Monday, May 23, 2011

IEP Tips - Part 1

Here are some notes from the session Linda Brake and I led on the IEP process on the 14th at the statewide conference for the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee. While Linda and I were collaborating, we were trying to decide what was most important to get out there to parents. We told a bit of our story and everything that happened last year (which she knew more than I did, being behind the scenes and all). I think we both teared up at least once just thinking back. It was... hard... for everyone involved, I know. I am thankful to be moving forward a year later, mending some relationships, praying that others can be healed before we move, and still a little bitter tender about some others still. Time heals all wounds, right?

"They" say you can't run away from your problems, and I don't think that we're doing that by moving, but I do think that a fresh start is exactly what we need. I've spoken to the school district in Colorado where we plan on moving and I'm cautiously optimistic. They were very encouraging, and have a very progressive system set up there for kids with special needs. I will still go in prepared, not ready for battle, but armed with knowledge.

I hope that, no matter what the people at the school or in the system here think about me, they realize that I had to fight for my child and her education and what was right for her. To this day I know that I made the right choice not allowing her to go into a restrictive setting. Her year here at home, everything that she has learned and accomplished, has proven that to me. Still, I am excited for her to go back to school this Fall. She misses it a lot. I am excited to see what they have to offer for Keeghan and Kellsey. I know that Kass and Kam will thrive wherever they are.

So, now I hope to take last year and turn it into an opportunity to help other parents. Teaming up with Linda has been a great first step. She was an invaluable resource, full of legal knowledge and lots of great feedback. I also pulled a lot of wonderful ideas from other parents. When in doubt, ask the people who have been there, done that! Then of course, I threw in some stuff from my own personal experience. I hope some of these tips and ideas help some of you who are struggling with your children's education. If you have anything to add to this list, feel free! We'd love to hear it!

How to Survive an IEP Meeting
  • Bring your ideas about goals and objectives. Don’t be afraid to speak up about what you think. 

          All of the people at the table at your child's IEP meeting are going to have ideas about what your child should be learning in the upcoming year. They may even have them already written out into a "draft IEP" which I will talk more about later. The thing is, you know your child better than anyone sitting at that table. While they are educators and they have the degrees, you are an expert on YOUR child. You have every right to speak up about the goals and objectives (and placement) they write into your child's IEP for the year, and most schools will WANT to hear your thoughts and ideas. Don't just sit back and say, "Whatever you think is best." Because you'll get railroaded. And may I add, and this is probably a "duh" factor for most parents, but please show up to your child's IEP meeting! It's important! I wouldn't bring it up if I didn't know of at least one set of parents who didn't bother showing up ever. *sigh*

  • Breathe, and never believe that everyone at the school has your child’s best interests at heart. 
OK, so I know this sounds catty and mean, and for the record, this tip did not come from me, but I think it comes from a good place. If I could expand on this, I would maybe say don't automatically think that every idea the school throws out there is because they're thinking of your child first. Unfortunately, many times things like money and state test scores and school reputation come into play. On the flip side, if you find someone in the school (especially a teacher) who is brave enough to stand up and fight for your child and what is right (sometimes even at the risk of their job) hang onto them tightly! They are a rare gem! Sorry, harsh I know, some of them won't be so bad, but I do think it needed to be included. And the breathe part is good too... everyone, breathe in... breathe out! :)

  • Bring a binder. You might include a copy of your state code. Include previous IEPs, testings, report cards, evals etc. Put a picture of your child on the outside. 
So first, your state code is thick, and you're never going to be able to read it all. However, I strongly urge you to peruse it in the weeks before your IEP meeting. Know your rights and your laws! At your IEP meeting, when they offer you a copy of your parental rights, you can say, "No thanks, I have mine right here." They will know you mean business. The school has a copy of the state code, why shouldn't you?! Please please please keep all previous IEP's and evals and testings from everywhere! Start your binder early (and get a big one!) because you never know when you'll need to look back on something. Heaven forbid there is a discrepancy in the IQ score that you have vs. the one the school miraculously pulled out of thin air. Just sayin'. Slip a picture of your child in the cover and leave your binder on the table at all times. It helps everyone remember that you are talking about a child - not a diagnosis, not a battle between parent and school - a child. One who deserves the best possible education he or she can get. I've also heard of parents bringing wallet sized pictures to hand out to everyone in the room or bringing a picture of their child in a frame and sticking it in the middle of the table. Don't forget who is really important! 

