When my son was in first grade, my husband and I were called in for a conference at his school. To our amazement, his teacher told us that she was worried about Billy: he seemed miserable at school, didn't want to play with his peers and was unable to focus on any tasks other than math.
This was not the happy, outgoing child we experienced in our home, so we knew there was a problem. Billy couldn't tell us what was wrong, and it took us over a year to learn that he was dyslexic. Having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was a big part of the process.
Does My Child Need an IEP?
An IEP is a customized program of education prepared for each public school child who receives special education and related services. The IEP is a legal document educators must follow.
There are essentially two types of situations in which children need IEPs. The first is the more straightforward one, since it involves children who have been diagnosed early on with an obvious disability, such as Down syndrome or autism.
The second is much more complicated, and not at all as obvious. In my son's case, he looked like all the other children in his class; his disability was invisible. An IEP in this type of situation happens because a parent or a teacher suspects that something is wrong: your child is struggling at school or behaving in ways you don't understand.
If your child is having problems at school and you've already done all that you can in terms of working with the classroom teacher, then it's time to take the next step in obtaining the support your child needs. As a parent of a public school child, you have the right to request that your child be assessed for learning disabilities. Alternatively, your child's teacher may make a written referral to the school district.
Note: if your child has special needs, your local public school is required by law to meet those needs. Any student attending a school that receives public funds of any sort is guaranteed a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE).
Ingrid Tischer, director of development for the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, adds that your request must be in writing and that, if necessary, the district is legally required to help a parent put in writing his or her request for a special education evaluation.
Tischer explains: "Once the district receives a referral for evaluation, it must do one of two things within 15 calendar days: agree to assess and give the parent an assessment plan to sign; or, if the district determines that there is not sufficient reason to do an assessment, inform the parent in writing, using a special form called Prior Written Notice, explaining why they don't think assessment is appropriate, giving specific reasons for that decision."
Seeking an Assessment
If the district does agree to evaluate your child, it must complete its assessments in no more than 60 calendar days, excluding breaks. Parental permission is required in order to administer these assessments, which should cover all areas related to the suspected disability: cognitive, social/emotional, psychomotor, speech and language. Most importantly, you have the right to see the results of this testing at least two days before your IEP meeting.
Take time to thoroughly review the assessment results and jot down anything you don't understand or have questions about. Also, remember that you are an expert on your child: spend time reflecting on who your child is.
Once all the assessments are completed, a coordinator from the district will set up a meeting for the IEP team, which of course includes you, the parent. The IEP is a written document that describes any accommodations, modifications or related services needed in order to receive an appropriate education.
Preparing for the IEP Meeting
Linda McNulty, a parent advocate and special education paralegal with the California Concerned Parents Association, a statewide association of parents of children with special needs, offers some suggestions: "I highly recommend that parents take an advocate with them to the IEP meeting if they are not savvy about their rights. The laws are very complicated."
If a parent is unable to get an advocate, McNulty suggests getting the information needed from www.wrightslaw.com, which gives the federal guidelines for IEPs, and from "Special Education Rights and Responsibilities" a document from Disability Rights California (DRC), for California guidelines. (Resources sidebar)
In addition, if you are bringing an attorney, or planning to record the meeting (a really good idea), you must give the district at least 24 hours notice. If you are bringing outside information to the meeting, try to get it to the team ahead of time.
Maggie Roberts, a lawyer with the Oakland office of Disability Rights California, offers the following tips for parents as they prepare for their IEP meeting:
1. Get organized. Bring in as much information as you can, including the obvious items – your child's progress reports, testing, attendance and any notes you've kept, but also any doctor's reports and communications from an after-school program or other extra-curricular activity.
2. Look through all your child's academic records, so that you know specifically where there have been problems. Highlight and point out, if helpful, documentation in the school records of the child's needs such as concentration, problems with math, etc., and ask that these be addressed in the IEP. Become an expert on your child.
3. Request that a particular person who knows your child and your child's needs be invited to the IEP meeting. Maybe there is a teacher, a teacher's aide or a yard attendant who knows your child well.
