yesterday's post about our epic IEP meeting a couple of weeks ago, I thought I'd share some of my tips for a successful school relationship and - hopefully - IEP. Bear in mind, all school systems are different. Without revealing too much about my exact location and Jack's school (for privacy reasons, obviously), I'll just share that we don't live in a school system that is particularly known as having world-class special education services, but we don't live in one of the worst by any means. We don't live in a state that is particularly well known for good autism services, but we're not the absolute worst, either (though we still don't have an autism mandate...grrrr...). I'd call our school system pretty run-of-the-mill. Jack's elementary school is ranked as one of the best in the state...for general education. We live in a pretty affluent suburb in what is a sprawling school district encompassing large urban neighborhoods as well.
Big disclaimer...I know that not every school system works like ours. I know that these tips won't work for everyone. These are just suggestions - ways in which I have cultivated relationships and prepared for IEPs and IFSPs. Please don't think that these things are guarantees by any means, but just some tips that might help you along your way...
1. Don't let your IEP meeting be the only time you show your face at your child's school each year. By this, I don't mean that you should go up and stir up trouble, but you should be a presence at your child's school. If you work, still take the time to volunteer at least once a year. It doesn't have to be on a weekday. Volunteer to bake for a PTA Bake Sale. Work at a playground clean-up day. Do what it takes for someone - preferably in the administration - to know you and have a favorable impression of you. As an example, I'm a Room Mom in Jack's class. I volunteer at the parent greeter desk for two 3 hour shifts each month. You have to give - of your time, talents, and resources - if you want to receive.
2. Join the PTA (or some school-wide organization). A big mistake I hear from parents is that they keep to their own in special education (if they try to reach out to the school community at all). Just because your child is in special education - even self-contained classes like mine - doesn't mean that it's not your child's school. Get involved, because your involvement makes it a better place, and those connections will undoubtedly help your child.
3. Make connections between your child's special education class and the school's general education classes. This is even more important if your child is in a self-contained class like Jack's. If your child's school is anything like mine, there may be people who are unaware that there is even a special education program - or a preschool special education program - within their four walls. Educate people! This year as Room Mom, I helped our class participate in the school's major fundraiser - a raffle for baskets of donated items put together by each class - for the first time. Not only does this alert people to your presence in the school community ("We have a Pre-K program?!?" was a common refrain during this process), but it actually helps the morale of your child's teachers. Remember, special education teachers can get left out of the school community, too. Jack's teacher mentioned to me how great it was to see her class's name on one of the charity baskets this year. That's important! We need to make our kids' teachers feel like they are a part of the school, too!
(As an aside...don't worry, if you have a little one in preschool special education, the older kids will most likely know who your child is! When I have picked Jack up at school, I'll see classes of 4th or 5th graders - particularly the girls! - all yell "Hi Jack!" in unison. I was even informed by one of the school counselors that one of the members of the school's safety squad, a 5th grade girl, always speaks to Jack each morning as he walks down the hall with his para-pro. Jack apparently gives her a grin. I was told by the counselor to watch out, because my son has a 5th grade girlfriend.)
4. Show your appreciation - to everyone. Sure, you probably send Christmas/End-of-the-Year gifts to your child's teachers and therapists, but what about the front office staff? Does your child have nursing needs or visit the clinic often (mine does)? Then send a little something to the school nurse. Talk to your Room Mom about participating in Staff Appreciation events at school (they all have them). At holidays, I always bring a big plate of cookies or some other goodies for the front office/nursing staff and administrators to share. I also bring a card - usually I sign it from our whole class - telling them all just how much we appreciate all they do to keep our children safe and help them grow. If nothing else, I learn their names and say hello when I walk around the halls. Believe me, these gestures matter.
5. Share knowledge. I tend to send emails to Jack's school team once or twice a week, or as needed to share information. For example, I didn't want Jack's teacher blindsided by his GI issues over the past week, so I sent her an email and clued her in to what was going on and what we were doing to help treat it. When I get updated private evaluations, I share the scores and alert his school team to changes in private therapy goals. When Jack goes to Dr. DP, I share his input. This past visit, he was very complimentary of Jack's school program. I shared that with them, as I think it helps everyone feel good about what they do when they receive a compliment.
6. Know what you want (and what your child realistically needs). Don't go into an IEP meeting with no idea as to what placement your child should have. If your child is new to the school system, tour some placement options (ask around if you don't know what they are). If your child has been in the school system, visit your child's class (Volunteer! It's best way to observe without asking to specifically observe.). Observe what's going on and see how well your child fits in. I've always felt that my child should - ideally - have peer models for verbal and social behavior, and yes, you can get this in self-contained classes! See if your child's current placement "feels" appropriate for your child's needs.
