14 Steps to Thriving at an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Meeting

It is October.  That time of year where days get shorter, nights get longer, and we are all a bit more aware of what goes bump in the night.

October was also the time of year my family would go through the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process.  It was always a stressful, and sometimes scary part of our month.  As we focus on things that are scary this month in the lives of of our kiddos, we are going to tackle how to be successful at this.

IEPs can either be a Godsend or the worse hour(s) of your life that year.   We have been through both.  High Roads School in Maryland is excellent!  California and Florida, we had some significant struggles.  We have had successes and failures. 

Background: IEP’s are designed to make the learning experience beneficial to all students.  After all, we are different children with different needs.  A team of administrators, teachers, specialists, and parents work collaboratively to help the child succeed academically. When it works, it is a phenomenal process.

Problem:  IEP meetings seldom work collaboratively and, for a parent unaware of the bureaucracy of the district can be very overwhelming and frustrating.

How do we survive these necessary yearly meetings, while ensuring our children thrive? Here is what I have learned having done IEPs in three different states across America.

Track Progress in all aspects of life

1.       Track Progress:  If you have been following me, you know I believe in data collection and how it can be beneficial to us in all areas of our lives.  In regards to behavior, this has been essential to us understanding our son’s behavior and what effects it.  We track his progress socially, behaviorally, and academically.  Journaling, goal setting, progress reports, report cards, all help a parent understand the multiple levels of a child a better.  This is essential to know how to help your child in the school system.

2.       Review progress reports:  It is really easy to lose track of progress reports in the chaos of what comes home (or emailed from school).  But progress reports are a great way to see what your child likes, doesn’t like, struggles with, or excels at.  We need to know where we have been to know where we are going. This is a vital tool for preparing for you IEP. This is also a great way to stay in touch with teachers throughout the year.

3.       Research IEP Goals: Typically, a month to three weeks prior to a scheduled IEP, I research IEP goals.  This is easily done using a Google search of “sample IEP reading goals” or “sample IEP math goals.”  Do this for each subject.  I cut/paste the ones I think my kid will enjoy and have success with.

4.        Be realistic: Select realistic goals.  You cannot set realistic goals without the above steps completed.  More importantly, you need to choose goals that can be accomplished in the timeframe provided, while leaving room to grow.  Have faith in the child to meet expectations and goals.  Children are resilient and can do way more than we think they are capable of.

5.       Prep teachers/communicate early: Teachers are a strong voice in the meeting because they spend a lot of time with the child.  Don’t wait for an IEP to communicate your concerns, joys, and goals.  They will be more likely to advocate for the child if they believe the parents are working on the same team and not against them.  The education team will likely meet a week or two prior to your scheduled meeting.  Give the teacher your views and goals.  This will help incorporate your ideas prior to the meeting scheduled (and save you time in the long run).  I usually explain this in person and then do a follow-up email to the teacher.

6.       Include social goals: This is really easy to forget when you are surrounded by teachers and administrators who want to focus on academics only.  But school is more than just academics.  Social goals are essential to classroom management, lunch, recess, PE, games, turn-taking, and so much more. Include social goals in the IEP and see how much your child grows both academically and as an individual.

7.       Get rough draft: Most districts will send a rough draft of their meeting home in order to streamline the meeting with the parents.  Go through this with a fine-tooth comb.  I used a highlighter system to show what I agreed with and what I did not.  I also tabbed the pages I wanted a further discussion on.  Most IEPs are lengthy, so this made it quick to refer to things for discussion and help ensure the meeting focused on the more important issues.  I also make changes.

8.       Return revised draft with your changes/edits: Return the changes you made in writing to both the teacher and school prior to the scheduled meeting.  This will ensure the school has time to make the needed changes, or prepare for why they disagree.   

9.       Bring any medical information that supports your views: If you have a doctor’s evaluation, therapy notes, and recommendations, etc. bring them with you.  Make sure those evaluations address academic recommendations.  Some districts do not look at medical information when determining goals because they are not academic.  However, almost all those specialists, are qualified to address academic goals and likely know how to help your child the most.

