Oh, the dreaded IEP meetings. When my son was 2, I started calling the school district asking for him to be evaluated for Special Education. I did NOT want them waiting until he was 3 to start thinking about testing him, holding a meeting, etc. I was so persistent that they actually allowed him to start services 3 months before he turned 3 🙂 He was able to attend the summer program and then start school in the fall.
That first IEP meeting, at the end of the summer, was an uncomfortable experience. I was in my mid 20s, hadn’t finishes my Bachelor’s yet, and was in a room that was FULL of professionals who already had made up their minds of how the meeting would go. Well, they weren’t prepared for me! I knew about a program that they weren’t offering me and I insisted that I tour that program and have my son try the program out. There was a LOT of resistance and naysayers but I was his mom, knew him best and had to become his advocate…a role which I still play for him. To make a long story short, he did AWESOME in the program. That was one of the very best decisions I have ever made for him!
Moms, dads, grandparents, caregivers, guardians, YOU know what is best for your child! Do NOT ever let anyone bully you around and tell you otherwise!
Eight Steps to Better IEP Meetings
Here are eight steps for parents to learn. These steps will help the parent negotiator minimize conflict when dealing with good-faith district negotiators. They will also help you prepare a solid case when negotiating with district personnel who are acting in bad faith.
1. Make every attempt to sustain relationships.
Like the many hands in a hearts game, IEP negotiations play out over time. A game of cards is always more enjoyable when played in a group that likes and respects each other. Try to get to know and personally connect to the other team members.
Whether or not we personally like our child’s teachers, school psychologist, school social worker, principal or other administrative personnel, we are stuck with them unless we move. If we move, we will be stuck with new school officials with whom we have conflict. Or new, difficult people will be promoted into established positions.
In any event, we have to learn to work with people we do not understand, agree with, or get along with. They are there, and will be there all year, year after year. Getting personally angry with them, even if they deserve it, lead to hostility down the line.
Now hostility can have its place, as in a lawsuit or a Due Process Hearing. However, if parties get that far in their fights, any chance for a working relationship is dead. Since it is in the best interests of our children to have a cohesive team working towards a common goal, we as parents must take a leadership role in sustaining the team atmosphere.
We cannot lead a team we do not join.
It is not enough to come into a meeting, periodically and make demands; even legitimate, legal demands. We must model the behavior we want to draw out in our children’s IEP team.
If we want the other team members to be patient, prepared, and educated about our child’s needs, we must set the standard.
We must be understanding of them and the demands on their time.
We must be patient with them as they learn our child’s method of learning.
We must be prepared and secure helpful test results on our child’s development, articles or other related materials, and then share them; and
We must be as or more educated about the objective realities of our child’s disability so we can talk to other team members as peers.
Before we make any demands on a team member, we must ask ourselves, “Am I asking of this person something I have not done, or am not willing to do?”
If someone did something helpful, remember to say “thank you!”
When we can demonstrate that we are doing our part, it is more reasonable to press others to shoulder their responsibilities.
2. Keep the focus on the child’s needs, not the district’s resources or the parents’ expectations.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), Congress set forth certain protections for children with special needs. At its core, IDEA is designed to make sure that disabled children have access to a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment”.
The United States Supreme Court has been relentless in their insistence that IDEA may not be used to force a school district to “maximize” a child’s “potential”. If a child is getting a “meaningful educational benefit” and making progress that can be objectively measured, then most courts will conclude that IDEA has done its job -even if most parents would consider the results basic or minimal.
Most schools pride themselves on doing more than passing work for their students, even their disabled students. Clearly, those with the highest expectations for children are the parents. This is why we are here.
Yet, many parents engage in the IEP process without having tangible educational goals, let alone a plan to accomplish these goals. Without a plan, the IEP, school staff, and parents will flounder.
Let me share an example. Our goal for Amanda is to teach her to function as an autistic person in a non-autistic world. We do not expect the District, or anyone else, to cure her autism. Each decision made for her – educational and otherwise – is shaped with this plan in mind. This simplifies things.
When we read a map, we have a starting point and a destination. We plan our routes and back-up routes from these two variables.
Get Independent Evaluations
How do you know where you are beginning? Get the child tested and find out! Parents must obtain independent medical and/or developmental assessments for their disabled children! Without clinical data, there is no reliable starting point for the journey.
Yes, these tests are often burdensome and expensive. Do them anyway. Our children’s abilities and disabilities are the cards in our hands! How can we decide how to play them if we do not look at them first?
These evaluations bring parents on board. They force parents to understand the precise nature of their child’s disability, and in so doing, obtain the necessary information to formulate a cohesive strategy for dealing with it. This is especially true if the nature of the disability has a hidden educational impact.
