Monday, January 5, 2015

Getting Ready for IEP Season

Welcome to the new year. After you put away those Christmas decorations or your Hanukkah menorah, it is time to get down to the business at hand. Preparing for your child's yearly IEP meeting/program review. Now you may have had meetings throughout the year with concerns, additions to programming, extractions from programming, behavioral interventions and education supports, but now comes the time to prepare for the year to come. For some school districts  these meetings start by the second semester and will continue on throughout the summer. Here is my recommendations on how to prepare:

1. Unless there has been hostile or negative interactions with the school district over the year there is no reason to work yourself up in a frenzy about how things won't work out. Most likely what has been working will continue to work and will simply be included in next year's IEP.

Of course this is do as I say not as I do. For weeks leading up to the boys' meetings not only did I walk around on edge, sleep was a stranger and grumpiness was my modus operundi. I was transfixed with the thought that the school was going to mess things up and change up everything that had worked for the boys for years. In my defense, I had experienced some horrible self-righteous teachers over the years who decided they knew better than everyone else and took away every support system that had worked with the boys. And yes I had threatened a major lawsuit at one point in elementary school, and had lived at the middle school while CM2 suffered through one of the most incompetent special education teachers I had ever experienced, but that was not the general rule in our district. Yet the fear was always a recurrence.

In truth by the time middle school and high school really took off, the school had learned to understand my sons and they did provide them with support and assistance that they needed. They really didn't mess with what worked and in fact went out of their way to lend support for them before I had even asked. Yes its alot about the teachers, and less about the CSE committee head. But its also about rules, regulations and programs available in your district. It's also about understanding where the school obligations end and where you are left to pick up the pieces. The school cannot and does not do everything for your child and you need to understand that the rest, from different kinds of therapies to tutors to social skills groups, is always up to you.

2. So now that you have calmed down, well as much as you can, make sure that you have kept an on going record of issues and problems that you would like to discuss with the committee, especially if you have a teacher who doesn't want to listen to you when it comes to your child. Make certain that every concern has been documented and that you even print out copies of correspondence between you and the teacher. Make certain each email is specific and to the point. Do not go into huge rants about overall issues. In fact never rant at all. Keep each email to one point. And yes if this means you send several emails in one day then so be it.

3. If there is any new medical information have the doctor write out a letter to the school district. If you are unhappy with the in-district testing make sure to have that done by a private doctor before the meeting and have had copies sent to the district. They will not do anything with it during the meeting. They will require time to peruse what you have and find a response.

Some districts will provide for a phone call with the doctor during the committee meeting. Make sure to ask for this ahead of time. You are allowed to bring anyone you want with you in order to support your requests and if the doctor cannot be there in person the district should try to get in contact with them during so they can explain their findings appropriately.  And yes the district can try to overlook your doctor's recommendations, many do that, but the only way you are going to get what you want is if you ask first and you must present facts to request increased support.

Now make certain that the doctor who you have the district call in is either a neurologist or psychiatrist. Your pediatrician isn't generally someone the committee turns to for recommendations. While there are developmental pediatricians they are generally not versed in school supports or psychiatric interventions for your child. A really good developmental pediatrician will always recommend a specialist as well. Remember too, autism is still seen as a mental health issue and therefore the appropriate care doctor is a neurologist or psychiatrist.

4. I do NOT recommend you come to the meeting with a lawyer unless you are certain that there is going to be a civil rights issue that needs to be put on the table. If this is the first time that you are requesting an accommodation then coming with a lawyer will be very threatening. You never want to go that route if possible. However, if you have had an on-going adversarial relationship with your district over every issue you bring up then that is a different problem. If you know that bringing a lawyer with you is the only way to get what your child needs then you must do what you must do...NOTE: I also say lawyer, not advocate for the simple reason that every school district uses a lawyer. An advocate doesn't have to have a law degree. You always want to make certain that you are on a level playing field.