  • It is your legal right to tape record every IEP meeting as long as you give 24 hours notice. This could be invaluable to you later. 
This is probably my second favorite tip and one that I say over and over. I wish I would have tape recorded our IEP meeting. I think things would have gone much differently. Go to walmart or wherever, buy a handheld recorder and notify the school that you will be recording your meeting. You need to give 24 hours notice so the school has the opportunity to record as well if they so choose. Hang onto that tape for the entire school year. Should you find that the school violates your child's IEP at any time, you have back up even over and above the written word. It's also helpful if you have to go to mediation and/or due process. It's a small thing you can do to keep your sanity, and it doesn't have to be confrontational. Over and above having it for security, it's good to be able to go back and listen when you need to remember something that was said (especially if it was you that said it! haha). 

  • If your school prepares an advanced "draft copy" of your child's IEP, you have the right to see it before the meeting! Request a copy! 
First, let me say, I think it's totally bogus for the school to have the IEP written before you walk into the meeting. YOU are a member of your child's IEP team (the most important member!) and you should be there to develop his/her goals. It's also illegal to have the IEP written before the meeting, however many schools get away with it by stamping the word "draft" on it and claiming that goals, objectives, placement can be changed with discussion. The truth is, I don't buy that. But maybe I'm cynical - and with good reason. So, if your school does advanced "draft copies" of the IEP, you can do a couple different things. You can either request that it's NOT done in advance for your child (and good luck with that) or request a copy beforehand to look over. Seriously, this is the best way to prevent being blindsided at your child's IEP meeting. Don't let them give you excuses as to why you can't have one. If they have it prepared ahead of time, if they know your child's goals before the meeting, then you should too. 

  • Always always bring an advocate or support person with you to every IEP meeting! 
And this is my first favorite tip. My advocates were invaluable to me! Again, this doesn't have to be a confrontational thing. Bringing an advocate to an IEP meeting doesn't have to say, "I don't trust you and I'm gearing up for a fight." You can simply say (because you really should let the school know you are bringing an advocate with you) that you want someone there who knows the IEP law better than you and who can be an impartial person at the table, because let's face it, when it comes to our children, we can get a little emotional. I cry. Others get angry. Whatever it is, it's nice to have someone there who can say, "I think we need to take a break." They can also offer suggestions and tips that maybe the school has never tried or you, the parent, has never considered. They are there for everyone. You can find an advocate through your local ARC in most states. Please utilize this service! 

  • Never use the word "best" always use the word "appropriate". The school does not have to provide what is "best" for your child. 
Whether you're talking about goals, therapies, other services or placement, you want what is appropriate for your child. It was not appropriate for Kennedy to be in the Life Skills classroom. (Clearly it was not what was best for her either, but that's not the school's concern.) ;o) Take the word "best" out of your vocabulary for the day. 

  • Bring food! It adds a personal touch and lets them know you are wanting to play nice. 
I tried this, it didn't work too well, but I might try it again. I know some people bring a whole spread of great goodies as well as coffee (to keep everyone awake?! haha). It's kind of an olive branch as you walk in the door. :)

  • Make sure you understand everything in the IEP before you sign it! Take it home and look it over. You have 10 days to return it or file for mediation. Never sign something you don't agree with 100%!
Even if you are in agreement with your child's IEP, may I recommend taking it home and looking it over? Sleep on it. Talk about it with your husband if he wasn't at the meeting. Call your mom or a friend. Really pray about it. The next day you may look at it again and think, "How could I have forgotten to include THAT!" An IEP is a legal and binding document. It's as important as any other legal document you will ever sign, and while you can call another meeting at any time during the year, it's not something you want to go into hastily. If you have questions or issues, resolve them before signing your name to that document! 

