By Megan Stenberg
For a child with special needs, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the most important document in their school file. But it’s more than a written document—it is also a process by which parents become equal partners in their child’s education. Being an effective member of the IEP team is how you make sure the school knows what you know about your child, and is vital to realizing the vision you have for your child’s future.
The key to developing the plan for your child is to have a clear strategy going into the meetings. It can be daunting to be seated around a table surrounded by professionals, but by using valuable supports and resources, and being abreast of special education law, your child’s chance of success increases.
“Being the parent of a child with disabilities is often isolating, and it would be easy to take the path of least resistance,” says Noelle Sisk, parent and program coordinator for Family and Community Together (FACT). “But my goal for my daughter’s education is that it be meaningful and support her in accessing her life. That has meant educating myself, strengthening my negotiating skills, and focusing on being a solution-oriented member of her IEP team.”
Preparing for an IEP Meeting
Clearly identifying goals and collecting thoughts before the meeting allows written input from parents to be part of the IEP. This can make it easier to express the vision for your child with the IEP team. Creating a one-page, person-centered profile that explains to the team what makes your child unique is helpful (templates and sample profiles are available at FACT Oregon.
Here are some areas to include in the profile:
- A picture of your child
- Your family’s vision for your child
- What strategies work best for your child/which don’t
- Strengths, skills, and interests
- Goals for the school year
- A description of the kind of person who works best with your child
Also be prepared to discuss how communication between home and school will occur, and how you can monitor your child’s progress. Consider purchasing a three-ring binder to keep your copies of all your written input and your child’s special education paperwork. For information on receiving a free care notebook, contact Swindells Resource Center at (503) 215-2429.
IEP Team Roles
Parents: Parents of the child with a disability are vital members of the IEP team, with an expertise to contribute like no one else’s. Parents know their child very well—not just the child’s strengths and weaknesses, but all the little qualities that make their child unique. By being an active IEP team member, parents can also infuse the IEP planning process with thought about long-term needs for the child’s successful adult life.
Resource Room staff: Special education teachers can talk about the most important aspects of individualizing instruction to meet the child’s unique needs, including modifying curriculum and testing to help the child learn. Teachers can begin deciding what supplementary aids and services that the child needs to be successful in the regular classroom and elsewhere at school.
Mainstream classroom teacher: If a child is going to be in a mainstream, or regular education, environment, at least one mainstream educator is included on the IEP team. The mainstream education teacher knows the curriculum for a child’s grade level, what children in regular education classes are typically expected to do and can contribute to decisions about the types of supplementary aids and services your child needs to be successful.
School district administrator: The administrator at the IEP must know what resources the school has available. This person must also have the power to commit the resources needed so that services can be provided as outlined in your child’s IEP. Others with knowledge or special expertise about the child: Either the parent or the school system may invite others to join the team if they have knowledge or special expertise about your child. This can include related service providers from within the school district, or private practitioners who have provided services to your child. These often include district occupational or speech therapists and school psychologists.
Your child: Depending on your child’s age and ability, the role he or she plays as an IEP team member can be as broad as your own or limited to what you and your child feel most comfortable with. When your child is part of the IEP process, the program can be much more worthwhile to him or her, instead of something to put up with. Taking part in IEP meetings also helps your child learn to speak up for him or herself and develop valuable self-advocacy skills.
Using an Advocate at an IEP Meeting
When parents are processing their child’s diagnosis, stress and intense emotions can get in the way of effectively communicating and listening at an IEP meeting. It may make sense for parents to bring someone to the meeting for support or advocacy. It can be a family member or friend who will provide moral support, or another parent with experience to guide you through the IEP process.
An advocate can also be a member of the IEP team—someone who has knowledge or special expertise about your child and special education law. Another option available to families are fee-based special education advocates, most often lawyers or doctors specializing in special education law, contracts and mediation.
“Bringing support in the form of a family member or friend can be very helpful,” says Nancy Ford, director of Birth to Age 5 Services at Northwest Regional Education Service District. “They can take notes and review what took place in an objective way that perhaps the parent is not able to.”
Tracking IEP Progress
How will you and the school know if your child is making enough progress to reach a goal outlined in the IEP by the end of the year? It begins with developing strong communication with teachers, specifically your child’s case manager—the IEP team member charged with making sure the plan is implemented and with typing up progress notes. FACT Oregon recommends parents exchange information with their child’s teachers in a notebook that the child carries to and from school. This is a particularly important resource for children with limited communication.
Your own observation of your child outside the classroom is valuable in gauging developmental, academic and behavioral progress. A record of progress can be created by making a list of two or three areas in which you would like your child to improve, and jotting down specific observations over a three-month period. This record can also be an important source of information to share at teacher conferences or IEP meetings.
Beyond the IEP
Advocating for your child outside the school setting takes commitment and will look different for every family. Exposing them to the same experiences as their typical peers is a great way to model that we all need each other to have a well-rounded life experience.
“It might take time to find just the right activity but once you do, be committed,” says Holly Hooge, whose 13-year-old daughter Allyson is a gymnast and a member of the Beaverton Stars Special Needs Color Guard. “Look into opportunities outside of school, such as weekend programs and academic summer camps. We take the approach that she can do anything she wants to do but it takes work and commitment.”
Allowing them to assume increasingly greater degrees of responsibility and independence at home will increase their sense of pride and competence. By supporting your child in accessing their life, they will grow into young adults who are defined by their successes not by their disability.
Megan Stenberg has worked for the last nine years as the Communications Manager for the Northwest Regional Education Service District and also serves at the director of the agency’s nonprofit foundation.