When Dante wrote the “Inferno,” he left out one of the circles of hell: the IEP meeting.
IEPs for the uninitiated stand for Individual Education Plans and school districts hold them to decide a student’s need for extra assistance, such as speech therapy or extra time for tests. Schools also need to hold them to determine a student’s qualification for the help. After going through these meetings for four years, I can tell you they are no fun. They are stressful and almost always go much longer than expected (our last one last 2.5 hours). They also involve lots of paper — forms you need to sign, different observation reports, feedback from teachers, test results and more.
Before an IEP, a team of specialists – a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a learning disability specialist and perhaps others depending on the student’s needs – sweep in and conduct a variety of evaluations. In one week, my son was pulled out four different times for tests and there is often little warning when they’ll come in. These tests are designed to determine whether the student has a disability, how severe it is and what can be done to help. At the meeting, everyone comes together – parents, teachers and therapists – to talk about the student and his strengths and weaknesses and to figure out what kind of extra help he can benefit from.
If only it was that simple.
Sitting at an IEP meeting is emotionally exhausting especially as the experts all discuss your child and all of his problems. They talk about what a “normal” student does and then where your son or daughter is – usually below normal or why wouldn’t we be having this discussion, right? They also point out things that are concerns – in my son’s case it’s his habit of chewing on anything especially pen caps – that you either didn’t realize or are so used to it doesn’t register as a problem.
And while the school district did provide us with a booklet of our rights as parents, going through the process is very confusing – and I read the book. I found most of my questions were best answered by other parents who had been through it before.
IEP meetings are also sad affairs – at least to me. While the teachers and therapists talk up all of my son’s positives – as well as the negatives – it’s a concrete realization that your child is not “normal.” I remember the first one we had to determine if Michael – who has a medical diagnosis of autism – qualified for educational autism (yes, they are too separate things apparently). The diagnostician shared her observations of Michael interacting with his classmates and how far from “normal” they were. It broke my heart. We parents don’t always get to see what happens in the classroom, lunchroom or on the playground. So in other words, for parents an IEP meeting consists of listening to everything that is wrong with your child – an experience no parent really wants to go through.
After the litany of your child’s deficiencies, the case worker, therapists and teaches come up with a set of goals for the next year. By this point, I am usually so worn out that I have no idea what they’re talking about. And honestly, not much parental input is sought as they come up with objectives such as “Michael will write five to seven sentences with proper punctuation, including capital letters without prompts” or something along those lines. I do always get involved in the accommodations – such as an extra set of books for home, receiving written copies of all teacher notes, etc. – since those are things I notice can make a difference in helping him feel more successful so perhaps he’ll be able to write those five to seven sentences.
The end goal for students is make enough improvement that they will no longer need an IEP. While I’m so happy and relieved about all of the progress Michael has made in the past three years, I am also afraid of losing the support the IEP supplies. I’m glad we qualified for another year and will try not to think about going through it again until next fall.
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