10.   Bring and be an advocate: You know your child the best.  You are their best advocate.  Don’t be afraid to be their advocate.  The school is not always right.  Just because they are professionals, does not make them a professional regarding your child. If you disagree with a plan or part of the plan, you have the legal right as the parent to address that.  If the school does not agree with your plan (which happens a lot), it is ok to take it up to the district level.  If you do not feel you can be an advocate, invite an advocate with you who is willing to step out and address your concerns.  

11.   Take notes: During the meeting, it is essential to take your own notes.  Multiple times things discussed to be included in the IEP were conveniently left out and official meeting minutes did not reflect the discussion.  Keep your own written record of minutes.  This will be essential as the school year goes on.  

12.   Know your rights: Contrary to what most parents think, the school is not the final authority on an IEP.  Parents have significant rights. You can request a meeting whenever you wish.  You can join a meeting via phone/zoom.  You can invite anyone you wish to the meeting.  You have the right to agree or decline the school evaluating your child for services. In some areas, you have the right to a private education paid for by the district. You have the right to request an evaluation for services (due this prior to requesting the service and save yourself a headache). You have the right to ensure the goals and assessments are measurable. You have these rights and more.  Know them and be empowered.

13.   Do everything in writing: All requests for IEP’s and evaluations need to be done in writing.  Any time you have questions, do it in writing.  Any time you disagree with how things are being done, do so in writing.  Email is excellent for date and time stamps.  We also time-stamped and date all mailed and a student brought home correspondence.  This has saved us in multiple instances.   Legally and inter-personally this will help in preventing issues, miscommunication, and problems as the school year continue.

14.   Keep copies of everything: This is essential.  We once had a school who was supposed to do speech therapy with our son pull the page out of his folder in order to state they did not have to provide services.  We luckily had a copy of the signed IEP on hand and were able to inform them of both their breach in contract and the following needed changes in order to avoid further issues.  Every email and mail correspondence needs to be maintained. 

IEP’s do not have to be scary.  They do take time, but ultimately, they can lead to some amazing growth in your child and in your community.

For more ideas on how to help with IEPs, take a look at my Facebook page.

6 Simple Steps to Partnership Parenting

September is a magical time in our house.  The leaves are changing.  The temperatures are cooling.  The sweaters and warm blankets come out.  Apple, cinnamon, and pumpkin scents are everywhere you go.

September is also a magical month because it is my wedding anniversary. 

As I ponder our marriage this month, I am so grateful for my husband.  The partnership we have grown together.  The father and mentor my husband is to our son.  The way he knows how and when to be our family rock and jester.  We are truly blessed by him.

In this spirit, I thought I would address some of the many times I have been told parenting is a one-person job.  The numerous times I have been told, “My significant other doesn’t help with the kids,” or “it is just easier for me to do it all then get my spouse involved.”

I understand this mentality.  It is really easy for one parent to take on all the responsibility of school, playdates, doctor appointments, therapies, homework, extracurriculars, etc.  This is especially easy if one is working and the other stays at home or both are working, but one has more work flexibility.

I remember one of our son’s medical team once sat us down (one or two years into our marriage), and said, “You know, people with special needs children divorce at 80% more than parents without.”  That was a scary number!  So, we became even more intentional with our marriage and parenting to avoid this.

I appreciate the difficulties of raising a child, especially one with special needs, I find this mentality of a single parent responsible for children’s development to be limiting, exhausting, and disrespectful.

You chose your partner, yes partner, because of the many good (and sometimes bad) qualities they have.  When you said, “I do” it was not just for a day, a week, or a year.  You chose to take that person in sickness, health, richer, poorer, good, bad, and (honestly) sometimes ugly. 

Marriage is a life partnership.  It is a daily choice to walk through life as a team.  And, trite as it might be, there is no “I” in “team.”

There is a reason two parents are ideal for raising children.  Both have different roles to play.  For example, I am not going to have “The Talk” with my son if my husband can do it.  My hubby isn’t going to take his little girl bra shopping – that is on me.  However, although we have different roles, those roles work in tandem with each other not against.

So, how do you make raising these awesome kiddos a team sport?  How do help your significant other become a player and not a spectator? Here are six rules we live by in my house.

