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.

Key to Unlocking the Mystery

Your life does not get better by chance. It gets better by change.

Jim Rohn

When people learn that, especially those with special needs children, I am immediately asked what we did to help him? Was it the medication? Was it diet? Was it therapy?  The answer is teamwork.

It is a process, like all parenting.  No one expects their five-year-old to do laundry.  No one expects their sixteen-year-old to sign a loan.  It is a process of teaching and learning on both sides of the parenting aisle. 

Track Changes

It is really easy to share about the rough days in the lives of special needs.  But all that does is focus on the negative and does not act toward a solution.  Maybe it is the researcher in me, or maybe it is my determination to understand the why, or maybe it is my sheer stubbornness, but I was determined to not let my child use his diagnosis as a crutch.  And I was not going to let the world do that either.

But, when your kid cannot talk at age five, you might think this is not possible.  I am can confidently say it does not have to be.

The first thing I am always told is that is way too much work. And if you approach it like that, you may find it is. But I did not. In total, once I had a system, it took about 15 minutes a day…and the data was AMAZING!

Here is how it was done and some lessons we learned:

STEP ONE: Get Everyone on Board

This is probably the hardest step.  When you think about it, you leave your kids in the hands of others sometimes up to 40 hours a week.  This could be a teacher, an aide, a therapist, a Sunday School teacher, or a babysitter.  Everyone is different and so what is considered bad behavior for one may be tolerable or expected behavior to another. It is essential to get everyone on the same page.

We developed an easy light system, much like a street light, that could be used in all locations.  Because it could be used in all locations, our son knew what was expected from him at all times.

The Color System

There are four colors and the frequency of use changes with age and need.  When we started at age five, our son had the opportunity to earn 15 blues a day.  We believe in grace – no one has a perfect day every day.  To that end, we always allow a place for imperfection.  When he was younger, our son could earn 10 blues and greens and still earn whatever incentive he was working for. Now, there are certain actions that automatically mean he loses his incentive but he also has fewer chances to earn things. We break the day up by activity now not by the hour.

Before we get too far, let me explain what an incentive is and is not. 

An incentive is NOT a bribe.  A bribe is a reward given in extreme frustration to a child misbehaving.  An incentive is a reward given in a contract.  I will do an entire blog on this next, but for now, this should get you where you need to go.

Breaking up the day by activity and time helps understand what topics and times of day may need more or less attention

Here are the colors:

Blue: This is beyond what you would expect from a child – excellent behaviors, no reminders, best kid you ever met. This would be an A+ student.

Green: Exactly what you would expect from a child.  Nothing too bad and nothing too good. This would be a B/A student.

Yellow: Walking a dangerous path.  Perhaps you need to give some warnings.  Perhaps there is an attitude creeping into the child’s tone.  This is your warning.  This would be C student.

Red: Game over! This behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.  This is an F student.

The color system is easy to explain to other adults and is easy to teach to your child.  

Seeing at glance improvement over time helps bring scope and value to the progress made

How do you keep track during those times you are not with your kids?

We used a grid system of school subject, time of day and days of the week.  We found this was easy for the provider or teacher to be able to communicate to us how the day went without having to write a book.

On the back of our weekly grid was any comments the aide, teacher, or babysitter wanted to provide with why they chose that color or any specific good or bad behavior of which we needed to be aware.

I then kept all of these in a three-ring binder divided by school year.  Once a month I would count up the blues, greens, yellows, and reds and have a clear indication of which direction my child was going.  This also helped when speaking with occupational, speech and ABA therapists to help see what times of days and what subject’s in school were more problem areas and where we could spend less time and focus.

STEP TWO: Track A-B-C Behavior

A-B-C behavior is your lifesaver! This data tells you so much about your child from what they like or dislike to how they may be physically feeling to how smart they are.

What is it?  Antecedent, behavior, consequence.  I will spend more time on this is a future blog on ABA therapy, but here is what you need to know to get started. 

I used a chart of date and time with A-B-C.

This helped me track where trouble times of the day may be (like right before bed or end of the week due to exhaustion) or certain activities which may be frustrating to my kiddo (like math and homework at the end of the day). 

What are some antecedents?  Transitions, change in routine, a difficult task (anything from buttoning clothes to multiplying fractions – wherever your kid is) can all be antecedents.  This is what occurs prior to the behavior you are seeing.  This is super helpful when communicating with other adults, especially babysitters, so they can know how better to help your kiddo,

Behavior is simply that – what behavior did your child exhibit?  Was he eloping? Was he hurting himself or others?  Was he not doing work (avoiding what was requested of him)?  What action took place?

