Making School Meaningful; the dreaded I.E.P.

If you are a parent with a child who has special needs, do you know what they do all day at school?  Do you know what goals they are working on and what activities make up their day?  Do you know that they have the resources they need to calm and regulate?  Do you know if they are getting the fresh air and physical exercise they need?

I.E.P., otherwise known as Individualized Education Plan.  I called it dreaded because it can spark fear and loathing in us as parents.  The document itself is long, wordy, complicated…overwhelming.  The process of writing it means sitting down at the table with the school education team, feeling at times alone and unsure.  We are the parents, but we count on these people to know what to do with our child…and yet, we know that school can always be better than what it is.  We know that we have to be their strongest advocate and ensure that school is meaningful for them, and we know that the school team has a lot to learn.

So yes, it is dreaded, but as I’ve begun to realize in the last years, it is also an amazing tool and opportunity for us as parents to take a lead role in ensuring that school is meaningful, effective, and enjoyable for our children.  I wanted to share a few tips I have learned along the way.

  1.  There is never enough time in the meeting itself to cover everything.  It is often the only opportunity the whole team has to speak together for several months if not more.  So, I always do advance work before the meeting.  I look over the last IEP and make notes on each goal and objective.  I use the following questions as tests as to whether the goals and objectives should be changed or taken off entirely:  “Is it meaningful, is it functional, is there an end result which Cody will relate to and which is measurable?  Does it relate to Cody’s life in a relevant way?”
  2. A question one of Cody’s teachers posed which I agree with when considering IEP goals/objectives is: “What do you see Cody doing in 5 years?  What do you hope he will be able to do and understand on his own?  And in light of these, what does he need to be working on now?”
  3. Research, research, research.  I spend time online and emailing other professionals across the continent about what Cody should be learning and doing in school.  What are other children similar to him doing?  What types of adaptive equipment and technology are they learning to use?
  4. As part of my preparation, after I have reviewed the goals and objectives and determined what I hope to see in place, I email my initial thoughts to particular members of the team (both in and out of school) to get their initial feedback and to ask them what they feel we should be focusing on this year.  Often particular team members will have particular areas that they work on and particular goals which fit in their scope.  For example, I corresponded with Cody’s Occupational Therapist prior to the meeting, reviewing gross and fine motor goals, self-help skills and sensory needs.
  5. I ensure that members of Cody’s team outside of the school are part of the IEP process, such as his Speech Therapist and his Occupational Therapist.  Having these out of school professionals proves invaluable time and again.  They offer fresh perspectives and ideas that neither you nor the school team may have thought of.  They know your child in different contexts and know them well if they are working regularly with your child.  School based therapists often only are available as consultants, there is little resources within the district to receive regular therapy within the school setting.
  6. I email the teacher or Team head (whoever is running the meeting) and let them know that I would like to have some time during the meeting to address my thoughts and hopes for the year.  I want them to see my passion and hopes for my son, hoping that it will inspire and motivate.  This year I started with “My hope is that when Cody wakes up on a school morning he will wonder “What will I explore today that is new?  What will I discover that I can do today all by myself?”  I prepare notes on goals and objectives, take note of specific activity ideas for school learning, and think of special adaptive requests I may have for Cody.  I make a checklist which I take to the meeting which I can review before the meeting is through to ensure I have addressed everything.  Sometimes, after initial introductions, I just take over.
  7. If I have specific requests for adaptive equipment and activities I would like Cody to have access to in school, I not only mention them at the meeting but I also put them into writing and email them to the teacher and school team as well as the principal if applicable.  It is always best to have these requests in writing for later reference.  If I believe strongly in my request, I will rarely take no for an answer, instead I seek out the person who can say “yes”.  This may be the principal, it may be the district Special Education director, it may even become a political issue if nothing else works (I have yet to get to this point!).  Often written support from therapists hired privately is very helpful.
  8. I ensure that the IEP goals and objectives have built in accountability.  We need to track the successes and failures so we can continue to mold the IEP into a document that best helps Cody
  9. At the end of the meeting, if possible, I have outside therapists take a look at the classroom(s).  I ask them for any feedback they may have on lay-out, safety and sensory issues.
  10. I become the team leader…as you can see from above, most all of these tasks I do in preparation are technically those that the school team leader should be doing.  They should, they would like to, but they just don’t have the time or resources to…at least not to the degree they should be, not in my experience.
  11. I believe in the team.  I remind myself that they all truly want school to be meaningful for Cody.  I approach the team meeting as just that…a Team.  We are a team coming together for Cody’s benefit.  This means we have respect for each other’s ideas, we consider opposing views, we speak with respect to one another, we plan together, we commit to our various tasks and to being accountable to one another.

We want our children to succeed in school as in life.  School is this amazing world of opportunity; 6 hours each weekday which is paid for, with trained and motivated staff, resources and activities. As parents, we can take a lead role in ensuring those hours are well spent!  We can take advantage of the dreaded IEP document, mold and shape it into one which empowers our children, motivates staff, provides a map to follow, and meets our special children exactly where they are at.  By doing this, we are telling them and the world that they are infinitely valuable and infinitely worth every effort we can make on their behalf.