  • Be realistic about what the school can and should provide, but then expect them to follow through. No excuses. 
And the teachers cheer, "Finally!" ;o) I have been trying to figure out how to come up with some good examples for this one... the best thing I can suggest is to make a list of what you want for your child as far as services, placement, goals, etc. Then decide what is really important. For example, if you live in a district without a ton of money, it's probably not going to do you a lot of good to demand that the school provide an iPad for your child. You can most certainly ask! You never know what will happen! But be willing to compromise. Decide what you can/will bend on and what you won't. And seriously, have some things that you are willing to bend on. It shows the school that you ARE willing to work with them. Once something is written into that IEP though, it's the school's job to follow through. If they write in that your child is allowed to go on field trips with his grade level, then he gets to go. No excuses. Don't let them tell you that they don't have an aide available for that day or they don't have the right accommodations, that's not your problem. It's in his IEP and therefore they need to figure it out. Just an example, but it's one that really hits home in our county right now. 

  • Leave your emotions at the door. 
So, this is easier said than done, I know. Especially for me. ;o) And this really goes back to having an advocate. They can really help with this and keeping emotions more even keeled. I applaud those parents who can go into these meetings and not shed a tear, because I am most certainly not one of them. Maybe one day! :)

  • An IEP is individualized to your child. It doesn't matter what any other child is doing. 

I don't care if every other child with Down syndrome in the entire district is sitting in a Life Skills classroom right now, that doesn't mean it's appropriate for my child. I don't care if every other child with Special Needs in the school is only getting 30 minutes of group speech therapy once a week, if you feel your child needs more (or individual therapy), say so! Just because every other child in the class has the goal of learning to tie their shoes (and that's a totally loose example so don't slam me for that), it doesn't mean that goal needs to be written into your child's IEP. It doesn't matter what the other kids are doing, what matters is what is appropriate for your child. Get it? Got it? Good! 

  • Be sure that all team members are present. You, your child's teachers, your child's therapists, etc. While you can call an IEP meeting any time you wish, sometimes the annual review is the only one you need. Attendance is important! 
Again, my "duh statement". Show up to your child's IEP meeting. The school will schedule the meeting at your convenience. I've even heard of some meetings being held in the child's home! They will work with you in most situations. Every year of your child's education is important! It's also important that anyone working directly with your child is there. You need to be able to talk to them, get their feedback, ask them questions, etc. If they cannot be at the meeting for whatever reason, ask to reschedule. Also, members of the IEP team cannot leave the table unless you agree. For example, after a therapist goes over his/her goals for your child, many times they will bow out saying they need to get back to work. They're not allowed to do this unless you say it's ok. Technically, they should be there for the entire meeting in case you have some questions for them later. 

OK so there was so much more to our presentation, but this was the end of the IEP tips. I will do a part two later this week. I hope that some of you found this helpful! I wish you all could have been in our session. We received some great feedback and a lot of other wonderful tips from parents and teachers alike... none of which I can recall right now. If I can remember them later I will add them in! Thanks for reading if you got this far. I look forward to your constructive feedback! :)


    Kathleen said...

    I've sat on "both sides of the table" at IEPs. I taught special education for 23 years and now teach future special education teachers at the college level. I also have children with special needs, both biological and adopted. You have lots of good suggestions here. I would like to defend the "draft" IEP idea. I do suggest that teachers do this for a couple reasons. The easy one is that there are places that can easily be filled in ahead of time (birth date, address, etc.), but the bigger one is that you want the teachers to have prepared for this meeting also. They should be thinking about the goals that would be appropriate and how they are going to measure progress on those. They should be thinking about what additional services might be needed. If they don't do this preparation work ahead, then you aren't getting their best input. Then they are more likely to want to just fill in whatever the district "typically" does rather than really think about what is appropriate for your child. No matter which side of the table I've sat on for these meetings, these drafts were always made available to everyone and parent input was always welcomed. I worked with older students, so I also sat with them ahead of time and had them help with the preparation so that they could participate in their IEP meetings with confidence and we could make sure that their desires and concerns were identified. So, that's my two cents worth.

    mom2natnkatncj said...

