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.

Sensory Survival to Independence Day

Fireworks.  Cotton candy.  Music to pull on the heartstrings.  Smiles. Parades. 

This is the time of year, in America, we celebrate #freedom, #independence, and #liberty. For most, this is a time of celebration and joy. Independence Day is the very core of what it means to be American.  It means freedom.  It means prevailing over adversity.  It’s a celebration of the rights we have today because men and women decided the prevailing government systems of the world were incomplete and inadequate.  We celebrate the recognition of human rights for the first time in history.  We celebrate a government by the people, for the people. 

On the other hand…

Crowds. Loud noises.  Booms so big you feel them rattle your bones.  This holiday is full of intense sensory overload children (and some adults) have a tough time navigating around.

It is hard to enjoy a celebration that is designed with everything that makes one feel out of place. 

We want to ensure our family experiences all the same things as any other child.  But we want it to be enjoyable – for everyone.  My family believes the world will not bend to the needs of our family, so we must find a way to adapt.

So how do we get through this wonderful holiday in one piece? 

I asked my son this very question and here are his tips and tricks to succeed.

1.       Bring Headphones: One of the most valuable tools in our toolbox for this holiday is headphones.  We keep extra earplugs in our cars for those who need them and forget about them.  Headphones help dampen the noise-making this more enjoyable for our son.  We bring these with us to theme parks, movie theatres, parades and the like.  There are tons to choose from.  We have found, that as our son grows, his preference and needs change.  So here is a list of the 10 top headphones for travel that I think you will find useful.

2.       Snacks:  But sensory is often processed through taste.  Snacks are essential to enjoying any celebration.  Food brings people together and encourages fellowship.  It often allows for the processing of sensory throughout the body.  We like mints throughout regular days.  But, for events like this, snacks with a crunch are great.  We usually bring some form of water (we like to flavor it with either lemon or Axio – which helps with focus), some vegetable chips or caramel-covered apples, and maybe a nice fruit dessert to cool down during the hot humid night.

Enjoying the show from afar

3.       Watch in your car: We have celebrated Independence Day in large and small cities across the country.  We have usually found a great way to limit crowds and sensory overload is watching the show in your car.  We have a hatchback that allows us to lift up the back and watch in the comfort of our trunk.  This keeps the loud noises, massive booms, and crowds at a minimum.  We enjoy the show and have the ability to leave before the masses exit (I hate traffic) and avoid the crowds.  With an increase in #COVID-19 cases across the south, this little tip is one of my favorites for health and wellness.

4.       Blankets and masks: If you cannot watch the show from the safety of your car, bring a large blanket for the picnic and remember your mask.  The blanket will act as a natural barrier from other groups.  The masks will be added needed protection against the virus.  Of course, you can always stay home and enjoy the show from your home (if you are close enough) or watch a broadcast of the show on television. 

5.       Stay with your group: This is smart advice regardless of the event or the current pandemic. Watch your young children who might wander off.  Events of this proportion are notorious for nefarious characters.  This is a great opportunity to talk to your children about “stranger danger” and work on social interactions with community workers like police and firefighters. We like to have a 2:1 ratio of adults to young children. When this cannot be done, you can always go old school with hug-and-tugs or backpacks with wrist connections.  This will give deep pressure (when full of snacks) and help keep kids near. 

With a nation in unrest due to the current pandemic and questions of how to process rights or man and rule of law, this holiday is even more important than ever. 

I hope this Independence Day is safe and fun for everyone – no matter how you celebrate it.  I would love to hear how you help your little ones get through events like this.  Send in your tips.   And let this be a year we truly appreciate the long history of freedom, liberty, and bravery Independence Day honors.  Thank you to all the servicemen and women who make it possible for us to have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the numerous other freedoms our country allows for all its citizens.

Re-set During #Socialdistancing

Man laying down on steps of building during daylight hours
Man laying down on steps of building

Before #socialdistancing exercise, eating right, and balance seemed much easier.  Motivation was easy – people see you.  Who wants to look like a louse in public? 

But as #socialdistancing extends, the leggings, carbs and time in front of the TV are preferable to almost anything else.  No one wants to look at the scale.

For kids with sensory needs, this is even more important as the sensory input of a workout resets the chemistry in the brain.  This helps with focus, self-control, and skill development.

Countless studies show exercise is critical to health.  But there is a developing field of study in how exercise actually helps impact the neuron pathways in the brain.  ABA, Occupational Therapists, even parents, can attest to the importance of a regular sensory workout program (SWP) in helping children with special needs, indeed all children, with coping, focus, and development.

How does one do this in the home?  When we can’t leave?

Here are some things that work for us.

Hanging out in the sensory room playing on the ropes, rock wall and rings.
Hanging out in the sensory room

Sensory Room

A sensory room is designed to help someone regulate their brain using external sensory input.  That is technical speak for “help re-center yourself.”  Sensory rooms have been shown to have calming effects, help improve focus, increase socialization, and help with all sorts of development (both neurological and physical.

We discovered this importance when our son was about five.  He needed a place to get all his wiggles out, calm down, and enjoy himself. 

Our room is the garage.  In this room, we have an art table, a basketball hoop, rock wall, ropes, and a punching bag. 

This room is a place where we presently do out occupational therapy, but when it is not used for therapy, it is also a “fort” (which every kid needs).  A sensory room grows with the child.  This room is the “hang out” place for playdates, it is the escape from parents when angry place, and a place for a great work out for parents place as well.

Ideas on how to create a sensory workout program
Ideas on how to create a sensory workout program

Sensory Workout

No one likes working out.  Even those who say they do – don’t.  They like the after-effects. 

That is true for our kiddos too.  Working out is hard.  But a necessity of life.

A sensory work out is not that different than a regular work out. I do recommend getting with your occupational therapist before starting one, as each work out is different depending on the person.

Usually, a workout will consist of some combination of proprioceptive (deep pressure to joints and calming/organizing), vestibular (excites, usually circulatory and rhythmic), touch, smell, breathing, and auditory input.  It does not usually go longer than 30 minutes and can be done easily at home or at school.

We have been known to do wall push-ups and squats in grocery stores, joint pressure at restaurants and them parks, and always have some sort of audio and smell for calming wherever we go.  We like citrus oils for focus before school ad lavender oils for calming after.

Sensory Tent
Sensory Tent

Sensory rest

Just as every fitness instructor will say a warm-up and cool down are important for every workout, sensory rest is just as essential for every person.

A 2018 study showed an average adult (18+ years old) spends over 11 hours a day looking at a screen.  That is 45.83% of the 24-hour day.  If you a lot for 8 hours of sleep (which we don’t usually get), that is 68.75% of our day in front of a screen!   Is it any wonder we need a reset?

In our house, we each have space and activity that works for us.

My husband goes on long runs and he and I will do a kickboxing or boxing workout on the punching bag at least once a week (sometimes more).

My son and I like to do yoga together.  The meditation and combination of proprioceptive and vestibular input are super calming.  I prefer something like YogaShred where he prefers the stories of Cosmic Kids Yoga.

We also both love heavy blankets! 

My son also has a tent in his room he often withdraws to where he reads, draws, plays with Lego. 

Workout gear

I know it is hard to feel settled during #socialdistancing.  It is hard during regularly scheduled programming as well.  Try and find some ways this week to help re-set.  Re-center. Refresh.  Let me know what  works for you and your kiddos or if you want some more ideas on how to use what you already have in your home to make a sensory diet.