Navigating the Special Education Maze
By Nadine O'Reilly, M.A.
As a school psychologist, as well as the mother of a child with a chronic health condition, I understand all too well the intimidation that accompanies entering the "bargaining sessions of IEP meetings. There are ways, however, to stack the proverbial cards in your favor. Read on"
To begin with, be prepared for anything. Keep accurate documentation and note the dates and times that everything occurs. I'm not exaggerating - EVERYTHING. Every phone call, every progress report, etc. Nothing is more intimidating to IEP teams than a parent who has prepared for their meeting. A parent with a Plan of their own is scary for us, because what if we look like idiots, or offend you? That's why you have to come into meetings prepared for anything, almost as if you're documenting for a Due Process hearing. You never know, you might have to "go there."
Second, know your rights. Ask for a copy of your State's Parental Rights in Special Education (PRISE) for your review before you attend any meeting at all. You can find the PRISE for your State by entering a search on Google.
Third, know you're an active participant and that no one can force a program on you or your child. For example, some schools will hand you an IEP that they"ve already devised before you got there, with hopes that the meeting will go quickly and you'll just sign and leave. But that's like going to an Italian restaurant and all that's on the menu is spaghetti. Your child is unique and to truly devise an individualized plan, all of those involved should plan on spending at least one hour talking through the parts of the plan that are going to affect the child academically and socio-emotionally.
Know what you want before you go in there. Have a Mission in mind, know your goals, and outline your strategies before you even step foot in that room. For example, you'll need goals for your child. Make sure you've broken them down to the smallest components before you ask for them - you'll be surprised how much more you get out of your request.
I.e., Goal: I want my child to be able to get - and hold - a job when they graduate.
Well, that's plain, isn't it? If you broke it down, however, you'd have:
I want my child to learn:
How to respect authority;
How to type;
How to honor time commitments;
How to respectfully interact with peers;
Now, doesn't that look more like what you were thinking?
You may not get all of them, but you'll get some - and that's way more specific than "get a job, so there'll be a bit more work required of your Team. Good.
Third, know you'll run into snags. There will be red tape you'll have to circumvent; you'll meet people whose goal it is to keep children from receiving services (yes, after all of those years of education, you would think we're all in this for the children. Yet some of our colleagues are actually naysayers); you'll hear all about how "this is not how we operate when you present documentation proving otherwise; etc. You'll certainly learn a lesson in frustration tolerance.
If you're lucky, you won't have to deal with any of the above. But I doubt it.
Fourth, learn from the negatives and appreciate the positives. You will also learn some positive things, such as knowing when to give up. By this I don't mean walking out on your plan, but knowing when to compromise.
Fifth, know your child is entitled to individuality. If you look at evaluations, they might all seem the same. You don't want your child's IEP to be just like everyone else's, or they"ll be ignored. Trust me on this one. I have seen 1,000's of IEPs and rarely does the school hold itself responsible for child failure. It's always "Johnny X or "Johnny's mom Y." Make sure your child's IEP delineates what has NOT been done for him - not just what has been.
You just want us to fix what you've done wrong.
Did that statement infuriate you? It's what most school staff thinks when you demand fair treatment.
My advice? Listen more than you speak and ask very specific questions - questions that merit elaboration on the part of your Team. Most of all, remain respectful. No one likes a bully, or someone who blames everything on everyone else.
Oh, and smile graciously as you lay your tape recorder on the conference table ;)
About The Author
Nadine O'Reilly, M.A., doctoral student is a school psychologist and Coordinator of Special Services. She is responsible for creating 1,000's of rock-solid Individualized Education Programs and 504 Plans for disabled children each year.