Meet Your IEP Team

A Parent's Guide to the Special-Education Players

IEP Meeting
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What do you think of when you hear the word "team"? Does the word conjure up images of individuals working hard toward a mutual goal? Do you imagine careful strategizing, intense huddles, encouraging pats on the back, shared feelings of triumph over a job well done?

Or does "team" make you think of game-playing and competition? Heavy humans thudding weaker ones to the ground with bone-crunching force?

Jockeying for position and advantage, trash talking, rivalries over leadership and playing time?

Your dealings with the "team" that plans your child's IEP (Individualized Education Program) may reflect both of those visions, and there may be times you'll wish you could load up on protective padding before heading in to be tackled again. Other times, you may feel that you and your teammates are actually on the same side, trying to score on behalf of your child and not against one another.

Before you get together with these accomplices/adversaries on the field of battle, it helps to know who they are, what they do, and where they're coming from. This player's guide will help you with:

  • Identifying those many solemn faces around the IEP-planning table
  • Figuring out what each of those intimidating personages is responsible for
  • Realizing which team member is the most important (Hint: It's the one not being paid to be there)

    The Core Team Members

    While there are a stunning array of people who will move onto and off of the IEP field, three players will probably do the largest amount of ball-carrying for students with special needs. They're the ones you'll find in the cramped little offices filled with files. They're the ones who will send you letters announcing scheduled meetings, and the ones who will hand you the 5,000 copies of the booklets on knowing your rights.

    They'll be responsible for evaluating your child on arrival in the system and periodically thereafter. One of these individuals will probably be assigned as your child's case manager.

    These are people you will only see at big scary meetings, unless you make an effort to get to know them in smaller, less scary ones. In addition to their evaluating and program-planning responsibilities, they may actually be able to provide you with information and advice about situations that come up during the school year -- that is, if they're out of meetings long enough to answer the phone.

    The School Psychologist: The psychologist is the person who will give your child IQ tests and other psychological surveys as part of the evaluation portion of IEP planning. If your child has mental health challenges, you may be more likely to have the psychologist as your case manager, but that varies with school districts and workloads. The psychologist may make observations during the meeting about your child's psychological state or concerns.

    If your child is having problems during the school year that require counseling, this psychologist may be able to help, or there may be another school psychologist who handles counseling of students.

    The Learning Specialist: The learning specialist is the person who will give your child tests that assess level of educational achievement and ability. If your child has learning disabilities, you may be more likely to have the learning consultant as your case manager, but that varies with school districts and workloads. The learning specialist may make observations during the meeting about the appropriate educational placement for your child. Should your child need special learning techniques, modifications and accommodations in the classroom, the learning consultant may be able to strategize those with you and the teacher, and help monitor progress.

    The Social Worker: The social worker is the person who will take down a family history during the evaluation process. If your child has had behavioral problems or personal struggles with school, you may be more likely to have the social worker as your case manager, but that varies with school districts and workloads. The social worker may make observations during the meeting about your child's relationships with other students and general participation in the school experience. Should your child need special assistance with peer relationships and conflicts, the social worker may be able to arrange appropriate programs.

    Of all the people you'll work with in planning your child's IEP, these core team members are the easiest ones to classify as "the enemy" -- they don't work with your child on a day-to-day basis, they're charged with carrying out the district's policies, and they may seem heavy-handed in the way they run meetings and make decisions.

    Take a closer look, though, and you may find good people who are overworked and underappreciated, feeling the pressure from both their bosses and the people they serve. You'll also, for sure, find human beings who quite naturally look askance at things that make their jobs harder. If you can be something that makes their jobs easier, that may go a long way to reducing tension and promoting teamwork.

    For one thing, if you regularly give teachers information about your child's disability, give a copy to the case manager, too. The school psychologist, learning specialist, and social worker may not be experts on every disability and every new bit of research, either, and in providing background you'll make their job easier now, and your job easier later when you don't have to explain this all again and again.

    From the school's point of view, nobody knows your child better than the teacher. So it's natural for the teacher to be involved in the planning of the IEP. Inconvenient, maybe, since it pulls the teacher out of a classroom or forces meetings into the constraints of the teacher's break time, but natural nevertheless. That's good news for you if you've built a rapport with a teacher, or if a teacher has a particularly good feel for your child's abilities and needs. If the agreeability factor is not so high? The teacher can be a pretty big fly in your ointment.

    If your child has multiple teachers in the course of a school day, they won't all crowd the meeting. One of each of these types of teacher will get tagged to participate, and maybe they'll actually show up, too.

    The Special Education Teacher: Your child's special education teacher -- or one of them, anyway, if your child is in a variety of classes -- will almost always make it to the IEP meeting. This teacher will be charged with outlining your child's educational progress and prognosis for the IEP, and with gathering opinions from all other teachers as appropriate. What you hear from the teacher at the meeting should be consistent with what you've been hearing throughout the year. If not, ask why. If you haven't been talking with the teacher throughout the year ... well, then I'll ask, why not? Don't be a stranger.

