When a child with exceptionalities ages out of their Early Intervention program, parents are typically connected to their local school district to seek an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. During this process, parents will meet with a host of specialists within the school district to establish eligibility for the IEP and, if the child is found eligible, they will write the IEP to help the child access the school’s general curriculum.
There are so many issues to consider and pay attention to, and a lot of parents can feel lost during this transition between Early Intervention and establishing an IEP. Ashley Musial, M.Ed., is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Behavior Analyst and owner of ChildFirst Behavior Therapy in Arlington Heights and she has plenty of experience supporting parents of children with exceptionalities through this period.
She’s also the mom to six sons, one with autism spectrum disorder — so she’s been seated at the IEP table herself in the role of parent and advocate for her son.
“This can be a very difficult time for parents, especially if this is their first experience,” Musial says. “There is a lot for parents to know, so learning about and preparing for the IEP process is the best way to move forward and make informed decisions based on what is best for your child.”
Know what you are facing
Because evaluation for an IEP involves observation, sometimes by a few different experts, the experience can leave a parent feeling defensive. “The whole experience can feel dehumanizing and finding your voice as a parent can be difficult,” Musial explains.
Parents of kids with exceptionalities are experts in their own children, but most aren’t experts in child development and fewer still have ever had to advocate for their child’s best interests. “I was very young myself and didn’t understand how to advocate for my child, even though I had been working with kids with autism,” Musial shares. “I didn’t know what questions to ask or what my rights were.”
One issue is the language commonly used by providers can be foreign and confusing to those outside the world of child development. “Both in psychology and in education, providers are supposed to be able to explain to you what they mean in non-technical terms,” Musial says, adding that this doesn’t always happen. She suggests parents practice asking providers — whether they are developmental pediatricians, therapists, social workers, school psychologists or principals — to clarify what they mean.
“Even if you don’t intend this, it’s important to recognize that your absence of a response may be taken as an implied ‘yes.’ But don’t be afraid to ask for them to please explain further to help you understand so along the way you can ask better, more informed questions,” she suggests. “The IEP is designed to help your child access the general curriculum. But what does that mean?”
Words that you may understand in isolation can take on different meanings when they are put together. A good example is the phrase “classroom management techniques.” These three words are common everyday words but when put together, they can mean something very specific to the education world.
Don’t assume you know what the provider is talking about. Instead, practice asking these questions: How will this look? What does that mean? Why does it matter? What is the goal? How will the information be used?
Consider your own role
Quite often, parents feel defeated during IEP meetings because they don’t know what their role is, Musial says. Additionally, parents don’t always know what the roles of the many experts seated at the table are. “Why is the special education teacher there, versus the school psychologist, versus the social worker? It’s very hard to collaborate if you don’t know the roles,” she explains, so be prepared to ask.
Again, get comfortable asking questions and help establish a structural framework. Who is on the team and why are they there? “It’s hard to hold anybody accountable when you don’t know who is responsible. Clarifying roles will help you understand how to better advocate for your child’s progress at the school,” Musial says. “Ask who is your point person and who is your backup?”
By asking questions, gathering information and organizing your thoughts, you can better draw connections and parallels to help you advocate for your child. Bring a trusted individual with you to your child’s IEP meeting as a second set of ears. “Ask them if they heard the same thing you heard and if they got the same information,” Musial suggests.
Get help and prepare
Parents of kids who receive ABA therapy may have resources through their ABA provider to help them learn more about and prepare for their child’s IEP meeting. “We recommend families use their parent training time to prepare for their IEP. We can help them with behavior supports and by being a good sounding board and really helping them think through what matters to them for their child’s learning,” Musial says.
It’s a big help if your ABA provider has knowledgeable individuals on staff, too. “At ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, we currently have a licensed teacher on staff and we often discuss IEP meetings with families. He reminds parents that they are running the IEP meeting and they are their child’s No.1 advocate. They have a right to be fully aware and to direct the meeting,” she says.
Above all else, remember that as a parent, you do have a strong voice for your child — and you know your child better than anyone sitting at the table.
“We all know we are there to discuss the way we can support your child. But when you are the parent and they are all staring at you, it can feel very lonely. In the midst of all that, it can feel like you versus them. But you actually have the strongest voice. You are your child’s parent and you have a right to educate your child. You want to be collaborative and a team player because you are there to help your child, but they do not have the authority to make unilateral decisions,” Musial says. “Parents don’t always understand that.”
Learn more about Progressive ABA Therapy at ChildFirst Behavior Therapy by visiting childfirstbehaviortherapy.com.