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.

10 Easy Steps to Successful Time Management – How to keep your School/Work/Home Life in Harmony

Sometimes it feels like life is a juggling act.  Juggling school and work.  Juggling play dates and cleaning.  Juggling parenting and being a spouse.  Juggling life.

How do we find peace in the chaos? Simple. Time management.

Time management is not a complex theory of life, as some may think.  Time management taking (or not taking) simple steps to make life easier. The continuous use of these simple steps will make you more productive at school, work, and life with an added benefit of decreased stress.

Here are the 10 steps of time management my family uses:

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1)      Allow time for planning and Make a List: Planning can often seem like a waste of time.  But, this small step at the beginning can save you tons of time at the end of a project.  We set a tentative plan for the month/week and modify as our needs change.  Life happens, plans change.  Planning ultimately allows for flexibility. We also use this planning time to make lists.  We love to check things off.  It gives a simple sense of accomplishment and keeps us motivated to move forward when things get complicated.  

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

2)      Keep work with you: I don’t know about you, but I always seem to find downtime in my day.  Whether it be while driving or walking to an appointment, or waiting in line, or waiting for a doctor show to a scheduled appointment, I wait. Waiting is a part of life. Knowing how to use this downtime efficiently can be a huge advantage.  We have a choice. We can either scroll through a social media page or we can practice a new language or worksheet, or read a required book, or practice and review your notes for the day (study habits will be in the next blog).

3)      Be Realistic and Flexible: It is really easy to over commit.  We have to be realistic with our strengths and weakness.  We have to be honest with how long something is likely to take us.  Just as important, we have to be flexible.  Some of the most highly effective people have a “bumper” set in every schedule.  Do not schedule activities back to back.  Include a “bumper” of time to account for meetings/classes going long, traffic, accidents, forgetting your homework/assignment, and needing to head back to the house.  This will ensure you have flexibility without encroaching on others’ time.

4)      It’s OK to say NO: This took me a really long time to learn.  If I am honest, I still struggle with this. It is OK to say, “No.”  You do not have to agree to do everything everyone wants you to you.  You are only human.  Knowing your limits (time, personality, requirements for sleep), are all essential to creating quality products and lasting relationships.  If you do decline, just make sure to do it with grace, and perhaps a referral.  I like to decline with a “Thank you, but not at this time.  Perhaps you can consider So-and-so.  I think they would be very interested,” or “Thank you, but not at this time.  I would be happy to donate my time to next month’s fundraiser/money to the event/set up the flowers to be delivered/etc.”  This simple referral allows the other party to feel heard, valued, and perhaps come back to you for help at another more appropriate time.

5)      Find your productive time: I once watched an episode of Brothers and Sisters, where a political character stated, “I have done more by 8:00 am than most people do in a day.” This really stuck with me; so much so, I changed my entire schedule.  I am more productive in the wee hours of the morning than I am from noon to five.  So, I ensure my workday reflects that productive time.  I learned in grad school no one bothers me between the hours of midnight and seven in the morning.  So, I set up my focus hours then.  As a mom, I do not stay up all night but know I ensure I am at my computer no later than 6:00 am to start work.  Before work is prayer, meditation.  After work, I help with school, and then we do a workout, field trip, or fun activity to wind down for the day.

6)      Create a dedicated work/school schedule: Schedules are so important.  They help keep you organized and ensure you have set time aside to complete the required activities.  Knowing when you are required to work/school (and the prep time for each), helps to ensure you are not double booking, over-scheduling, or ignoring (for those procrastinators) an important task.  The trick is to keep the schedule flexible as needed, but it should be used in the majority of situations.

7)      Budget your time: Budget your time like you would budget your finances.  Track where you are spending time and where you are not using the time to your advantage. This will help you prioritize when is productive, what needs more focus, and where you can rearrange to have more productivity. B a clock-watcher.  If you know what time it is, you have a better grasp of your time throughout the day.

