I just came back from Amelia’s IEP meeting, and it was a good one. I know that some of you are reading this and wondering how I got so lucky and why YOU can’t have a good IEP. Why is it a day that brings on stress, and possibly rage and tears?
I HAVE BEEN THERE. IEP meeting day used to bring nothing but anger and tears, and left me feeling like my kids were not getting the quality education they deserved as Americans. I won’t say luck (or blessing) didn’t play into it, but I no longer struggle like this. Part of this is due to the school and dedication of the teachers, but even here, there have been hiccups and I’ve needed to fight at times. I’m sharing what I’ve done to get the best chances of an IEP meeting that serves my child.
- Do Your Research
For children with special needs, the ADA and IDEA exist to protect the rights of people with disabilities – and that includes your children. For example, did you know that kids with Celiac Disease are protected under the ADA? Even if your child has not (or not yet) been diagnosed with a disability that provides them services, you should research what provisions can be made for your child’s needs. What has been done for other students in the area in the past, even if in a different school, and what can be done now? A great resource is the Wright’s Law website.
- Hire An Advocate
If your research has hit a wall, or your child has not been diagnosed as you believe he or she should be, or you in any way feel that you are missing something, it’s time to enlist an advocate. I don’t know if they are free in all areas, but here, we have advocacy services through the local ARC of Lehigh Valley. Find a provider like this or one that caters to any diagnosis your child might have. Meet with them – even if via phone – and ask them plenty of questions. Enlist them to come to your IEP. Advocates are amazing people – ours have dropped things in a moment’s notice to stand up for my kids’ right. JUST their presence in the room changes the entire dynamic of a meeting. While I always recommend never going to an IEP meeting alone if things are rocky, having an informed professional is your best option.
- Know The School’s Limitations
Budget cuts REALLY SUCK and they are deep and painful right now in PA. (PA people, remember to vote for governor next year!) There is only so much a teacher can do when aides and paraprofessionals are limited, class sizes are out of control, and teachers are laid off time and again. Add the complex issue of state testing and the disastrous No Child Left Behind that cuts schools that can’t possibly perform well, and you see the problem. I’ve heard teachers I know and care about tell horror stories that make my hair stand on end. They are being asked to do things that no human being can possibly achieve, for ridiculously low amounts of pay, and frankly, I’m surprised more of them haven’t quit. (This goes to show the depth of passion most teachers have for building the minds and character of our kids.) Please be sympathetic to this – and educated where your school lies in this wreckage of public education. You may be asking for the impossible, so stick to what you honestly think can be done better when making requests.
- Be Involved
Yea, I know…how dare I ask parents of kids with disabilities to be more involved. Between paperwork, doc appointments, therapists, meds/supps, special diets, money, work, and more, how on earth can you be more involved? I get it. Sometimes, though, this gig of parenting doesn’t just call for “hard choices,” it calls for impossible ones. You need to balance out EVERYTHING in your life versus what is best for your child and that includes his future. It’s not going to be easy, but if you are not very involved and don’t know what’s going on in the school day-to-day for your child, you can’t effectively advocate for him. And the truth is, parents, no matter how top-flight your advocate is, the BEST advocate for any child is their parent (or caretaker). Look at that work schedule and seriously consider ways in which you can find time to be more involved.
- Figure Out YOUR Goals and How They Can Be Implemented
You have goals for your child, you know you do. It may be that she will have a job one day, or go to college, or to live in a group home, or just learn how to keep herself safe. Depending on your child’s abilities and limitations, you may not know what will happen in adulthood but you do have a slim to firm grasp of where she can land in 1, or 2, or 5 years. Take those and run with them! What great thing did the teacher say about your kid that you’d like to be built upon? What’s gnawing at you that didn’t work? For example, today we discussed Spanish, something Amelia is not good at and doesn’t like – and I honestly don’t think she has a clue what it’s all about. She’d be better spending that time mastering her first language, or learning about Spanish culture and why people even speak other languages. I brought that up, and we made the change, which is more practical for her, and will make a smoother school day for her next year. If you are an involved parent, the teachers & staff will know and respect this, and be open to suggestions, especially if they make sense within the structure of the school. Remember, they want a smoother school day for your child too – it makes it easier on them.
- Be Calm
If you show up to the IEP meeting expecting the worse, out of breath, angry or anxious, with little sleep and no breakfast, you’ve already set the tableau for how it’s going to go. You don’t have to go in with “this time will be different,” but stop expecting “The Worst” before you even get out of the car. Make sure you have had a nutritious meal, try to sleep well the night before, calm yourself with soothing music, prayer, or deep breathing beforehand. Showing up frazzled helps no one – the staff will take one look at you and be defensive.
- Know When to Cut and Run
Maybe each and every time you go to an IEP meeting, there’s a voice inside telling you this will never, ever fit your child. Maybe the staff has NOTHING good to say about your child, and they scramble to even write down one “strength” on your child’s IEP. When that happens, it’s time to rethink it all. Maybe they will be served better by a charter school, a private school, a school for special needs, a cyberschool, homeschooling, or a homeschool co-op, full inclusion, less inclusion, etc. We live in a day and age when the options for children with special needs are bigger and more diverse than ever. Or maybe, you find a temporary solution until something better comes in. I have a friend who has a child with Down syndrome and another gifted child, who both struggled after a relocation. They were not served well at all by the school system and the family chose to homeschool for one year, while other options were explored for the following year. A difficult but temporary measure, this decision is not for everyone, but you need to honestly lay your cards on the table and figure out what is best for your kid.
I hope these ideas help you. Remember that the bottom line is NOT your pride, your feelings, or your anger. It’s is getting the bulk of your child’s week – school is what, 30+ hours? – in line with something productive for your child that will grow him or her into a better adult. NOTHING else is at stake. So check your feelings at the door, stride in with confidence, and do the best you can for the one of the people you love the most.
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