Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Training for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Many of the families we serve have expressed concern, confusion, and a sense of overwhelm when it comes to understanding the IEP process. It can be an intimidating experience, especially if you don't understand the terms being used or what you and your child's rights are regarding the process. In response we thought it would be helpful to host a training about it at the practice. Initially we had scheduled it in October, but had to cancel due to Hurricane Irma. We were finally able to reschedule the training for December 15, 2017. 

We were so excited to have Jessica Braun, Parent Services Specialist with Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System of The School District of Lee County provide the in-depth training to parents (and Reina & Amy) on navigating and understanding an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process. We learned so much valuable information that we wanted to make it available to those families who were unable to attend the meeting. This is going to be a long read, but we promise it will be worth it! This blog post is a long summary of the information Jessica shared today, Amy's tips on being a parent advocate, and links to many great resources both of them shared with us.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the creation and implementation of an IEP. Every student who is eligible for Exceptional Student Education will have an IEP. It is the legal document used to guide a child’s educational team, including but not limited to his or her teachers, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, school nurse and counselors, in how best to educate the child based upon his or her unique abilities and challenges. It may pertain to a medical condition, psychological or issue pertaining to development, social or behavioral functioning that impact the child’s ability to be a successful learner. The IEP will include specific approaches educational staff will be using to help your child including any additional services they may receive during the school day. The IEP must be reviewed and rewritten every 12 months. If the review does not occur within the 12 month date, it is considered out of compliance.

The school is responsible for notifying you when they have scheduled an IEP meeting for your child. If you unable to make the scheduled time, you have the right to request that the meeting be rescheduled or to participate by phone. You, as parent or guardian, have the right to bring anyone you would like (who knows and understands the needs of the child) to the IEP meeting. It should be noted that it is within your rights to bring a lawyer; however, you must notify the school of such plan as their policy is to have their lawyer present if another lawyer is present at the meeting. If they are not notified, it could result in cancelling and rescheduling the meeting. If the school is going to invite someone from an outside agency to attend the meeting, you as the parent must authorize permission. The team members likely to be present at an IEP meeting are the parents or guardians, the child’s general education teacher(s), and special education teacher, a liaison from the school, occupational, speech or physical therapists, school administrator, and parties invited by the parent. When appropriate that student is invited to participate in the meeting. As the child ages, the expectation becomes greater as it is important for the child to learn to advocate for the needs of him or herself.

The information used to create the IEP will include the strengths of the child, their academic, developmental and functional needs, results of any assessments and evaluations, the child’s performance on standardized assessment measures, any physical health or medical problems or concerns, parental concerns, and the responsibilities of the agency. This information is then integrated into the document to create annual goals and objectives, supports, accommodations, transition plans needed for the child. It will also include how the child will be assessed to determine the effectiveness of the IEP at aiding the child in being successful in the educational environment.

Some special considerations that will be taken into account are, but may not be limited to: behaviors that impact learning, English as a second language, any visual or auditory impairments,  receptive and expressive communication challenges, in need of assistive technology, needs the extended school year program to prevent loss of progress made, and need for specifically designed physical education.

As a parent, you are the expert about your child and you are an integral part of the IEP team. It is important that you participate in the process. The school team is counting on you to communicate about providing them with your child’s medical information and providing updates as his or status change--this includes medications the child may be taking that could impact his or her performance. They also benefit from you sharing what services your child has received in the past and any services that they may be receiving outside of school. For example, if your child is going to Occupational Therapy (OT) outside of school and is receiving OT services within the school day, it would be beneficial for those therapists to coordinate care for your child. Share the ways in which your child can help him or herself at home, so that this information may be considered within the school day. Your child will experience maximum benefit when home and school are working together in the same capacity to accomplish the same goals. With that in mind, it is important that you ask questions if you don’t understand something during the meeting. You also have the right to take notes during the meeting. Don’t forget to ask for your free copy of the final IEP.

Jessica recommended that parents create a large 3-Ring binder to include all of your child’s IEP’s being mindful to have the most recent copy in the front of the binder. Use this binder to store any of the notes that you took documenting the meetings you attended. This way, you can always refer back to them if needed in the future. If you are an email contact with the education team, print out those emails and store them within the binder as well. Jessica made a point of reminding parents that emails with district employees are public record, so when corresponding regarding your child you may consider using the student ID instead of using your child’s name and birthdate. In addition, keep an updated list of your child’s community based medical and therapy providers along with their current medication list in the binder. It will make it easy to share with the school during your next IEP meeting.

Both Amy and Jessica recommend forging a healthy positive relationship with the educational team. Again, it is always more beneficial for your child when school and home are working together for his or her benefit. If you disagree with an approach, assessment or recommendation of the education team, communicate your disagreement using an assertive communication approach. Jessica suggested a script we teach clients at the practice all the time: When (state the problem or concern), I feel (emotion word) or I disagree because the facts suggest (the data to support your assertion), and I would prefer if (desired approach). Hopefully with respectful communication, a compromise can be arrived at.

Amy has the following suggestions for being an effective advocate for your child.

  1. You are the expert on your child. You have the right and responsibility to share what you know with the team.

  2. Build healthy relationships with the staff. How does that old adage go? You get more flies with honey. It is not helpful for the child to go to a classroom aware that their parent doesn’t like their teacher or vis-a-vis.

  3. Talk to your child. Instead of asking them, “How was your day?” say “Tell me about your day.” The latter invites them to share about their experience, whereas the other creates a strong likelihood for a one word response.

  4. Be informed. Ask your child’s teacher for information on your child’s performance. Use the tools that the district has established for you to check online.

  5. Be positive and stay calm.

  6. Keep and organize all of your child’s school papers and reports. Save them in a safe place.

  7. Understand the language the school uses. Look up online common jargon used in education and during IEPS. Here is a link to another website with an alphabetized list of educational jargon.  Some helpful terms we discussed during the training were:

    • FBA- Functional Behavioral Assessment. This assessment is completed to determine where a child may be struggling, what interventions have been implemented, and their effectiveness. This is usually done prior to an IEP being established.

    • PBIP- Positive Behavior Intervention Plan. This is a plan for extinguishing undesirable behaviors and teaching replacement behaviors.

    • ESL- English as a Second Language

    • Accommodation- a device, material or support that helps the child accomplish their learning task more efficiently. Some examples might be in the form of assistive technology, extra time on a test, or being provided with the educator’s copy of notes.

    • Inclusion- a classroom where all students of different needs learn together.

  8. Be a team player.

  9. Ask questions. If it is your first meeting, you may have a lot of questions. Write them down. If you don’t have time to have them answered in the meeting, schedule a call or time to come in and speak with someone from the educational team to have them answered.

  10. Know the laws and your child’s rights.

Amy created a small list of additional resources:

Jessica also shared this amazing resource which is available online:

  • A Parent’s Introduction to Exceptional Student Education In Florida and is available online at http://www.fldoe.org/ese/pub-home.asp  We highly recommend you download a copy, read it, and keep it in your binder as a reference guide.

We hope you find this information as helpful as we did! Please let us know what you think.