8)      Exercise to clear your mind: Physical movement is so important to both production and retention. Study after study shows a connection between physical exercise and productivity at work.  Some companies are even paying their employees to work out as it increases productivity, decreases stress, improves social connections, and oh, makes us healthier.  For students, exercising after learning a task has been shown to improve memory and retention. So, burn some calories, get stronger, and strengthen your brain and production all in one thirty-minute workout.

9)      Don’t get sidetracked: Distraction is the key to failure. My son is the king of distraction.  I can ask him to put the dishes aware and all of a sudden, I have a robot in my kitchen.  The trick to time management is not to get distracted.  We teach this to my son by using a HIIT timer.  He attaches this to his belt loop and every time it beeps it reminds him a) to be on task and b) that the allotted time to complete the task is diminishing.  To introduce this, we started it as a game.  Now, he uses it for everything from a work out to clean his room.   At work, I use the 25 minute rule. I work on a project without distraction (no emails, texts, or calls) and then can take a break between my next 25 minutes and catch up on all those things.

10)   Get a good night’s sleep: I love sleep. Good sleep.  The body was designed to do some of the most intensive work while we sleep.  Our bodies rebuild and process the day while we sleep.  Sleep is essential to process and retention, but also, for us to have the energy to complete another crazy busy day.  Sleep helps us learn, strengthen our memory, increases our creativity and insight.  Sleep does so much!   (learn more, strengthen memory, increase creativity and insight)

Now that you have some tips, take this quiz on where you are in time management to know where you might want to focus your attention in the future. Create your time-use log. Do it for at least 24 hours. The longer you do it, the more you’ll see where you lose/waste time. 

10 Steps to Teaching Responsibility and a Peaceful Household

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I had a very interesting conversation with some parents a little bit ago.  They came over for dinner and heard me ask my child to do the dishes.  Their jaws dropped! 

“You have him do the dishes?!” They asked in astonishment. 

“Yes.  He has chores around the house.” 

“Wait.  He has more than doing the dishes?  What else does he have to do?”

“Oh, clean his room and bathroom, feed the animals, pick up the dog poop, and fold and put away his laundry.”

“I think that is too much! He is a kid.  Kids should be out playing and being creative.  Their job is school and that is where it should end.”

To which I graciously responded.  “You are right.  He is a kid.  For this short time, I have him, I am responsible for teaching him how the real world works.  I have a full-time job as well.  Then I teach him home school and take care of his social and health obligations.  My house still needs cleaning, the laundry still needs to be done, and the dishes still need to be cleaned.  Simply because I have a job that does not change the responsibilities at home.  We have chosen to teach our son that as a family who resides in the same household, we all have responsibilities and must contribute.”

They sat in contemplative silence for the next five minutes and then agreed.

So, how do you teach responsibilities?  What is too much?  Where is the balance?  Here are 10 easy steps to taking the work out of teaching work responsibilities. 

1)      Whose Responsibility? It is important to not just teach how chores are done but whose responsibility things are.  For example, as a kid, I learned multiple instruments.  If I forgot my instrument for band practice, I was not allowed to call my parents to bring it for me.  They had full-time jobs as well.  I remember my mother saying to us when we forgot our homework/backpack/coat/instrument/etc. “Whose homework? Whose responsibility?”  Boy, did we hate hearing that!  She was right.  We do our children no favors when we come in to save the day every time they mess up and forget.  This does not mean never be that hero (life circumstance often teaches us we need help from others), but we should not make it the norm.  Let them learn and grow.

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2)      Chores, Chores, Chores:  No one likes chores.  Don’t fool yourself. You don’t even like chores.  They are a part of life, that also teaches us to work ethic, responsibility, and diligence.  Check out the downloadable document below on Age Appropriate Chores for Children published in 2013 for a place to start. (Thank you, Pastor Lisa for making this great resource available.).  Remember, each child is different and has different needs.  This is just a guideline. We also introduced one chore at a time so our son could perfect before he got overwhelmed.

