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Our Tips for California IEPs

“How can I make sure that my child’s IEP is successful?”

The answer is quite simple: Be proactive!

Many loving, caring parents of children with special needs can get overwhelmed by the slew of school district attorneys and “higher-ups” that are across the negotiating table. This reaction is normal, albeit counterproductive.

For the best results, start planning for your IEP months in advance to ensure that you have a firm grasp on the doctor reports, school reports, and any other information that may help your child.

Here are nine steps parents can take to help themselves through this difficult process:

1. Conduct an honest assessment of exactly where your child’s performance stands today.

In order to begin honestly and accurately assessing where your child is performing today, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What programs or methods have been successful?
  • What programs would you like to discontinue?
  • What if the district is looking to discontinue a particular service or substitute one service for another?  Do your best to determine whether the new service would be in the best interests of your child.  Many times, districts will make cuts based simply on their bottom line. 

2. Have clearly defined goals before beginning the IEP process.

Many parents begin the IEP process angry over what the district is offering but do not have clear cut goals as to what services they are trying to obtain for their child.  It is important for you to know at the outset what your ideal outcome is regarding your child’s IEP, however.  By having concrete, specific goals, you will show the district that you are well-prepared and have done your research. 

3. Ask for all communication in writing.

By requesting everything in writing, it will allow for quicker, more accurate reference, particularly in the event the document is needed during the IEP meeting.  If legal counsel is required, having all communications in writing could also save you in legal fees, as the attorney will then not have to take his or her time to locate the needed documentation.  In instances when communications are not written, take the time to memorialize them in writing right away.

You will also want to ask for documentation as early as possible.  It’s important to give yourself as much time as you can to review the documents and formulate a response. 

4. Make a list of all issues you plan to raise at the IEP meeting.

  • Before going to the IEP meeting, be sure you have reviewed ALL of the reports pertaining to your child, including a review of all of your child’s prior annual goals.  You will also want to formulate new annual goals at this point.
  • If you choose to use the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA), remember to break down the annual goals into clear and well-defined short-term goals.
  • Know that it is acceptable to state within your goals that you desire for your child to have greater integration with non-disabled students.

It is not enough to simply “ask” the district for the services you feel your child needs.  As an advocate, you need to describe in detail why you think your plan is more beneficial to your child than what the district is offering.

For example, simply stating, “X therapy has helped my child adjust,” is not enough.  A more compelling explanation would be, “Per the various reports of Dr. Smith, a dual PhD, ‘X’ therapy has led to significantly increased social interaction and less social anxiety by allowing my child to slowly adjust to dealing with others inside the classroom.  Dr. Smith has also noted that discontinuing ‘X’ therapy would be detrimental to her educational growth and may lead to a regression in her progress.”

It may also help you to know who will be present at the IEP meeting.  These are the people who will generally attend:

  1. One or both of the child’s parents.
  2. The child’s teacher(s).  If the child has more than one teacher, all of them will be required to attend.
  3. A representative of the school district (not the child’s teacher) who is qualified to provide or supervise special education.
  4. The child’s guidance counselor.
  5. If the program to be recommended includes activities with general education students, even if the child is in a special education class in the school, a general education teacher will be required to attend.
  6. Usually, a psychologist and educational evaluator.
  7. Although not required, if the child is receiving related services (such as speech therapy, music therapy, or occupational therapy), it is valuable for related service personnel to attend the meeting or at least provide written recommendations concerning the services in their area(s) of specialty.
  8. Possibly, an attorney from the school district, or an outside attorney representing the interests of the school district in the proceedings. 

5. Never be afraid or embarrassed to ask questions at an IEP.

At times, parents feel that asking questions may make them seem unknowledgeable; however, nothing could be further from the truth!  Ask as many questions as you need to until you fully understand what the school board is offering or trying to convey to you.  This is the single most important rule throughout the entire IEP process!

Remember that you know your child better than anyone else at the meeting, including knowing his or her strengths, weaknesses, and needs.  Find ways to bring your child’s personality to life and make him or her recognizable to all team members.  For instance, some parents bring a photograph of their child to the meeting or a piece of handcrafted artwork to demonstrate how certain therapies are working.  At all times, the focus of the discussion should remain on your child.

