All children have the right to be all they can be. A pivotal tool required for kids to achieve and prosper, despite any obstacles they may face, is an optimum education. In order to meet this goal, all 50 states currently accept federal funding to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is dedicated to providing a free and appropriate education to every eligible child who has been diagnosed as having a disability.
Parents who have special needs kids may feel overwhelmed not only by their child’s diagnosis, but also by the educational system. Reaching out to professionals such as teachers or pediatricians who can provide insight into how the Board of Education oversees and administers special ed services can help to alleviate that anxiety, plus provide guidance about navigating the system. It also helps to know the rights and responsibilities you have before beginning the process.
Determining Eligibility – The public school system provides special education and related services to kids ages three to 21. If a parent suspects that their child has a disability or developmental delay, they can request that the child be evaluated for services. The parent can opt to pay for their own private evaluation team or use the team provided by The Board of Ed or the child’s school. The evaluation team may include professionals such as a speech therapist, neurologist, audiologist or physical therapist, based upon the type of disability the child is suspected of having. The results of these evaluations will form the basis of the child’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
The IEP – The IEP is a written document, updated annually, that lists the educational services the Board of Ed has agreed to supply to the child as well as goals and objectives for the year. The IEP will be discussed and solidified at an IEP meeting that key people in the child’s life, such as parents, legal guardians and teachers, will attend. Translators may also be included if a language barrier exists. The parents or legal guardian can invite anyone they wish to this meeting, but no matter who attends, prior preparation will be instrumental in making sure the child gets the services he or she needs. Parents must be given at least 10 days advance notice of the meeting and should immediately inform the Board of Ed if they are unable to attend.
Preparing for the IEP Meeting –
- Educate Yourself About the System: The IEP meeting is understandably nerve-rattling for parents. But special education advocate Susan Luger recommends coming prepared and armed with information instead of an attorney, unless there is already a dispute in place. “Part of the Board of Ed’s philosophy is that parents prepare for the meeting and the best prep is to get a full understanding of what your child requires. It’s very important that parents don’t let the Board decide their child’s placement and services, but rather approach the meeting as an equal participant,” she says.
- Bring Documentation: Luger is a strong believer in gathering independent opinions and evaluations as well as documentation such as doctor’s notes to substantiate the need for services such as limited travel time, assistive technology or an air-conditioned bus.
- Bring Your A Game: In order to be fully prepared, parents must come to the meeting ready to speak about why their child needs certain services or type of school. The more detailed and specific you are, the better. It may also help parents to meet with a special education advocate or school administrator ahead of time who can coach them about the types of answers they should give to questions that might be asked. During the meeting, parents should state their concerns logically and calmly, without raised voices or rancor. You may be there to fight for your child, but taking a fighter’s stance at the meeting will be detrimental to the process. It is also good policy to dress as if you were attending an important business meeting.
Attending the IEP Meeting –
- Build Your Team: Luger suggests that parents go to the meeting with at least one representative who can speak to their child’s needs, keeping in mind that teachers, school administrators and evaluators can also participate via telephone. “Even if you have a PhD in physics, it is very difficult to stay neutral when talking about your own child,” Luger adds. “You need someone there who can remain neutral and help you hear what the team is saying.”
- Know Your Rights: Enter the meeting with a clear understanding of what you want for your child and what services are covered under the law, such as parent training, one-to-one aides and which schools are available. Know what you can ask for and have a clear agenda about what services you believe your child requires. Know the diagnosis and the treatment needed so you can fight for it, if need be.
- Use Your Words: Speaking to the IEP team may feel daunting, but the way you state your child’s case is paramount. Don’t say, for example, “I want my child to learn how to read.” It is more effective to state, “My child has been diagnosed with dyslexia and my neurologist says he needs guided oral reading and phonics work in order for him to learn.” The more specific you are, the better. Sometimes, no matter how clear you are, the meeting will not go your way. “If you’re in this situation, voice your disagreement calmly,” suggests Luger, who stresses you should never simply get up and leave. “Coolly state specifically what you disagree with, such as class size and the impact it will have on your child’s need for a multi-sensory approach. Don’t just say you don’t like a certain program but let the team also know why,” she says. It’s also important to keep certain dos and don’ts in mind. While it is every parent’s natural inclination to brag about their child, this is not the time to do so. Saying things such as, “My child is ready for a challenge” or “He is doing so well” may trigger the team to offer lesser services than you think your child needs, such as an inclusion classroom rather than an out-of-district placement. It is also a good idea to speak in absolutes, specifically if you already have a school in mind. Saying things like, “This school is the best one for my child,” may not be as effective as saying, “This school is the only one where my child will thrive and this is why.”
After the IEP Meeting –
- Put It In Writing: Case law is very specific that parents need to speak up about what they don’t agree with, or else the IEP team can assume the parents did, in fact, agree with their choices. It is important that parents write a letter to the district team leader after the meeting, letting them know if they disagreed with the recommendation and why.
- Request Another Meeting: Parents have the right to request a meeting with a different IEP team if they choose. Be prepared to explain why you want another meeting, particularly if you feel you have been treated unfairly or if you have new documentation to add to your case.
- Seek Out Legal Counsel: If necessary, it may help to seek out the support of a special education lawyer, who can take your fight to the next level. If this is the route you choose, make sure your attorney is well versed in the educational system and comes highly recommended from other parents.
The IEP meeting is all about your child, but to the Board of Ed team assigned to you, it is also about allocation of funds. It’s your job to do everything in your power to make sure your child gets every service they need and are entitled to. It’s their job to take care of every single child in the system and still remain within budget. The team, however, does not have the final say in your child’s case. Stay calm, make them your allies but if necessary, keep fighting.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.