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3)      Planning: Weekly I try to get some idea of the menu for the week.  Or at least when I get the grocery shopping done.  Sometimes, I am just out of ideas.  This is a great place to have children help and teach responsibility.  Let your kids help plan (and cook) a meal.  They will love being involved and usually will like to eat what they make (for you picky eaters out there).  Let them help at the grocery store.  Teach them how to pick produce, how to get the cheapest item or the best quality for your money.  Give them a budget for their “impulse buys” they will undoubtedly ask for it. Start the conversation on money and taking care of the groceries – a life skill they will need for the rest of their lives.

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4)      Kids Help Kids: For those with multiple children, use this opportunity to develop leadership.  Let older kids help younger kids learn things like how to tie shoes, or send them on an errand together to pick something up.  Kids learn a lot from older siblings and teammates.  Use this to teach generationally.

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5)      Play-dates: I know it is really easy to want to be present at all playdates all the time.  But this is just no necessary.  It is ok and good to leave your children with a trusted adult.  If you trust the parent, and it is age-appropriate, leave your child to have fun without you.  This helps build confidence in children.  Knowing Mom and Dad trust you to make good choices without them is empowering to them.  But more importantly, it gives them real-world experiences.  Not one house is the same, not one human is the same.  This opens the door to some really wonderful conversations.

6)      Volunteer: Generation Z is known for a passion for social justice.  But, they are also known for not following through.  They were taught the issues and a passion was ignited.  But they were not taught the practicality of the hard work, critical thinking, and diligence it takes to make a change.  Simply posting a meme on social media does not change make.  Teaching volunteering gets to the root of this problem. Volunteering showcases need, teaches work ethic, dependability, and commitment.  It also allows the first-hand experience of need, bureaucracy, and politics.  All those things play large roles in adult life.  Teaching volunteering at a young age starts a healthy foundation for these areas that can easily become toxic later if not healthy discussed.

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7)      Students keep track of their own work and test: It is great to know about your child’s schoolwork.  But their work is not your work.  You already went to school.  You already know it.  Don’t do their work for them.  Set them up to succeed.  We use this great Student Smart Planner Academic Planner (I use the Wordsworth Goal Setting Planner for myself) for our home school (it has places for long term projects, schedules, grade tracking, and monthly and weekly calendars).  For younger kids, this is a great planner as well. For those in school, we used a checklist morning and night for our son to know what was needed each morning and what was completed. 

8)      Organize your own schedule: Today in America we are socially judged by the number of activities our child is in.  We are told kids need perfect grades and extracurriculars out the ears to get to college. Our kids are tired, stressed out, and overwhelmed.  A great documentary on this is Race to Nowhere.  Let’s give our children the power to decide what extracurriculars they do – if any.  Some kids might need extra time for school.  Some kids might want three or four a week.  Some might just want to do one thing they can learn to do really well.  Let’s stop making Jack-of-all-trades-and-masters-of-none.

9)      Independent Thinkers: Kids need to learn how to think – not just memorize facts.  Set them to succeed in this by encouraging independent and critical thinking.  Let them learn about themselves and how they learn.  ReadTheory helps kids in reading comprehension, Learning Styles is a great place to learn about how your child learns.  When you know how you learn, you equip yourself with the ability to better learn the more difficult skills and academics.

10)   Entertain Yourself: You are a parent – not a Hollywood movie star or singer-songwriter.  You were charged with raising compassionate, intelligent children into wonderful adults.  You were not charged with being your child’s friend, entertainment, and all-around everything.  Release yourself of that stress.  Teach you, child, to entertain themselves.  This is critically important to brain development, social play, and creative and critical thinking.  It is also entertaining to you as a parent to see what they come up with.

