Thursday, February 2, 2017

10 IEP Tips

Two of my three kids have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Between the two of them I've been to at least a dozen IEP meetings in the past three years. So even though they are still in elementary school, we've been around the block a few times and I thought there might be a few people who would find this information helpful.

Truly the heart behind this is to empower parents to advocate well for their children. So many parents just don't understand the system or their rights and don't know what options they have. I love the teams who are working with my children, they're amazing. My kids' teachers are great. But over the course of the last three years we've also had some hiccups. We've had a few moments where I was concerned for my children and needed to know how to speak up for them. 

Without getting too technical, there are TEN things that I want to share with other parents who are navigating IEP meetings.

1) You are 50% of the team. These meetings can be intimidating. You find yourself sitting at a table with 6 experts who share the plan they've made for your child, are all in agreement with it, then look at you to sign on the dotted line. But remember, you represent 50% of the team. So, when you need to, imagine yourself cloned 6 times over, all in agreement, and know that you should be empowered to speak, to disagree, and to contribute.
2) You have the right to call an IEP meeting at any time. If things aren't going well, you don't have to wait for the school to call an IEP meeting. Technically, you could call an IEP meeting every two weeks for the whole school year. That wouldn't do much to endear you to your child's teachers, but it is your right. Just remember that an IEP meeting requires the schedules of many busy people to converge so it can sometimes take a few weeks to get the meeting scheduled. (Also, ask yourself if this is something you can address in a parent-teacher conference or if you need the whole team gathered for questions about accommodations.)

3) You have the right to review results of an evaluation before your IEP meeting. If your child has had an evaluation, you have the right to review the results before the IEP meeting. You will usually have to request them and it's good to ask for them 1-2 weeks before the meeting instead of 2 days before. I would ALWAYS recommend doing this; it gives you the chance to process the results emotionally and intellectually so that you know whether you have any questions. 

4) You can (and should!) offer suggestions to goals and accommodations. This is related to #3. Usually when I show up to an annual IEP meeting my sons' teachers have prepared a draft of the IEP. Of course I'm encouraged to make suggestions, but I'm trying to understand and contribute all at the same time. NOW, I've developed a habit of requesting a draft of the goals before the meeting so that I can come up with my suggestions before the meeting. This way, I can be a real contribution to the team and my sons' education.

5) Try to build a rapport with the team on things you love about your child(ren). As we arrive and are waiting to begin, I try to start a conversation with those who work with my kids about my kids. I've found this to be so important to a good team relationship; we build a rapport with each other and it also gives me the chance to see their love for my child. Essentially, it builds trust.

6) Know your local resources. In Pitt County there are a few people who are incredible resources for parents who either need help understanding the system or are struggling to advocate well. David Holler is the Pitt County Schools Exceptional Children Parent Liaison; he is available to help parents understand the system. He puts on workshops (a recent one: Assistive Technology & Adaptive PE) and can attend IEP meetings and will help make sure you understand all the jargon and abbreviations.  Traci Hopkins is the Pitt County Schools Autism Specialist; she works with teachers for ongoing autism education and can attend IEP meetings as an "autism expert." For me, she was able to back up my personal reports of my son's behavior with "expertise." Katie Holler works for the Autism Society of ENC as an Autism Resource Specialist; she can help you figure out IEP ins and outs and attend IEP meetings with you as an advocate. If you're not in Pitt County, try to find a local Autism Society chapter and ask them what resources are available in your area. If you are in Pitt County, email me or comment below and I can give you the contact information of the people I listed above.

7) LEA, LRE, FAPE. A few commonly used, seldom explained abbreviations. LEA: Local Education Agency. At every IEP meeting there must be an LEA representative which is usually an administrator of some sort who represents the school. LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. Every decision regarding accommodations must be justified as the least restrictive environment in which a child can be educated. A more restrictive environment would be a separate EC class; a less restrictive environment would be a mainstream class. The team must be able to justify any decision which places a child in a more restrictive setting as being the least restrictive environment that child can succeed in. FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The state is obligated to provide free education according to the standards of the NC DPI (Department of Public Instruction).

8) Review previous IEPs. For non-annual IEP meetings (to address concerns), review your previous IEP to determine which goals your current concerns relate to. This helps lend credibility to your concerns. For annual IEP meetings, review the previous ones to remind yourself what goals your child has been working on; this will help you have constructive contributions to the meetings. Part B: Keep old IEP documents, copies of progress reports, all evaluation reports, and a couple examples of your child's school work that demonstrate some of his or her strengths and weaknesses. Keep the most recent of each of those documents in a 3-ring binder and file the rest of them at home. Take the binder with you to your meetings so that you can reference specifics if you need to.

9) Get it in the minutes. At the end of the meeting, the LEA should review the minutes of the meeting. Any action steps (contacting people, setting up evaluations, etc) should be listed in the minutes. Anything that you want in writing that isn't in the actual IEP should be in the minutes. Listen to this closely and speak up to ask things to be added if they need to be.

10) Bring snacks :). The goal of these meetings is to help your child succeed, not to tell professionals how to do their jobs. Bringing snacks can help the tone of the conversation stay collaborative instead of confrontational.
Liam's IEP Notebook and our snacks

Did I miss anything? What are your IEP tips?

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