4. Know your rights, and let the rest of the IEP team be aware of this. Bring the DRC's "Special Education Rights and Responsibilities" manual with you to the meeting.
5. Make sure that you are heard. It's easy to feel intimidated, but if you don't understand something, ask questions. The world of education is full of jargon and acronyms that not even all lawyers or teachers understand.
6. If you are feeling overwhelmed, ask to take a short break, so that you can step outside and breathe easy. Or you can request that the meeting be rescheduled, something that must happen within 30 days, if you feel you need to go home and read up some more.
7. If you don't agree with the assessment, you can ask for an Independent Education Evaluation, to be performed by a professional who is not part of the district. Your request should be in writing, and do keep a copy of it. In this letter, it's important to point out why you are in disagreement; for this wording, you may need the help of an attorney.
8. Federal law requires that parents give "informed consent," so as you have to understand what you are signing. And don't let your district say that the IEP team thinks one thing, but the parent doesn't agree. Parents are an integral part of the IEP team.
Attending the IEP Meeting
At the meeting, the IEP team – consisting of the student's parents, teachers and other personnel responsible for implementing the plan – reviews all the information (formal testing, outside medical reports if available, informal data gathering, observations, teacher and parent input, report cards, etc.) in order to create an education plan based on your child's specific needs. These are very broad descriptive labels that help the team determine the general category into which a student's challenges fit. Regardless of the category, the student needs individualized, outcome-driven interventions, so it is important to make sure that the challenges are appropriately identified.
McNulty advises that parents suggest bringing the meeting to a close 20 minutes early, in order to review all the notes with everyone present.
"If something is inaccurate, it's virtually impossible to change it later," she explains. And be aware that you don't have to sign the IEP at the meeting. If there are parts that you disagree with or think more needs to be included, or if you're just not sure, don't sign. Alternatively, you can sign to accept part, but not all, of the IEP. You should also ask for a copy to take home with you to review.
If a child's parents and school district cannot agree on an IEP, the next step is "due process." This can take various forms: a resolution session, mediation or formal hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings in Sacramento. McNulty believes that parents need an attorney as they head into due process, if they want to be successful. If they can't afford a lawyer, there are other options such as a parent advocate or a paralegal. Sometimes attorneys will take on a case without charging fees up-front; if a family is successful, they are legally entitled to have their attorney fees reimbursed by the district.
Living With the IEP
Once the IEP is written, your child's school is responsible for making sure it is followed. The IEP is an annual document. Your child will have a yearly meeting to review his progress and to develop a new IEP for the upcoming year, as necessary. As a high school teacher, I've been involved in many of these; they are very detailed, include the student in the meeting and can last several hours.
Every three years, your child will undergo a full re-assessment to determine whether he is still eligible for special education.
Loni Allen, with Parents Helping Parents in San Jose, has this advice for parents: "Work on keeping the lines of communication open with school staff. Try to maintain good positive relationships with school personnel. Be sure to use their expertise and ask them to explain things you don’t understand."
She adds that, starting at a young age, you should begin thinking of your child’s self-advocacy skills. These skills will be critical as your child gets older and especially once he or she leaves special education eligibility.
Parenting a child with learning disabilities can be emotionally exhausting and stressful for parents. Learning coping strategies is really important. I found it wonderfully helpful to contact other parents in my situation; this provided me with an invaluable support system.
And the good news: after years of struggling with dyslexia, my son overcame the odds, went to college, graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is now a National Park Ranger. I am so proud of him!
Disability Rights California: www.disabilityrightsca.org/about/OCRA.htm
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund: dredf.org
Community Alliance for Special Education: www.caseadvocacy.org
Parents Helping Parents: www.php.com
California Concerned Parents Association: www.californiaconcernedparents.org/cacpa_intro.html
California Department of Education: Special Education Parents' Rights: www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/qa/pssummary.asp
Judy Molland, a Redwood City freelance writer and teacher, writes frequently about education for Bay Area Parent.