more likely to make progress without someone taking offense.
4. If you have a specific problem and it involves only one subject, it’s helpful to have a meeting with the teacher and special education coordinator prior to the IEP meeting. For my daughter, IEP meetings involve every possible specialty, from the school nurse to the speech therapist to the classroom teacher, and while I respect their time, I don’t want to feel rushed if there is an issue that warrants a longer discussion.
I realized I can request a meeting prior to the IEP meeting to discuss more in-depth concerns. Since there is no checklist of potential services for parents, don’t feel badly asking for time to brainstorm ideas or to extend the IEP meeting.
5. If a question arises at the meeting about the best way to address a challenge for your child, I always ask the team, “What would you do if this was your child?” Ridiculously enlightening and helpful.
6. If you don’t feel like you are making progress or being heard, reach out to the district’s special education coordinator (a.k.a. the director of student services). I guarantee their contact information is on your district’s website.
In my experience, the director of student services has been an incredibly knowledgeable ombudsman who has a much easier time seeing the big picture because he or she can add additional resources or aides. Fun fact: The director is also responsible for being compliant. When in doubt (or distress), I copy our director on my emails, and the response I get back from any team member is guaranteed to be professional and expeditious.
7. Wear special socks. A dear friend who understood my IEP meeting angst gave me the best gift. Before I went to a meeting, she dropped off a pair of socks. The socks say, “You are not here to make friends.” I wear them every time I have a meeting (with long pants that cover the socks). I’m normally a people pleaser, but getting the proper resources and support my child needs isn’t a walk in the park. You may have to go with your gut and advocate for your child even if you’re the only one pushing for more. Don’t say “sorry” or worry about what the other meeting participants think. At the end of the day, you have plenty of friends. What you need from the meeting is progress. Believe it or not, sassy socks help.
To me, the true heart of special education law and an IEP is embodied in this quote: “Fair isn’t everybody getting the same thing. Fair is everybody getting what they need in order to be successful.” Now, the next time you’re bracing for an IEP meeting, take a deep breath and remember the true meaning of special education: infinite educational possibilities.
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