Today’s guest author is Jeremy Babb. Jeremy is an attorney in Augusta, Georgia. He and his wife, Ashley, reside in Aiken, South Carolina with their son, Lawson. Lawson was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2017 and is non-verbal. Jeremy and Ashley are dedicated to fighting to help families with special needs children.
You arrive at the school and check-in. A secretary escorts you to the conference room. You enter to find a group of people already seated around a long rectangular conference table. Some of the individuals you recognize but some you do not. You take a seat and your child’s teacher says “let’s get started.” You are at your first I.E.P (Individualized Education Plan) meeting. You are not sure what to expect but trust that the people in the room are there to make sure your child receives all of the services needed for success. I mean, we are all on the same team with the same goals in mind, right? In a perfect world, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.
If you have been to an I.E.P meeting, then you know that these meetings can get contentious. Maybe the school district does not want to provide your child with all of the services you know are needed. Or maybe you believe your child should receive an hour of individual speech instead of only thirty minutes of speech with a group of peers. Whatever the issue may be, you need to be prepared to argue your case. You may be thinking, how am I supposed to be prepared to argue on the spot? That is a fair question. After all, the recommendations being proposed are not told to you ahead of time. Instead, parents are often ambushed by the other members of the team with recommendations and expected to provide an answer on the spot. That is exactly why I recommend that parents take a proactive approach to advocacy. But what does that even mean? Let’s take a look at some things you should be doing to ensure you are being proactive in your advocacy.
Identify the Services Your School District Offers
There are many different ways that you can go about this. And I suggest you utilize as many resources as you have at your disposal. Remember, you want to make sure your research is thorough. The first place to start is your school district’s website. Most school districts have an entire section on their website dedicated to special programs. The websites that I have examined tend to provide a list of services available to children with special needs. However, just because a service is not listed as being provided by the district, does not mean that it cannot be provided by the district or your private therapist during school hours.
Also, utilize social media to find local parent groups. You will find that parent groups can be an invaluable resource. In my experience, parents are more than willing to provide tips and talk about their I.E.P battle stories. These tips and stories can help give you an idea of potential roadblocks the district may attempt to put up when you request similar services. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what happened. Find out why the district opposed the service. What reasoning or arguments did the district make for not wanting to provide the service the way the parent(s) wanted it provided? What ultimately happened? If the service was provided, why did the district change its position and grant the service? What types of arguments or data (this is a school district’s favorite word) did the parents provide to support their request? This information will help you as you prepare your arguments to advocate for the services you are requesting. If you go looking for a group in your area and discover there is not one, set one up! You will find that you will begin to have members in no time.
Make a List of the Services You Feel Are Needed
Take some time and sit down to think about the areas in which you see a need for your child. As you do this, make a list of all of the areas you identify. Maybe your child is non-verbal or has trouble with language. In that case, speech will absolutely be on your list. Or maybe you know that your child struggles with sensory issues, eating, walking, behavior, or interacting socially with peers. All of these things need to be on your list.
Also, do not be afraid to ask others close to your child for their thoughts. For example, your mom babysits your child while you work every day. There may be things that she notices that you haven’t. The goal here is to be thorough. So collaborating with those who spend a lot of time with your child can be very helpful.
Write Down Your Reasoning for Each Service on Your List
Now that you have a list of services you want to advocate for, think about why you feel the service should be provided. If the service is on your list, then there has to be a reason you included it, right? So right the reason(s) out. This will help you when you find yourself in a meeting and need to explain why you feel the service is necessary. Include specific examples and situations in which you have personally witnessed your child struggle with things that the service is aimed at improving. Having your arguments organized and written down will serve you well when trying to advocate during a meeting. You will not have to worry about forgetting a service you wanted to request or your mind going blank if you are put on the spot.
Obtain a Medical Professional’s Recommendation for The Service
If you have a child with special needs, then more likely than not, you also have a plethora of doctors you can contact. Whether the doctor is your child’s pediatrician or a specialist, I have found that doctors are generally willing to write letters in support of the service you are seeking. I always advise seeking the letter in support from the doctor with the most knowledge about the service need. For example, you want to advocate for your child to push-in to a general education classroom for part of the school day to work on social skills amongst age-appropriate peers. You will want to contact his developmental pediatrician and talk about it. Let the pediatrician know your thoughts and listen to her opinion. If both of you feel that is best for your child, ask the doctor to write a letter to the school district with the recommendation.
I do want to warn you about a potential issue you may run into when it comes to medical recommendations in the school setting. Many districts are quick to let parents know that the I.E.P team does not have to abide by a doctor’s recommendation. While this is true, it does not mean that the I.E.P team cannot consider the opinion of a medical professional. It is also very beneficial to have copies of all of the medical recommendation letters you obtain, in case you find yourself in a due process hearing or litigation down the road. After all, just because a medical professional’s recommendation is not “binding” on an I.E.P team, it is very persuasive and provides great support for your argument.
This is pretty self-explanatory but make sure you retain a copy of everything. If you get a medical note from your child’s doctor to give to your child’s teacher or I.E.P team, keep a copy. Anytime you speak with any member of the school district about your child or your child’s services, make sure you follow-up that conversation with an email. The email should be a recap of the conversation and include any agreements made, disagreements, requests, etc. I recommend creating a notebook for your child and keeping a copy of everything in that notebook. It provides an easy way to keep documents in order and make sure they do not get lost. Remember, the district personnel are documenting each interaction with you. It is important that you maintain your records in case a conflict arises down the road.
I hope you find the tips above to be helpful. Keep in mind that the information above is meant only to help you as you begin developing your strategy.
Remember, nobody can advocate for your child like you can.
Be thoughtful and thorough in your preparation and do not be afraid to push back when needed. Be proactive in your advocacy and fight for your child!