When her daughter was in second grade, Dayton mom Melissa S. knew that something wasn’t quite right. “She was inconsistent with her grades and wasn’t keeping up,” she recalls. Suspecting a learning disability, Melissa took her daughter to a psychologist to be tested, where she was diagnosed with ADHD. Following this, Melissa and her daughter met with the school to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
“She’s allowed a longer time period to finish testing, and breaks during class if necessary [under her IEP]” says Melissa. Her daughter is also assigned an intervention specialist to assist her in the classroom as needed.
While she’s now very familiar with all things IEP-related, Melissa says she wishes she’d known more when her daughter was first diagnosed. Between the meetings, acronyms and testing, the IEP process can seem overwhelming for many parents.
What is an IEP?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that guides how states, school districts and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to children with disabilities. Under IDEA, when a child is suspected of having a learning disability, schools must follow a process called Response to Intervention, or RTI. This is the evaluation process that determines whether or not a student has a learning disability as defined by the school.
If the evaluation determines that there is a disability that adversely affects the child’s education, an IEP is developed for the student. The IEP outlines specific goals teachers will work on with the student, what instruction will need to take place to help the child meet the IEP’s goals, and how much time/services the child needs.
Who is in the IEP meeting?
The student’s IEP is developed during a meeting with a team of professionals from the school. Frank Eaton, Special Education Supervisor at Oakwood City Schools, says that in addition to the parents and a general education teacher, this team includes an intervention specialist and a district representative (usually a principal or special education administrator). If the student is 13 or older, Eaton says he or she can attend the meeting as well.
Plan on meeting for 30 minutes to two hours, says Eaton. Once the IEP is in place, the team will reconvene if changes need to be made. “An IEP is a ‘living’ document,” explains Eaton, “there can be amendments made to its goals, services and accommodations.” If no amendments are made, Eaton says the IEP will be applicable for one calendar year minus one day, or 364 days.
What should parents ask?
Nancy Tolley, a former school psychologist, says that parents should come into an IEP meeting ready to talk. “By the time they get to the IEP meeting, parents hopefully have talked with teachers, intervention specialists or speech/language pathologists. The IEP process should be a continuation [of this discussion] versus a totally unfamiliar process.”
Tolley suggests parents ask the following questions during their meeting:
How will things change for my child?
Who will he/she be working with and for how long/how often?
How will we [parents and the IEP team] be in touch?
What will change in grading, in homework assignments, in classroom work?
How often will we reconvene?
Laurie Rodgers, a Step Up Teacher at Trumpet Behavioral Health, says it is helpful for parents to come well-prepared for this meeting. “The Ohio Department of Education has some great resources that parents can utilize to learn about an IEP,” she says. “Parents should educate themselves of their rights and what their child legally has access to.”
Finally, when developing your child’s IEP, be sure to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense. “Educators often forget that they can speak a special ‘educationalese’ so parents should ask for explanations if there’s anything they don’t understand,” advises Tolley.
How can I help my child?
As a parent, you have a special understanding of your child, so if you have concerns don’t hesitate to share them. “Although the school staff has the pedagogical knowledge, no one knows your child better than you,” says Eaton, “and that expertise is vital to the IEP team.”
Melissa adds these thoughts: “Parents are the most important advocates for their children and are vital to the intervention process. The younger the issue is caught, the better. My daughter had the best intervention team in elementary school – and is flourishing now at her grade level.”