1)      Be on the same page: If you are trying to implement a new routine, discipline, or change in the home, it means nothing if the parents in the home are not consistent with each other.  Dad cannot say no to something only to have Mom say yes two seconds later.  If a parent implements discipline, both parents have to support it.

Don’t argue discipline in front of kids. We disagree on how to discipline like any couple.  Whichever parent implemented the discipline is supported by the other.  Take the discussion behind closed doors.  After discussing, sometimes nothing changes. Sometimes the discipline is modified.  Regardless, discipline happens and a clear discussion of why there was a change (if any) is presented.  We discuss it as a unified front and implement the consequence as a team.

2)      Divide and conquer: A family is multiple people with different personalities, needs, likes, and routines all operating under the same roof.  The household is a mini economy and city (things break and need fixing, services need to be rendered, and relationships built). In a home with special needs, in addition to the traditional routines of school, playdates, sports, and extracurriculars, there are doctors, specialists, therapies all need to be addressed.  It can be overwhelming.

Both parents need to know these routines, doctors, therapists, teachers, and be able to jump in and do it at the drop of a hat.  Divide responsibility.  I have a more flexible schedule working from home, so I do school, therapies, and playdates.  My husband takes care of meals, all outside yard work, fixing EVERYTHING that breaks (cars, garbage disposal, washing machine, etc.).  My son takes care of dishes, his room, bathroom, and feeding the animals.  We all fill in the gaps. We work as a team.  No one person on the team is more important than the other.

3)      Fill the Void: We are a military family and my work occasionally requires me to travel.  Sometimes one of our team is MIA due to work obligations for days, weeks, months at a time.  When this happens, it is important to know how to fill that void.  When I leave, my husband has a schedule for our son, where to go, doctor’s names, etc.  When he leaves, I know he has taught me to fix somethings and where I should go if I cannot.  He also has ensured I have the tools I need for all the tasks he does in tip-top form and ready for use (he made sure I know how to use them too!)  While he is home, he will often take me aside to teach me something – like how to change my oil in the car. We are all responsible for filling the void when there is one.

4)      Invest in the fun: My husband is great at having fun, acting like a goof, and making everyone smile and feel comfortable.  I am more serious by nature.  For the first few years of our marriage, it seemed like one of us had to be the serious one and the other the fun one. But that is not so. In fact, it was detrimental to our kiddo. He learned I was the one to go to for school, clothes, and chores, while he went to Dad for anything else.  It caused a divide in the relationship with our son that took time to mend.  Having fun is SO important.  Find something fun to do with your child (even on hard days).  We do LEGO, art, science kits, dance parties, karaoke, you name it.  If your child finds it fun (even if you don’t), join in, plan some time for this, and enjoy it.  This will be the foundation for a healthy relationship in those teen years and beyond.

5)      Argue: This sounds counterintuitive, but it is so important.  Remember two become one.  That means two completely separate people with their own likes, dislikes, thoughts, and opinions come together to become one unit.  Simply because you said, “I do,” does not mean you magically agree on everything and life is perfect, happily ever after.  No.  To become is a process – a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.  Arguing is part of the process. It is ok to argue in front of your children.  I think this is particularly important for those kids who have a hard time processing social cues.  

Arguing is life.  You argue with your spouse, siblings, classmates, friends….pretty much everyone at some point.  Knowing how to argue in a constructive way is essential to social success.  To not show your child you disagree with each other does them a disservice both socially and, eventually, as they view marriage (more to come on arguing this month).

6)      Date each other: This is a particularly hard one for any marriage with children.  It is particularly difficult for marriages with special needs.  Babysitters are hard to come by.  It may feel like there is never going to be a date in your marriage again.  I tell you from experience, that just isn’t so.  If possible, find someone who will watch you kid while they sleep.  Or get creative with date nights at home (movies by a fire, game night, wine or beer tastings, craft projects).  If you can and qualify, look into your local Respite Care providers.  Respite care is short-term relief for primary caregivers. It can be arranged for just an afternoon or for several days or weeks. Care can be provided at home, in a healthcare facility, or at an adult day center. 

Marriage is not easy.  But partnering in it should be.  Let me know what steps you use to keep your marriage fresh, healthy, and growing daily.