In the 1970s, several important lawsuits were filed which established that to deny students with disabilities a public education was a violation of their Due Process rights under the U.S. Constitution. Consequently, Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 USC §1400 et. seq., which mandates that all states must provide programs and services to provide an appropriate education to students with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 USC §12101, et. seq., also provides protection for students with disabilities and mandates that public schools shall be accessible. The U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case L.C. v. Olmstead, 527 US 581 (1999), that public schools must provide services in the “most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.”

In order to comply with these laws, school districts developed the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is a written document that defines the student’s goals and specific accommodations, supports, and services the school will provide for a student with disabilities to help them succeed in school.

Some parents going through the IEP process may feel a little lost or unsure of how to be effective advocates for their child. According to Sue Lind, a special education advocate for many years with my local ARC, top tips for parents participating in the IEP process are:

  1. Know who will be attending the IEP meeting. Many parents, especially in their first IEP, will feel blindsided or intimidated if they walk into a room full of people, many of whom they do not know.

  2. Bring a support person with you to the meeting, especially if the room is filled with people from the school system. Your support person will help level the playing field, make sure you do not become too stressed, make you take a break if needed, and help ensure you get what you want out of the meeting.

  3. Know your rights. The school will issue a copy of IDEA to you, but if you have any questions, call a special education advocate. Understand that if there is an issue with a particular person, such as a teacher or social worker who has been difficult to work with, don’t allow them to attend the meeting. You may offer to meet with them separately.

  4. Keep well-organized records. Ms. Lind recommends keeping everything related to your child with special needs, including past IEPs, test results, medication history, diagnoses, evaluation reports, daily behavior sheets, agendas, all communications from the teacher(s) and other school personnel, etc. The use of technology, such as scanners, flash drives, and devices like the iPad have made storing records easier than ever. If testing was just completed, ask for the results prior to the IEP.

  5. Bring at least the last three years of records with you to the IEP meeting, such as items listed in paragraph 4.

  6. Review your child’s records and identify patterns of behavior, which can help teachers and parents prepare for anticipated behavior changes. At times, the IEP meeting can get bogged down when challenging behavior is discussed. If a dip in behavior occurs, detailed records allow a parent to demonstrate that the behavior is short-term. If the IEP meeting occurs during a dip in behavior, being able to demonstrate that it is a short-term issue can help prevent the behavior from becoming the focus of the IEP.

    Over the years, Ms. Lind observed that in the late fall months, kids tend to become sick. When kids are sick, their behavior changes, usually for the worse. Unfortunately, this time of year is also typically the end of the marking period, so any dip in behavior and academic achievement may become the focus of a parent-teacher conference or the IEP, if that is when it is typically scheduled. A parent may request that the timing of the IEP be changed, or through documentation, can establish that once their child’s seasonal illness is resolved, their behavior and academic achievement rebounds.

    Ms. Lind also finds that kids typically become behaviorally challenged in January of every year. Many parents feel a money pinch in January and are more stressed over the holiday season, which influences children’s behavior. She believes a dip in behavior patterns is especially common for kids with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She believes that kids with ASD have difficulty adapting to this substantive change after coming back to school from the long holiday season. They are also very sensitive to the degree of stress in their households. She also has observed that behavior usually has an uptick in March and April, when income tax refunds are received.

  7. Know the strengths of your child, not just what they like or prefer. Be able to identify your child’s academic strengths, as well as their social skills, such as those regarding conversation (taking turns during a conversation, beginning and ending a conversation, telling a story), and other important social development such as handling disappointment, conflict, and changes in their schedule or environment.

  8. Write down the concerns you want to discuss during the IEP before the meeting, as well as anything you want changed or modified. Once you are in the meeting, you may forget what you want to discuss or get side-tracked.

  9. Write down your goals for your child before the IEP. Identify where your child stands, what goals you would like to see your child meet academically and socially, and what you want out of the IEP meeting. Identify short-term and long-term goals.

  10. Do not assume the meeting is adversarial. Most often, the schools and teachers are there to help identify ways to help children reach their academic and social potential.

Advocates like Ms. Lind are available through your local ARC, as well as other non-profit organizations. Even though my practice is focused on special needs planning, when I participated in my daughter’s IEP, Ms. Lind was a staunch advocate at my side, allowing me to be a parent and advocate, rather than an attorney. With her assistance, she helped to neutralize a problematic individual, and a very effective plan was developed that has since evolved with my daughter’s achievements.
– by Michele P. Fuller

Michele P. Fuller is a Special Needs and Elder Law planning attorney in Sterling Heights, Michigan. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Special Needs Planners, a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, and a member of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Section of the State Bar of Michigan. She is a frequent author and speaker regarding special needs planning and Elder Law issues.

Sue Lind is the Quality Assurance Coordinator for ARC of Macomb, located in Macomb County, Michigan. She holds a Master’s of Science in Special Education, taught special education for 12 years, and acts as special education advocate for a number of clients.

This information is provided as a public service and is not intended as legal advice. Such advice should be obtained from a qualified Elder Law attorney. To find one in your area, visit the NAELA Member Directory.

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