If you are the parent of a special needs child, you have (or will soon) run across an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is a legal document that spells out the educational goals as well as the services that a special needs child will receive as Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IEP describes the child’s disability, educational placement, required services (such as an aide and/or therapy services), academic and behavioral goals and plans, as well as periodic progress reports. The plan is created at an IEP meeting and is based on parental goals and is tailored to each child’s individual needs. The IEP is also a road map that helps teachers and other educational professionals maximize the potential for every child.
Last week, I wrote an article for The Good Men Project titled Four Important Considerations for Educating Children with Special Needs. In the article, I talked about my wife and I being asked to speak at the 2017 Family Retreat Weekend sponsored by the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD). We spoke on the topic of The Importance of Parent Involvement in Your (Deaf) Child’s Education. We were allotted one hour for the discussion and, as is our practice, we left time at the end of the discussion for questions. During the question and answer session, I remember one audience member talking about her experience with her local school district and how she encountered resistance to her wanting to be an active parent in her child’s school. She also stated that the school had changed the goals that were originally agreed to in the Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD) document (basically, the State of Texas’ version of the IEP). She was uncertain of what she should do and wanted my advice. Since this was something that other members of the audience faced in the past, everyone wanted to be a part of this discussion.
We started the conversation by stating that the parent, not the school, determines the educational goals for a child. While the school can disagree, they do not have the power to change the goals without the parent’s consent. Additionally, we said that the ARD is actually a legal document that is enforceable in a court of law. Third, we reminded her that she had a right to be involved at the school because raising a child is still a parental responsibility, not the schools; therefore, it is critical for the parent and the school to work in unison if a successful outcome is to be achieved.
This same audience member also revealed that one teacher told her that she was not welcome in her child’s classroom. She also said that she rarely gets updates on her child’s progress and that the school was upset when she asked for resources in her child’s ARD meeting. That’s when the room practically exploded. My wife and I reminded the audience that while school safety is paramount, a respectful visit with school leadership will verify that no school can permanently bar a parent from a classroom unless it is by court order. One fellow audience member described how he dealt with school resistance by becoming a volunteer in the school, thereby gaining unlimited access to the people and places that he wanted to visit (I described how we volunteer for school committees not only at TSD but at our other children’s school in order to achieve the same result). Another audience member has it written in her child’s ARD how she is to receive daily progress reports regarding her child (I described how we received each class syllabus at the beginning of the year and used that along with online performance tools and periodic updates to monitor progress). We also reminded her of the legal requirement for the school to provide periodic IEP updates to parents that describe how their child is progressing against established goals. We told her if there is a problem with a particular teacher, she had the right and the responsibility to raise the issue at a higher level and to use an outside advocate if necessary. We also told her that she had the right to call an ARD at any time if she felt that there was an issue that needed to be addressed. Overall, we stressed the idea that educating her child is a partnership between the parent and the school but as the parent, she ultimately had the final decision regarding what was in her child’s best interest.
This conversation also highlighted the importance of the IEP. Some parents think that the IEP is something that needs to be completed in order to enroll a child in school (or may be overwhelmed by the process) and simply go along with whatever the school recommends. The truth is the IEP is probably the most important document regarding your child’s education. Here are a few quick tips that have helped me and my family navigate the IEP process for our child. It is by no means an exhaustive list but in general, has worked well for us. I hope that you can use it as another tool to assist in your efforts to advocate for your child.