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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Parent Advocacy Strategies: Review Your Child’s IEPs

From Smart Kids with LD

By Ann McCarthy
January 28, 2013

As a special education advocate, there are few things I enjoy more than chatting with parents about ways they can protect the rights of their children with disabilities.

One question I’m often asked is, “What can I, as a parent, do to improve my child’s school program?”

There are a number of actions parents can take without the help of an outside advocate or expert, but one of the most basic involves preparing for their child’s IEP meeting in a thorough and intentional way.

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Be a Better Advocate
  • Do a basic review of your child’s IEP goals and objectives over several years, to see if you can find evidence of meaningful progress.
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I have been there as a mom of a child who received special education services. We’ve all done it. You get home from a difficult IEP meeting. You are exhausted and want to pretend it never happened. The IEP arrives in the mail the following week, and you know you should look at it.

The phone rings. The spaghetti boils over. Your boys are wrestling in the next room. The IEP gets shoved in a drawer, not to be seen again for months.

Dust that baby off! To get a sense of whether or not your child is making progress over time, you need to see if annual goals are being mastered.

Step-by-Step Analysis

Here is how I tackle this task for each of my advocacy clients; any parent can easily do the same for his or her own child:
  • Organize the three most recent IEPs and put them in a pile, in chronological order, with the oldest on top. (If you are just starting your journey in special education, you have it easy! Follow the below steps with the first IEP and then add to your document each year.)
  • List all the academic and functional performance areas that are covered by the oldest IEP. Possible categories might be: social skills, following directions, reading, math, writing.
  • Within each category, list the objectives for the first year, then the second, then the third. Mark each objective with the year of the IEP.
  • A couple of days later—when you’re not bleary-eyed from hours of typing—read your comparative analysis of the goals and objectives you highlighted.
  • Look for repetition. Look for goals that were never mastered, but were dropped. Look for sameness. Where you see likenesses, you might be looking at lack of meaningful progress. And this may mean that some sort of shift in your child’s program should be considered.

Arming Yourself with Information

Sound complicated? Consider the following real-life example from a child’s IEP file review:

Following Directions
  • 2009/2010: Will follow 2 and 3 step directions with no more than 1 clinician cue
  • 2010/2011: Will use strategies to follow multistep directions with 1 clinician reminder
  • 2011/2012: Will use strategies to follow multistep directions with 1 adult reminder
You do not need to be a professional advocate or educator to realize that you are essentially reading the same sentence over and over again. Is it frustrating to see this? Absolutely. But once you realize that you have powerful information in your hands about lack of progress, you can turn that frustration into positive action.

It is easy to argue that something about this child’s program has to change. Perhaps in the type of instruction, the intensity of instruction, or where the instruction takes place. Do we need to reconsider how the goals and objectives are written, and should we be looking at more basic skills, with more specificity?

As a parent and lay person, you don’t necessarily need to know exactly how to make the change. You’ll get there. But knowing that a change is required (and having the data to prove it) is an important first step.

By investing a couple of hours analyzing your child’s goals and objectives over time, you can see the ‘story’ that your child’s file is telling you about his or her program and progress. And then use that story to advocate for your child at the next IEP meeting.

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Ann McCarthy is a special education advocate and serves as Managing Director of The Southfield Center for Development in Darien, CT.

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