New school year, old IEP

As anyone who has carefully crafted an Individualized Education Program can tell you, putting the IEP on paper is only half the battle.

It can be a frustrating process and also a hopeful one—parents face hard realities but also hear teachers sing a student’s strengths.

However, after all is said and done, the IEP is only as good as its execution.

Seasoned special needs parents will say they are both relieved and empowered when the IEP process results in a document that all team members can support.

Numerous factors can complicate matters. For instance, an IEP is valid for a year, so one designed for a second-grade student must also apply to the same student in the third grade. It has to carry over between school years, between teachers, and sometimes between schools, when grade-level transitions take place, or when a family moves.

An IEP is positioned for success when parents understand the goals, when teachers believe in the goals and when students are motivated to achieve the goals. But the team that drafted the document may not be the same team that implements the document.

Teachers change and therapists may be reassigned, yet the IEP is still the plan and your child is still the person counting on all of you to set him up for success.

So how can you prepare for these transitions and make sure that the IEP is effective from year-to-year, room-to-room, teacher-to-teacher and school-to-school?

Review that IEP

As you approach a new school year with an existing IEP in place, look for clues in the document about what may be lost in translation between grades, teachers and schools. Ask yourself: “What is working well that I want to continue?” and “What is not working well that I would like to see change?”

For example, if there is a parent-school communication provision in the IEP and your child’s second-grade teacher was diligent in sending you weekly emails to document progress or problems, then connect with your child’s third-grade teacher to let her know that you would appreciate still receiving these emails on a weekly basis.

If there is no parent-school communication provision in the IEP, but the former teacher had developed this communication piece on her own, ask the school to amend the IEP so the new teacher is aware of your expectations.

Another example: If your child’s IEP speaks in general terms about social skills, but does not identify practical strategies you know have worked, share this information with the new teacher. Let her know what types of challenges your child faces and what has helped in the past.

You could say, “My son becomes anxious when asked to initiate conversation with his peers, so if you could provide him with a script to follow, that would help.”

Sign releases for school personnel to connect with private therapists or tutors who work with your child and provide the teacher with this contact information.

Careful study of the IEP, no matter how hard the team worked on it, will identify important things the IEP does not say, but that the new teacher or team needs to know. The IEP may make goals clear, while still not defining the facets of your child that will be critical to his success, such as what triggers his sensitivities that the teacher should be on the lookout for. What makes your child feel valued and important that the teacher can use as a motivator?

Before school starts

As an attorney who works with families of students with special needs, I often encourage my clients to write a letter to their child’s new teacher that describes their son or daughter. I ask them to tell the teacher what works and what doesn’t work, what they expect and what they don’t expect, and what is important in the IEP and also what is missing from the document.

I tell them it is a “get-to-know-my-kid” kind of letter because a good teacher-student relationship can be the most critical aspect of a comfortable classroom experience for your child.

Also, plan a visit to the classroom before the general population of students arrive. This is less stressful for students with an IEP and gives them a chance to become familiar with new faces and places while not being surrounded by peers.

Most school administrators will welcome your request for a private visit as long as it is within reason.

Just remember that school planning, and especially classroom assignments and transportation, can be in flux until the very last minute, and so you may not have answers to all of your questions before the first day. Be flexible, be open-minded and be diligent in communicating information.

Don’t rely on the IEP to tell the story of your student; you be the narrator.

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