When people reference your child’s IEP, they may be speaking about the meeting (“Are you going to the IEP today?”), the document (“Here is your copy of the IEP.”) or the process as a whole (“Your child may need an IEP.”). There is also an IEP team that is the decision-making body for your child’s services and supports. Because this term seems to be everywhere you turn, you’ve probably already guessed that the IEP process and the document generated by this process are the basis for your child’s experience in special education.
I’ve discussed the general IEP process in my prior columns, starting with the initial assessment. Remember that the legal obligation of the school district is to provide “FAPE”—a free appropriate public education—to students who are eligible for special education. Once the eligibility determination has been made, the District must offer whatever combination of placement, services and supports that are necessary to allow children with disabilities a basic floor of educational opportunity. While the District and parents may agree that the child is eligible for special education, there may be significant differences of opinion regarding the child’s placement, service and accommodations. These are the issues that are worked out through the IEP process.
The IEP Team
There are a few main points to remember about the IEP team. First, as a parent, you are an integral part of the team and should be involved in all the major decisions during the process.
Federal law also requires the presence of the following team members at the IEP meeting: your child’s mainstream teacher, at least one special education teacher and/or support professional (such as a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist), and an administrator with decision-making power. The presence of the administrator as key—you want to make sure that someone who can offer special education services on behalf of the District is present at the meeting.
The IEP Meeting
Sometimes, parents are intimidated by the committee of experts facing them in the meeting (those kid-sized chairs don’t help either!). I try to empower my clients and remind them that they are the parents—who knows their child better? No one! It’s always important to listen to the assessors, teachers and other service providers who are working with your child, but let your gut be your guide. This means that you should feel confident about asking questions and expressing any disagreements you have about your child’s abilities and needs. For example, an IEP will indicate your child’s “present levels of performance.” If a blanket statement is made such as, “Sam is a delightful child with many friends,” and you happen to know that Sam is a delightful child with such a severe language disorder that he cannot participate in age-appropriate conversations and therefore does not have many friends, speak up about this.
Parents are allowed to invite others to the IEP meeting for personal support or advocacy. I encourage this if you believe you will feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the District personnel in the room. It’s always good to have another set of eyes and ears with you and it may boost your confidence to have more support in the room.
In addition, state law may allow you to make a tape (or digital) recording of the meeting. In California, parents may record if they have given 24 hours written notice to the District of their intent. This is recommended in situations where there have been misunderstandings in the past about statements made during the IEP or when you anticipate hearing a lot of evaluation reports that you may need time to digest and want to hear again after the meeting.
The IEP Document
It is often said “If it’s not in the IEP, it doesn’t exist.” This is a good maxim to keep in mind. If someone offers a service during the meeting, but it’s not written down as part of the formal offer of FAPE, it may not happen and there will be no written record of the discussion.
The “service page” of the IEP describes your child’s placement and the services (including amount and frequency) the District is offering to provide. This section is the heart of the document and you’ll want to make sure you understand its terms before signing your consent.
Other important sections of the IEP document include your child’s designation, any accommodations and modifications to the curriculum and the goals. I’ll discuss with greater detail these sections of the IEP in future columns.
At the end of the document is a place where parents can sign their consent to the IEP. Your signature means that you agree that the District’s offer provides your child with FAPE and that you authorize the District to implement the services specified within. In the ideal scenario, you understand the terms of the IEP and agree that they are designed to help your child access the curriculum; therefore, you provide your consent and the District moves forward on the basis of what is written in the IEP. When there is disagreement about any element of the IEP, parents have the right to withhold their consent to the document and seek other avenues to resolve the conflict with the District. Next month, I will continue this discussion and describe the various options parents have when it is time to sign the IEP.