Thursday, February 24, 2011

What I Learned from a Series of Crappy IEP Meetings: Part one

Team means team…

The single most important thing I have learned though all these meetings has nothing to do with tactics, with laws, or with evaluations. It isn’t something that had to be deciphered out of a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo, and it wasn’t even anything all that complex. But as simple as the concept is, it had not dawned on me- even after a couple years worth of meetings!

I didn’t realize I was a part of the IEP team. I thought I invited as a courtesy, and that the group of big talking, well dressed school staff were the IEP team. I didn’t know that as part of the IEP team, I was an equal. I didn’t know that I could disagree, that I could push for things, or that I could have any input on the goals and specifics put into the IEP. I also did not realize I could bring backup to the meetings.

As the parent (or parents), we have a unique perspective and intimate knowledge of our children. We know what makes them happy, what ticks them off, what they care about… We know why they do some of the things they do. We can tell when they aren’t feeling quite right, even if only because they flap their hands a little more slowly than usual. We know when they are afraid, by the twitching of their lips and the snarfling sound coming out of their nose. We can tell when they are going to lose their cool, just by how they are holding our hand. We live with these kids. We know what makes them tick. And because we have that huge advantage on our side, it is our responsibility to speak up for them when school staff may or may not be able to glean anything from those minute little changes that to us, are as obvious as a flaming chicken in a tree house in the middle of August.

On top of that, most of us spend a lot of time taking our kids to therapies. So when the school can’t figure out how to make little Jaymes sit still in his seat, I can think back to that last OT session, and remember that the OT was able to get Jaymes to sit and complete a puzzle by plopping him in a beanbag chair with a weighted lap blanket. From my experience, few teachers immediately think “oh, he won’t sit still. Where’s that beanbag chair?” But, again from my experience, many teachers will be perfectly happy to try that out if the parent suggests it. We cannot expect teachers to immediately jump to creative, “outside the box” ideas every time there is an issue. And since we know what has been working for our kids, and we’ve had awesome therapists who have explained the how and why of it all to us… Well, again, it is our responsibility to share that information. Unfortunately, we all run into teachers who know it all and will not bother with trying- but if we know something works… Well, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Eventually, they will be sick to death of hearing about that beanbag chair and weighted blanket and will try it out if only to shut us up. And it might do the trick and solve the problem. Or not. If not, we move on to the next idea. And the next. And the next.

We know our kids. I think it can safely be said that if the parent thinks a particular IEP goal is ridiculous, then that parent is well within their rights to try to nix it. That could be because the goal in question is too difficult or too easy. The goal could also be too stupid. An example of this would the one on my son’s current IEP as a social skills goal that says “Jaymes will learn his classmates first and last names.” Memorizing names is not a social skills goal. It’s a pointless memorization taking up room where a real social skills goal could be. Play skills, conversational skills, even just basic “how to behave in the regular kindergarten classroom” skills.

I have found that given a good enough explanation of why the goal is inappropriate, and offered a more suitable goal instead, the IEP team will usually not fight it too much. And if they do, holding out and arguing long enough can be useful. Just remember that parents aren’t always right either… If another member of the team can explain why the goal is appropriate, you aren’t losing anything by agreeing. Only if you actually agree, of course. Nothing wrong with asking for detailed explanation and the appropriate definitions if needed, either- even if you can actually see the teacher’s hair going grey as she breaks it all down into whatever size chunks it needs to be broken down into.

Finally, remember that (beyond what the state requires in the way of school staff) the IEP team can include whoever knows that child, or can offer support or a different perspective. That means other family members, outside therapists, advocates, parent educators, friends. Anyone who knows the child and can contribute positively. By positively, I mean that I would never in a million years bring my mother-in-law to an IEP meeting. I may be a pain in the rear, but even I know that one would be crossing a line.

It’s nice to warn the school ahead of time if you’re planning to bring in slew of people (or just if you’re bringing an advocate- that announcement tends to have a less than cuddly reception, but is infinitely worse when you just show up with one- ask me how I know…) as a courtesy, and so that there will be enough room for everyone! You may well still end up in a tiny, windowless, airless office with fifteen people crammed elbow to elbow… But at least the odds of a less snuggly environment improve with notice.

IEP meetings are not about the school, not about the parent, and not about “us” versus “them.” IEP meetings are our kid’s meetings. As the parents, we have the right to take the reins and help direct that meeting without feeling intimidated or unimportant. Without the parent, no IEP team could be complete.

It is so hard to go into those meetings feeling like you’re on the same level as the “professionals.” It’s something I am still working on. But until I accomplish that whole self confidence thing, I do a damn good job of faking it. As our wonderful ECAC parent educator says, I’m building that spine- vertebra by vertebra.

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