IDEA only requires school districts to pay for special services like speech, occupational or physical therapy if doing so gives an educational benefit, not just a medical one. In other words, the disability has to effect learning.
I emphasize the need to have independent clinical medical, psychological, and /or educational or evaluations done -not evaluations through the school district or by a practitioner selected by the district. Because IDEA has provisions, which, under certain circumstances, require school districts to pay for evaluations (ostensibly to make the field more level for low-income families), many parents who can afford an independent evaluation fail to get one.
However, school district evaluations are still school district material. If there is a hearing or lawsuit, these tests are crucial evidence. Parents will have more faith in the truth of these tests when they choose the professionals who administer them. In the event that a test does not accurately reflect a child’s abilities, parents who get these evaluations independently have a choice about whether to share this information with the district – something they could not control if the tests were done by the district.
These outside evaluations have another benefit in that they relieve the parties from subjective disagreements. The results speak for themselves. No one is to blame for this information. In fact, third-party reports give a willing school administrator a way to justify a difficult or politically unpopular decision to grant services.
When Amanda was going into kindergarten, I wanted her to a full-day program with kindergarten in the morning and Early Childhood in the afternoon. Our district had a “policy” (read “budget issue”) against this.
When I took Amanda to her yearly reevaluation at the University of Chicago Developmental Disorders Clinic (a nationally recognized leader in autism diagnosis and treatment), I was able to persuade the U of C team that Amanda required the full-day program. They gladly made this recommendation in their report.
This relieved the sympathetic school administrator (who granted the request) from having to make the judgment herself. After all, if her boss disagreed with her, he would have a much harder time disagreeing with the University of Chicago!
With independent reports, everyone is off the hook and can bring themselves, defense-free, to the great task of addressing the child’s problems. Once we know where we are, we can decide how best to get where we are going. Once everyone has an objective sense of a child’s abilities, they can develop a plan to teach that child.
Design Specific, Measurable, Realistic IEP Goals
The IEP is designed to list specific educational goals for the child. Make sure the goals are realistic, specifically stated, and penned in layman’s terms. As the school year unfolds, the team can look at these goals to objectively assess the child’s progress. To this end, IDEA requires that the goals as they appear on the IEP form must be something that can be objectively measured.
Avoid generalized goals, as “Johnny will be able to attend in the classroom with increasing frequency”. This phrase leaves Johnny’s progress open to subjective evaluation. Disagreements about subjective evaluations lead to bluffing and defensive postures on all sides. Where does this leave Johnny?
If the goal read: “Johnny will be able to complete grade-appropriate class work during class time, up to 75% accuracy” the parties can evaluate what Johnny is doing in class and objectively measure this against the goal. If Johnny cannot finish a spelling test with his class with 75% accuracy, the team can agree on his inability to meet the goal.
This keeps the focus on Johnny and away from the other team members. When everyone can agree on the problem, it is much easier to brainstorm about new interventions that can help him learn, or whether the goal should be modified (e.g.: “…up to 50% accuracy”, etc.).
Parental Expectations v. District Resources
A word about parental expectations and school district resources. These competing interests are present in every IEP. They represent an inherent tension in disabilities issues. Parents want the best for their children. School districts have to provide basic services within a clearly stated budget.
Never ignore these dynamics in an IEP. They are always there, even if districts are not supposed to consider budgetary concerns when they formulate an IEP.
In negotiations, emotions are often the problems to be solved.
Parents should never treat the school team as if they are sitting on limitless resources. School personnel should never forget the legitimate emotional investment each parent has in his and her child. Parents should attempt to occasionally see their child through the eyes of others. School personnel should try to be creative with what resources they do have.
Neither parents nor schools can wave a wand over a disabled child and make that child’s problems disappear. Yet, the parties often treat each other as if this were true.
Parents sometimes have expectations of their schools that reach beyond academics. They want their kids to fit in, love learning, and have predictable, pleasant school experiences. Often, kids with disabilities can do many of these things. Sometimes they simply cannot.
Schools, even the best of schools, can harbor frustrations that impede learning and fitting in. These frustrations should be whittled down until only those hurdles that cannot realistically be removed remain.
Similarly, schools have rhythms that cause unnecessary pain to a disabled child. Simply telling parents “this is how we do things” is an inappropriate attitude. Disabled children may not be penalized for bringing their disabilities to school. Teachers and students must make every reasonable accommodation to welcome them.
3. Always provide “face saving” ways out of a dilemma. Have a back-up plan.
Mediators know that this is the secret of successful mediations. We call it the difference between positional bargaining and principled bargaining.
