Special Needs Education 101: Handling an IEP
8 steps to help parents of special needs children create a solid IEP – or individualized education plan – with support people and school staff
As most parents of children with special needs know, your child has the right to a free and appropriate public education. That's ensured by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. And your child's IEP (individualized education plan) meeting is a parent's opportunity to ensure your child's schooling is designed to meet his or her needs.
Make sure you are thoroughly prepared to effectively advocate for the services, supports, modifications and accommodations your child needs to thrive with these strategies.
1. Be informed. Learn as much as you can about your child's disability and rights as a disabled person. Ask your pediatrician, neurologist, medical specialists, therapists and other providers about the diagnosis, disability, treatment, progress and prognosis. Read books, magazine articles, journal articles and studies. Watch TV programs and read online content. Your objective is to develop expert-level knowledge about your child's disability and its impact.
2. Data build-up. Arm yourself with data about your child's strengths, deficits and needs. Engage in frequent communication with your child's teachers, therapists and other school service providers. This could be done in meetings, phone calls, emails or a communication log that travels back and forth between home and school.
3. Observe. Watch your child in the classroom and school therapy sessions as often as possible. Write down your observations. Be polite, courteous and professional when observing or communicating with school staff. Make it you're not conducting surveillance: Emphasize you want to learn as much as possible about your child's performance, so you can support their efforts to help your child learn effectively.
4. Support network. Invite supportive family members and/or friends to accompany you to your child's IEP meeting. If you expect it to be contentious, consider taking a special education advocate or an attorney who specializes in special education issues with you.
5. Advocate. Use research and data to advocate for special education services. Research methodologies, techniques, strategies, practices and resources that could benefit your child. Knowing what you are talking about and being able to articulate a sound rationale for your opinions, recommendations and suggestions garners credibility, authority, respect and influence.
6. Statement. Write a parents' statement that accurately articulates your child's strengths, deficits and needs. Include thoughts about what's working well – and what isn't – in your child's current program. Express your concerns and goals. Recommend changes you'd like, backing them with data about your child and current research. Take pre-written goals you would like to have included in your child's IEP with you to the meeting.
7. Take notes. Thoroughly review the contents of the IEP. Take notes at the meeting. Ask for permission to make an audio recording. The school may allow this on condition that you provide them with a copy. If you're permitted, use a good quality digital tape recorder with a USB connection. (Don't be surprised if you're not allowed.)
8. Before signing off. Read the entire IEP before signing any document that indicates that you agree with its contents. Ask for clarification of any statements or issues you don't fully understand. If school staff tells you they're pressed for time and need to end the meeting, ask for a photocopy of the IEP and request to schedule another meeting to complete it. Take your time when reading your child's IEP. Highlight words, phrases and statements you wish to have clarified or disagree with. And if you disagree with any aspect and officials aren't willing to modify it, write a dissent that states your objections. Make it clear, accurate, specific, precise and thorough. You may want to consult with a special education advocate or special education attorney to plan your next steps.
Being prepared is the key to successfully developing an effective IEP for your child.