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6 Tips for a Successful IEP

Eileen Shaklee, mom to a 13-year-old boy and the blogger behind Autism with a Side of Fries, shares her best advice for making the most of your child’s individualized education program.


Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com / Weekend Images Inc.

There’s something about hearing the words “IEP Meeting” that gets parents/caregivers of special needs children into an emotional tizzy. I will be the first to admit I’ve been one of those parents. The Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a document that allows a special education student to get a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Determining what those needs are is where this gets tricky and probably where the “IEP Meeting” gets its bad reputation.

But it doesn’t have to be scary! Yes, there is a lot of work involved. Yes, you don’t always get what you want. You can, however, learn from my mistakes. My son is 13 and has had an IEP for the last ten years. That’s a whole lot of paperwork filed, laughter and tears around the IEP table, along with a bunch of lessons learned. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way:

School is not the enemy. It’s really easy to view teachers and administrators as such but it’s not the case. Think about it. Would you really in good conscience send your darling child, the light of your life, off to the arms of the enemy every day? No! Of course not. You know this. So it’s really important to remember that walking into an IEP meeting. Maybe it’s because some of the stuff is hard to hear from them. Maybe it’s because in the past you didn’t get what you requested for your kid. Maybe you’ve heard just one too many IEP horror stories from other parents. It’s important to remember that the professionals sitting around that table are all there for the same reason you are. For your kid! I know many parents have felt intimidated walking into a conference room surrounded by multiple school staff members. At one meeting we had 14 people around a tiny table all looking at my husband and myself. I had to remind myself that they were merely a part of my son’s entourage, just like me, and I walked to the head of that table and sat right on down. I’m part of that team, too. I'll take my seat at that table because I belong there.

IEPs aren’t just about academic goals. You can get all sorts of issues addressed including life skills, basic hygiene, and even social skills development. The coolest thing about an IEP is what the “I” stands for: “individual.” Does your child need help with toilet training? Well, guess what? You can add that into an IEP. Yes, you absolutely can. What better way to address challenging issues than to make sure that everyone involved with your child is doing the exact same thing. I've even had teachers add things like trying new foods and cooking simple meals to promote independence. Even though it’s about what your child is going to work on learning this year, it doesn’t have to be confined to what he will learn from a textbook.

The best question you can ask at an IEP meeting is “Why?” Why, you may ask? (See what I did there?) It’s a simple stepping off point to start a conversation. “Why are these behaviors happening in the classroom?” “Why haven’t previous solutions worked?” I find that by asking lots of “Why?” questions, it gets the information on the table. Like, “Why can’t my kid have more speech or occupational therapy?” Once there is a conversation going, we can work as a team to come up with a solution that makes everyone happy or at least willing to live with it for a little and be revisited later.

You can call for an IEP review meeting as many times as you wish. It isn’t just once a year and that’s it. If you feel there are issues that need to be addressed or changes in your child’s behavior that might impede her progress, by all means, call for a team meeting. Chances are your child’s teacher will have observed these behaviors too. They want to hear from us.  They may have our kids till 3 o’clock but they know who is doing all the hours in between and it’s us.

You should bring whoever you like to your child’s IEP meeting. There is so much information to cover at these meetings. Having another pair of eyes and ears with you will help to make sure nothing is missed. It can be your spouse, a family friend, or even an IEP advocate. What’s an IEP advocate you ask? Well, that person can be either a teacher, therapist or even a parent of an older kid who've had many years of IEPs experience under her belt. Ask other parents in your child’s class for recommendations or inquire at special needs support groups. 

Make your child part of the process. It is all about them after all. When your child is older (around 13), start having him attend the meeting or at least a portion of it. It’s a good reminder to everyone seated at that table why you are all there in the first place. It’s also an excellent opportunity to teach self-advocacy to your child.

Bonus tip! Even if everything sounds wonderful at the meeting, don’t sign the IEP at the meeting. Take it home. Read through everything. If you have questions, call your case manager. Be aware though that in New Jersey, an IEP goes into effect after 14 school days so there’s still plenty of time to answer questions you may have or tweak it. 

Autism is a trip New Jersey mom Eileen Shaklee didn't plan on, but she sure does love her tour guide. Join her adventures with a side of sarcasm (and fries) at Autism With a Side of Fries or on Facebook and Twitter.

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