A few months ago I vowed to stop writing blogs that were about the same old stuff that every blog is about. I vowed to only write about things that were different, or underrepresented in the autism or special needs community. So, today, I write the "Tips for a successful IEP" blog that can be found in hundreds of places... I hope all y'all can take something new away from this.
Ahh, the annual IEP. The guillotine of the special needs/education regime. Anyone who watches Judge Judy or daytime court TV knows this: The lease is always right. So, here we are, parents, not lawyers, not educators, not politicians, responsible in part for writing the document that is going to be seen as "the lease" for the rest of our child's years in the education system. Amendable, yes, but a document that will be set in stone, and referred to as the bible for your son or daughters education experience for 12+ years? Intimidated yet? Fell guilty yet? Anybody told you "don't fuck up" yet? It's an amazing responsibility.
For what they are worth here are a few tips that come from an advocate for parents in IEPs.
ed. note - All States handle IEPs slightly differently. Most of these hypotheticals or examples come from California, so you may need to check if something is slightly different in your State or Country, but all the suggestions will be vague enough to apply to the process.
1. DO NOT READ BLOGS ABOUT IEPs - Funny that I would put that in a blog about IEPs, but here's what I mean: Do not go into your IEP meeting looking for, or expecting a fight. Before I wrote this I searched "IEP blog" and read the first five results. They were all basically the same thing (some better written than others) "I had to fight the school for more services. They are stupid and have no idea what they are doing. But, I outsmarted them. Professionals my ass". What I didn't find was something like this "I can't wait to go to our IEP meeting today. It's always so pleasant and the district does a really good job incorporating my ideas with theirs". The truth is... Most IEPs are very pleasant and collaborative. Of course, conflict exists at times, and these "warrior stories" are entirely true, but they really are the minority. Yet, nowhere near the minority of blogs. Always go in with this attitude... Yes, you (as parent) are the most educated person in the room about your child, but that doesn't mean that the school is "stupid". Be open and always assume that EVERYONE in the room has the child's best interest at heart. You'll be surprised where really good ideas might come from.
2. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS - Did you know that you (as the parent of a child with special needs) have an amazing amount of rights? Way more than an NT parent in the same school. Read the Americans With Disabilities Act, The IDEA, and No Child Left Behind. Hot damn we have a lot of rights. They are long and boring and often written in legalese, but at least read the wikipedia article about all three. You will be surprised how much a school HAS TO DO to provide that ever looming FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education).
3. NEVER SIGN THE IEP AT THE MEETING - Your IEP meeting was beautiful. You received way more services than you anticipated. Take the IEP home and sign it the next day... just in case you wake up that night and say "Shit! I forgot to mention bathroom access". You (the parent) have the right to amend the IEP before signing but after the meeting... the school or district does not.
4. LEARN YOUR ALLIES - Most of these tips are written for elementary aged IEPs (Grades K-5 or 6). You will likely see several of the same faces for many of those years. You've noticed the speech therapist really has taken a liking to your son... USE THEM! Additionally, if too many members can not make the IEP or send a replacement to the IEP meeting... re-schedule it. It is a very weak position to be in when nobody in the room knows your child or has worked with them minimally. Understand that shit happens and people have to cancel, but temper that with how many people are going to be there that need to be there.
5. BRING COOKIES - They never hurt.
6. BE OPEN TO LISTENING - This is especially true for 1st IEPs. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is an attorney for school districts and I asked him "when does the district get their attorney involved". The answer was "when the parent hasn't given the district a chance". Sometimes we as parents have decided what is right (which may very well be) before we've given the school a chance. I walk in and say "You diagnosed my child with autism and XYZ Academy is the best private autism school in Los Angeles. Public schools suck. You're going to pay for my my kid to go to XYZ Academy." In the first IEP meeting ever??? If you're two or three years into the journey with your district that may very well be the case, but if you go in expecting due process at your initial meeting... you are going to have a very, very tough road in front of you. About those private autism academies... research them really well before you go down that path. Some are wonderful, amazing, expensive schools. If only we all could afford it, right? Here's a secret, most of the students there are on the district's dollar, not some wealthy elitist parent. Private schools for autism are often not what you think (No, Jaye they are, XYZ academy has 20 graduates working at JPL!!!) But so does your district. Sometimes, I admit, the private academy is the correct route (it's called "non-pub" for non-public in IEP circles) but they are usually for the option of two types of kids with autism... kids that are so high-functioning that they are a danger to themselves or others and kids that are so low-functioning that they are a danger to themselves and others. The vast majority of kids on an IEP would not fall into that spectrum. On the other hand, if you can afford 20-30k a year in tuition... look into it.
7. A DANGER TO THEMSELVES OR OTHERS - Always remember that this is the most important and/or powerful and/or scary phrase in the world to both a district and a parent. Only use it if it is absolutely true (sometimes, it is). This phrase carries tremendous weight (both legally and emotionally) and should not be used liberally.