Celebrate the Extraordinary: Moving into a New Normal

Neon Sign - Think About Things Differently
Neon Sign – Think About Things Differently

The phrase “Getting back to normal,” has been used a lot lately as we start to look forward to the end of #quaratine and #socialdistancing.  We can’t wait to sit next to that annoying coworker, drive a car, get coffee with a friend. 

As a parent in the special needs community, I hear a lot of people wishing for their child to be “normal.”  If only they could play ball with their boy or go to a dance recital with their little girl.  So many times, they start sentences with “If only…” or “I wish…”

We live in a generation where everything is instant.  We compare ourselves, our children, and our lives to the fake world broadcast on social media.  We use social media as a tool to measure “normal.” 

But we do a disservice to ourselves, our children, our communities when we use this measurement.  No one is normal.

I’ll say it again – NO ONE IS NORMAL.

Your spouse is not normal.  Your child is not normal.  You are not normal. 

Those who think you are normal – HAVE NOT MET YOU.

What #socialdistancing is teaching us is patience.  Patience with our family.  Patience with our community.  Patience with our governments.  #Socialdistancing is teaching us the value of time.  Time with family.  Time for self-growth.  Time for laughter.  Time for love.  #Socialdistancing is teaching us who we are – at our core when no one else is watching.  We are learning who we are without the world telling us who we should be.

So, instead of wishing for normal, why don’t we celebrate the EXTRAORDINARY and look forward to what can be an amazing new normal.

The four youngest in the family: May look the same, but very different personalities.

1.       Different Children with Different Needs: I have said it before, and will say it again.  Our children are different from any other child – even siblings.  What makes this world so special is the differences.  Different, by definition, means NOT normal.  Let’s celebrate these differences and not a world of cookie-cutter sameness. That world lacks depth, color, and beauty. That world will also never truly come to pass.  It is about time we realized and embraced that. 

Spencer overcomes his fear of heights!

2.       Overcoming challenges: We all have challenges in life. Every one of us has overcome something – sickness, depression, addiction, self-esteem.  That is a HUGE accomplishment.  We should celebrate that not dwell on the past of “normal” where we lived in those things.  Every kid has challenges – whether they are on the spectrum, have a special need, or are labeled “normal” or “neuro-typical” by the world.  Every kid is beautiful.   We should celebrate the bravery of facing those challenges.  Celebrate the hard work that goes into overcoming challenges.  Celebrate the stronger, more compassionate, more confident individual who comes out on the other side of those challenges.

Daddy son time - investing in the future. The men walk on a pathway through the woods in Gettysburg, PA.
Daddy son time – investing in the future. The men walk on a pathway through the woods in Gettysburg, PA.

3.       Craft a new normal: As the discussion of how to “return to normal” after #socialdistancing and #quarantine start, I encourage you to stop.  Stop thinking about returning.  Start thinking about the future.  Why would we want to return to world measured in likes, memes, and insincerity?  We have been offered an amazing opportunity to do radical change in our personal lives, our community, and the world.  Let us craft a new normal.  A normal of Love.  A normal of Compassion.  A normal of Encouragement.  Let us stop measuring normal and start celebrating the uniqueness, bravery and beautiful creature that is the individual in the mirror, sitting next to us, across from us, or passing by.

I know it is easy to crave “normal.”  We want to have a routine, to have a semblance of balance, to want what we know.  But humans have NEVER been called to accept the status quo.  We have never been called to be complacent.  We are mechanisms of change. 

Family of four walk the street
Family of four walk the street

We have been offered an unprecedented opportunity to cultivate incredible change for good. It is our responsibility to let go of the “old normal” and embrace the “new normal.”  Let us re-prioritize our life to honor this opportunity.  Celebrate the gift that has been so lavishly poured out upon us – time with family, getting back to basics, being real with each other and ourselves.  As we move forward to “new normal,”” I pray we keep this in mind and look forward to the incredible change for good in how we treat each other and ourselves.