When Alison Seyler’s youngest son was diagnosed with autism at four years old, it was overwhelming. At first Seyler and her husband often felt alone as they tried to navigate everyday life. Then a neighbor left a flyer for the statewide Parents Encouraging Parents (PEP) conference on their porch, and it changed everything. Organized by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) Exceptional Student Services Unit, the three-day PEP conferences connect parents of children with disabilities and school professionals to resources and strategies in a supportive environment.
“Our first PEP conference gave us back our hopes and dreams for our youngest son,” says Seyler, who now works as the PEP coordinator for the state. “What PEP did for us back 26 years ago was help us to realize that we’re not alone on this journey and that, working together with school professionals, we could make sure that our son would have a great life.”
PEP is part of a statewide effort to engage parents of children receiving special education services, and give them the tools they need to effectively interact with the school system. In Colorado, 11.2 percent of students in public schools are enrolled in an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and decades of research show that parent engagement results in improved attendance and achievement for all students.
“PEP is unique in that it’s a very participatory conference,” Seyler says. “It’s a time [for participants] to gather support and knowledge, build new friendships, and realize they are not alone.”
Colorado parents who have a child with a disability from birth to age 21 enrolled in Colorado public schools are eligible to attend. Colorado school administrators, principals, teachers, medical, or other service providers who work with children with special needs are also invited, in an effort to build family professional partnerships.
It’s about, “making sure families have the correct information, that it’s aligned with the way that states are training staff and schools, so that everyone is on the same page when they’re working for the best outcomes for their student,” says Joyce Thiessen-Barrett, coordinator of Family, School, and Community Partnering at CDE.
What To Expect
Each PEP conference addresses common questions and experiences of those who parent and work with children with disabilities. There are sessions on rebuilding dreams and the legal rights of parents. Other sessions focus on navigating the special education system from early childhood resources and services, to IEPs and transitioning out of high school. There are presentations by self-advocates, people living with disabilities who are thriving in a variety of ways. Plus, each conference offers several breakout sessions that cover everything from mental health to literacy to behavior strategies.
“We get so stuck as families and professionals in ‘don’t,’ ‘stop’ and ‘no.’ Instead … [children] should hear five times more positive comments than negative comments,” says Kiki McGough, a positive behavior support (PBS) coach who has been presenting at PEP conferences since 2005. “PBS is really focused on preventing challenging behavior, teaching children the skills they need to be successful, and looking at how are we responding to problem behavior and how are we responding to the behavior that we want to see.”
A key feature of PEP is the daily small group meetings where parents and professionals gather to share and process all the emotions that come with being a parent of or working with children with disabilities. To help guide the discussion, each group has two trained facilitators who are mostly parents of children with disabilities themselves.
“Our facilitators are trained to help families, to help people feel comfortable in their small groups and to open up,” Seyler says. “But no one has to share. It’s a really safe environment and confidential.”
With state and federal funding, PEP is free for parents and professionals once every five years and includes all sessions and meals, as well as hotel accommodations for those traveling more than 35 miles. PEP also offers interpretation services for non-native English speakers.
Childcare is not provided, however, and that can be challenging for many parents. The conference is also built around the commonalities of parenting children with disabilities and doesn’t specifically address individual diagnoses. However, CDE can connect parents to resources and specialists for their child’s disability outside of PEP, Thiessen-Barrett says.
In one weekend, Seyler says PEP changed her life, and that is feedback she often hears from other participants. But most importantly, it changed her son’s life.
“My son is now 30 years old and he’s living with his brother and he’s got friends and meaningful work,” Seyler says. “And that’s pretty much what we want for all of our children.”
Need to Know: The next PEP conference will be held April 2-4 in Grand Junction at the Double Tree Hotel. Early registration is recommended. For more information visit cde.state.co.us/cdesped/PEP