For parents who are new to the world of special education, pursuing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be quite intimidating! Learning how the special education system works, becoming familiar with your parental rights, special education laws, and understanding how an IEP is developed will empower you and lead to better outcomes for your child.

First, what is an IEP?

An IEP is a legal document that is developed for any child in a public school who needs special education services and/or accommodations and meets eligibility. The IEP must meet the unique needs of your individual student and is created by a team of parents and therapists, as well as school district staff who are familiar with your child’s educational needs and challenges. Children as young as age 3 can qualify for an IEP through their local school district.

Once you make a request for special education assessments, the school district is obligated to respond to you within 15 calendar days with a proposed assessment plan (or a “prior written notice” which explains why the school district is denying your request). It is important to put your assessment request in writing; an email to the special education department works well.

After you consent to the assessment plan proposed, a 60-day timeline is triggered, during which the school district must complete their assessments and reports and hold the initial IEP meeting. The assessments can involve testing, observation of your child, parent questionnaires, teacher reports and/or outside report findings and considerations. If your student is found eligible, then an initial IEP is developed.

10 tips to help you advocate for your child during the IEP process:

  1. Make sure your child is assessed “in all areas of suspected disability.” You are entitled to this.
  2. If you disagree with your child’s eligibility and/or the assessment results, let the school district know politely in writing. In a collaborative way, provide justification. Seek a private, outside assessment report or ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) which is at the school district’s expense.
  3. Ask your school district representative to write an agenda for the IEP meeting, that begins with time for you to calmly state your concerns about your child at school. Be assertive but diplomatic about what services and accommodations you are requesting.
  4. Ask to record the IEP meeting. You must give the school district at least 24 hours notice. With IEP meetings now being held on Zoom, it is easy for the school district to record it and send you the recording. Recording this meeting keeps everyone accountable.
  5. At the IEP meeting, discuss how your child’s behaviors and/or special needs are interfering with their learning process.
  6. Mention “least restrictive environment” at the IEP meeting and reference how your child needs to receive an education “to the maximum extent appropriate with children who do not have disabilities.”
  7. Save time at the IEP meeting to discuss, as a team, related services that your child may need for Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), i.e., counseling at school, school nurse, extended school year (over the summer), bus/transportation.
  8. As the parent(s), ensure that you are treated as equal members of the IEP team. Your input and requests must be considered. Also, don’t go alone to the meeting. Bring at least one expert on your child, an advocate, or even just a personal friend for support.
  9. Sign “in attendance only” at the IEP meeting and take the IEP paperwork home with you to read carefully before deciding if you agree or not. You also have the option to sign with exceptions.
  10. Always maintain a respectful, collaborative relationship with the school district staff. Express your appreciation for their efforts and success with your child, when appropriate.

It is normal to feel stress as you begin the special education process and come to terms with your child’s special needs. Learning how to navigate the system and act as an effective advocate for your child can make a world of difference. You can get your child the school support services they deserve while also maintaining a cooperative, collaborative relationship with your child’s school and school district.

Diana Blank, LCSW specializes is supporting and guiding families who have special needs children. Diana, along with other CCY Parent Consultants, is available for private consultations and participation/guidance in your child’s IEP meeting; contact the CCY intake to inquire about Diana’s consultation services—[email protected].