In April, my article The IEP Process: 5 Tips for Success was the first of a four-part series supporting parents and sharing tips for empowerment.
This article was met with great interest, as parents often ask questions of the special education process such as “What does this mean?”, “What do I do when…?”, and “I’m not sure I understand this, what do I do now?”
These are all frequently asked questions from parents who are supporting their autistic children through the decision-making process while working with school experts and other personnel.
Parent participation (and student participation to the appropriate extent) is essential and cannot be overemphasized.
This edition of the 4 Ps of Parent Empowerment: Proactively Prepare, Plan, and Participate series will focus on the answers to some of these questions so you are prepared and confident when meeting with school personnel about your child’s needs and the development of individualized services.
Since 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) has mandated meaningful parent participation in all educational programming for children receiving specialized education services. Through several reauthorizations of this law in 1990, 1997, and most recently in 2004 with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), the development of the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) continues to be a fundamental process.
IEPs confirm the services mutually agreed upon by the parents and school personnel and are directly related to each child’s strengths and areas of need. These customized services and supports are memorialized after the initial meeting in a written document, which then serves as a contract to ensure fidelity of implementation. The IEP document includes additional details such as the child’s educational goals and benchmarks, modifications, evaluation criteria, and tailored services, as well as the amount and duration of each.
Collaboratively planning for these meetings is essential for parents, as key stakeholders, to serve as an active participant and to properly develop the educational plan. It is important to note that parents are not required to participate, and the choice is yours. The IDEA’s founding principles regarding collaboration have helped parents feel more included in the educational decision-making process for their child; however, parents often don’t understand aspects of this complicated activity.
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Proactively planning for an IEP meeting can be stressful and intimidating for many parents of children on the spectrum. A large amount of educated and trained personnel is required to be in attendance, and parents have reported feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, and confused by the complicated procedures, discussions, and acronyms used to describe and support their children. There can also be cultural and language barriers that complicate this process. So, here’s what to expect:
Your child needs you to become an advocate
Being a passive participant may not be enough in some situations. If you simply attend the IEP team meeting without engaging in the discussion, you may not fully demonstrate your desire to be involved. In this case, the term “advocate” refers to someone who speaks up on behalf of your child—that’s you! Asking questions for your clarity and understanding is part of your parental empowerment.
Know and be confident the professionals at the table have expertise in a specific area, although they are called to serve your children for a short period of time. Alternatively, you are the long-standing, continuous member of your child’s “team” and you are skilled, knowledgeable, and qualified to serve in the role of the parent and advocate.
Adopt a positive, collaborative, and inclusive attitude in the meeting. Overlook your feelings of inadequacy by accepting you have a legal right to participate. This recommendation of being proactive does not equate to being rude or pushy, as this can cause the process to backfire and not be constructive. Instead, listen to all participants’ suggestions. Take it all in. In fact, request to record the meeting so you can review later. Take notes if that is helpful. Don’t make decisions at the conclusion of the meeting. Ask for a copy of the IEP document to take home and review. Then, follow up with the teacher or other representative with questions in case you don’t understand something.
Your consent matters
Within the IDEA, parental consent means you have been fully informed of all aspects of the child’s recommended services and supports and that you agree in writing. There are specific times when your child’s school must reasonably obtain your written consent before any changes to services can be implemented.
Those times are before an initial evaluation is conducted, before providing specialized education and services to your child, and before any retesting begins. So, at the end of the IEP team meeting, do not feel pressured or obligated to provide your written consent. You have a right to consider the “offer” provided to you, and when you fully understand and agree, then sign and return.
While you may not have all of the answers to these new experiences, challenges, perceived barriers, and complicated processes, know that your involvement and consent is key to the supports and services that schools must provide. Consider yourself integral to the team. Your child depends on it!
This article was featured in Issue 104 –Transition Strategies For Kids With Autism