She isn’t the only parent dealing with a difficult return to school. As kids with special needs head back to the classroom, their parents face a daunting schedule of meetings and appointments to help their kids adjust to the transition.
The most important of these meetings is often with their child’s special education team, where parents and school staff will review and amend the Individualized Education Program — the document that sets their child’s goals and the supports the school will provide to help them achieve these goals.
These meetings can be stressful, so it’s important for parents to walk in with a game plan and the knowledge they need to best advocate for their kids. Here are five tips from educators and veteran parents for making the most of your child’s IEP meeting.
Know your child’s rights. You’ve probably heard of the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, which protects the rights of students with disabilities to receive a public education. But the most important element of this law is the right of students to a free and appropriate education in the least-restrictive environment. This means that, if your child can make appropriate academic progress in a general education setting with support, they can’t be forced into a special education setting.
But what constitutes an “appropriate” education is often up for interpretation. While the Supreme Court ruled in March that special education students have the right to make “appropriately ambitious” academic progress, it’s still a difficult concept to standardize. This means that parents may have to become advocates for their children’s rights.
Don’t let concerns simmer. Many parents are afraid of putting too many demands on their children’s educators. But in the special education setting, it’s often true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Rather than waiting for the next IEP meeting to roll around, parents can call IEP meetings at any time. Concerns can then be addressed proactively, rather than being allowed to escalate and cause tension.
“The IEP team and its members should always be a parent’s first line of defense, especially since there [is] always a special educator, general educator and school administrator on the team,” says Sivan Tuchman, a research analyst at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
When concerns are addressed quickly, Tuchman says, parents are more likely to be satisfied with the results and the team is better able to maintain a good working relationship. Likewise, it’s important for parents to avoid belittling or attacking members of the team when frustrations flare.
Marilyn Rigby was a special-education teacher at a Connecticut K-8 school for more than 25 years. She says one of the biggest challenges she faced was parents who came into IEP meetings with an adversarial attitude. “The worst thing that a parent can do at the meeting is to disparage a member of the team,” she says.
Take a team approach. It’s easy for IEP meetings to take an antagonistic tone; after all, parents are fighting for what they believe their children need to be successful. But it’s important to remember that education is a team endeavor.
Tiffany Waddington is the mother of two autistic children, who has since returned to school to become a speech and language pathologist. She says it’s important for parents and educators to work together because each one offers an important perspective about the child’s skills and abilities.
“As parents, we have the benefit of living with the kids 24/7. We may also be more protective and afraid of letting kids try and fail,” she says. “As professionals … they may see the potential to push boundaries a little more than you are comfortable doing, or they may need your perspective to better understand what your child is capable of doing in other environments that they don’t see at school.”
This means establishing a relationship with your child’s school staff, and remembering to show your appreciation for their hard work — not just expressing your frustrations. “So many special needs parents seem to default to combat mode and hyper-organization as a coping mechanism, and allow fear and uncertainty to take the lead,” says Michelle Schlick, a mother of a special-needs child.
Do your homework. IEP meetings are stressful, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. That’s why it’s important to request a copy of the IEP at least 24 hours in advance to review the school’s findings and process their recommendations.
“I always sit with an IEP document for a couple hours the night before a meeting, with a highlighter and a red pen,” says Lisa Marsh, a parent of an autistic child. “Come to the meeting prepared to discuss what they’ve written, have your disagreements written out and be clear on what changes you want to ask for.”
While not all schools allow you to record IEP meetings, you can always take notes. And these notes can be important if disagreements arise later. “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen,” says Audra Sisak, a New York mother of an autistic child.
Don’t back down. Sometimes, despite parents’ best efforts, IEP meetings aren’t successful. Some parents aren’t able to get their children the support they need without taking additional action.
“The path to the services parents envision for their child is not always a straight line,” says Ruth Wilson, a board-certified educational therapist and founder of Brightmont Academy. “It’s worthwhile to investigate all of the options presented, but also to be persistent when the plan doesn’t address all needs and to seek outside help when needed.”
There are a variety of options available to parents who are frustrated with their child’s special education services. They can retain advocates (often available through nonprofit organizations), contact their state’s special education ombudsman or hire an attorney. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but sometimes, even the act of retaining an advocate or attorney can be enough to get results.
“I held off [on hiring a lawyer] for three years thinking if I was friendly, things would improve,” says Susan Carollo, a Washington mother. “They didn’t. But with a state complaint and a lawyer, it was [an] instant turnaround.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Sivan Tuchman is a professor at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. Tuchman is a research analyst. The story has been updated.
You might also be interested in: