by Jennifer Dyer
I’ve been away for a few days–away from my computer, that is. One of the reasons is that I’ve been learning some important lessons regarding dealing with special education in the public schools.
Let me start out by saying that public schools often suffer from bad reputations for being difficult. True, it is not without reason, but schools are filled with wonderful people who dedicate their lives to helping children with special needs. During the years I worked as a school speech-language pathologist I met many admirable people.
Get it in writing: The above being said, I’ve learned a few things the hard way that I would like to pass on. During your special education goal-planning meetings (called IEP meetings in many areas), remember: get it in writing. If it is not written in the official documents and signed during those IEP meetings, it might not happen.
Make certain minutes are included in the paperwork you receive. Back when I worked in the school systems, minutes and notes were included as a part of the official documents. This was where we noted parent’s concerns and anything that did not fit into the check-the-box sections of the rest of the paper work.
If someone is taking notes ask them if they are the official minutes. Read over the minutes before the meeting ends and before you sign the paperwork. Make certain that the minutes are included in the paperwork and that you get a copy of everything, including the minutes. Keep this copy in a place where you can find it.
Verbal agreements might not be honored. Redundant, but worth stating again. Even if the committee tells you that something is fine or that they will do something, unless it is written into the official document it might not happen. We have experienced this several times and we are only in the fourth month of kindergarten. For instance, we were told we could bring in our Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) therapist to coordinate our home therapeutic program with what the school was doing. In the IEP meeting everything was fine–yes, of course you can do that. But when school started another person said, absolutely not and who gave you the idea you could do that? The person who coordinated our initial meeting was unavailable and never returned my calls. The same series of events over a variety of topics has happened repeatedly since.
You can call for another meeting anytime you wish. If there is something that needs to change or if you have issues with what is happening with your child, you can call for a new meeting at anytime.
You do not have to sign right away. Sometimes those IEP meetings can feel like buying a car: you are signing a long-term agreement and it is set in stone. As I mentioned, you can always call another meeting, or you can say you need some time to think about it. Take the paperwork home and look it over if you have to. Even if the school acts irritated or surprised, it is still okay to do this.
You can request the paperwork ahead of time. This request might not be filled, especially if you are waiting to discuss your concerns until the meeting, but you can ask for it. This will be especially helpful if there are many goals involved. Even though goals are ultimately a collaborative effort between the parents and the rest of the committee, most therapists and teachers will have done their homework and come prepared with information and goals they have written based on testing and academic standards. This is a good thing, but it might be helpful for you to go over them beforehand. If you don’t get the paperwork ahead of time, you do not have to sign it right away if you are unsure about anything.
Bring information from outside therapists or any doctors you have. This can help the committee better understand your child and set more specific goals. In fact, if you have information about your child’s goals with other professionals it would help the teachers and therapists to see this ahead of time.
If you continue to have issues with the committee, you can ask for a child advocate. Sometimes the committee can not reach an agreement. A person may need to be brought in who can help you. Here in Little Rock we have a place called Partners for Inclusive Communities. They are there to help educate parents and have a wealth of knowledge. Support groups in your area and education centers, such as the Little Rock AAROC center can help you, as well. Facebook also has a variety of autism and special needs networks. Just search under the “everyone” heading with key words about your child’s disability and your state or city.
Record the meeting. With the advent of technology, you can do this easily with many phones. Just make certain you tell the committee you are recording. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It can help you later if you misunderstood something.
Play nice. We tell our kids this all the time, at least I do, but I tend to forget it when I am backed into a corner. At the same time, I’m sure public educators often feel cornered themselves, and they have people higher up who are passing down all sorts of rules and imperatives to them. Try to work with the teachers and the building principal, as they are the ones who will impact your child the most. Refrain from using derogatory terms and keep your language above reproach. In a situation I encountered the other day, I admitted I was acting defensive and then explained why as calmly as I could. I tried this to defuse the situation. After all, I might be working with these people for many, many years.
Stay positive. I know, from experience, this this is hard. Keep praying. Keep learning. Keep hugging your child.
Do you have anything you’ve learned that would benefit others? It would be great to hear from you!