Parenting a child with an identified learning disability is an exercise in frequent and sustained advocacy. And perhaps one of the most confusing things these parents will have to navigate is the IEP—or Individualised Education Program—process. That’s the specialised educational to-do list parents and schools create to make sure a child with a disability is receiving specialised instruction and making progress. The plan defines your child’s educational needs, goals and objectives. And creating it can be overwhelming and intimidating.
Currently, more students are on an IEP than ever before: The Condition of Education 2018 report, issued by the Department of Education, found that 6.7 million students age 3 to 21 received special education during the 2015-16 school year, up from 6.6 million the previous academic year.
With so many children going through this process, how can a parent or guardian be sure that the individualised plan is the best one for their child, something that challenges them without setting up unrealistic expectations? Although specifics of the IEP process vary by state, there are some universal ways all parents can help ensure their child ends up with a suitable plan.
Prioritise the meetings and bring help
Yearly IEP meetings are typically held at the school before, during or after regular school hours. Legally, the school has to tell you a few things in writing, according to the Centre for Parent Information & Resources, a site for parents of children with disabilities. They must inform you of:
The meeting’s purpose
Its time and place
Who will be present (typically it’s the parent, a school administrator, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, evaluation personnel, and your child, if they are able to participate)
And that you can invite others with special knowledge or expertise about your child.
That final detail is an important one: The meeting can be overwhelming, so it’s helpful to have someone there to advocate for your child and support you as their parent, according to Understood, an organisation that provides resources for those who learn and think differently. It can be easy to miss details, and this second set of ears can pick up things you might miss.
Just be sure to let the school know you’re bringing another participant; you don’t want anyone to be surprised when you walk in with someone they’re not expecting. Keep in mind, too, that it may take more than a single meeting to create the program, so this first meeting may turn into two or more.
Be prepared for some tough stuff
As their parent, you know more about your child than anyone. You know their personality and what makes them laugh. You know what they’re good at and what they struggle with. You know all their unique qualities and complexities.
But during an IEP meeting, professionals might talk about your child in a manner that seems cold, and that can be jarring. The goals can seem unrealistic, especially for those with a more severe disability. Someone with, say, dyslexia might have an IEP that includes accommodations such as giving a student more time to take a test, which is logical and helpful. But for others, such as my brother, Joey—who has autism, is non-verbal and will always need round-the-clock care—IEP goals can difficult to define.
For example, an IEP draft from when Joey was about 13 stated, “When working on word recognition and reading, it is hard, at times, to know exactly what he does or does not know due to his lack of vocalisation … When Joey is asked to read the word, phrase, sentence it is hard to understand him to know if he is understanding all the words that he has read.”
Right. Joey is hard to understand. Because Joey can’t talk.
One goal discussed improving his “maths computation” skills, with six objectives including subtraction, counting by fives and telling time. Joey is currently 30 years old, and I’m pretty sure he can’t do any of this. Seeing those sorts of goals can make a parent feel like their child is being set up for failure, and you should be prepared to push back if necessary.
Focus on their strengths
The trick, which is not an easy one, is to remember that the facts of an IEP do not define your child. In a video produced by the Understood organisation, parent Amanda Morin says it took her a long time to be able to maintain a positive perspective while reviewing her child’s IEP:
It’s so hard to get out of that place of thinking that a diagnosis equals your child and to be able to look at that report and take a deep breath and realise, this is what we’re using to make sure he’s getting what he needs.
To help combat how tough it can be to see all of your child’s challenges written out, Morin, who has two kids with learning and attention challenges, says she writes her son’s strengths on the bottom of the report as a reminder of all he can do.