8. MEET IN THE MIDDLE - So, let's say you (parent) feel your kid needs 2 hours of speech therapy a week and the district says you only need 1. Ask for 1 1/2 and agree to meet again in 3 months to see if that was working. If the results were super, you'll get it extended or increased, if it proved to be pointless, you can start looking for other alternatives. Basically, use the district's mantra against them. I said before that the district will complain that you didn't give them a chance... well here's their chance. Don't buy the line "setting up the child to fail". Always shoot for the highest level and work your way down. If you start at the bottom (lowest expectation) you have little to fall back on. Want an example? You child is starting Kinder with the district suggesting special day placement with general ed push ins... demand general ed placement with special day pull-outs and agree to meet again in three months to re-evaluate. If it isn't working out, the child will get what they offered in the beginning... If it is working out... Everybody wins the "Least Restrictive Environment" race, right? Start at the top of the ladder and be willing to work down, don't start at the bottom and force yourself and child to climb. Side-note here, more and more districts (at least in California) are going to full-inclusion for ALL students. This is a good thing. Ask your IEP team if they are a full-inclusion district or are working toward one (an advocacy piece for another time).
9. ACCESSIBILITY - Just like "Danger to themselves or others" this is a hot phrase, however, this one you should use liberally. If there are true accessibility issues at the school, by all means bring them up and pressure the school as much as possible to change them (ie - no wheelchair access. drinking fountains too high, no accessible bathrooms, etc.). Remember I told you to familiarize yourself with the ADA? This is why. Here's a secret tip... misuse this phrase to get what you want. Another popular phrase in IEPs is "access to the learning environment" which is not the same thing as ADA covered accessibility issues, but most IEP members don't know that and hear "accessibility" and think they are going to be sued. So, I give y'all permission to misuse that phrase... unless the district's attorney is there, cause he or she will call you out on that shit. As a side note, real ADA accessibility issues are NEVER acceptable in schools. If you are having them, and not receiving a response to correct them, contact a plaintiffs attorney on behalf of your child. There is money and fines involved, so you can usually find one to take the case for free. The ADA is very specific about correcting these issues for all Americans with Disabilities... do not be intimidated or feel like you're being the dickhead that sued the school for a wheelchair ramp. Be proud that you are the dickhead that is suing the school for a wheelchair ramp.
10. BRING BOTH PARENTS - I always get a bunch of negative comments when I write this one, because I'm usually saying bring Dad. Dads (or father figures) are less present at IEPs than moms. They are. Dads are not necessarily more intimidating, but a united parental front is. Every time I write this on my blog (bring dads to IEPs) I get a ration of shit. "Dads aren't better at this than moms" Gender roles don't matter" "That's just eye-rollingly stupid" I've heard it all, and I'm sure comments will follow along the same lines with this one, but hear me out. Bringing Dad gives you another ally! I'm fairly certain most men reading this already attend their kids' IEPs (otherwise why would you be reading special needs blogs, right?), and I fully understand that Dads aren't always around or available, but even if they say nothing, Dads... you NEED to go to these things. Your child needs you to go to these things. The only two fights Julie and I have had in our marriage were about IEPs. That's it (she yelled at me for not doing the dishes once, but that was pretty minor). We completely disagreed about an issue (both for good reasons). Thank God we hashed it out before the meeting, cause I would hate to have had that fight in front of the team, right? A united front is the most powerful weapon you can have in an IEP meeting. The district will say "Oh shit, both parents are on board?" or "How cool is it to see both parents on board... they must really care." So, Dads (or any other father figures) get off your ass and go. Defer all decisions to the mother, fine... say nothing, fine... You need to be involved.
I hope some of these tips might help. Before I was writing this I sent an email to my friends that attend IEPs on behalf of the schools with a straw poll, if you will, question. I asked if having a dad present was more intimidating, and are IEPs more conflict or collaboration...
I got 2 answers I didn't expect.
1. Yes Dad is more intimidating, but only because both parents are more intimidating.
2. I'd say 95% of IEPs are collaborative. Very few result in a fight or a conflict or vast disagreement.
But, I got an answer from one friend, a district special education coordinator, that I feel I need to share.
I spent a lot of time coaching you to listen to the district, convincing you they are on the child's side, be open to what they say, don't look for a fight... don't model your success or failure based on other's stories because they won't be applicable to your situation... etc.
My friend said "Jaye, I would say that 95% of IEPs are collaborative and very peaceful. But 100% are emotionally-charged"
In my first IEP, and I consider myself pretty good at this, I had to excuse myself to use the bathroom. What I didn't tell anyone, even my wife, was I didn't have to pee... I wanted to go cry where nobody could see me. And as I write this now, a tear rolls down my face... not because I embarrassed myself, not because I didn't get what I wanted, not because things have been great or not great...
Because I never want to lose that passion for my son.
And I never will.
And that, my friends, is what I want all of you to take to your next IEP.