    The Regular Education Teacher: Regular education teachers are supposed to be at IEP meetings. Their actual attendance? Spotty. Deciding factors may include how much time your child spends in the teacher's class, how directly the teacher works with your child, how much of a darn the teacher gives about special students, how pushy the case manager is, and whatever else is preoccupying the teacher that day. If it's important to you to have the regular education teacher there, make personal contact and urge him or her not to forget.

    Schooling the Teacher

    Your child's teacher can be a powerful ally on the IEP team, or a formidable foe. There are a couple of ways to swing the odds to the former:

    • Give the teacher plenty of information about your child's disability. Don't make the teacher do research, or guess; provide plenty of helpful material, with your personal spin.
    • Meet with the teacher frequently. Build a relationship, and let the teacher know you're always available for conferences, phone calls, or strategy sessions.
    • Especially meet with the teacher before the IEP meeting, to float the issues that may be mentioned, present your point of view, and get a reaction. Working things out privately between the two of you will work better than trying to do it in a roomful of hostiles.
    • If one of your child's teacher "gets" him or her more than others, ask that teacher to come to the meeting, even if a different teacher has been put in charge.

    Getting the Straight Story

    It's good to stay in constant contact with your child's teacher. Unfortunately, though, it may not always clue you in to what you'll hear at an IEP meeting. One year, my daughter seemed to be doing great in her self-contained class: good report-card grades, good comments on progress reports, and a consistent cheerful prognosis whenever I'd talk to the teacher.

    "She's soaring!" I was told. "She's flying!" Well, hooray for that! So imagine my surprise when, at her IEP meeting, the same teacher reported that this girl had met none of her goals, understood very little, and couldn't possibly be mainstreamed. Um, soaring? Flying? Too close to the sun, maybe, to come crashing so resoundingly down?

    It's not a huge amount of fun to have teachers give you bad news all through the year, either, but you want to make sure that you're getting a full and well-rounded picture. Let the teacher know you can take it. And document those comments so if they contrast with what you hear at the meeting, you can site the misinformation.

    Therapy is often a major part of an IEP -- what kind your child gets, how long, how often, and to what good effect. Therapists have to submit specific and measurable goals to account for the time they spend with your child, and they're supposed to be at the IEP meeting to discuss and haggle over that. This can be tricky, though, if the therapist's time is divided between different schools, or if the therapist is an employee of an outside agency with specific time allotments. Or if, you know, the therapist is supposed to be working with some other demanding parent's child at that particular time.

    The therapists in question aren't concerned with your child's psychological state -- that would be the school psychologist's field of interest, and maybe the school counselor's. These therapists are more concerned with how your child speaks, understands, and moves. And technically, they can only be concerned with those things inasmuch as they affect schoolwork. Of all the professionals you'll meet, these may be the ones who play games with your children the most and with you the least.

    The Speech Therapist: The speech therapist works with your child on receptive and expressive language. In clear language, what that means is that what your child understands of what people tell him, how she is able to make that understanding clear, and how she is able to make her own self understood are all within the speech therapist's area of interest. This includes both types of articulation -- the proper production of speech sounds, and the proper forming of thoughts into words. Be sure all your concerns for your child's language usage and understanding are being addressed, not just her ability to move lips and tongue properly.

    The Physical Therapist (PT): The physical therapist works on your child's gross motor skills -- no, not the ability to burp impressively or spit across the room, but the movement of major muscle groups to make big movements like walking, running, catching a ball or kicking it. Once your child is in school, there may be a particular emphasis on skills that enable a student to make it untroubled through a school day, like walking without jumping or flapping, participating in gym class, or carrying a lunch tray or a binder. You should listen to the goals set by the PT and make sure they're meaningful to your child's life and priorities.

    The Occupational Therapist (OT): As the PT looks at gross motor, the OT deals with fine motor skills, those small precise movements we all take for granted and our kids can't do if you paid them. Things like printing and handwriting clearly. Tying shoes. Coloring in the lines. Turning a combination lock. Did I mention printing and handwriting clearly? The occupational therapist will, and writing is likely one of the things that will pop up in OT goals. If your school therapist happens to be trained in sensory integration therapy, you may be able to have some of that calming, organizing activity written into your child's plan as well. It will have to be undertaken in a way that makes it important to schooling, however. (Like being able to remain seated, or keep from disrupting the class.)

    Working Out With the Therapists

    Staying in close contact with your child's therapists can have all sorts of benefits. They can give you suggestions of ways to work with your child at home. They can pass on materials and resources that can be useful in strategizing your own IEP proposals. And they can tell you really sweet stories about your kid.

    The fact that therapists are often not employed by the district but by private agencies means they may be less available for things like meetings, but they're also less tied in to district politics and proprieties. Build up a good relationship, and you might get some good gossip.

    The personnel previously mentioned will almost always be invited to and involved in the IEP meeting. But there are scores of other faces you may find around the table, and a few you may bring with you, too. Sometimes, you may suspect they've just drawn in random humans from the hallway to present the most intimidating front. If they do all have functions, though, here's what they're likely to be.

