The more a parent knows about a child’s IEP — Individualized Education Program — the more involved they can be in getting the best services and support available. The IEP process can be complicated and nerve-racking for families, especially this year as schools reopen still dealing with COVID-19.
“If evaluations and timelines are delayed some parents may find themselves in limbo. They will be geared up (to address a child’s needs) yet find themselves in a holding pattern,” said Amanda Morin, author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and an expert on the Education team of Understood.org. IEPs can be confusing, overwhelming and filled with technical jargon, but one of the most important things to know is that, as a parent, you are an equal partner by law in the decision-making process, Morin said.
An IEP is like a to-do list with specific details about what a child with special needs should accomplish during a school year. A team consisting of parents, teachers, administration, specialists and other support create a plan with “SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, result-oriented and time-bound,” Morin said.
Before getting an IEP, a child must first be evaluated, and either a concerned parent or someone at the school can start the conversation. To request an evaluation a parent must put it in writing. From there a school will conduct an evaluation to determine whether a child qualifies for special services and support.
Next, parents will receive a written report that contains lots of numbers and data, Morin said.
“Take a deep breath and flip to the back page and read the summary and recommendations first. Then go back and read it from the beginning,” she said. While the report may feel like a cold-hearted look at a child’s ability, the summary is filled with great observations that will let parents know the school is looking at a child’s strengths and not just deficits, Morin said. “Highlight anything that stands out or that you don’t understand,” she said. Take those flagged questions with you to the IEP meeting. Parents are allowed to bring outside help to the meeting such as a therapist or case manager who has special knowledge of the child, or a supportive friend or someone who can take notes, Morin said. Let the school know who will be attending. “It’s emotional. It feels like high stakes for your child’s education,” so having someone supportive there can be invaluable, she said.
Typically, the meeting will have an agenda so a parent should know what to expect. After introductions the evaluation is explained, and a parent has time to ask questions. A parent may ask something like, “Is this typical for a child of this age or not to be expected?” Other good questions include asking what a child’s typical day looks like at school or to explain how a child is being assessed.
The parent also gets time to make a report and share what teachers and staff don’t get to see at school, for example, if a child is exhausted after the school day or if they struggle with math but love chapter books. “Describe their strengths,” Morin said.
Together the team and parents come up with goals and specialized instruction for the school year. As a child grows, he or she needs to get on board with the plan, too, Morin said.
Parents should be aware that an IEP is not a checklist. “They shouldn’t hear, ‘We offer this or that,’” Morin said. The IEP should include services and accommodations that best support a child’s ability to learn just like the general school population. “The goal is not to make a child feel different; it’s to make a child feel successful,” Morin said.
Many parents are hesitant to talk about special education services their child receives, but Morin suggests they should be more open to lessen the stigma.
“You’re not alone. There is a support system out there. Be informed, empowered and keep shaking things up. It will only help you and your child,” she said.