Parents are Equal Partners

Your child learns differently. Perhaps you knew your child had a disability at birth, or they missed developmental milestones which led to an evaluation during the pre-K years. Many other parents don’t know their child has a disability until they enter school and start to struggle. No matter when or how your child enters the Special Education process it is vital you know how the system works and your role in the process.

image: Five people at a conference table. Laptops are open in front of three seated participants (one man and two women); another woman has an open notebook and a cup of coffee; a man is standing and shaking hands with a seated woman across the table.

Federal law protects children with disabilities and guarantees them the right to be educated along with children who do not have disabilities.  This law is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act and it was originally passed in 1975 and last reauthorized in 2004.  The most important part of the law for families to know and understand is the Purpose:

(a) To ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living;

(b) To ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected;

The process for getting help from the school is often long and complicated. Simply having a medical diagnosis does not mean a child needs or will get extra help in school. The school will collect data about your child’s learning challenges, perform comprehensive evaluations to determine the full range of your child’s needs, and then meet with you to determine if your child is eligible for special education services. If your child qualifies, the team will meet to write an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to outline the goals and services necessary for your child to make progress. You are an equal partner on the IEP team.

Parents of a child with a disability are expected to be equal participants along with school personnel, in developing, reviewing, and revising the IEP for their child. This is an active role in which the parents:

(1) provide critical information regarding the strengths of their child and express their concerns for enhancing the education of their child;

(2) participate in discussions about the child’s need for special education and related services and supplementary aids and services; and

(3) join with the other participants in deciding how the child will be involved and progress in the general curriculum and participate in State and district-wide assessments, and what services the agency will provide to the child and in what setting.

The overall goal is to maintain an equal and respectful partnership between schools and families.

Are you overwhelmed yet?  Most parents find working with the school to be difficult. Talking about your child’s weaknesses is emotional. Further, understanding the education jargon; and the layers of laws, policies and rules; along with navigating the politics of the school district does not make parents feel ready to be an equal partner.

In 1982, when special education had been in existence less than a decade, researchers Turnbull and Turnbull wrote about the Professionalization of Parents. Their study showed parents are expected and allowed to be:

  • Education Decision Makers
    • Advocates
    • Teachers
    • Case Managers
    • Program Evaluators

They also stated, “This however does not absolve professionals of their professional responsibilities.”

Today, parents still have all of those rights and responsibilities. You are the primary decision-maker for everything related to your child’s education although it doesn’t always feel that way when you are working with the school team.

In an IEP meeting, the entire team is supposed to be focused on your child’s unique needs; lack of resources, training or unwillingness to set a precedent are not valid reasons to refuse to serve your child appropriately. However, often you are caught in a tug of war. The school must consider the needs of every student in the school and determine how to best use their resources to serve all the children. The parents’ job is to focus solely on negotiating on their child’s behalf. The opposite positions of the two sides create a tension in every meeting and in some situations leads to adversarial confrontation. You can see why your child needs you to be present and advocate for them.

You can prepare to be an equal partner by learning the rules and technical terms of the special education system, understanding the purpose and flow of an IEP meeting, and most importantly, gathering data about your child’s strengths, weaknesses and priority educational needs to share in the meeting. Knowledge is power. We have prepared a worksheet (sign up for access to our Resources) to help you collect information about your child’s present levels of functioning and put together your input to share with the school team.  You can do this! You can represent your child and be a part an important part of their education team and we’re here to help guide and support you on the journey.

Once you’ve identified your child’s priority needs you must think about how to resolve the issues. What questions should you ask? What suggestions should you make? What options should you refuse? Here are a few examples to help you frame your situation.

Your Position: You want your child to be with kids without disabilities as much as possible.

The School’s Position: They propose a self-contained separate class placement for the full school day where your child will spend all day with only children with disabilities except for lunchtime.

Next Step:  Make it clear this isn’t what you want for your child. Share that your understanding is the law requires the team to discuss the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) which maximizes time with non-disabled peers.  Direct the conversation by asking how you can work with the team to create supports and services for your child to spend more time with their non-disabled peers.

If the team refuses to consider your request, ask them to put the refusal in writing on a Prior Written Notice (PWN) form. The PWN requires the school to tell you why they said no and what they will do instead to meet your child’s needs.

Your Position:  Your child can’t read. Your child has spent two years in a separate special education class for reading but she isn’t making progress. You have a new private evaluation showing she has dyslexia. Your goal is to have your child reading on grade level. You want a multi-sensory, systematic program specifically designed to teach children with a print disability how to read that is delivered one-on-one or in a very small group on a daily basis.

The School’s Position: The school agrees she has a learning disability but refuses to call it dyslexia. They want to continue in the self-contained classroom and add more time on the new computer-based program they just spent millions of dollars purchasing. They cannot provide research-based evidence their program will remediate your child’s specific reading difficulty, but they insist since her score went up a few points on the last diagnostic test that she is starting to make progress.

Next Step: Review and analyze the data you have collected about your child’s reading services for the past two years.  Compare the original testing that was done when your child entered special education to the updated scores from your private evaluation. Has your child made sufficient progress? Is she on par with her non-disabled peers?

Do you have other data from the school such as classroom based tests, standardized tests and work samples? What does this other information reveal about your child’s progress? 

Has your child mastered her IEP goals? If not, why? What data has the school presented to support the progress they ae reporting?

Develop a list of questions to ask the school team based on the data you have analyzed. The school team has a responsibility to explain anything you don’t understand regarding information they provided. Your child’s present levels of performance and priority education needs drive the IEP goals, services and placement. Make sure the school lists all of the relevant data you have compiled that provides the picture of your child’s current abilities. If you can’t get the school team to agree with your suggestion of how to serve your child, at least get your request on record, a written refusal and a written explanation of what they are presenting to help your child make progress. Pay close attention to how progress will be measured, who is responsible for reporting, and how often it will be reported to you. You want more frequent reporting, such as every week, if the school is going to provide services you are questioning. Sometimes it is worthwhile to allow them to try the new program for four to six weeks and see how it is working, and then reconvene a meeting to discuss other options if you aren’t seeing progress.

What do you want? Always know the answer to that question before you walk into a meeting. Knowing your desired outcome directs the conversation and allows you to know what you can agree to in the negotiation and what is a flat out no. Remember, you are the final decision-maker for your child.

Never IEP Alone!