Parents of children with special education needs will always be their child’s best advocate. No one knows your child better than you do. A parent is the one constant during a child’s educational school years. The other members of your child’s education team will constantly change. Each year your child will have new teachers, new service providers and over time new administrators. Luckily for your child, they will always have you.
In order to effectively advocate for your child, you will need to educate yourself regarding your child’s disability and about how the special education process works. This article will provide you with some “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to make you and your child’s special education experience smoother.
- DO Be Prepared for your Child’s IEP Meeting. As a parent, you need to be prepared for your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting. Review your child’s records, including the most recent assessments, current IEP and draft IEP. Draft IEPs are not required, as all the decisions regarding the IEP will be made at the meeting. However, most districts will have a draft to work on at the start of the meeting. You should request a copy of the draft IEP at least five (5) days prior to the meeting. Compare the documents. Are the recommendations from the evaluations included in the IEP or draft IEP? Have any services or accommodations changed from the current to the draft IEP? If so, you will want to ask “why.” You should also know where your child stands on their current goals through progress reports. Are the newly proposed goals a logical continuation of previous goals? If they are not, again, you should ask “why?” After reviewing the documents, create your own Meeting Worksheet, writing down 1) the purpose of the meeting; 2) who will be in attendance; 3) your concerns; and 4) your child’s needs.
- DO Know Your Child’s Needs. You want everything for your child – this is natural for every parent. However, everything you want for your child may not necessarily be needed for your child for the school to achieve FAPE (a Free Appropriate Public Education). You should make a list of what your child really needs. You should also make a list of all that you want for your child, and what you are willing to compromise. Think about the documentation or other information that you have to support each item you are requesting. Are the items you want for your child discussed in any reports or assessments, teacher’s notes, or progress reports? Are there any other documents to support the specific needs of your child? If you prepare to make your requests with supporting facts and evidence, you are more likely to get what you requested and required for your child.
- DO Build a Relationship with School Personnel. This may be the most difficult item on your “Do” list. At times, parents may feel that the school is not doing their job or not giving them what their child needs, which can lead to ill will and negative interactions with the school. As difficult as it may be, it is extremely important to develop a positive relationship with school personnel and administrators. You can do this by being involved and engaging with your child’s teachers. Put personality differences aside and focus on your child. Ask school personnel questions and ask the team to explain things you do not understand. Although it can be difficult, being polite and courteous will always create a more positive, cooperative and productive environment for the IEP team meeting. If a meeting is deteriorating with negative emotions, outbursts or personal attacks, you should always ask for a break in the meeting or that the meeting be continued to a later date and time. A good relationship with school personnel and central office staff is invaluable to being heard and having your opinion taken seriously at an IEP meeting.
- DO Write it Down! All issues you raise or items you request SHOULD be noted in the meeting summary or notes. However, all members of the team are human, and items can be left out from time-to-time. The best way to handle this is to take your own notes or bring someone with you who will be able to focus on taking notes while you are participating in the meeting. It is essential to know that, if it is not written down, it did not happen! You (or your helper) should write down any decisions made by the team with regard to each of your concerns. You should note, WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN and WHY. Making a chart of your concerns with columns for these notations is especially helpful. If you are not sure of what is important to document, you may want to consider hiring a special education attorney to go with you to meetings to advocate on your child’s behalf and document these important issues. If possible, you should also review the school’s summary before you leave the meeting.
- DO Have a Strategic Plan. Meetings do not always go as smoothly as we would like. You should have a plan for what to do if the team cannot agree about certain items, for example, the type or amount of services needed for your child. You may want to suggest that specific issues in contention be tabled in order to obtain additional information or supporting documentation. Supplementary information can be sought by additional assessments, data taken by school personnel, and/or consultations with the child’s personal providers.
- DO Be Involved. Become involved in your child’s school “life”. If you are able, volunteer at your child’s school. Even if you work full-time and are not able to volunteer during the school day, there are usually many opportunities to volunteer for family fun nights or after school activities or be a chaperone on a school trip. Being a part of your child’s school life shows that you care about your child, their school, and their education. Often times you can also observe what is going on in the school setting and have a more casual conversation with your child’s teacher, while spending more time with your child. It is always a “win-win” situation.
- DO Seek Assistance. If you feel that your child is not getting the appropriate individualized education they need to make meaningful progress, contact an attorney whose practice includes the area of Special Education law. An attorney can help you through the process with your school district and file various legal actions on your behalf, if needed. Keep in mind that this is a unique area of the law, and many attorneys do not know the ins-and-outs of special education. You would not want to hire an eye doctor to do surgery on your foot, right? Same goes with hiring an attorney.
- DON’T Be “that” Parent. You know the one. The one who emails or calls their child’s teachers 20 times a day to complain about how something is being done or not done. Each time you interrupt your child’s teacher it is less time that teacher is spending on educating your child. Let school personnel do their job! If you complain about every little issue that arises, you will be less likely to be taken seriously when the bigger issues develop. Document your concerns and raise them at your next IEP meeting or parent-teacher conference.
- DON’T Assume that the School is Out to Get You or Your Child. A parent should never go into the process thinking that the school district is out to get their child and deny services. Most, if not all, educators are in this business because they truly care about educating children. You should make every effort to treat the school personnel you deal with as people who do have your child’s best interests at heart and will do what is needed and necessary to educate your child.
- DON’T Be Rigid in your Thinking. Keep an open mind during your child’s IEP meetings. If your child’s team makes a proposal with which you do not agree, do not dismiss it out of hand. Ask questions about why they are making that proposal and hear what they have to say. It may not be what you had in mind to deal with an issue, but it may work just the same. Be prepared to think outside of the box. Be prepared to compromise. If the proposed plan does not meet your child’s needs and you need take further steps to have the plan reevaluated through the due process procedures in your child’s school district, it is important to be able to show that you thoughtfully considered the team’s proposal, observed the proposed plan in action, and can explain why you believe the proposed plan does not meet your child’s needs.
- DON’T be Intimidated. You are an equal member of your child’s IEP team. Do not be intimidated by the teachers, specialists, and administrators sitting around the table with you. Remember, these individuals are human beings just like you. Taking someone with you to an IEP meeting can be a great support to you as a parent. Speak up regarding your concerns. Remember, nobody knows your child better than you do! If you do not feel confident in your ability to voice your concerns, and have your concerns heard, you may want to consider hiring a Special Education attorney. A Special Education attorney has the ability to speak on your behalf and on behalf of your child at an IEP meeting.