At our recent adoption and foster care conference, Raising Resilient Rascals … Takes Flight, we had a panel discussion that was so full of useful tips that I couldn't resist sharing them here. Thanks so much to our panelists: Julia Bledsoe, Larry Davis (of www.specialeducationadvocacy.org), Lisa Konick-Seese, Gwen Lewis and Kate Molendijk. Some of their "pearls" follow, but first, some basics:
For children under three with developmental concerns, parents can (and should) call their local Early Intervention (also know as "Birth-to-3", or "ITEP") Center. You don't need a referral to start the process. They should do any necessary screening tests, and if your child falls below a certain threshold, they will qualify for subsidized developmental therapies. Increasingly, the center's therapists will meet the child at their home or child care center to provide these services. Find out more here.
For children over 3, your local school district is responsible for developmental screening and providing supports, even if your child isn't in school yet, or is home-schooled, or attends private school. In the latter cases, accessing those supports may not be easy or convenient, but it should be possible. Contact your school district's "Child Find" office to initiate this process.
IEPs and 504 Plans
If your child has a documented disability, which has an impact on your child's education, then your child should be eligible for either 504 Plan accommodations, or an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).
Generally speaking, if tweaks to general education are deemed adequate to meet your child's needs, a 504 plan will be suggested. One drawback to 504 plans is that the school is not so accountable, oversight being at the federal level.
If your child needs more significant "specially designed instruction," then they should receive an IEP. With an IEP, the school is more accountable (oversight tighter, at the state level).
General School Tips
- It helps to develop an ally or friendly resource at the school that seems to understand and appreciate your child. This person can be invaluable for informal mediation, advocacy, advice about next year's classroom, and so on.
- Invite the teacher to dinner once a year. This used to be common, and some teachers still do it, in the younger grades. It gives them a more holistic sense of your child, and helps build a collaborative relationship.
Tips for IEP Meetings
- IEP meetings, especially your first, can be very stressful for parents, and it's easy to feel powerless, unable to effectively advocate for your child. These tips should help.
- Make sure you "check your own pulse" before the meeting starts. It's natural to feel defensive, or scared, or upset at how things have been going (or not going). You may find that you're in revved-up "mama bear" or "papa bear" mode. That's understandable, but also counter-productive. Make sure you're as calm and centered as possible, and use some of the following strategies to advocate for your child.
- The room may be packed with professionals, but remember that you are the expert in your child.
- Feel free to "stack the deck" in your favor at IEP meetings.
- Bring friends, support, other caregivers, prev. teachers, consultants.
- If you've developed an ally at school, have them there if possible.
- Bring treats. Break bread together. It can't hurt.
- Consider passing around a sign-in sheet (if unfamiliar folks will be there), with phone/email info for later contact.
- School culture can be geared toward "no", especially in these budget crunch times. Build a succession of yes's about your child first, instead of starting with your requests or demands.
- Do that by creating a sense of shared understanding, based on data if possible, about your child's unique background, weaknesses, and strengths. You and the staff should be recognizing your child in what each other has to say: "Yes, that's my child/student." Then the requests should flow more naturally and collaboratively.
- Then again, it may take 3-4 meetings for some staff to "get it." Call followup meetings if need be (it's your right, when you have an IEP), until they do.
- Before a school transition, have a meeting the preceding spring with a representative from the new district/school, to develop the IEP using folks that know your kid, and get a headstart on next year's plan.
- Think carefully about closing out an IEP, even if you decline services. They can be harder to get later.
- School districts have strict timelines for responding to requests around evaluations and special education. Learn them, and keep track.
- Use email or get copy of letter stamped at school when dropped off. This starts the clock ticking.
- Keep notes, folders for each child, or email folders, to a court-worthy standard (dated, no missing pages from notebooks, etc). Hopefully you won't end up there, but if you do ...
If Things Still Aren't Going Well
- You may consider an independent educational evaluation (IEE), a "second opinion" about your child's abilities.
- An educational advocate may also be useful.
- Consider formal mediation as well.
- Your child has the right to a "Free and Appropriate Public Education"; unfortunately, this does not equal a "Free and Perfect Public Education." We are not funding our schools as we should, and they have limited resources to meet the needs of many students.
- Trust your instincts about whether this school or program is working for your child (but get some second and third opinions too!). Some families decide that private, parochial, or home-schooling is a better fit for their child's needs. This, of course, can be expensive, especially with added private therapists if those are necessary.
- NICHCY.org is my favorite website for disability and special education resources
- WrightsLaw is also an excellent resource for special education law, education law, and advocacy for children with disabilities.
- For local info, see the WA State official special education website.
- The WA State Office of the Education Ombudsman (OEO) "helps solve conflict and disputes between Washington families and elementary and secondary public schools so that students have every opportunity to stay in school and succeed." They are part of the Governor’s Office and function independently from the public school system.
- Another excellent source of info in our state is Kristin Hennessey, the Special Education Ombudsman at OSPI, at (360) 725-6075 or email@example.com.