By Melissa and Andrew Areffi
The Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is one of the most difficult educational tasks that parents of children with special educational needs may undertake.
Each year, thousands of first-time parents who are already carrying the heavy psychological and financial weight of their child’s diagnosis, walk unsuspectingly into their first IEP under the impression that they will dictate the outcome. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case.
Although parents can influence the outcome and services offered, ultimately, the IEP is based on what the school officials and their experts recommend. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have no say. You most certainly do! And if you disagree with the IEP, argue your point.
Helping your child get the most out of school by ensuring he or she gets the services he/she needs can only happen if YOU take charge of the IEP.
What is it?
The IEP is the Individualized Educational Program for a student with a disability. You may be asking yourself, what the heck is that and what does it mean? Well, in legal terms:
The IEP is a legally binding contract between you and your child’s school/school district that spells out which services and support will be provided, how they will be implemented, where, by whom and for how long.
Who is involved?
You will meet with the Principal or Assistant Principal, your child’s teacher, and various experts from the school that have evaluated your child and his needs from their previous services. For example, if your child has speech therapy, then the speech therapist will be there with her evaluation. If your child has a 1:1 aide, then the supervisor from the provider agency will be there for their assessment. If he has occupational therapy, then the occupational therapist will be there. The general education teacher will be there, and if they are talking about moving your child into general education, the inclusion specialist will be there. (The inclusion specialist is the person that determines whether your child is ready for general education.) There can be nearly a dozen people there when it’s all said and done, all believing they know what’s best for your child.
Why should I care?
Here’s a very important tidbit of information: if the specific terms of your child’s process are not written down in detail in the IEP, they do not exist. It doesn’t matter what is said or agreed or not agreed upon during the session. It’s what is written on that 30-plus page contract you and the assistant principal will sign. As the saying goes, “Trust but Verify.” And never sign the IEP while you’re sitting there. You have the right to take it home and look it over before signing. Even if the school surrenders completely and gives you everything you ask for, you still need to take it home to read. When you take it home, have your spouse/partner read it as well, to discuss what you want and if what you want is what is actually written in the contract. Most times, you can get an advocate or attorney to take a peek. If you can, by all means, do so. They are more likely to catch something you may have missed and know better if what is being offered is adequate for your child’s needs. The point is to always make sure that whatever you agreed to during the IEP is written in black and white on that contract. And make sure it’s specific. This is your child. If something goes wrong, it’s not any of the IEP team that will have to live with it in the long term. It is you and your child that will suffer. If it isn’t specific, then regardless of whether you and the IEP team remember what was agreed upon, if the district kicks it back, saying they won’t pay for it, you’re out of luck.
When should I contact them?
If your child was not a client of early intervention and has no preschool offer in place, then contact the school district’s Special Education Division of your state to see if they do offer a preschool program for At Risk Children. Almost every state has one. Do not think that because your child did not receive early intervention or has been denied School Age services from the regional center that they do not qualify for school-based services. In most cases, when they are denied for home-based services, they are referred to the Special Education branch. You can get school services without home services, but generally not vice-versa. If your child is already attending elementary school and you want to convene, there can be no IEP without an assessment.
If you had your child assessed, but were turned down for services, you may still qualify for School Services. The regional center should have referred you to the Special Education Division of the school district. Call your caseworker or the school district directly.
Where are they?
The IEP is done through the Special Education Division of the School District—the names may change from state to state/county to county. If your child is already attending school, the IEP will usually be held at his/her school of residence and conducted by the Vice Principal and other Special Education people. If your child has not started school or is transitioning from early intervention, the first IEP is sometimes held at a school somewhere within your district.
What do we ask for?
As with any contract negotiations, there’s wiggle room. Services are offered depending on your child’s particular strengths and weaknesses.
- Special Education: Placement in a special day class is pretty common. Sometimes, if your child is on the more severe side, they will recommend a special school placement. (If your child is higher functioning, check with your attorney or expert before accepting this. Remember, you want them to work toward general education, not away from it.) Placement can also be offered in another school if your home school doesn’t have the program there. If they do move your child away from their home school, you have the right to request a school bus to get your child there.
- Mainstreaming: Is your child ready to spend time in general education? Mainstreaming is pulling your child out of special education for a percentage of the day to spend part of the day in general education. Mainstreaming increases as tolerated, so they will put in the IEP something like 20% mainstreaming, (list subjects) to 40% by the end of the year, as tolerated. So, your child gets the minimum of 20%, but if he handles it well, can move up. You need to check on your child’s progress with both his teacher and assistant principal.
- Inclusion: Inclusion is your child is in the general population with accommodations for his disability. He may have to be pulled out for some subjects for special education, like math, or reading, for instance. His teacher may have to make accommodations for test taking. It’s something you will discuss with your IEP team and behavioral supervisor. Typically, they try to get them to inclusion by third or fourth grade.
- Speech Therapy: School-based speech is where your child is pulled out of class with a small group of children to work on speech issues.
- NPA Speech Therapy: Non-Public Speech. This is the district providing funding to send your child to a private speech agency. This is generally clinic based, and provided on a 1:1 basis, or 1:2 basis, with a speech pathologist. Before you decide to fight for this one, determine how much of an obstacle speech is for your child, and how many of his behaviors stem from the inability to communicate.
- Occupational Therapy: Does your child have a lot of sensory issues? Does he have problems with textures, or coordination? If so, then this is one you need to check out.
- Transportation: Are transportation arrangements necessary? If your child is bussed to another school out of your home school, then you definitely need to ask about this one. A lot of school districts are feeling the crunch and can no longer afford to offer transportation unless it can be proven necessary. Work with your child’s IEP team, or your attorney, to see if it’s possible. Additionally, you need to make sure that the bus driver is capable of handling children with special needs. Ultimately, it is your input and effort that will make all the difference in the world when putting together the IEP for your child. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard either, and it’s definitely worth it.
About “Navigating Autism”
Melissa and Andrew Areffi are the authors of “Navigating Autism: The Essential How-To By Parents For Parents,” and the parents of three children with autism. They have consulted for parents, schools, therapy companies and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. More information can be found online at www.NavAutism.com.