Friday, September 16, 2016

Sign Here! Three Tips for Navigating the IEP Process

As an early childhood educator, I have been involved in many Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. In these meetings, an Individualized Education Program—a legal document that spells out a child’s learning needs, the services the school will provide, and how progress will be measured—is reviewed and discussed. My daughter was diagnosed with a speech delay at age 1, and when my husband and I attended her first IEP meeting when she was 3, I was terrified. I realized that even though I knew some things about the process due to my experiences as an educator, the process looks, feels, and sounds different to a parent. Here are three tips that have helped me navigate the IEP process.
Tip 1: Ask clarifying questions. During my daughter’s first IEP meeting, my husband and I met with the Speech and Language pathologist, the principal, and the resource teacher. They reviewed her assessment, diagnosis, and goals. Because of my fear of showing my limited knowledge of special education and my desire to not be “that” annoying parent, I didn’t ask many questions. However, I have since learned that before signing any paperwork, it is important to ask clarifying questions and not be intimidated by all the faces staring in your direction:
  • Ask participants to clarify education jargon.
  • Make sure you completely understand your child’s actual diagnosis.
  • Ask clarifying questions about start dates, length of services, and the procedure for receiving the appropriate accommodations.
  • During each meeting, be sure to ask questions about the IEP goals that have been set and whether they are being met. If your child has not met the goals, don’t be afraid to ask what the next steps are toward meeting the goals and whether the goals should be revised.
Remember, you are advocating for your child. I have learned that I can’t advocate for my daughter when I do not truly understand the terms and the process.
Tip 2: Set goals as a team. One of the many benefits of receiving IEP services is that the parents become part of a team of educators and specialists who are setting goals to ensure that your child’s specific needs are met.
  • Ensure that you understand, agree with, and have contributed toward the goals set for your child. For instance, during one of my daughter’s IEP meetings, I discussed my child’s quiet personality and mentioned that she needed a speech therapist who would understand the importance of developing a relationship with her before proceeding with the implementation of the goals. You are your child’s first teacher. The knowledge you have about your child should be shared with and welcomed by the IEP team in order to achieve success.
  • Be sure that you, the assigned specialist, and your child’s classroom teacher are partners, working toward the same goals, and that the accommodations and services carry over into the classroom and into the home. During the IEP meeting, ask questions to ensure that all parties involved set specific dates to collaborate with one another periodically throughout the academic school year.
Tip 3: Fear not! The IEP process can be frightening because of the unknown—Am I helping my child? Am I hurting my child? Is the IEP meeting my child’s specific needs?
  • Use the fear to fuel your desire to learn more about the IEP process and your child’s specific needs. Conduct your own research about your child’s needs and about appropriate accommodations and strategies for your child.
If there is anything I have learned as a parent, it is that if I don’t ask questions, ensure collaboration among appropriate parties, and conduct my own research—if I simply sign on the dotted line without truly understanding what was discussed in the meeting—I will leave feeling worried, unsure, and confused. I’m happy to report that I no longer leave my daughter’s IEP meetings with those feelings. 

Bweikia Steen is an Assistant Professor at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. Her research deals with closing the achievement gap for children of color, children of poverty, and children with special needs.

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