Assume we have two parties who are arguing over one lemon. Each takes a position and insists on having the whole lemon. No compromises. They go to a judge who uses the rules of basic adversarial procedure to resolve their problem by dividing the lemon in half -to no one’s satisfaction.
A mediator will ask each party what they want with the lemon. One party says they want the pulp for lemonade. The other wants to use the rind for zest. The mediator sees a solution the judge missed: peel the lemon and give all of the fruit to one party and all the rind to the other. A win-win solution.
Special needs children benefit greatly from principled negotiations. When parties know what their needs are, they can be more creative in finding solutions to those needs.
Often, parties simply assess their needs in private, and make unilateral decisions as to what they require to satisfy those needs. They then present only these conclusions as their positions in a negotiation: “I need the lemon.”
Poker rules dictate that you will “tip your hand” and foul up your chances of winning if your opponents know what your plans are. Keep your cards close to your chest, and bluff it out. In negotiations, especially delicate negotiations, the goal should not be to win (which forces the other side to lose) but to achieve a particular objective.
Encourage brainstorming among all informed people at team meetings, especially before an IEP. When the collective resources of a group focus on a problem, the solutions that present themselves are amazing.
Have more than one approach to offer. If your initial suggestions cannot be implemented, you should have given some thought to your fallback position.
Sometimes a fallback plan contains a calculated failure. Failures, though unpleasant, are our greatest teachers. If you find yourself at odds with a school administrator’s idea, and if this idea will not cause real harm to your child, set a trial period, then let the idea go forward and fail. Just let experience speak for itself.
No one likes to feel like a loser. No one likes to feel humiliated. No one likes to feel stupid, or to worry that if she makes a mistake, this will be held up for everyone to see. No one wants to worry over failing in front of a group. Moreover, everyone will fight tooth and nail to keep these things from happening.
I promise you, if an IEP becomes a contest of who is right and who is wrong, no one will roll over and play dead. Present a position (even a perfectly legal and legitimate one) in unnecessarily demanding terms, and you risk creating an atmosphere where the other side would rather eat steel wool than admit that they are wrong (and they certainly won’t capitulate if their opponent is not wholly right on the facts in the first place!)!
I am amazed at the number of parents who walk into a meeting and flatly accuse school personnel of professional incompetence – in front of their supervisors – then expect everyone to agree with them!
Sure, wouldn’t you, if someone did that to you at your job?
4. Build your record.
What if you are right? What if school personnel are flatly incompetent? Do not say it. Show it!
Be reasonable and calm while you admit that you are concerned about how a situation is developing. Be prepared to show, objectively, how your child is not meeting his goals. Produce reports, articles or test results that will persuade an objective listener (like a due process hearing officer, or a judge) why your suggestions are reasonable.
If you can lay out a “court ready” case at this level, everyone will quickly read the handwriting on the wall. Threats and accusations are unnecessary. The facts speak for themselves. Of course, this assumes that you have some facts on your side.
Do not shy away from the damning evidence. Develop a strategy to deal with it. A good lawyer knows all the strengths and weaknesses of her case. We know where we expect to have trouble and prepare for this as best as we can. Again, objective data from non-school district personnel is the best place to start.
Independent medical, developmental and psychologist’s evaluations and private therapists’ reports and evaluations are crucial to setting up the facts. So are third party advocates or therapists who come to the school and observe your child in his school environment. You have to listen to what these reports and third parties tell you.
Parents must be willing to face the reality of their child’s abilities!
If your child has tantrums when frustrated, do not demand that his day be frustration-free. Provide and document solutions how the frustrations and tantrums should be handled.
You are not being disloyal to your child by admitting his problem areas. You are being disloyal to your child if you do not prepare for them. Get the facts in writing. Do not rely on your own opinions and feelings.
This is not to say that parental opinions and feelings are bad. In fact, they are wonderful! In addition to what we may think or feel in our guts, we need to understand of what we can reasonably expect for our child in the classroom environment in a given timeframe.
Our best hopes and dreams come true one step at a time. Parental feelings are the most powerful thing on earth. Our insights are invaluable in setting goals, therapies, and just getting things done. They are not evidence!
We will fall flat on our faces if we indulge in the belief that our opinions, by themselves, will persuade an objective hearing officer or judge that we are right in any contested issue. Courts sympathize with parents but do not defer to parents.
As parents, we are expected to be many things for our children but “objective” is not one of these things. We are, by Nature’s design, the least objective persons in the room. Cull and collect objective evidence to buttress any argument you have. If you get caught off-guard on an issue in an IEP and believe you need written back-up for your position, adjourn the meeting and reconvene when you have a chance to have your child assessed by a qualified professional. IDEA does not require the parents to be rushed into anything.
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