    Okay, so we are going to review Kaitlyn's IEP tomorrow and set new goals for her. Now I doubt I'll end up in a situation like you did because the only accommodations we need are for reading and writing, but still I am nervous that I'm going to be blind sided. I know she has done really good this year, but she's still not at grade level. I know that her reading teacher has talked to me like she plans on doing the Wilson reading program next year and possibly the year after. I know her teacher knows her really well and knows what she needs, but still I worry. Because they have to answer to other people. Just because what they might tell me my daughter needs and should get next year doesn't mean the administration is going to agree. So I'm going in there tomorrow cautiously optimistic. Joe is coming with me. This is the first year we've done the IEP with this school too so I'm not sure how it will go. Honestly, it should just be routine. Adjusting her goals. Not much should need to be changed. But you never know what kind of curve balls they'll throw at you all in the name of saving money.

    Mommy to those Special Ks said...

    Kathleen, I guess that does make sense... in my limited experience though all I heard was "we will not compromise, we will not discuss any other options" so the "draft" IEP was really not a draft at all. It was set in stone. I guess I would want my child's team coming to the meeting prepared as to avoid a vanilla IEP, but when it's there written in ink, it makes it hard to believe they're willing to bend on anything. I guess there just has to be a middle road somewhere.

    ourjoyfulljourney said...

    Thanks for all that Info!!!!

    Nicki McFadden said...

    Is it just in Michigan now that the parents don't even sign the IEP? Just the principal signs it whether the parents agree to it or not.

    Debbie said...

    I LOVE this post! Such great information...I am going to pass this on to some of my teacher friends! I taught kinder and first for seven years before Josh was born and now I get to stay home with him and be his personal advocate. :) We have a little while until we have to go through this (he's 16 months) but really, the thought of being on the other side of the table is scary, and I've been through IEP meetings before and am familiar with how they work. I like what you said about making sure everyone is there and STAYS there until the meeting is over. I hated it when our principal would stay for five minutes and then leave. It sent such a poor message to the parents, that they weren't worth her time. At least that is how I saw it. I'm not an IEP expert by any means, but one thing I can say, that was said in the post, is parents: ARM YOURSELVES! Read the laws, read the codes. If you don't understand them, find someone who can help you. Enlist your child's teachers/therapists/social worker to help you out if you can trust them to help you with what is most appropriate for him or her. Be sure you are allowed to contribute. Don't let the school take over the meeting. If something doesn't make sense, have them explain it until it does. I was fortunate to work at a school where the teachers all really cared about the kids and the special education teachers really did fight for the kids. It worries me that in this era of overworked and underfunded schools that too many kids will get lost in the mix. Parents are the most powerful tool to make sure that doesn't happen. Thank you for this post!

    Linda said...

    Nicki- that is not legal.

    Nancy I. said...

    Going in to a pre-IEP meeting tomorrow! I do not have an advocate with me, but I will bring in a stack of research!! Loved your cartoons!

    Sunshine said...

    Draft IEPs have been great for us...I go through and review prior to the meeting and "mark up" the goals with my questions and comments so I can bring them up as we go through each one and they always are willing to make the appropriate changes. Also, ours have always been in the early morning so bagels and coffee and juice always go over well. Thanks for all this info!

    Mommy to those Special Ks said...

    I'm glad that the draft idea DOES work well for some people, that's encouraging to hear! :) Bagels, coffee and juice is a great idea!

    Candy said...

    As a special education teacher I think the most important factor in student success is parent collaboration. So preparing an IEP without parental input doesn't help anyone. My approach is to meet with the parents a couple of weeks prior to the ARD meeting. By then I should have completed any new assessments and updated the existing goals. The parents and I can discuss progress and what they are wanting next for their child. Then I "draft" the IEP goals to take to the meeting. So there are no surprises when we get to the meeting, on either side.
    However, the goals should be driven by assessment: an accurate picture of what the student can do now, then a measurable and quantifiable goal of what we think they can do over the next year. It is so important to collaborate and if that is not successful, not only will the ARD meeting not go well, the school year will not go well and the student will not make sufficient progress. Renee, your presentation looks awesome.

    B said...

    This was very informative. Thank you. Do you have any experience and tips for 504 meetings?