One of the great gifts in my life has been my two children, both of whom have had challenges that would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I have been an active leader among special education parent advocacy groups in my community, and I want to share some of what I have learned.
As a parent or caregiver, it can be incredibly stressful to learn that your child’s school does not see your child’s needs the same way that you do. It takes humility and courage to resolve these types of disagreements. Humility, because it is crucial to listen to the school as well as outside experts to try to be as neutral and unbiased as possible. Courage, because ultimately the parent is the one who will be by a child’s side throughout their lives — and so it is important for us to find our voice.
The following tips have helped me to deal with the times when the IEP team is not in agreement.
Knowing My Rights
Thanks to many hours of parent workshops, I have learned that my questions and concerns are a fundamental part of the IEP development process. An IEP can be developed without including all of the considerations I have raised, but the school must explain why they have rejected my input.
Different states have different laws about whether a parent must accept or reject an IEP in full, or or whether partial rejections (kind of a line item veto) are allowed. In Massachusetts, the Federation for Children with Special Needs offers many trainings that cover the basics of parents/guardians’ legal rights. You can also learn a lot from Wrightslaw.
Establishing the Facts
Parent/caregiver perceptions of what the child needs are inherently subjective. This is also true of the perceptions that teachers and school staff may have of a child based on their behavior and how they present themselves. Arguing about a child’s strengths, weaknesses and needs is not a good use of anyone’s time — there is enough we need to do to figure out how to help them succeed.
To cut through any misperceptions, I have found it best to focus on objective facts, making key data as tangible as possible. This can mean asking the school to do more testing or obtaining a more in-depth evaluation by an outside expert. In either case, the goal will be to obtain a neutral, closer look at what is going on for my child. I frequently use charts and graphs to show my child’s performance over time, in order to document how they are doing compared to grade level expectations.
Read my free templates post to find some formats you can try for this purpose.
Elevating my child’s voice
There are a few different ways that I have brought my child’s voice into an IEP team meeting. When a child turns 14, they are invited to all or part of IEP meetings. Before the meeting, I have a brief conversation to help make sure my child understands what will be talked about at the meeting, and to take notes on what they find most challenging and helpful at school. An important benefit of including them in IEP meetings is that it de-stigmatizes their learning differences and normalizes concepts such as accommodations, which they may need to advocate for in their future lives.
When my children were younger, I sometimes brought in quotes from them, and even a video to capture their perspective on school. This has been a powerful way to keep the focus on the child and break through any adult-to-adult dynamics that can arise over time.
Behavior can also provide feedback. When I can see that my child is struggling, I will sometimes send emails to multiple team members to loop them in on what is happening in real time. This provides a source of evidence that something needs to change.
Trying to be reasonable
This does not mean letting go of things my child needs. What it means is that there are many different models and structures for offering support and the purpose of a team meeting is to collaborate on solutions.
There have been situations where I was able to visit a classroom and ask a lot of questions, becoming persuaded that the school’s approach would work just fine. In other situations, I may have been too trusting, and wish I’d pushed harder and followed my gut. It will never be perfect, but law protects the parent’s voice throughout this process.