This post is the second in a series about how to navigate the IEP process by teacher and special needs parent Judy Mankowski. Part 1 is here.
Once the school district has evaluated your child, they will schedule an initial eligibility meeting. If your child is found to be eligible, there will need to be an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) planning meeting. Many districts do this at the same meeting.
Once you have your initial eligibility and IEP planning meeting scheduled, it’s time to gather all of your data and get to work. If the school has not already sent you a copy of the evaluation reports, request them. Remember, you are a full, equal member of the IEP team, and as such you are entitled to all of the information so that you can fully participate in the meeting.
While waiting for the evaluation reports, gather up any other data you may have. This includes notes sent home from the teacher, graded work samples, and any behavioral reports. Sort through these documents and look for patterns. What skills seem to be lagging for your child that need goals for specific intervention? Make a working list of these deficits.
Once the evaluation reports arrive, take out your pencil and highlighters. First, make a copy of the reports. I always like to keep a clean copy in my records and have a separate, working copy where I highlight and scribble my notes and questions. Next, take your working copy and read through each report slowly. Don’t start highlighting and writing notes yet, just digest it. Be prepared for some emotional reactions. Breathe. It’s ok. Feel the feelings, whether they be grief, anger, frustration. Then, take some deep breaths, and read through again.
During this second read through, highlight and write your thoughts and questions in the margins. Jot down any question you have, no matter how “silly” or insignificant it may seem. Part of the child study team’s job is to ensure that you completely understand the reports, and how they apply to your child. Examine the scores, and compare them to your notes on the deficits you noticed from the teacher’s notes home and work samples, do they seem to match up? Are there new areas of deficits? What areas of strength are there? Add anything you notice in the evaluation reports to the working list you started earlier.
After reviewing the evaluation reports, it is time to take a break from poring over the skill deficits in your child. Set your work aside, and spend some time thinking about and observing your child. What strengths do they have? What are their interests? What keeps them engaged? What have you noticed that helps them retain information? What accommodations do they need? (Here is a really good list to get you started). Now, use these thoughts to start a second list.
Depending on how much lead time your district gave you prior to this meeting, take a day or so to let all of this information simmer. Add to the lists, and jot down any new questions that come to mind. Now it is time to write down your parental concerns.
The parental concerns section of the IEP document is where you, the parent, get to input what you see as your child’s present levels of functioning, document any outside diagnoses and therapies, and list your concerns regarding their learning and development. This is where your voice gets heard, and where you can ensure that all needs are listed, because needs drive the IEP. I always write mine out in a word document, and then email the document to the case manager for them to copy and paste directly into the parental concerns section. I want that section to be in my own words, and I choose my words carefully.
During the Eligibility portion of the meeting, the child study team (CST) will review the evaluation reports with you. This is when you would ask all of your questions. Don’t rush. If the district is claims to have a limited time for the meeting, you have the right to request that the team reconvene to continue. The goal is to fully understand the reports and the tests as they apply to your child.
Once the evaluation results and parental concerns are reviewed, the CST will let you know if they find your child eligible. In order to be found eligible, your child must be found to have one of the 13 disabilities listed by IDEA and that disability must have an adverse impact on their school performance. Note that I didn’t say grades. School performance is much more than simply academics. Some indications of an adverse impact could be: lack of progress, discrepancy between performance and ability, evidence of emotional or behavioral problems, social problems, etc.
If the district does not find your child eligible, they must provide you with a PWN (prior written notice) stating the reasons why. Once you have this document, if you disagree with the finding, you may refer to your state’s guidelines on how to handle disputes.
The last step (for now) is to put together the initial IEP. In most of my experience, the districts present proposed goals. Goals should be SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results oriented, and Time bound. These take time to put together, which is why districts draft IEPs ahead of time. Unfortunately, this gives the impression that the parent gets little input. In many districts, this is the case. Parents either don’t know they have the right to materially contribute to this portion of the process, or they do not feel empowered to do so.
One of the most helpful things I have done for my sons was to research goal banks. A goal bank is a site that lists many, many goals. I have used them to develop goals that I think my sons need, so that I can contribute to this component of the team meeting. They are also good to look at to help determine if your district is writing adequate goals and objectives. This is one of my favorites, but there are many out there. Some are specific to individual disabilities. Find some that you like, and make them your best IEP planning friend. Do a search within the bank using keywords from your lists that you wrote earlier.
The IEP meeting preparation process is going to be part of your life for the whole time your child requires specially designed instruction, but that’s ok. Armed with the knowledge of your child, and proper planning, you will be able to advocate for your child and get him the accommodations he needs. Don't be afraid to speak up and get your child the education he deserves.