Parenting Special Needs Kids – Building an IEP

Hello, everyone!  My name is Karin.  I am married and the mother of one boy.  I also work full-time as a sign language interpreter in a public high school.  In this series of articles, I will be discussing various aspects of special education- IEPs, therapies, various issues (deafness, blindness, mobility issues, etc.).  My son has Sensory Processing Disorder, so, since it is kind of a soapbox issue for me, I will be devoting at least one article to SPD alone. If there is a particular issue you’d like me to cover, or if you have questions about a topic I have already talked about, please let me know in the comments below.  I’m very excited to be writing for Mamas At Work, and hope you will enjoy this series!

Building an IEP

IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan, and it is a detailed account of a special needs student’s strengths and weaknesses and how to accomplish all of that student’s educational goals.  Some IEPs are relatively thin; others have a lot of detail and will be thicker than a college textbook. Parents, teachers, caseworkers, and school officials work together to update the IEP every year.

The IEP will include the following:

  • Dates of implementation: These are the dates this particular IEP will be applied; generally, this will be the first day of school for the following school year to the last day of school for that school year.
  • The student’s exact issues: ADD? CP?  Blind?  Deaf? Developmental delay? Health issues?
  • Equipment: Does the student use a wheelchair during the school day?  Leg braces? Do they get a key to the elevator? If they are blind, do they get a Braille writer?
  • Modifications/support: If the student is deaf, for example, will they have sign language interpreter all day? A note taker? Oral interpreter?  FM system? If the student has ADD, do they have preferential seating? Does the student get extended time on all tests or quizzes?
  • Goals: Academic goals for that student
  • Teacher Feedback: Comments from current teachers about the student’s performance during the prior school year.
  • Test Results: Results of any assessments that have been done during the year (standardized testing)
  • Parent signature: The IEP is a legal document, and to be implemented, the parent(s) must sign off on it.


The IEP Meeting

An IEP meeting can be incredibly intimidating for parents.  At this meeting, you might have up to a dozen different educational professionals…and the parents. Professionals in any field tend to use jargon related to that field, and educators are no different. And, as you may have gathered from what you’ve read so far, special education can be a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms! 

My advice to you is to ask questions. Do not sit there, listen in confusion, smile, and sign off on the IEP. You are the parents, and you know your child best.  If the educational professionals are recommending a course of action you disagree with, say so, and give clear reasons as to why. If you want your child to have a particular support or therapy that s/he is not yet receiving, say so, and ask for assessment to see if this support or therapy is warranted.

Generally speaking, all sides are able to come to an agreement about the child’s education at the IEP meeting.  All parties sign the IEP, which then becomes a legal document with federal law backing it up.  From then on, if the school does not provide your child with an accommodation or service that is listed in the IEP, they are in violation of the IEP, and you need to make a complaint to the school district in writing.  (Note: “in writing” can be either by “snail mail” or email. When I say “in writing”, I mean anything that will document that you sent that info. A phone call can be documented, but the details of the conversation cannot be.)

What happens if you and the school disagree as to the best course of action for your child?

For example, what if you want your child educated in a special program, and the school wants to keep them in your local school? You have the right to pursue Due Process. First of all, do not sign the IEP.  Signing it means you agree with it, and in this instance, you do not agree. Calmly tell the school personnel at the IEP meeting that you intend to pursue due process.  First, request a mediator, in writing.  This is a neutral third party who does not work for the school system. The mediator’s job is to sit with the parents and the school representative and try to come to an agreement. Every school should have a list of qualified mediators.

If mediation does not work, then request a due process hearing in writing. You also should consult with a lawyer who has experience with this, but, as we all know, lawyers can be costly.

(In my experience of nearly twenty years in the schools, I can recall off the top of my head one case that went to a due process hearing [in another district, not the one I currently work for].  All others were settled at the IEP meeting or with a mediator.)

At the due process hearing, you present evidence supporting your side, and the school does the same for their side, in writing. (See a theme here?) The hearing officer reads all the evidence and makes a decision, which you can appeal to state court.

After the IEP Meeting

Once you are home after the meeting, set aside some time and read through the IEP carefully.  If you have any questions, contact your child’s caseworker.  You will know who this is; he or she will be at all IEP meetings and very likely will be your primary contact on all things IEP related, anyway.  If you do not know who this is, call the special education department and ask who your child’s caseworker is.

Scheduling IEP Meetings around Work

IEP meetings are virtually always held during a school day.  You will get notification in the mail as to when the meeting has been scheduled. What if you can’t get off from work, or have a prior commitment that day? Contact the school in writing immediately and request a date change.  In my experience, if a school district is given plenty of notice, they will happily change the date to accommodate the parent(s).

But what if there is no way you can get off work for that meeting? I’ve seen plenty of IEP meetings that were held via conference call so the parents could participate. The people who work with your child in school all day want the very best for your child’s education, and they know an involved parent means good things for a child’s education. For parents who are recent immigrants and do not speak English well or at all, ask the district in writing for an interpreter in that language. Spanish language interpreters are generally pretty easy to find quickly; Urdu or Bengali require a little more notice.

The IEP is a complex document that chronicles every aspect of your child’s educational life.  Parents need to be aware of what their rights are regarding this document, and what it means for their child’s education.


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