Hey Parents….listen up!

Hey Parents, did you know how you approach an IEP meeting has a serious impact on its outcome? What kind of energy are you bringing to the table? Are you biased? Do you have negative past experiences? Do you feel fear? embarrassment? anger? Do you just want to cry? I think I have worked with families that experience all these emotions. This is what I call “educational baggage” and trust me, we all have it. It all stems from what school was like for us, how we learned, and how we process the hopes and dreams we have for our children. I have had parents call me in rage, in tears, and in utter confusion. I listen, understanding this all comes from the love you have for your children, knowing we must work through them to be an effective team.

Part of my job is to help you understand these feelings and determine if they are useful to our goal. Yes, parents cry at IEP meetings. It happens all the time, but I can tell you it does nothing to help your child. I know that is hard to hear but it is true. Teams see people cry all the time and it is not productive. However, taking those emotions and turning them into an impact statement or actionable goals is far more powerful. This can help the team better understand you, your family, and your child.

If I am to stand up for your child to the best of my abilities, I need to understand every part of your child’s history, including family dynamic. I have to understand your experiences with school and your child’s experiences. This helps me paint a more accurate picture of your child. We are looking at the WHOLE child, not just the one at school. For example, some children work all day to hold it together, to keep their behavior and emotions in check and then blow up at home. This is important information for the school to know. The team can work to help your child process during the day to lessen the reactions at home. Hiding your home life and experiences is a detriment to creating an effective plan.

To make a strong plan, I also try to see things from the perspective of the district. This can be confusing to families. Yes, I am there to represent your child, but I am also there to help you understand what fights are worth fighting. I have relationships with the people working with your children. I know when something we might be asking for is not possible. (We can still ask for it, but I will tell you it’s not likely as we plan.) Often, the two parties in IEP meetings see things very differently. These different perspectives can cloud judgement and decision making on both sides. This is often the case when discussing something like methodology. I often push for Orton Gillingham to be used for a child with Dyslexia. The district disagrees claiming their methods, training, and systems are enough to meet the needs of the child.
Understanding this perspective helps us shape the conversation.

Remember, I am not a “hired gun”. I do my best to stay unbiased and focus on the child’s needs. What is in the best interest of the child? What do they absolutely need to succeed in school? Are our requests reasonable? Are we placing too much responsibility on the school? Are we not considering our own roles and responsibilities? I would be failing as an advocate who claims to represent the whole child if we did not look at ALL the angles.

In conclusion, to make the most of my services, it is important share details about your child and family life. It will be helpful to work through emotions that can hinder progress at a meeting. We also may need to answer some hard questions. We will be prepared, calm, in control, and keeping the focus on your child’s needs once we do. In the end, it will all be worth it.

You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers!

I posted an “ask me anything” challenge on Facebook and you did not disappoint. I am always available and can be contacted through my website wwww.inspire1learning.com or Facebook. Here is what I received:

How do you get a 504 plan?
A 504 plan is all about access. It guarantees equal access to an education. Think of it as leveling the playing field. So, if a child has ADHD, Dyslexia, Anxiety, Diabetes, ect… the question becomes what do they need to access their education? What kind of accommodations will help them succeed? It is a disability that affects a major life activity. All you need to do is write a letter to the school (teacher and principal) and request a 504 plan. If they deny you, call me! It’s the equivalent of denying someone their civil right to an education. Remember, Grades are not an indicator of a disability. The parent/educator guide to 504, provided by the federal government, clearly states students may still need equal access to the general curriculum even if they have good grades.

How do you get an IEP?
This differs greatly from a 504. You don’t “get” an IEP. You are found eligible for an individualized education plan. This means your child will receive specialized instruction. They will have annual goals, accommodations, and a clear plan on how they will make progress. The first step is putting a request into writing that you suspect your child has a disability. This includes social emotional needs, academics, attention, and many others. There are 13 categories under which your child could qualify. Once you have written a letter stating the specifics of what kind of disability you suspect, the school will start the evaluation process. They will then hold an eligibility meeting to determine if your child has qualified. Then there will be the IEP meeting to develop the plan. Remember, your meaningful participation is guaranteed throughout the entire process. If you are just sitting across everyone at a table and not contributing, you may need to call an advocate to help you. It should never be a situation where you just sit, listen, and sign. Contribute! You know your child best!

What does an advocate cost?
We charge $75.00 per hour. However, we let you dictate how in depth we get. Some families opt for a quick 2-hour review. Other families feel better knowing we are with you every step of the way. If it is an initial IEP and evaluation, you can expect we will spend more time with you. We want to make sure you understand the process, the implications of testing results, and that we have a clear understanding of what you want for your child. If an IEP is already in place the time will consist of reviewing the plan, meeting with you to get your input, and attending the IEP meeting. We document concerns, communicate with the IEP team, and do our best to be the voice of your child.

