Parent Role in Special Education
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
If your child is evaluated and you agree with the school’s recommendation for special education eligibility and classification, you are ready to participate in the development of his special education program, what is commonly called the Individualized Education Program or IEP. An IEP must be designed for every student who receives special education and serves as a road map to guide the special education teacher. The program cannot begin until the IEP is completed. It must be developed by a team which includes a school official, a teacher, the parents, and, where appropriate, the child.
An IEP is a written document which describes in detail a program of individualized instruction designed to address the student’s disability. By law the IEP must contain the following elements:
- the student’s current academic skills and behavioral characteristics
- the type of special education program
- related services (for example, speech therapy) to help with other school-related concerns
- goals and objectives of the special education program • the extent to which the student will participate in regular education classes • the date for beginning the program and its expected duration
- procedures for reviewing the student’s progress
Once the IEP has been developed, the school will ask for your written consent to the program. It cannot begin without your signature. Do not succumb to pressure to sign immediately. You may want to ponder the recommendations and talk with others before deciding or observe the recommended placement. If you disagree with the recommended program and choose not to consent, the school may try to work out a plan which satisfies both you and the school or it may appeal your decision to an impartial third party.
If you agree with the program, the school district must implement the IEP as soon as possible. Once implemented, the IEP must be reviewed every year in a meeting attended by school staff and parents. At this meeting, you will want to consider whether your child has made progress in his areas of weakness and met the goals set out for him. If not, you need to find out why. This review may result in a continuation of the special education program or in its revision.
The IEP controls what educational services your child receives. It gives you power at the same time it provides your child protection. The school district is obligated by law to do what is in the IEP—and is not obligated to do what is not in the IEP—so make sure that the IEP reflects what you believe your child needs. And be specific. Rather than putting in an IEP that your child will receive occupational therapy once a week, state that your child will receive occupational therapy every Monday morning from 10 to 10:45.
Your Role in the IEP Meeting
If your child is recommended for special education, the most important meeting you will attend is the IEP meeting. You may want to take some of the following steps to help you become a full and equal member of the IEP team.
- Get to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Observe your child in different situations at home and review samples of his schoolwork. You might even want to observe your child in school before the meeting but make sure to call the school in advance.
- Talk with your child before the meeting to find out school subjects and activities he likes and dislikes, his own assessment of strengths and weaknesses, classroom conditions which help him learn, and suggestions for program change.
- Do your homework. Talk with parents who have gone through a similar process. They can guide you in what will be discussed and decided at the meeting, how to participate effectively, and what you need to know about school policies and procedures. Special education parent organizations can be helpful as well. Also, familiarize yourself with key provisions of your state’s special education code. The school should give you a copy of the state’s rules and regulations at the time of referral or at the IEP meeting. If not, make sure to request one. If you need help deciphering the rules, contact the special education division of the state department of education.
- Consider what you want in the IEP. Review the components of the IEP and note which services you would like your child to receive and goals you think are appropriate.
- Make a list of your questions. Bring them to the meeting and be sure to get answers to your most important concerns.
- Consider bringing another person with you to the meeting. This person—a relative, a friend, another parent, a therapist, or an advocate—may have special education expertise or knowledge of your child and may help you to raise important issues. If someone is accompanying you, let the school know in advance as a courtesy.
- Think about having your child attend all or part of the meeting. The perceptions of your child may be valuable in designing aspects of the educational program. Moreover, your child may be more receptive to an educational program that he has helped to develop. The older the child, the more likely he will be able to participate meaningfully.
- Offer your views. You probably know your child better than you think you do. In addition to letting school staff know what your child likes and dislikes and any areas of special sensitivity, you may be able to offer some hints about what will work with your child and what will not. For example, you may have learned from working with him that he works well in segments of 15 minutes followed by a break. Or that he learns best when the lesson is supplemented by concrete activities.
- Consider taking notes. This not only provides a record of what was discussed but may help focus your concentration.
- Request clarification. Ask for an explanation whenever you do not understand terms, acronyms, concepts, or procedural issues. Request examples, if necessary. Special educators often use initials and assume you understand. Don’t hesitate to ask for a translation.
- Ask about the various program options and request to observe them. Observing special education programs can help you make an informed decision about your child’s program. You may want your child to go with you so you can gauge his reactions.
- Ask school staff for suggestions about home activities. Find out what you can do to support your child’s school program without overburdening him or causing unnecessary pressure.