5. Make certain that you have gone over and over your child's present IEP and have literally broken it down thoroughly. Make sure you understand the purpose of every section and understand every goal. You should have received updates throughout the year as to how your child is doing vis-avis, each goal and you should be able to ascertain what has worked and what needs to be revamped. I received a breakdown every marking period and was able to track my child's progress that way. If you have not received updates you should request that that be put into your child's IEP. You are entitled to be kept up to speed about your child's progress just like you are kept up to speed with their academics. Also make certain that the goals are broken down effectively in the IEP and that they are also not that easy that they are not a challenge for your child. If they accomplish every goal, what is the need to be designated? We had that issue with CM2's second grade teacher. He decided that since CM2 could do his math facts and read at an extraordinary level that he didn't need services. He decided that he had fixed all of CM2's issues (a miracle worker is he) and that CM2 would never need any more support ever.  He decided that even though CM2's testing pointed to autism, since it wasn't spelled out in the IEP officially as yet,  he didn't have to acknowledge that there was autism involved. Furthermore, he also decided that since the IEP didn't spell out that he had to have team meetings with me either, even though it was the school district's practice to have team meetings when the parent asked, he refused to have them. NOTE: make certain everything is spelled out in the IEP. Don't rely on good intentions. (Yep this is one of the teachers we threatened to sue.)

6. Remember that the IEP doesn't just deal with academic issues, they can include emotional, social and even executive functioning goals. They can include trips to the school psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, OT, PT, and/or speech therapist. They will discuss what kind of services, either "pull out," "push in," or a combination thereof. It can also discuss the use of circle of friends or social skills counseling. Services can be direct or consultation. It can be any configuration that the district decides what the testing suggests. If therapies are denied, you can of course challenge the decision. But that also takes time and money and sometimes that money is better spent on private therapy than on a lawyer. (Cost benefit approach is a reality and the district knows that too.)

7. Don't forget that accommodations are essential to be put into the IEP: extended time, alternate testing site, use of a computer, scribe, deaf translator, or even medical assistance for when your child needs to take their medicines, if they need to use the school elevator to get around, or even the right to leave a class early because passing in the halls is too much for them and they need to go when it is quieter. Basically accommodations is anything that makes it easier for your child to access their education and participation in school programs. Many teachers seeing that a child needs an accommodation can, at anytime give them within reason, within the confines of their own classroom. (extended time or a quiet area to do work or take a test, use of a computer) So it is also important that the teacher discuss what they did to help your child and how they did it. How much time it took and what they observed during the school year as for the need for accommodation. Also if your child does not receive accommodations on the IEP for in district testing it is unrealistic to expect them to receive accommodations for state testing. Additionally for the older students, accommodations for in district testing does not assure that they will receive testing for the college boards. The College Board is a private organization and not in league with your school district.

8. Make sure if your child receives one-to-one support that the IEP also discusses support for all school related functions. Any after-school activity that your school sponsors or allows, as a PTA sponsored program, then they must provide support so that your child can access that activity. (That is the ADA not the IDEA). I had an elementary VP try to tell me that my sons were not entitled to support during after school activities and that I couldn't send my own support, hence she was effectively barring them from accessing the program. When I mentioned it to the school secretary she promptly fixed it so the boys got support. She didn't overrule the district, she knew the district rules. Needlesstosay this is also the VP that I threatened to sue in CM2's second grade year. (And yes once the Special Ed director heard the complaint from us, we didn't need to sue, that VP got her head handed to her and the boys got everything they needed for years.)

9.  Reread the law. Get yourself a good book. I like anything and everything written by wrightslaw. It is succinct and explainable. Organize. Take a redwell and put everything into categories so its all easy to access during the committee meeting. Use post it notes liberally as you break down all the information.

10. For high school students make certain that there is some kind of transition planning going on inconjunction with the school. If your child is heading towards college they should support that and help with applying for accommodations from the College Board. They should also be able to point you in the direction of colleges that are accommodating to your child's disability.

Additionally, they should also give you information for adult services available in your state. This information should be passed on to you at least a year before your child graduates, as the application process for adult services takes along time.

11. Lastly, try not to be nervous...yep back to number 1.