Are IEP meetings longer when you are involved?
Absolutely! This is a good thing. You do not want to be rushed when it comes to your child’s educational needs. You want to have a complete understanding of what your child is learning and how they are learning. This takes time! Under IDEA, you are guaranteed meaningful participation. I believe “meaningful” means allowing more time to ask questions and sharing your ideas and knowledge. There are no time requirements for IEP meetings listed in IDEA. Of course, we want to be respectful of the school’s time but if you need another meeting to guarantee that meaningful participation, then so be it.

Can’t you just give me some quick advice?
We could, but each child is unique, and each plan is individualized. What works for one child may not work for another. That is why it is so important to see the evaluation results, input from teachers, your input, and their current plan. I need to have a clear picture of the child including strengths, weaknesses, and learning style. Many times, I will even ask to meet with your child to get their take on school.

Does having an advocate make the IEP team angry?
Sometimes. Unfortunately, advocacy has gotten the reputation of being adversarial. Too many, untrained advocates are quick to threaten lawsuits, state complaints, or due process. I will exhaust every effort before recommending any of these steps. I will negotiate, compromise, ask questions, and come up with creative solutions.
Some teams also take it is a sign that we do not trust them. This is not the case at all! I know teams are overworked and have large caseloads. I know they are bound by funding, staffing, and time constraints. I am not. I am free to look at the plan for the possibilities of what it can be and how it can help the child. It’s exciting to see the possibilities! I like to keep the focus on the child and create a plan that is unique and individualized to meet their needs. I find, once the meeting gets going, the team realizes I am not there to tear anyone down, I am not there to judge, I am not there to threaten, I am simply there to help families understand the process. I am there to ask for what we believe the child needs to succeed in school. I am there so families do not feel so alone and isolated. I am there to represent the interests of the child. I even make it a point to smile, make small talk, and try to break the ice. It is important to build trust and build relationships with people. I would be a terrible advocate if my goal were to fight and argue in every meeting. How would that help the child? How would I build any kind of mutual respect with the team?

How do you handle conflict?
Conflict is going to happen. It is a fact. However, conflict does not mean I become unprofessional. Conflict is simply a disagreement and adults have disagreements all the time. I do my best to stay calm, polite, and respectful. It is not personal. The school represents one perspective and I represent another. I stay objective, share my knowledge why I think my request is appropriate. Sometimes the team agrees, sometimes they do not. That is ok. I will advise you accordingly. I might say to let a request go; we have a good plan. I might say to enact your procedural safeguards and contact a lawyer. It depends on the child and the request. (In two years of advocacy I have only referred a family to a lawyer once. That shows negotiation can work!)

Do you only work in Rapid City?
I work all over the state of South Dakota thanks to technology. I can zoom into any meeting in any location. I can email you what you need to self-advocate. I can email or call schools. There is a great deal I can do even though I may be hours away from you. However, I do not work in other states. Although IDEA is federal law, state requirements vary. I am only familiar with the laws, policies, and procedures of the state of South Dakota and IDEA. I am not a lawyer, I am not a psychologist, I can only advise you based on my training through the Council of Parents Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), my experiences as a teacher, and my history in advocacy.

But we had a meeting!

Great! You had a meeting! I hear this all the time. What matters is what happens after the meeting. Did anything productive come from it? Do you have a full understanding of the plan that was made for your child? Is it being executed correctly by all staff members? Is your child making progress?

Meetings are important but can be frustrating if you don’t feel progress is being made or your child’s voice is not being represented. It is intimidating. They are the professionals, they know all the laws, requirements, and specialized methods. What do you know? YOU KNOW YOUR CHILD! If you walk into a meeting and feel like all the paperwork is already done and you must sign on the dotted line, then this is not a team atmosphere. You are guaranteed MEANINGFUL PARTICIPATION. How is just showing up and signing meaningful? It is not. Meaningful looks like your opinions, ideas, and thoughts being heard and documented. Meaningful is your child having a voice and allowing them to speak about what works for them.

If you walk out of the meeting without a clear understanding of your child’s plan or have limited understanding of what you can do at home, then another meeting must be held. It is the job of the district to ensure you have a clear understanding of all the proceedings and that you agree. Many parents do not realize how much power they have in the process. For example, if you see a lack of progress SPEAK UP! This is important for the team to know and for you to document. A child cannot be passed along from year to year. There must be proof of progress.

I look at advocacy as having an ally in a meeting. You need someone to help you find your voice, back you up, interpret findings, and explain the districts point of view. You need someone to be able to corroborate, “This does not sound right. This does not make sense. How will this help my child?” We are on your team! We are there to represent your child and help them find their path. Remember, our number one motto, “Trust your gut!”

Why advocacy?

When it comes to our children and schools, emotions run high. Advocates, like myself, who are professionally trained understand the importance of keeping things calm and objective. Every parent needs an ally. You need that person who can tell you to “trust your gut” or “you are not crazy”. We can turn all of your thoughts, feelings, and concerns into educational language that spurs action. A well-trained, non-attorney advocate is familiar with every policy, procedure, and law you might encounter. We can sit by your side in any meeting and help assert your parental rights as well as the rights of your child. You know your child best! An advocate, when enlisted from the start, can prevent bigger problems down the road. We read reports, write letters, listen, share ideas, and do our best to represent your child.