I went into my son’s IEP evaluation and eligibility meeting more unprepared than I care to admit. We were just weeks off his autism diagnosis and my mind was overloaded with everything that was going on. I am one of countless parents who were treated unfairly and talked down to during these initial meetings. I left the meetings frustrated, confused and angry. Today, I am here to help you navigate your child’s first few IEP meetings so the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
Before the Evaluation
I cannot recommend the book, From Emotions to Advocacy enough. IEP meetings can be very frustrating and confusing. Knowledge is power and this book is full of useful information. It is also in your best interest to familiarize yourself with special education law. Wrightslaw Special Education Law Second Edition is a good book to have on hand. Read both beforehand.
Contact STEP-TN. Don’t live in TN? Every state has some sort of a parent advocate organization. Find it. Let them know your child is waiting on an IEP evaluation and you would like their assistance in navigating the meetings. Ask for Joey Ellis if you are in Nashville Metro.
Plan to bring a notebook and take notes during meetings. Make note of the date and who was there. Better yet- bring someone with you whose only job is to take notes. If it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Keep notes of everything. If you make a request, write it down. If a team member belittles you and your ideas, document it.
Plan to bring reinforcements. If your child already has a speech therapist, ABA therapist, etc, ask one of them to come with to help advocate. Bring your spouse, bring anyone who knows your child so you don’t have to sit alone.
The Evaluation Meeting
This is a 3ish hour appointment that takes place at a school in your district. The IEP team will consist of a handful of men or women- special education teachers, school psychologist, speech language pathologist, etc depending on the needs of your child. The most important person on the IEP team is you. Yes, you are on the team. The education professionals will interact with your child while performing a series of tests. You will answer questions and fill out paperwork.
Know this! If you bring an outside evaluation of any kind, the school must consider it during their evaluation. I brought evaluations from James’ speech therapist (one based on his general speech and language and another one where she observed his social communication in his school), his occupational therapist, a classroom observation from his school teacher and his ADOS evaluation from his psychologist. Don’t assume they read anything. If there is something in the evaluation that you feel is important-show it to them. Tell them to add it to their file.
After the evaluation, the team will agree on a time to meet next to go over the results and discuss eligibility.
The Evaluation Results and Eligibility
A few weeks later you will come in again with your child to go over the results of all the paperwork and tests. The staff will discuss their evaluation results. The school may try to get you to sign that you agree to their evaluation then and there- don’t. Take it home. I highly recommend you have an advocate from STEP-TN look over every word of the document first. Make sure you agree with their evaluation. My evaluation team didn’t want to put that my son has autism on his evaluation. Seriously?! There is no law that says you have to sign an agreement the day of your meeting. In fact, most states say you have 30 days.
You also have the right to obtain a separate evaluation of your child if you disagree with the evaluation from your school district. This must be provided at no cost to you.
Determining whether or not your child qualifies for special education should be made as a team. It is against the law for them to make this decision without you.
Developing the IEP
If eligible for special education, the next step is to develop your child’s IEP. The law clearly states the the parent should help develop the IEP. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise. During my son’s meeting, they tried to get me to sign and agree to the evaluation, eligibility and IEP without seeing any of it! I refused and stood my ground and won that battle.
The IEP should include at minimum the following:
- The child’s disability
- The child’s strengths and weaknesses: go into detail here!
- How the disability adversely impacts the child’s education
- Present levels of academic performance: include test scores, evaluations, etc. Be specific!
- Goals and objectives
- Long term goals
Feel free to take time between this meeting and developing the IEP. Contact STEP-TN and have them help. This will give you a chance to talk to other parents and pick their brains about IEP goals that may also suit your child. You play a very important role in developing your child’s IEP! Do not let them make this without your input. Does your child need a visual schedule to help him get through the day? Write that into their IEP. Sensory breaks? Request it. When you meet again to develop the IEP, bring someone with you who can help.
All goals should be measurable and include benchmarks and short term objectives. The goals should focus on reducing the child’s problems. The short term objectives should provide you and the teacher ways to measure educational progress. If a teacher tells you, “they are making great progress!”- this is just an opinion, but if you measure your child’s progress using objective measures, you know whether they are actually learning and benefiting from the IEP. If your child is not learning and making progress-measured objectively- then the IEP needs to be revised. Goals are fluid. They can be adjusted and changed at any time by simply calling for another IEP meeting. At minimum, goals need to be addressed every year, but do not let an entire year go by without revisiting them. This isn’t fair to your child. I suggest getting a detailed progress report at least every 9 weeks.
Remember: an IEP shouldn’t just help your child “keep up”. It should work with their strengths, build on and expand those strengths to help overcome their weaknesses.
The IEP team (again, you are part of this team) then decides placement. LRE (least restrictive environment) is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). IDEA says that children who receive special education should learn in the LRE. This means they should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education. The school district cannot use a “one size fits all” approach to educating children who have disabilities. Placement looks different for different children. Every classroom will reflect the style of the teacher as well as the needs of the students in it so ask to visit different classes so you can decide if it would be a good fit for your child.
Placement decisions must be visited annually and should be as close to the child’s home as possible. It may not be based on the location of staff, on the funds that are available, or on the convenience of the school district. The law clearly states all of this.
The law states that you may file a complaint on any matter relating to a proposal or refusal to initiate or change the evaluation or educational placement of your child. You are part of your child’s IEP team and should have say in your child’s placement.
The law is on your side and there to protect your child! It gives you the right to make educational decisions for your child. Use this power! If you don’t agree with the evaluation they wrote up, say so. Doesn’t sound like your child? Say so. If the school decides your child is eligible for X service but you feel they need Y, say so.
The depth of your knowledge and expertise about your child can never be matched by someone evaluating your child. Never, ever let anyone make you think otherwise.