Many children with disabilities or challenges related to learning in a traditional classroom setting are eligible for individualized education programs (IEPs). The intent of these plans is to develop a strategy to support each child’s learning.
“Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), any child aged three to 21 who is determined to have a disability through appropriate evaluation can receive special education services and support,” explains Susan Blumberg, Ph.D., a Denver-based parenting and family coach and special education advocate. “The IEP is a legal contract between the school and family of every service and support the child will receive, who will provide the service, and how much of it will be provided.”
According to Matt Cloven, owner of Peacewolf Advocacy and Consultation and cross-systems disability advocate, the IEP details a student’s strengths, the needs and impact of their disability, specific goals for the educational team to target for growth, and how needs and goals will be met. “Publicly-funded early childhood, primary, and secondary schools have a responsibility to provide special education services to identified students,” he says.
If your child has a new IEP, or might qualify for one, taking on an active role in its development will pay off in your child’s education. Consider these suggestions in order to become a stronger advocate in the process.
Review and Prepare
In many ways, the IEP process, and the meetings related to it, are like a contract negotiation. That doesn’t mean it has to be adversarial; everyone in the room should be trying to provide the best learning experience for your child. What it does mean is that a little preparation goes a long way in making sure you get what you need.
“Always ask for a copy of a draft prior to the IEP meeting, and make sure you are getting the most recent data on your child’s academic and functional skills so you can help write appropriate goals for the coming year,” Cloven suggests. “Make sure the present levels capture who your child is. If your child has outside therapists or providers, ask for their input and what they see your child’s strengths and needs are.”
Instead of diving right into business at the IEP meeting, try to slow things down. “I always say, ‘Let’s talk about the child for a minute,’ ” says Hettie Hueber, M.Ed., an advocate with Inclusion Dynamics Educational Advocacy. “Not just their academic performance, but why they are a cool kid. What does [the teacher] enjoy doing with them in class? When I feel like everyone knows who the child is, we can talk about data.”
Being tied to federal law and usually developed and carried out by the school district, IEPs can feel intimidating and out-of-reach to parents. However, the IEP is there to serve the child, not the other way around. Children and parents not only have rights, they are a majority partner in the process.
“An IEP meeting typically has a handful of professionals and one or two parents,” says Tena Green, an advocate with Inclusion Dynamics Educational Advocacy. “In the federal legislation that establishes IEPs, the first members of the team listed are parents. The law recognizes how powerful parental participation is. Parents know their children best.”
Don’t Go It Alone
As a parent, you have a right to bring anyone into an IEP meeting with you. Even professional advocates bring friends or other advocates with them. It’s important to have a different perspective in the room and someone who can help support you. “Sometimes you just need someone who can help bring you calm when emotion takes hold and you start to feel escalated,” Green says. “Even if it isn’t a professional. It can be a friend or neighbor.”
Enlisting the help of a professional advocate can be beneficial, because it is their job to understand the process and the rights and responsibilities of everyone on the team. “As an advocate, my first role is to represent the family and the needs of the child. My second job is to be better educated about the law than anyone else and make sure the IEP follows IDEA,” Blumberg says. “I see my job as collaborative, but I am often a negotiator working with the school to make sure to get what the child needs.”
Schools often have numerous IEPs in development at the same time. While their intentions may be good, they may include some standard elements that they think will apply to most kids with a certain diagnosis. When reviewing your child’s IEP, either on your own or with your advocate, make sure that everything in the document applies specifically to your child. “Make sure that, if your child has autism, the school isn’t just saying, ‘Here’s our autism plan.’ Talk about how it is specific to your child,” Hueber says.
Blumberg helps schools write SMART IEP goals: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Reasonable, and Time-limited. “Instead of a goal that says, ‘Lucy will learn to read,’ the goal might say, ‘Lucy will improve from 10 to 40 sight words in one year using the following strategies. And we’ll assess Lucy’s progress every quarter,’” Blumberg explains.
Keep the process collaborative, making sure all voices are heard. Remember that everyone has the best intentions in mind, even if disagreements occur. The child will get the best results when everyone is working together with a positive spirit.
“Asking questions triggers a different part of your brain, it shows humility, and can really help build a team dynamic,” Green says. “It’s so important to build a relationship with the IEP team, work together, and ask questions.”
These advocates and professional resources in Colorado help parents navigate the IEP process.
- Susan Blumberg, Ph.D., is a Denver-based parenting and family coach and special education advocate.
- Grupo Vida is a network of Hispanic/Latino parents of disabled children, offering support groups and workshops in Spanish.
- Inclusion Dynamics Educational Advocacy’s Tena Green and Hettie Hueber, M.Ed. offer IEP consultation, support, and facilitation, 504 consultation, and special education workshops.
- Peacewolf Advocacy & Consulting Services’ Matt Cloven provides disability education, consultation, advocacy, and person-centered planning.
- Success by Design‘s Julie Hagy-Hancock, M.S., is a special education consultant and child advocate.
- THRIVE Center is a community parent resource offering workshops about topics including IEPs and IDEA.