I thought long and hard about how to approach this topic without insinuating that parents are doing things wrong and schools are not breaking the law or fighting against giving IEPs. My goal is not to discourage parents from pursuing their legal remedies against a school. Instead, my goal is to get parents thinking about their expectations for an IEP and the reality of the process in hopes that if it allows even one family to create a better dialogue with the their child’s school and results in a better process faster for the family.
If you have been around the special needs community long enough you will hear the horror stories from parents of their fights with their child’s school through the IEP process. These range from not getting the services requested, being denied services all together, or services promised not getting implemented. There are many reasons for the friction between parents and schools and those stories of those with good relationships and results is few and far between. But the real question is WHY is this process so adversarial. Well that answer depends on whose point of view you’re looking from. From the parent side it is because the school doesn’t believe them, refuses to follow the law, or is simple clueless, among other reasons. From the school’s point of view the parents are demanding, with too high of expectations, and they feel the child fares better than the parent thinks they do.
To start this discussion let’s make one thing clear: As a parent your child and your child’s education is your number 1 priority, but it is not the schools!
Whether the school as 10 students or 10,000, your child is never going to be their top priority. That does not mean the school doesn’t care about your child, but the reality is your child is just one student of many the district must consider. I have been involved with the special needs community for over 9 years and have two of these kids myself. No matter how much I knew my kids’ school personnel carried for them, I also knew they were not the top priority of the school.
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen advice coming from other special needs parents about how the child in ENTITLED to an IEP and the parent needs to go to the school and demand xyz services to be given. All of this from basically my child has this diagnosis and we are having problems at school. Or my child got this so should yours. Even worse, the school will fight you and never give you what your child needs, be ready. While the advice is intended to be helpful, it also raises the parents expectations about what they are entitled to and what they should expect. Always remember that a diagnosis does not mean your child is entitled to or needs an IEP. The diagnosis is just the starting point. Also remember that a specific diagnosis does not mean you automatically get specific therapies or fall into a specific special education category. My child is classified with Educational Autism, but diagnosis of MELRD, CAPD, and ADHD. If you walk into your meeting with the school having the expectation that your child is entitled to an IEP and the school is going to fight you for it, when the school says, your child is doing okay academically and doesn’t need an IEP what is it that you hear? Not that your child, at the moment, may be doing fine at school or that you may need to tailor your argument differently, but instead you hear are those other parents’ voices and not the schools explanation. It can also mean that you immediately become defensive, which makes it more difficult for you not only open a dialogue with the school, but to communicate the extent of your child’s problems and to listen to feedback on how the school may be able to help. When you become defensive, then so does the school and the relationship between the parties quickly deteriorates.
In addition to expectations, we, as parents, tend to shove aside that the school district is made up of human beings, just like ourselves. These are people who have families and do not work 24/7. Just like us they have good days and bad days. In addition, schools are under budget constraints and being pushed harder and harder to produce results. While the law requires the school to not consider the cost with an IEP, reality is that the school has to. Because every dollar they spend on your child has to come from somewhere. That’s doesn’t mean that a child who needs an aide in the classroom should be denied one due to finances, but it is a reality parents MUST face that a school will do that. With more and more kids coming into the sped system and changes in the 2004 IDEA, schools are pushed to evaluate more children on a shorter time span. Also, due to a lack of funding, many teachers are no longer getting the extra training needed to handle some SPED students and many schools may not even have anyone who has ever had training. Further, we expect the school to care as much about our child as we do. While many teachers and school will care, it will never be at the level you do. You are emotionally involved in your child’s education, the school and school personnel are not.
On the school side, some school personnel forget that the parent is the person who knows the child the best. They do not listen to the parent and enter into the we are the expert mode your just the parent. Schools fail to explain fully to the parent their decisions or why legal rules are not met. They will shut down the communication, especially if they are trying to protect themselves from litigation. Threats may be made. Further, schools are starting to expect parents to come in with lots of demands the school knows they can’t meet and just like the parent are prepared to fight. But sadly, sometimes, schools just refuse to follow the law because they do not want to, can’t afford to, or they simply do not know how to help.
Is there a way to avoid this or will it always be a battle? Well that depends. As a parent, you first must take stock of your service requests. Is this something your child needs to be able to learn or something you want to help them learn better? Are there alternatives? What are your private doctors saying? For example, does your child need a 1 on 1 aide or could they share that aide with another child? Do you need a long note from the teacher each day about what homework was done/missing or does the school have an electronic system set up for you to use or could the SPED teacher review with your child at the end of the day? An IEP is an individualized plan don’t be afraid to be creative.
Next, remember what I said above, your child is not the schools top priority, but keep in mind the things that are. Today that means budgets, test scores, and the overall education of all the students. When the school makes a suggestion, listen to both the actual words they are saying and what they are implying. If it will not harm your child, consider agreeing. One example I can give you from my own personal experience was a request for an OT evaluation for my child. I requested it in April and my child’s SPED teacher asked me to table the request until the start of the next school year. She also explained that the school was trying to finish evaluations that needed to be done by the end of the school year (6 weeks away) and lacked the personal to do them over the summer. As my child would not be harmed by delaying the evaluation, we agreed. If I had immediately became defensive because the legal timeline was not being made, I would have missed or even not been told the reasoning behind the request. Because we could keep the dialogue open, four weeks later when we had my child’s IEP meeting, an OT was present to give advice on a sensory diet. While the OT couldn’t do a full evaluation, she had been able to observe my child while doing an evaluation for someone else and was willing to give the IEP team feedback on things to do. After implementing her suggestions, we found we no longer needed the OT evaluation.
Prioritize your requests into needs and wants. Fight for the needs and work on the wants. This is probably the hardest for parents because it is your child and it is hard to separate out what the child needs versus what you want the child to have. It is a fine balancing act. I have a child with a language disorder and social anxiety. He needs speech but social skills is more of a want (and now he is old enough to actually not choose to take a social skills class). Instead of demanding that the school set up a social skill regiment for my child, we worked it into his Speech (have one session each week with other kids), or used non-SPED resources, like classes that met at lunch with the school counselor open to all students. In that way, we were to get our want, without placing any extra burdens on the school, again BE CREATIVE
If the school tells you no, try to understand why they are telling you no. Are they saying no because they feel the child does not need the service, because of budget constraints, personnel issues etc.. If you can understand some of the reasons behind why they are telling you know, then you may be able to formulate a response that works to achieve your goal. As I said above, this is not to discourage any parent from pursuing due process and legal action, but it should be the last resort (as all litigation should be) because it can be long, drawn out, and the person who gets hurt the most is the child, not getting services. If there is any way to work with your school (and I know there are schools out there you simply can’t work with) to get the services needed, you will need to keep your emotions under control and to remember that you’re addressing your child’s needs, not their diagnosis.