Who’s the child expert on the Team? Spoiler Alert: It’s you!
Your child is one of a kind. Maybe every parent thinks that about their kid, but from the moment you realized that your child learns or moves or communicates differently, you’ve been hard at work, trying to figure out what works best for your individual child. And the very minute you think you’ve got a clue, that’s when you get an email about registering for school. You only know how to make things work at home, but school? That’s another universe, one full of other kids and other grown ups and other expectations and challenges. You don’t know how to do school. But here’s the thing–nobody knows how to do school in the beginning. If anybody tells you otherwise, well, they’re…revisionists.
Most parents think parent involvement ends at field trips and teacher gifts, but, for good or for bad, you will know better, because as your child’s team puts together a program that works for your child, you’ll be there for every step of the way. And because being there means knowing what you’re doing and knowing what the school should be doing, that’s what we’re going to cover today. (Also? It’s okay to feel bad for those field trip/teacher gift parents, they can’t help that they’re so limited in what they can offer.)
Remember when you figured out what worked and what didn’t work for your child at home? This is a little bit like that, except that this is about what works and doesn’t work for your child in the school setting. You already know that you and your child won’t do school the way everybody else does school. What does that mean? It means that because your child does things differently, their school is required by law to do things differently, as well.
The first thing you need to know is that nobody starts off knowing what they’re doing, and that everybody starts off confused and scared and absolutely certain that they’ll never understand what they need to do. It’s okay to be all of those things at first, but the sooner you figure things out, the better off you and your child will be. The second thing your need to know is that special education is not about doing your child a favor. Special education is your child’s right under a federal law known as The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Here’s why IDEA was put in place:
(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.
So, how do we get started? Maybe your child received early intervention services and their school already has an idea as to what kind of supports they’ll need, but maybe it’s not so cut and dried. Either way, understanding how to ask for and receive help from your child’s school is where you begin.
I wish I could tell you that this process has been tweaked and simplified and streamlined to perfection over the many years since IDEA was first put in place, but, well, I can’t tell you that. The process is long and complicated and it’s often downright confusing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fundamental to your child’s success, but here’s the simplified version: First, your child’s school will collect data (observe/gather information) about your child’s learning challenges. This usually involves comprehensive evaluations (very detailed assessments) to determine the full range of your child’s needs. This is done by a team of school professionals that often includes teachers, counselors, therapists, and administrators. Once they’ve done all that, the team will want to meet with you to explain the data and the evaluations, and figure out whether the findings mean your child qualifies for special education services. If your child qualifies for services, the team will meet with you again to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that outlines the goals and services your child needs in order to make progress.
And you may be wondering why the professionals want to meet with you; after all, you’re just a parent, right? Wrong. So wrong. Not only are you an equal member of your child’s IEP team, you’re the best thing that could happen to that team and do you know why? It’s because you are a singularly incomparable expert on your child. See? You’re one of a kind, too.
What does the team want from you? Well, there’s a very complicated, answer and there’s a very uncomplicated answer. Let’s start with the complicated answer:
The team wants you to
(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.
But look, here’s the uncomplicated answer:
The team wants you to:
Talk to them about your child. They want you to tell them all about that kid. They want you to answer their questions and help them to make decisions about how to educate and serve your child. And isn’t that really and truly something you’ve been doing for your child’s whole life already?
Keep in mind that just because you’re an expert, that doesn’t mean that your job is easy. It’s never easy to talk about your child’s struggles and weaknesses, and you’re not supposed to be objective, so if you get emotional, that’s perfectly okay. After all, being an expert doesn’t make you a machine. Please don’t ever let anyone on the team make you feel bad for acting like a parent, okay? The IEP team is only the IEP team until they turn off the lights and go home to their own families, but being a parent is who you are for every hour of every day, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Sometimes schools don’t get that and sometimes they can be difficult to work with, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
They need you. Don’t let them treat you like you’re anything other than what you are. You’re the expert.
Never IEP Alone!