IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or here in Alberta, IPP (Individualized Program Plan) – once you have a school-aged child with special needs these once meaningless acronyms become a beacon of hope, or, more often, a harbinger of tearful nights, disappointment and/or endless hours of frustration. These documents are the guiding documents around which your child’s education will be centred and yet, ironically, there is no education about them for you. As a parent, you’re just thrown in there to fend for yourself, often without warning. Unless you have taken the time to talk to other parents or teachers you have NO idea what to expect, who will be there or what you have to contribute. But here is the thing – you know your child best and it is important to remember that when you enter that room full of teachers, inclusion specialists, therapists and consultants. It can be intimidating and overwhelming BUT it can also be a great experience. You have the privilege of speaking into your child’s education. You get to talk about your son or daughter and celebrate their strengths and explore their potential. The trick: be prepared. Here are some tips on not just surviving your IEP meeting, but how to thrive in your IEP meeting.
Celebrate the strengths.
IEP’s are not just about determining goals that focus on a child’s weaknesses. They are also about celebrating your child’s strengths, recognizing them as an individual and celebrating how far they have come. Don’t forget to take time to read that front page. This is your child’s document. That front page should have not only their name, the names of their team members but also their strengths – celebrate them, don’t rush over them. Take the time you need to ease into it.
Don’t go in alone.
As I mentioned, it can be super intimidating to be at a table full of the various professionals that will speak into your child’s education. Take somebody with you even if it is just for emotional support. This could be a partner, a friend or a professional. If you forget your words, they’re there. If you lose your nerve, they’re there. If you just need a hand to hold, they’re there. I think teachers and parents alike underestimate what an emotional experience an IEP meeting can be. Feel supported.
Know what you want and let your voice be heard.
IEP’s are often more than just academics. Many children with special needs face challenges outside of the government set curriculum and are at school not just to learn how to read and do math. They are there to learn how to function in society, be a part of a class and communicate with their peers. If you have goals in mind for your child let them be known. These could be pertaining to communication, self-care, or making friends. Write them down and have them with you. Chances are the people sitting around the table can help come up with strategies as to how to achieve those goals.
Don’t accept “can’t”.
Often times, especially when entering a new school, the team that is assigned to your child does not know your child and quite frankly, may not believe in your child the way that you do. Hopefully not, but it is possible that they may have made assumptions about your child based on a diagnosis. Remember, you know your child best. Say it over to yourself, “I know my child best.” You know what they are capable of and don’t you forget it! If the team is saying they can’t but you know they can let them know. Ask them to try. It could be possible that it is not that they think your child “can’t” but rather they are not willing to put in the work required to make it happen. In that case, choose your battles wisely. Know your priorities and from there, determine whether it is something you would like them to focus on this year.
Go into it with a team mentality.
If you have read up to this point and are a new parent, you might be sweating just at the thought of an IEP meeting. Take heart and know that it SHOULD NOT be a “you against them” situation. You are part of the team – often you are the team captain, but part of the team nonetheless. It is important to come into IEP meetings with a team mentality. How can we work together to achieve these goals that we have come up with together? That being said, this requires also being open to suggestions. While you might be skeptical, it is important to at least be open to the strategies that are put out on the table.
Don’t be afraid to follow up on things that weren’t clear or didn’t sit right.
I think most parents have been there. I certainly have been. After Ella’s first IEP meeting, I knew something was not right. The speech therapist had not only dominated the conversation but dominated the document. Ella’s goals seemed to be centered around this “Communication book” which the speech therapist was adamant Ella learn how to use. (You know the one I’m talking about, with the Boardmaker pictures affixed with velcro to form sentences). It was a fair enough suggestion. Ella did, at the time, have trouble verbally expressing herself…that being said, it was mostly because her mind works faster than her tongue. But I could sense it. I could see it on the face of her teacher and of the aid – this was not the right solution. We all left the meeting feeling a little heavy and discouraged. It seemed that none of us could really articulate in that moment what was not right about the suggestion so after I had a bit of time to process what we had talked about I wrote a letter to Ella’s teacher and her aid. “You know her. The speech therapist has never even met Ella. She has not spent time with her. You are with her everyday and see the way she is in class. You know what she needs.” The teacher, being an all-star, went along with the speech therapist’s idea (which never fully came to fruition) but knowing that no book was going to help Ella communicate better and that she had my trust to do what would work best not only for Ella, but for the class.
At the end of the day, it is about communication and trust. Nobody; no teacher, no parent, no professional wants to feel like they aren’t trusted, that they are being undermined or that they have nothing to contribute – especially when it concerns someone they care about. The best way to overcome this, is to be a team. Your child is so fortunate to have not just one teacher caring about their education but a whole team! So embrace it and enjoy it! Your child is capable of great things.