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 child.
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 important.
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 support.
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 letter identification."
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 law.
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.