Any parent knows that there is no official parenting handbook. We’re all just winging it, googling it, and trial and error. For parents of kids with additional needs, this couldn’t be truer. From navigating complex medical issues, behavioral anomalies, etc., the paperwork and processes are tiresome and arduous before they’ve even started school. Then, just when you think you may have it all figured out, school starts, and a new process begins. The problem with these systems is that the industry leaders have years of knowledge; it’s what they do for a living. But it’s up to the parents to navigate this unfamiliar system with no prior training, no handbook, and often little to no support. It can feel like representing yourself at a trial you have no previous knowledge of.
Many expressed how concerning, anxiety-inducing, and fear-provoking the initial special education evaluation and IEP meetings can be with parents. For parents, each year, this meeting can feel like they’re starting fresh. Advocating for your child is exhausting and frustrating. The IEP is complicated, and collaborating with school staff and the parameters set for them is overwhelming. School staff feels they are walking on eggshells around the parents, and parents often feel unheard. But it doesn’t have to be so daunting. Here is a breakdown of an IEP, what it means, where to begin, and essential things to remember as you embark (again) on this process.
We spoke with both parents, and an experienced LRT in the Ontario School system, Ms. McNulty, LRT (Learning resource teacher), for her expertise.
What is an IEP? (Individualized Education Plan)
An IEP is a written legal working document that functions like a roadmap laying out the modified education plan with instruction, supports, and services your child will receive to progress and thrive during the school year. It includes measurable goals and operates on a timeline.
Being a legal working document means that it can be changed at any time and that the strategies and services included MUST be accommodated. The school’s principal is legally bound to ensure that all aspects of the IEP are being met and addressed.
It operates as a ground rules tool for the child’s team. It means the team will uphold the responsibilities of the plan to ensure the help is provided to allow the student to meet their goals stated in the document, which will enable them to progress through the curriculum.
In short, a document that explains how your child will receive assistance at school that is catered specifically to them so they can complete the curriculum (or adjusting the curriculum goals to meet where they’re at)
Feel free to write on the IEP – write out your questions and concerns next to what bothers you. Then, bring this IEP to the meetings and share your concerns. Knowing your child’s IEP will allow you to make sure they are receiving what they should.
Two types of IEP’s
While there are little to no differences in the documents themselves, there are two types of IEP’s. The purpose and practicality of the document are the same. The main difference is how the student arrived at requiring the IEP and the legality of it, more on that after we review the two types:
Your child may receive an Identified IEP. This means they have been formally identified as requiring an individual plan. This formal identification usually comes in a diagnosis (deaf, learning disability, low vision, behavior, intellectual disability, etc.)
The school identifies this type of IEP. It’s when the teacher/ team feels that there are areas where your child may benefit from a significant change to the program to thrive.
The difference between the two is, if your child is identified, they’re required by law to have access to an IEP, regardless of the school. However, a non-identified IEP remains within the school, so if the child changes schools, the IEP isn’t legally binding at the next school; it’s then up to the discretion of the new school to decide whether the child will receive an IEP.
What is an IEP meeting?
Any child who is receiving an IEP will have a meeting involving the entire team. Again, the IEP is a legal working document and should be produced by the school with the assistance and input of the child’s parents or guardians. Many parents get nervous about the IEP meeting, and it does have a stereotype of not being a good experience, being a frustrating and challenging process for parents. (But then, isn’t that true of any time we need to advocate for our kids) Below, we’ll include our tips for navigating the IEP meeting that won’t make your pits sweat.
“We all want your child to be happy and successful at school. You know your child best. Your thoughts, views, and concerns are important too. The school team has to work within the parameters of the Board, but we will try our best to do what we can for you”.
Glossary of terms you may hear in an IEP meeting.
Teachers have their own jargon and acronyms often forget that these aren’t common knowledge outside of the educator’s world. Here are a few to be aware of:
IPRC (Identification, Placement & Review Committee)
An IPRC is a committee that meets and decides if a student should be identified as requiring additional support per the Ministry of Education guidelines. This review board holds a meeting with the parents to discuss, and from there, with IEP process begins. These meetings happen once a year for as long as your child is in school.