Try Your Best to Leave Your Emotions Out of It

During the IEP, the district will present data, reports, and other evidence to contradict your position.  Remember that this is not an attack on you or your child.  At this point, having a well thought out “game plan” will make it much easier to speak of facts, rather than from a place of emotion.  Many times, this is where the advantage of having a seasoned advocate is greatest.  An advocate should always have your child’s best interest at heart; however, he or she will be able to remain objective at times when many parents feel attacked.

It is important to keep the “end goal” in mind during the meeting – try to remain focused on the development you want to see rather than the exact type of service you want.  If the goal is agreed upon, the district will need to provide all the services required to reach this goal.  Ultimately, this may provide you with greater services than you’d originally hoped for.

Some examples:

Do: I want Timmy to be able to read at second grade level by June 2014.

Don’t: I need Timmy to have X hours of reading help by John Smith, PhD, on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays for the next six months. 

6. Never sign an IEP unless you are completely satisfied with the results of the meeting.

Before signing, consider the following:

  • A parent is allowed to bring a friend, relative, behavioral specialist, advocate, or attorney to an IEP hearing.  (Keep in mind, however, that while the presence of your relative or friend may be a comfort to you during the proceeding, he or she may not be able to contribute much in the way of substantive arguments during the meeting, particularly if he or she has less experience than you do.  Meanwhile, the district will have seasoned experts on their side advocating for their position).
  • You can always ask the district to permit you to tape the IEP.
  • You should always take the IEP home to review it before signing it.

At times, districts may act like salespeople who are trying to close a deal.  Your child’s services cost them money, and they have a budget to adhere to.  Unfortunately, some district members would rather spend the government funds to line their own pockets rather than provide proper services for those with special needs.  Furthermore, many IEP agreements contain “legal jargon” that can significantly affect how the plan is implemented.  It is therefore imperative that you know exactly what you are signing off on.

If you are satisfied with how the IEP went, after a thorough review of the documentation, sign and return it to the school.

If you don’t agree with how your IEP went, you can send an unsigned copy back to the school and request another IEP; however, be aware that the district may ask for mediation at this point instead of granting another IEP. 

7. After the IEP, monitor your child’s progress to ensure that all services agreed to are being provided.

At this point, you need to follow through – and make sure that the school district is being diligent in following through on its part.  Simply surviving the IEP process doesn’t guarantee your child will have a fair and appropriate public education.  Make sure the district is following through with all of the terms agreed to during the IEP process.

Also speak to your child – remember that he or she is the reason all of this is taking place.  Outline all of the goals agreed to at the IEP meeting and explain these goals to your child in a method he or she will understand.  To the greatest extent possible, your child should be an active participant rather than a mere spectator.

8. If services agreed to are not provided, you should always file a compliance complaint.

If any provisions of the IEP are not being followed, you should make ALL demands to the district in writing and via certified mail.  In addition, always keep two copies of letters sent to the district and three copies of any documentation provided to you by the school.

9. You should always be aware of your right to request a due process hearing.

Either a parent or an education agency can file for a Due Process Hearing. A Due Process Hearing normally comes about in the following situations:

  • The educational agency makes a proposal to changes the students current educational model.
  • The agency refuses to make changes to the students current educational mode.
  • The parent or guardian refuses to allow the educational agency to assess the student.
  • A disagreement between the parent and the local educational agency regarding the availability of a program appropriate for the child, including any questions of financial responsibility.

A Due Process Hearing is a formal proceeding held by the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Initially designed to be more formal than civil court, many school districts have brought on law firms to represent them against parents. Tight deadlines with very little margins of error apply, particularly when dealing with the admissibility of evidence. It is important to be very knowledgeable of all the laws, particularly at this stage, as losing at a Due Process hearing means that the case must be appealed to state court.

If all of the above steps do not get you to your goal, don’t be afraid to seek legal advice from an attorney.