Parents of children with Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) realize that this process was developed in order to provide an opportunity for parents and educators to come together to make important plans for a special needs child. However, the process is complicated and often can be confusing and stressful. Below are some strategies to ease the stress and maximize the results for your child.
Develop a vision statement or master plan for your child’s life
A vision statement should come from your heart; what outcomes do you want for your child’s life? Will your child pursue a college education? What career options do you foresee? From this picture, you can develop short and long range goals for your child in academic and non-academic areas. You will need to be very clear about how your child’s strengths and weaknesses affect his/her learning. Be sure you have short term goals for what you would like your child to accomplish this school year, as well as intermediate-term goals which are the milestones you want your child to achieve by the end of elementary, middle and high school. Clear goals give you the vision needed to make good decisions on your child’s behalf.
Educate yourself about the process and hidden agendas
Parents can easily feel intimidated and isolated unless they take the time and care to learn “the ropes.” Learning the ropes involves much more than knowing your legal rights. It also includes understanding the informal procedures at a school, the relationships among the members of the IEP team, and the position that a school traditionally adopts regarding educating special needs kids. School districts do not like to develop new approaches, set precedents or agree to services they perceive as expensive. Federal law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) states that the power to determine educational programs and services resides in the IEP team; however, the hidden truth is that school personnel are not given the power to make decisions regarding costly or non-traditional educational services. These decisions are made by administrators. Be prepared for resistance and develop strategies in advance to deal with this resistance. Know your “bottom line” so you can bend on areas that are not crucial to you and stay committed to the goals that matter most.
Adopt the role and perspective of a tactful manager of your child’s education
You are in the best position to see the long-range, big picture for your child’s future. Have confidence in your beliefs and requests. State your position calmly. Forming collaborative relationships with school personnel and others involved in making decisions about your child’s education makes it more likely that you will receive cooperation with your requests. Avoid appearing that you are trying to “win” or to embarrass others. Demonstrate the mature, responsible behavior you expect from others involved. Be willing to seek “win-win” solutions. Be flexible to compromise and creative in generating solutions. Gain a reputation as a person who is committed to achieving your goals by collaboratively and respectfully working with others.
Keep comprehensive records
Start a filing system using file folders and an accordion file or a three ring binder with dividers. Plan for the file to grow as your child progresses through school. Be sure each section has a table of contents so you can easily determine what documents you have and locate them quickly. The file should include: your child’s evaluations, IEPs, work samples, correspondence with the school, standardized test results, report cards and your meeting log. Use the meeting log to make comprehensive records of phone calls and meetings with school personnel, advocates, and medical personnel (physicians, psychologists, educational therapists, occupational therapists, etc.). Include whom you met or talked with, the date, what you wanted, what you were told, and decisions and plans.
Recognize your reactions that can sabotage your efforts
Getting the services your child needs can be a difficult and long-term experience. Many emotions can come up and get in the way of clear thinking. All problems are solved by the people who think clearly. If you catch yourself experiencing any of the feelings below, you can shift out of them by rereading your child’s vision statement. Your wonderful child is reason enough to maintain emotional strength and balance. Focus your energy on the short and long-term outcomes that will benefit your child. When you meet with resistance from the school district, don’t be surprised, and above all, don’t become discouraged.
Frustration and/or anger can quickly undermine your advocacy role because school staff may label you as a “trouble-maker” and be more difficult to work with collaboratively.
Self-doubt and despair will eat away at your confidence and stand in the way of the persistence you need to achieve your goals for your child.
Passive-aggression, or using delaying tactics, sets a bad example to the school of your commitment to your child’s outcomes.
Commitment to “being right” weakens the chances of compromises that will greatly benefit your child, and delay appropriate services.
Guilt that your child requires specialized help can make you reluctant to ask for the services that would allow your child to be successful in school.
Obtain an evaluation from an independent source
Even though the school district is required by law to evaluate your child, this evaluation usually will not thoroughly identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses and give you the guidance you need to chart a plan for your child’s future. You do have the right to request that the school district provides an independent evaluation if you disagree with the results of the evaluation the school conducted. However, you need to know that the school district selects the independent evaluators with whom they contract from a list of approved evaluators, and there is a strong possibility that the results will be biased in the direction of the school district’s position.
Seek guidance and support when needed
Join parent support or advocacy groups, or reach out to parents via online groups. Work with professionals to help you develop goals, understand how your child’s strengths and weaknesses affect his academic experience and future career options, support IEP procedures, and understand the type of services available for your child.