    On the School's Side

    Guidance Counselor: Your child's counselor may be pulled in to attest to problems, coordinate class selections, or sign off on a plan. If you've already met and talked to the counselor on a regular basis, this shouldn't be a problem, unless you've clashed. Even then, though, you'll know what to expect.

    Transition Coordinator: If your child is moving from one school to the next, a representative of the future school may want to be in on the planning meeting. You may want to arrange for this. You may want to talk to this person in advance.

    Paraprofessional: The good part -- Having your child's aide in the meeting can provide another firsthand source of information from someone who likely has your child's interests at heart. The bad part -- If your child's aide is in a meeting, your child's aide is not with your child. And who is, exactly?

    District Muckety-Mucks: This probably means you're in trouble, you pushy parent, and someone's come from the home office to apply the smackdown. Whether this individual has any particular knowledge of your personal child and his or her needs is another matter entirely.

    On Your Side

    Your Spouse: Presenting a united front as your child's parents makes it apparent that you're involved, concerned, and participatory. But if you're not such a united front, your spouse's doubts, statements, even body language can undermine your game plan.

    Your Child: This is the person the plan is being made for, after all, and having him or her present as a living breathing human and not as a list of deficits can keep everyone on track, not to mention giving your child an introduction to self-advocacy. Still, would you want to be in that room, as a child, with people talking about you? It freaks some kids out. It freaks some adults out, too.

    Your Friend: Having a sympathetic companion can make you feel less ganged-up-upon, and can also serve as a second brain to remember what went on and corroborate bad treatment. Don't spring the extra person on the team, though; let them know in advance you're coming with an entourage.

    Your Paid Advocate: A hired gun who knows the law better than you do and isn't afraid to call the house's bluff can put you in a powerful position. There may be times when the stakes are so high that you'll need to go this route. If you're not there yet, though, the presence of an advocate may be seen as a sign of bad faith and a threat, and close the door to cooperation.

    And now, the star of the team, the number-one MVP.

    You.

    Yeah, you, the parent. You are the most important member of your child's IEP team, far and away. Don't let those suits convince you differently. You are the expert on your child, and your child is the reason all those people are sitting there. You are the only one to have seen your child in multiple settings, in multiple school years, in multiple moods. You are the only one who has talked to the doctors and the specialists. You are the only one who has traced your child's development from early days until right now. And you are the only one who will still be involved in your child's care years from now, when the decisions made at this table will bear fruit.

    So if you're such a big kahuna, why do the professionals gathered treat you like some nobody called in to sign papers and keep silent? There can be any number of reasons. Maybe they genuinely believe they know best, and want your child and yourself to have the advantage of their expertise. Maybe they've dealt with many emotional and underinformed parents who have made them fearful of unbridled parental participation. Maybe they have marching orders from upstairs, and need to get things passed their way or else. Or maybe, just maybe, you let them. Since that last one is the only thing you really have control over, consider these three questions:

    Do you dress the part? If you're showing up at meetings in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers while everybody else is in business suits and shiny shoes, you're sure giving off a "just here to sign, ma'am" vibe. You don't have to drop a month's salary at Brooks Brothers or anything, but grown-up attire wouldn't hurt.

    Do you make a professional presentation? Whatever you expect of the school personnel at that table, expect the same from yourself. If you expect them to document their observations and recommendations, document yours. If you expect them to report from records rather than memory, bring records of your own. If you expect them to deal in specifics and facts rather than platitudes and preconceptions, watch what you say, too.

    Do you do anything but go to meetings and sign papers? Think about how infuriating it is when some district upper-up who has never met your child drops in on a meeting and, on the basis of a light scan of your child's file, starts setting policy and goals and expectations. Then think about what teachers and administrators must feel about parents who make no contact at all during the school year, then descend in a meeting to throw questions and judgments and orders around? Keeping up a constant dialog throughout the school year will not head off all problems, but it will squash the stupid little ones that get going due to lack of communication and connection.

    Leadership Anxiety

    And sometimes, it just comes down to this: Are you really just afraid to step up?

    If you are, don't feel bad. It is hard. It is HARD. There is something so comforting in believing that school officials know what they're doing and have your child's best interests at heart, and those professionals will put all of their considerable skills into convincing you of that.

    Busting out of that comfort zone means years and years of monitoring and researching and arguing and advocating and educating yourself and everybody else. It means people not liking you very much, much of the time. It means attending meetings that leave you shaking and hyperventilating and sobbing and so angry you could spit. It's not fun, and the worst part is that little voice in the back of your head whispering, "But what if they are right and you are wrong?"

    But really, honestly, between us? You have to step up anyway. You have to speak for your child. The kids who are not spoken for do not benefit. Not fun, this parenting stuff. Vital, though.

    The bottom line is, if you want to be a member of the team, then act like a member of the team. If you want to be accepted as the MVP you are, then be valuable. Get in the game. Your child will come out a winner.

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