How to get the extra help your child needs

By Mari-Jane Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; SM14

Registering a child for school usually means showing up with a birth certificate, proof of residence and basic medical records. Five minutes, and you're done.

But for kids who need special education, whether they have an attention disorder, fine motor delays or a more serious medical condition, that process is much more complicated and can begin as early as age 2. Something as simple as advancing to a new grade can mean an army of specialists performing hours of tests and parent interviews in the preceding months.

That all culminates in long, sometimes contentious meetings to hammer out an individualized education plan. The IEP determines such factors as classroom placement, the number of minutes per week a child spends with a speech therapist and whether a child will get extra time on assignments. It can also address extracurricular activities.

Parents are often fraught with worries about what would be best for their child: Should he spend most of his time in a general education program or in a special-education classroom? Will her inability to focus present a problem amid 25 other kids? Adding to the stress, schools aren't always able to provide all of the services a parent would like for their child, because of money and resources.

"Most parents are initially dealing with coming to terms with the fact that their child has a disability," said Pam Wright, a psychotherapist who co-wrote "Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy" (Harbour House Law Press, 2006) with her husband, Pete Wright.

"People are already vulnerable coming in," she said. "They have a lot of anxiety and helplessness and fear about the future. That doesn't set the stage for parents to feel like they are an equal partner in developing an educational program for their child."

We recently spoke with the Wrights and other experts in special education who offered the following suggestions for parents preparing for an IEP meeting.

Know your rights. For example, your child's IEP must include measurable goals; you can request that the IEP committee reconvene at any time to review and tweak the document; and the schools are required to notify a parent, in writing, when they plan to change their child's IEP.

Plenty of books and Internet resources explain the ins and outs of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 2004, which regulates special-education services. Most school systems also hold workshops for parents. Additionally, the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center ( has an IEP checklist iPhone application that helps parents access and organize information.

"There's about 350 pages of regulations [that govern the IEP process], and even those are not always followed by the schools," said Cherie Takemoto, executive director of the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center in Alexandria and a co-author of the fourth edition of "Negotiating the Special Education Maze: A Guide for Parents and Teachers" (Woodbine House, 2008).

Communicate ahead of time. Once you find out who is part of your IEP meeting, e-mail or call them to discuss your expectations. Knowing what is on the agenda can help you better prepare any questions or concerns you might have for the teacher and other specialists.

"You don't really want a whole lot of surprises," Takemoto said. "A lot of the advance work will get you to the place where it's not a surprise that he hasn't made any progress this year and they're thinking about holding him back."

Prepare a statement of your concerns. Note anything that you see going on with your child at home. Write down what you think are his biggest trouble spots and greatest strengths so the committee can take them into account.

"A lot of times it's hard to go into a meeting," said Gail Holloman, manager of the Parent Resource Center for Fairfax County Public Schools. "You walk in and there are a number of people sitting there. They have information to share. It can be very empowering for a parent to also have information they want to share. . . . It ends up being more of what we hope looks like a partnership, with give and take."

Be a polite detective. While you are seeking answers to the tough questions, be polite and try to keep your emotions in check.

"So often, parents' own emotions become one of their biggest stumbling blocks to getting services," Pete Wright said. "You really have to go into it visualizing this as a business meeting. You always have to be nice and polite, creating a persona that is a merger of Miss Manners and Columbo."

Follow up on the plan. Just having an IEP isn't enough. Communicate with your child's teachers throughout the school year to make sure the plan is being carried out and to find out what you can do at home to support their efforts.

"Meet the teachers; let them know that you're there to work with them . . . so if later you feel the need to ask a lot of questions, no one's feeling defensive," said Alison Steinfels, supervisor of the equity assurance and compliance unit in the Department of Special Education Operations for Montgomery County Public Schools. "We really do urge parents to advocate for their kids."

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