As parents of special needs children, we want them to achieve in life. It is incumbent on us to help them to do whatever they feel they can do. While they are still young, we largely define their goals for them. The first task is to be successful in their education. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools are mandated to help our kids achieve all that they can at school. The vehicle to help our kids to be successful students is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). That’s the law. An IEP is an important legal document. It spells out a child’s learning needs, the services the school will provide and how progress will be measured. Kids from age 3 through high school graduation or a maximum age of 22 (whichever comes first) may be eligible for an IEP. The IEP is meant to address each child’s unique learning issues and include specific educational goals. It is a legally binding document. The school must provide everything it promises in the IEP.
I have often heard that IEP meetings – which occur yearly, can be contentious. But they don’t have to be. It is important to be prepared for the IEP meeting by knowing what you think your child will need in terms of accommodations to help him/her succeed and achieve their maximum potential. Children change so much during the course of a school year that it is often hard to predict their future needs. It is helpful sometimes to have an IEP advocate. An advocate can assist in the following areas:
- Represents the best interests of the student in the educational process
- Has a working-knowledge of State and Federal laws pertaining to children with special needs and can inform parent/guardians of their rights. If need arises, he/she will research a specific legal issue or case that is pertinent to a child’s education program
- Suggests appropriate services, programs and accommodations/modifications to meet the student’s individual needs
- Helps interpret the meaning of assessments and reports to parents, and explains their significance to the child’s educational needs
- Prepares parents for the IEP/504 meeting. This could include interpreting and prioritizing support materials, proposing goals and objectives, and providing/rehearsing strategies for the meeting
- Accompanies parents to IEP, 504, and any other relevant school meetings to provide advice and assistance
- Empowers and educates families (parents and students!) to strengthen their own advocacy skills
In my many years of participating in my daughter’s IEP meetings, I did not find that I needed an IEP advocate. My approach was always one of collaboration. I see all the members of the IEP team (parents, teachers, specialists and administrators) as a team with special expertise. My expertise is knowing my daughter better than anyone else does and my job at the IEP meeting is to help explain my daughter’s needs to the other experts on the team. The other member’s expertise lies in knowing what my daughter needs to learn, how she will need to go about learning it and what resources will help her do so. If we all come together with one goal in mind and mutual respect for our specific areas of expertise, then the process should be a pleasant one and everyone should walk out of the meeting feeling that they have done the best job possible. Following up on the specifics in the IEP can also be challenging for all involved (child, parent and teacher.) But with grace and a common understanding, that can also be achieved without contention.
If you find that you do need an IEP advocate, please research your options carefully and interview the people you find. I suggest a referral by a friend as a good way to start the search. The advocate is going to become part of the team and can in many ways set the tone for how the meeting will handled. Here are some guidelines for choosing an advocate:
- Select a trained, experienced advocate
- Select an advocate with special education experience
- Select an advocate who understands your child
- Select an advocate who understands his or her professional limits
Whichever way you decide to go – advocate or no advocate, here are three things to remember:
- The IEP is the foundation of your child’s special education program
- The IEP should not only focus on what your child needs in terms of assistance but also what their strengths are so that some of the assistance can be focused on what your child does best
- You (as the parent) play a fundamental role in the IEP meeting because you bring valuable insight and concerns that only you can articulate on behalf of your child.
Wishing you and yours a restful break from school and a joyous holiday season.