As if the back to school routine isn’t busy enough for families, there is also the added stress for parents of children with special needs to participate in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings for each of their children. Here are 10 tips to help you go in with a positive attitude, a collaborative mindset, and a plan of action.
Setting up routines and schedules for your child with special needs is key to their daily success. If your child is fortunate enough to have been at their school the previous year, the teacheror admin will probably be aware of some supports and goals already. However, many schools aren’t prepared to start initiating a personalized support plan until their funding and staff are in place, which typically happens in early October. This means that the start of each school year can be extremely stressful as the transitions just keep coming.
1) Have an interim plan
Don’t wait for the school to contact you. Send a short email or arrange a brief meeting with your child’s teacher and/or education assistant (EA).to give some coping strategies for your child to get through that first month with the least amount of stress and disruption for both your child and the class (fidgets, break ideas, behaviours to watch for, strategies to re-route, sensory aides, etc.). Mention the IEP meeting at this point and let them know you understand what that is and are looking forward to it.
2) Prepare yourself
Take a deep breath. Have a snack. Go for a walk. Have a bath. It can be emotionally draining to talk about your child’s challenges. Set out your ideas on paper beforehand. What are your child’s strengths, challenges, and goals? Read through your child’s last IEP/report card to refresh your memory about what goals and challenges your child has been tackling recently. Be realistic about the school’s ability and your child’s ability. Make this a team meeting. You are all on the same side, you all want what’s best for your child and the school.
3) Value the school’s time and the staff’s work
Schools are busy places and it’s likely that your child is not the only one who will need an IEP. Email to confirm that everyone will be at the meeting, including the principal if you want them there. Bring a friend or advocate—sometimes there is a lot of information to process and you may need a friend to take notes. If you are an English language learner (ELL), insist on the school having an interpreter for you. Does your child have a community key worker or behaviour interventionist? You can invite this person to come and support you in this meeting. They may be able to offer the school valuable insight on what has worked for your child in the past in other settings.
4) Get to know the Learning Support Services (LSS) teacher
How active are they in the classroom? Do they interact directly with your child or do they oversee the teacher or support staff? Do they know about the role of key workers? Have they connected with the provincial outreach programs (POPs) related to your child? Do they know of any new research or resources? Can they suggest professional develop
ment (PD) day activities for teachers and support staff that specifically include learning more about supporting children with special needs in the classroom setting? Do they offer small support groups for reading or math or building social skills? How are children referred to those groups? Can your child be included in these supports?
5) Get to know the classroom teacher
Know their name, their classroom, how much experience they have with children with similar diagnoses to your child’s, and what their level of comfort with special needs children. Try to build rapport and support the professionals in your school. They are trained for teaching and they want to make your child successful. Educate them in a warm and positive way. I had one teacher who disagreed with my son’s diagnosis, telling me “He doesn’t look like he has FASD.” I tried to gently explain that FASD looks different in each child. My grandma always said “You get more bees with honey than vinegar,” and I’ve found that to be so true.
6) Get to know the education assistant (EA)
Do they have a long-term contract at the school or are they temporary? Find out how you can support and encourage them (flowers, a note, etc.).
7) Decide how to communicate with the school
This will help to build trust and consistency between home and school.Do you want to use a communication book, email, text? What will work for all of you? How often do you expect communication? What things do you want communication about? Do you want to know about proud moments from the day or incidents that involved the principal? Make a plan so that you don’t get all of one or the other. You want a balanced communication model.
8) Decide how homework will/won’t happen
Some schools and classrooms are more flexible than others. I have explained that my child exerts so much energy keeping himself regulated at school that our family doesn’t support doing more school work at home. For our children, it’s not realistic. Having said that, if my child consistently ignores instructions or opportunities to finish work during class time, then occasionally we will do catch-up work at home.
9) Know your child’s diagnoses/labels
Make sure that the school has copies of any assessments or testing that has been done by professionals or past schools. This is key in getting your school the funding it needs to adequately support your child. Understand the provincial funding structure and where your child fits into this paradigm.
10) Follow up and follow through
If you say you are going to do something, make sure you follow through. Set up the assessment, make the appointment with the pediatrician, accompany the field trip. Your stability and integrity increase your voice at the school and the school’s impression of your family. Don’t overpromise. Follow up on what they’ve committed to doing as well. Is the IEP being followed? Have the behaviour interventions been implemented? Be the squeaky wheel.
Parenting kids with special needs is a marathon, not a sprint. You have time to work with the school and learn from each other. So often in this process we can become very behaviour-centered or production-focused. Remember that your child is a human being with all the feelings and challenges related to needing support or being singled out in their classroom. Assure them of your unequivocal love and support. Acknowledge their strengths, build on them, and have fun together!
Heather Ratzlaff is an AFABC adoption key worker and an adoptive mom of three. She says she loves IEP meetings. (Did we mention she’s got a great sense of humor?)