Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lessons learned from IEP meetings

I went to Big Guy's follow-up IEP meeting last week. An IEP is the legal document that outlines what services and accommodations have to be provided to a child with special needs. (If you have a special needs child, visit the Wrightslaw web site. It is great for learning how to advocate for your child.)

Big Guy has had an IEP since he was in 5th grade. Since he will be switching schools in September it needed to be modified. We'd already done the big meeting; this one was to confirm tweaks needed for the new school. I seriously considered doing it by conference call instead of riding the train for an hour to wait for 30 minutes for a 30-minute meeting.

But I went. And as I was scanning the final document (which hadn't been provided to me in advance) I noticed that two major accommodations had been omitted. I'd been told that only X and Y would change, and here E and T -- critical things -- had vanished. Nothing said, nothing explained, just gone. 

So I pulled out my draft copy, smiled as gentle a smile as I could muster and said, "For some reason E and T didn't make it onto the final draft. Should we write them in by hand, or does it have to be re-typed?" And the woman from the special ed committee looked momentarily flustered, but said we could write them in by hand.

I wouldn't have known those items were missing if I hadn't been there, or if I hadn't practically memorized the draft. Whew.

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If you ever go to an IEP meeting, you need to be prepared to have superhuman patience and unflappable good will. It is good to bring a notepad. If you're asking for anything major, it is good to bring a man. (Balk if you wish, but even a silent male changes the group dynamic. Having a dad-figure in the room keeps them from discounting the case by assuming the child has an over-emotional mother.) You can bring someone else as an advocate, too.

If you ever go to an IEP meeting, read everything. Take your time. Did I say you need patience? Yes, you need it so that when you point out that the text calls for a one-to-one aide for your child for safety reasons but the service isn't actually listed, you do not commit a crime when someone says, dismissively, "Oh, but that takes a lot of paperwork to put in place!"

Because you have planned to be patient you can nod and say, "Yes, paperwork is annoying! But this is needed for safety, so it's certainly worthwhile filling out the forms. Because none of us here would ever want to look back and say, 'If only I'd done that paperwork, this child might still be alive today!'"

And then when the person counters with, "Oh, it's really a ton of paperwork!" you can nod sympathetically and say, "Sometimes the important things take time."

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If you get upset while fighting for services for your child, it helps to remember that you also get upset about deficit budgets and runaway school board expenses. The people who are saying no have a two-part job: they are trying to get kids the services they need and keep costs manageable. This may conflict with your desire to provide your child with the best services possible. 

Accommodations are different than services. Accommodations don't cost anything, so they're easier to add to an IEP. They include things like extra time for tests, providing homework assignments online, reduced homework, having a place/person to go to cool down, etc. If your child has a diagnosis of anxiety or ADHD or a physical problem you can get a 504, without going through the IEP circus.  

If  the school system needs to pay for services (OT, PT, an aide, assistive technology, a specialized classroom or school), then you need an IEP.  A 504 is not a legal document, and some teachers may not comply with accommodations that they find inconvenient. Again,

Some won't comply with an IEP, either, but it's the law. The Wrightslaw site has a terrific section on how to write effective letters, and how to document things appropriately so that you get better results. If you read only one page on the site, read this one.


  1. Lifting prayers up for you and your family. This process must be exhausting and yet so vital. You are a great mom!

  2. wow! and when we decided to become momma's we were clueless as to all involved. blessings on your quiet strength and patience.

  3. After teaching Spe. Ed. for 28 years I found myself reminded of so many IEP meetings. God bless you as you go through this very lengthy and sometimes exhaustive process. Thank you for explaining things so well- you never know who is reading your blog and so desperately needs the information. You are a blessing Julia!

  4. Startlingly I have many friends with children on the Autism spectrum or in special needs community. I have sent them a link to this article. It is wonderfully written and helpful. Thank you.