7. Provide a "wish list" of IEP goals to your child's teacher about 2 weeks prior to your meeting date. Don't have a wish list? Make one! I keep a running list going and I supply about 4 - 5 goals to the IEP team ahead of time. You should have input into your child's goals and those goals should be practical skills to meet a particular need. You may not know what the next step should be in speech therapy, and that's okay, but you might decide that you'd like your child to be able to tell you - either verbally or with PECS - something that happened in their day. Mention it to the IEP team and let them help make that goal attainable for the upcoming year. I think supplying a wish list lets the IEP team know that you are an active participant. On that same note, don't send a list of 20 goals, because that's not realistic. The school will have academic/therapeutic goals of their own, and they should be able to work on those as well.
8. Go in with a specific "thing" you'd like to get, and bring support to back-up your child's need for that particular placement/service/accommodation/goal. It's important to have a goal for your child's IEP, but make sure it's a realistic goal (don't ask for extra PT for a child who is can adequately ambulate around the school, for example). Maybe you'd love to see some assistive technology written into the IEP. Maybe you'd like a 1:1 aide. For Jack's most recent IEP, I wanted an extra 30 minutes of 1:1 speech each week. I came in with a letter from Dr. DP in which he stated that Jack needed the extra 1:1 pull-out time. I also knew that Jack would qualify for articulation help this coming year, and I had printouts of articulation milestones to back me up. I planned what I was going to say - that Jack needed the 1:1 time for articulation and due to his distractibility in the classroom - even though I never needed to say it. Also be prepared to compromise, and have an acceptable "back-up" goal in mind.
9. Be prepared. I go into every IEP meeting with 2 binders full of information; one with Jack's medical/therapeutic records (I take the previous year's records only), and the other contains Jack's school records. I take all of his school records, including past IEPs/IFSPs, important emails, progress reports, and work samples. Throughout the year, I also request data sheets (usually at progress report time), so I bring those as well. As soon as I get the meeting notice, I also request a draft IEP prior to the meeting. Be realistic with regards to the time-frame in getting the draft. I usually ask for 2 days prior. Be flexible. This past IEP cycle, one of Jack's therapists was out-of-town for a death in her family, so I understood that I wouldn't be getting input from her. One of his other therapists was being evaluated for Teacher of the Year (a very good thing!), so I understood that her time was limited in getting goals to me ahead of time. Don't demand the whole novel; just ask for a couple of chapters...something from which you can work. Ideally, I'd like to get the following in a draft IEP: most of the goals (if you don't have all, I think that's okay), and your child's Present Levels of Performance (PLOP - usually at the front of your IEP...it's what you base your goals on). Review the draft, mark it up, and make sure that you agree with the PLOP. If not, make notes or create your own PLOP. Type it up and submit it at the IEP (ask to have it included in the "Parent Concerns" section). Also, read up on special education law (I love the WrightsLaw books), and be sure to know your parental rights.
10. Don't show up empty handed. Besides the "prep" work I mention above, bring three other things with you. First, always - ALWAYS - bring another person. Even if you bring your spouse, bring someone else who can look at the situation somewhat objectively (and who won't get riled up...so don't bring the volatile grandparent/aunt/uncle to the meeting). I usually bring Jack's special instructor, with the thought that she has worked the longest with Jack and knows him best, and she can provide good input to the team. Second, bring food. Don't come to the meeting without coffee/water/sodas and some type of snack. Nothing big...muffins or cookies will do. In fact, I approach every meeting at school with cookies or some baked good; it's a good icebreaker. Third, bring compliments and patience. Remember that most people working with our children do so not for the money or the prestige, but because they love working with special needs children. Acknowledge the things that have worked well over the past year. Let them know what you liked and that you appreciate the time they put into your child. Allow them time to explain their viewpoints and have an open-minded exchange of ideas. Check your adversarial tendencies at the door and assume that the team wants to help your child. Don't be naive, but try to not assume the worst. The team will pick up on your combativeness and will respond in kind.
I think the most important thing to remember is to cultivate a good relationship with the school, the administration, and your child's team. Mutual respect and kindness goes a long way, whereas combativeness does not. There are certainly times and situations in which you will have to fight for your child, but don't start out that way. Remember, too, that moves that you might not consider to seem "adversarial" - like hiring an advocate or bringing a tape recorder - might be interpreted as such. That's not to say that you shouldn't do those things (there are certainly instances in which either or both are needed), but know that the school will be defensive. Don't insist on "your way or the highway", remember that you're part - albeit a very big part - of a team, and be willing to compromise on some things. Prioritize. Don't fight each and every IEP goal if what you really want is more speech; you'll be more likely to get what you want if you've conceded to the school a little bit.
Be a friend to your child's school. Be involved to the greatest extent that you can. Be informed, be prepared, and be your child's best - and first - advocate. You can do this, mamas (and dads!).
What are some of your personal tips/tricks to a good working relationship with your child's school? How do you work towards a successful IEP meeting?