“Accommodated only (AC) is the term used on the IEP form to identify subjects or courses from the curriculum in which the student requires accommodations alone to work towards achieving the regular grade expectations” In Short, an accommodated IEP means that the curriculum expectations are not altered, and your child is working at grade level. The accommodations are listed in the ‘accommodation’ section of the IEP.
The IEP box on report cards should not be checked for this type of IEP.
“Modified” Modifications are changes made in the age-appropriate grade-level expectations for a subject or course to meet a student’s learning needs. Ms. McNulty explains further “A modified IEP means your child will have learning expectations at a different grade level, or there will be an increase or decrease in the number and/or complexity of the expectations. For example, your child is in grade 3, but their Reading learning expectations are taken from the grade 1 curriculum.
Alternative expectations that fall outside of the curriculum documents. Other alternative “courses” could include social skills, fine or gross motor, behavior, learning skills, etc. Additional classes are not offered within the regular curriculum.
Tips and Important things to remember as you embark on your IEP meeting:
1) Have a positive attitude.
Attend this meeting with the full belief that the team will be helpful and genuinely collaborate with you. They may have budgets and resources to deal with, and that’s the enemy, not the team itself. It’s not you against them- but the team against the setback. Everyone is working towards the same result; to see your child succeed and thrive in school.
3) Don’t go alone.
Bring a friend or spouse along who can help be a second set of ears, who can ask the questions you may have forgotten or simply as moral support. Talk with them beforehand about your worries, questions, etc., so they can act as a backup if you get overwhelmed.
4) Be Prepared.
Bring all paperwork you have regarding your child’s diagnosis and any evaluations or reports that may help set goals.
“…This is very important and helps the team build and create an IEP that will truly benefit your child. In addition, they may want to make copies to keep in your child’s school records for future reference.”
“I would encourage parents to read their child’s IEP. Make sure they understand the goals and expectations and ask for clarification from teachers and the LRT if they are unsure. Then keep it close by and easily accessible. This way, parents can review the IEP often to make sure their child is receiving the support they are entitled to.
5) Find out who will attend
Make sure all the key stakes holders will be there. And make yourself aware of who they are, what role they have, and how they can help you. (This can include speech therapist, behavior therapist, teachers, etc.)
“It is your right to know who will be there. If you believe someone is missing from the table, let the LRT/Principal know and state your reasons why. Sometimes due to scheduling, we can’t have everyone attend that we would like, but we do communicate with them and let them know what happened during the meeting”.
6) Set your goals ahead of time
Be clear about what you’d like to see for your child. What tools do you think they need to succeed and how you’d like to see them accommodated. Make sure all the goals you have and the eventually implemented goals are SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
“I like to ask parents what their expectations are for their child after school is finished. Do you see them working, living independently, living in a group home, attending life skills courses? Knowing what you expect and hope for as your child ages is a great place to start.”
7) ASK Questions
You have every right to slow down the meeting, stop and ask questions and ask for a thorough yet simplistic explanation of what’s being discussed. If the meeting is moving too quickly, or you do not understand something- say, “I’m not quite following. Can we go back to XX, and can you explain that again” This is the time to advocate, remember it’s a team effort- and a big part of being on a team is making sure nobody is left behind.
8) Swallow your pride
Sometimes, as heartbreaking as it can be, we need to focus on the parts of our children that struggle. The areas where they fall behind. It can be challenging, but now isn’t the time to focus on their strengths, but rather a time to advocate for them, and that means looking at the areas where they need help. Don’t hide the truth; if you want to see them succeed, you need to be completely honest about all the bad and ugly aspects to put the proper supports in place.
Ms. McNulty also added the importance of knowing your child’s strengths.
“This will allow you to truly see your child as a whole learner. All children have strengths and needs; we need to record your childs’ on the IEP. These specific strengths and needs must relate to the students’ learning. The strengths and needs section should be balanced. There shouldn’t be more needs than strengths. You should not see strengths that say – is a nice boy, waves to friends – these are not helpful for anyone. Be specific and dig deep. It’s never fun to think about what our children can’t do, but having this written out means teachers will know where your child needs support and allow the school to figure out how to best support them.
So as all parents embark on another school year, we send strength to those parents with the added role of advocating and fighting for your child’s needs; you got this!
[While most IEP processes are the same, it may differ slightly between school district]