Planning for Your Special Needs Child – Surviving Your Child’s IEP Meeting

Your child has been evaluated and determined to be in need of special educations service.  Now you’ve been informed that there will be an IEP meeting for your child.  This notification must be provided to you in writing and in advance of the planned meeting.  Usually the school will provide you with a date and time for the meeting.  If the scheduled time is not convenient for you, you have the right to request that it be rescheduled for a more convenient time.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is all about establishing what your child needs to succeed in school and what the school district can provide within the bounds of the law and cost to help your child succeed.
An IEP is an Individual Education Plan and is designed to provide your special needs child with services and resources to enable him or her to have the best chance of success in school.  While the term “special needs child” usually refers to children with developmental or physical disabilities, it can also refer to a child with exceptional abilities typically called “gifted”.  Children in “gifted” programs often have IEP’s as to their counterparts in special education.  While I will refer to children with disabilities here, the same information applied to IEP’s for children in gifted programs.

An IEP is all about establishing what your child needs to succeed in school and what the school district can provide within the bounds of the law and cost to help your child succeed.  It is important to remember that there is a difference between what we may “want” or child to have and what our child actually “needs”.  The school district must provide what is needed, within established boundaries, but not necessarily what we “want”. It is important to have a realistic plan in place to address your child’s needs prior to attending the IEP meeting.  For example, if you child’s assessment has indicated a need for physical therapy three times a week for 30 minutes each time, the school district will provide that service.  Although it would be nice to have physical therapy daily for 60-90 minutes, the district is not required to provide it.

The IEP Meeting

IEP meetings are usually held in a conference room or other private area at the child’s school.  The child is entitled to be present and participate, but is not required to do so.  Some children have the capacity and ability (especially gifted students) to have input into their IEP and are entitled to do so.  Often, however, with disabled children they either do not understand or do not have the capacity to participate.  In that case it is even more important for the parents to be informed and prepared to advocate for their child at the meeting.

There will be several school representatives at the meeting.  Some you may already know and some may be new faces.  Those required to attend the meeting (unless their absence is excused in advance) are: your child’s special education teacher, a regular education teacher from the same grade as your child, the school’s special education specialist (they have different titles in different school districts), and any therapists either providing services to your child or that as a result of the evaluation intend to provide services to your child.  These people may include, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, recreation therapist, social worker, nurse and others.  Parents are clearly out-numbered by number of school personnel present, and school personnel will likely use some “jargon” during the meeting.  Do not be intimidated by the number of teachers and providers present, or by the use of the terminology.  You have the right to have a voice, and have anything that is confusing or that you don’t understand explained to you so that you fully understand what is being said and decided.

The IEP Document

The IEP document itself is lengthy and takes a considerable amount of time to review.  Plan on 1-2 hours for the IEP meeting – it is not a quick process, and certainly shouldn’t be.  The meeting should begin with introductions.  If someone is present and you don’t know who they are and what their role will be, be sure to ask.  Generally, you will start by discussing the most appropriate learning environment for your child.  This could be a regular classroom with supports, a special education classroom, or a combination of the two.  It could also include a discussion of whether your child can be served in the neighborhood school or whether a different service location is more appropriate.

Next you will review the proposed services plan with the other participants.  Generally, they will have proposed goals for your child with benchmarks established to determine whether your child is on track to meet his or her goals.  The goals should be reachable and measureable within reason.  For example, a classroom goal that “John will improve his reading” in inappropriate as it cannot be measured objectively.  Instead, the goal should be more specific, such as; “John will be able to read a grade level book with 80% accuracy and less than 3 prompts”. The benchmarks will be specific as well, such as; for John to accomplish the task with 50% accuracy at the end of the first grading period, 60% accuracy at the end of the second grading period, and 70% accuracy at the end of the third grading period.  This gives the professionals and you a way to accurately assess whether your child is meeting the benchmarks to ultimately reach the goal.  If you do not understand the benchmarks and goals, if you do not agree with them, if you believe they are too easy or too hard, or if you have other goals for your child, this is your opportunity to voice your opinion, thoughts, and/or concern.

After discussing goals for your child, the team will address any additional needs your child may have.  For example, your child may be eligible for special transportation services.  If so, you will discuss and plan with the team how transportation to and from school will be accomplished.  Your child may be eligible for Extended School Year (ESY), commonly known as summer school.  While summer school for typical students comes at a monetary cost to the family, parents are not required to pay for ESY, and your child will receive the same services as are received during the regular school year.  You will be able to discuss with the team and decide if ESY is appropriate for your child. If you child is preparing to transition to middle school or high school, the transition will be discussed as well.

Ensuring You Get an Effective IEP for Your Child

The most important thing to keep in mind during IEP meetings is that you have voice for your child
The most important thing to keep in mind during IEP meetings is that you have voice for your child.  If you have questions, concerns, different ideas or goals, don’t be afraid to voice them.  The school district must provide what your child needs, but not necessarily all that you or your child want. It is always important to ask questions and if a request is denied to ask why that decision was made.  If you feel that the school district is not providing services that are truly necessary, there are appeal procedures for you in order to be heard.  Be sure to ask your child’s teacher or the school’s special education specialist how you begin the appeal process.  Also keep in mind that while IEP’s are designed to remain in effect for one calendar year and must be reviewed yearly, there are ways in which the IEP can be changed before the annual review.  If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s IEP or the process, start with your child’s classroom teacher and the school’s special education specialist.  If you still need assistance, we’d be happy to help you navigate the system and your rights as the parent of a special needs child.