Raising a child is challenging enough, but when your child has
special needs, it can feel overwhelming-particularly when you are
struggling with school. Sometimes you feel as though you need to be
a full-time advocate just to get the help your child needs. But
there is a lot of information out there and organizations available
to help. Let's start with the basics.
An Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, is the tool used by
schools to ensure the academic success of special needs students,
those with emotional, social and physical issues that impede
learning as well as those with specific learning disabilities.
An IEP is a written, legal document, required by federal law and
by the state, that describes the education plan that you and your
school have designed for your child. Getting an IEP is not
automatic. Eligibility is determined through a process of referral,
testing and evaluation completed by school staff with parents.
IEPs have both short- and long-term goals, ranging from
strategies used in the classroom to a plan that includes working
with specialists such as speech pathologists or school social
workers. It is important for parents to be thoughtful in developing
this very important document. Once written, IEPs should be
regularly reviewed and revised to meet the changing needs of your
Information is power The special education world can be
overwhelming. First, get a copy of the IEP form before your meeting
so you can become familiar with it.
During the meeting, you may feel barraged by teachers and staff
you don't know using terms you don't understand. Be patient. If you
don't understand something, ask questions until you do. Take notes
and keep your records organized. Follow up meetings with a summary
note to the teacher or principal. Request resource materials to
learn more about the special education process and your child's
needs. No one knows your child better than you. Effectively
communicating your child's needs to teachers and staff is extremely
The team Most schools assign you a case manager, the school
staff person who will work with you and your child from the initial
evaluation through the writing of an IEP. Various school staff
members, including the principal, speech pathologist, social
worker, psychologist, classroom teacher and occupational therapist
are on the team and may attend IEP meetings. It can be overwhelming
to meet so many people. Parents are an integral member of the team.
Let everyone know you will be active in your child's education.
Tell them you want to work together and communicate regularly to
ensure your child's success. Think of yourself as the co-case
manager. Ideally, you and school staff will work together and agree
on your child's IEP. However, sometimes the relationship is
difficult and parents must take additional steps.
Get support Look to other parents. Find a special education
parent support group in your area. There are organizations such as
ASK, Answers for Special Needs Kids (www.answersforspecialkids.org)
in Evanston and SEA, Supported Education Association
(www.sea-oprf.org) in Oak Park.
Or simply ask other families with special needs children-they
can provide invaluable support and guidance about IEPs. You may
even want to bring another parent with you to your IEP meetings for
Parents who have been through this will tell you what to expect
and help you understand you are not alone.
Be honest When it comes to our children, we can be very
emotional. However, it's important to be honest with yourself about
your child's needs and skills. Be honest with teachers and staff
about expectations and goals. Do your best to make sure your
child's needs match your expectations and goals.
Set specific goals Make sure the IEP goals are clearly defined
and measurable. If your child is working on identifying the ABCs,
don't just write: "continuing to work on identification of ABCs."
Be specific: if your child can identify 10 letters of the alphabet,
and you and the teacher think it is reasonable for your child to
master 20 letters by midyear, write that. Spell out the details for
achieving the goal, such as: "30 minutes a day spent on alphabet
Resources One of the most comprehensive Web sites is Wrightslaw,
www.wrightslaw.com. Pete and Pam Wright, a lawyer and a
psychotherapist and parents of children with special needs,
compiled a wealth of information and resources here. The Illinois
State Board of Education, www.isbe.state.il.us, also offers
up-to-date information on changes in Illinois' special education
And remember: Be strong, be diligent. If you are doing your
best, then you are successful.
Larry McIntyre is a writer and photographer who lives with his
wife and two children in Oak Park. He is also a former board member
of SEA, Supported Education Association, an Oak Park-based special
needs support group for parents.
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