Consequence is essential.  This goes hand in hand with incentives.  The key to a good consequence is that it is known in advance and is followed through on consistently.  CONSISTENTLY.  If this is not consistent, everything is lost!

For adults, we know if we steal, we go to jail. This is a law.  This is not just a law on books, it is common law – do not steal or you go to jail.  You know the consequence in advance.  If you steal one time, you go to jail (when the system works correctly).  When you steal again, you go to jail.  The rules do not change and the consequences do not change.  We, as humans, respond best to consistency.  It is essential the consequences are communicated to the child, the caregiver, and your partner and you are on the same page.  If your kid can get away with task avoidance with Dad and not Mom, this will not work. 

Tracking this information is essential to not only understand your child and what makes them tick but helps you as a parent teach self-control, responsibility, and rule of law (which every society everywhere has some form).  This also, over time, makes your life parenting much easier.  No more repeating yourself.  No more fighting with your kiddo.  This allows them to start feeling independent.

Grid of time and date, next colum initials of who saw behavior, Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence are the next three columns
Seeing what is the antecedent helps to discover how to help solve problems we cannot see.

STEP THREE: Track What You Eat

This may sound a bit absurd, but believe me, it is more helpful than a pedestrian visit.  When we started tracking what our kiddo ate, we could see and anticipate behavior.

My mom used to make the most incredible cakes for our birthdays…all our eight birthdays a year.  And every time one of us kid had a birthday, my mom would get sick.  It took forever for the doctors to figure out what was happening until they tracked the ingredients she used in the frosting of the cake.  She was allergic, but did not know it.  Tracking the daily helped the doctors (and my mom) to figure out the problem.

We decided to not wait for a doctor to tell us to do this.  We just started to do it.  What we discovered changed our lives.

When our son eats dairy, any dairy, within 24 hours to the minute, he is having behavior problems.  This was essential information when he could not speak.  But it also helps us now that he can.  Our son is not allergic to dairy, but he cannot physically process it.  This leads to stomach aches and headaches which leads to less focus, patience, and acceptance in situations that may otherwise be easy to handle for him. 

How did we discover this?  We tracked his meals.  Every day for two years.  We saw the trend at six months, but did a full two-year study for certainty.  And because data is indispensable.  This essential data has come in handy when talking to his therapists, pediatrician, allergist, and teachers.  It has also helped create a much more calm home environment. 

This is super easy now with apps for food tracking (just google a play store app for a diet and millions pop up). 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

STEP FOUR: Pray

Many of you know I am Christian.  I think God played (and continues to play) a large role in the success of my family.  From the day my son came into my life, I have prayed for him.  I have prayed for healing.  I have prayed he has control over his emotions.  I have prayed he has a heart for obedience and compassion for others. 

Most of these things a child on the spectrum, especially those that cannot express themselves, have trouble with.  There were days our son would hit, kick, scream and bite because he could not tell us his stomach hurt or that he did not like the texture of a food.  Simple things to those with the gift of language. 

It can be, often is, and has been over-whelming. 

But I have learned specific prayers get specific answers.  Within a year of praying my son could speak in complete sentences.  Though we still have spitting and kicking outbursts, the frequency of these has decreased dramatically – from constant throughout the day to maybe once to twice a month in four years.

Though I know not all follow my God, I highly recommend prayer or mediation of some kind.  I have found it to not only calm me but has allowed me to approach problems from outside of them not stuck in the middle of them.

                What we Have Learned

Data is key to understanding your child, especially if they are non-verbal.  It can be easier than you think with grids and check-boxes.  It takes less time than you think with apps and only 10 to 15 minutes a day.  It brings more peace, calm, and happiness to your child because you understand them more, but also to your home.

Do not feel over-whelmed.  Do what you can do and let the rest fall by the way-side.  Not every kid is the same and not every kid will respond the same way.  I do highly recommend, above all else, consistency in your home with both praise and consequences. 

Your life does not get better by chance. It gets better by change.Jim Rohn

When people learn that, especially those with special needs children, I am immediately asked what we did to help him? Was it the medication? Was it diet? Was it therapy?  The answer is teamwork.

It is a process, like all parenting.  No one expects their five-year-old to do laundry.  No one expects their sixteen-year-old to sign a loan.  It is a process of teaching and learning on both sides of the parenting aisle.