Decoding the IEP: Parents Learn From a Special Education Advocate

young girl holding a colored pencil over an open notebook and staring into the distance, post title "Decoding the IEP"

Becky McMains didn’t wonder whether her daughter would need special education services. She knew she would. Her daughter has a neurological condition that manifests both physically and cognitively, and had been seeing numerous specialists from the day she was born. 

Because the McMains family knew so much about their daughter’s abilities, she assumed that the people in charge of educating children like her daughter would know what to do. Her daughter was not the first child with special needs to enroll in San Antonio ISD. 

Inexperienced Parents Let the System Drive Special Education Meetings (ARDs)

“Fundamentally there’s an assumption that they’ve got this,” McMains said.

She didn’t question much about the extensive plan the district presented at their first admission, review, dismissal meeting, or “ARD.”  (In most states the ARD is called an “IEP meeting.”) The district laid out a plan, told McMains they would check back in. 

It wasn’t until her daughter had a troubling behavioral outburst that McMains started questioning whether the district’s plan was being followed. 

It was not. Not in the way it had been presented to her. 

She began to wonder, she said, whether it was just her, or if every family in special education at her school had similar experiences.

It was not just her. Parents were going into ARDs—which involve a conference table full of school and district personnel—alone, without advocates or doctors, without anyone but themselves to notice whether something looked incorrect.  Most, like her, were leaving educational plans to the professionals in the room, only to be frustrated later when their child was not making progress. When they did ask about their student’s progress, most parents reported a mix of dismissive responses–—they were told the school was doing everything it could. Some were told that the teachers were still getting to know the child. Others were told that to get more services, the family psychologist would have to get involved.

Asking questions was, in short, not a good way to get answers. 

“It’s not expedient for the system to feed into the asking,” McMains said. It’s easier to let exhausted parents go on assuming that their kids are getting the free and appropriate education to which they are entitled, and that any lack of progress is wholly due to their disability.

Parents Can Learn to Understand Special Education Plans (IEPs)

Qualifying for special education services can be a long road. By the time the school is ready to present their plan for delivering those services, many parents describe feelings of both exhaustion and hopefulness. 

By the time they’ve seen and heard those plans, many parents report feeling more of the former, and less of the latter. 

It’s not that they think the plans won’t work. It’s that the plans are really hard to understand. McMains had grown accustomed to reading lengthy, technical descriptions of her daughter’s condition. For many parents, the special education plan is their first encounter with the slurry of boilerplate jargon and educational alphabet soup. 

Special education plans are delivered to parents in what is called an individualized education plan, or an IEP. While this sounds helpful—maybe even ideal—what comes home to parents is often in the realm of 30–50 pages of educational, legal, and medical terminology, describing their children in terms that sound overwhelmingly negative and bleak. 

McMains sought to arm other parents with the information they would need to change their approach as well. With her principal’s support, McMains asked Juan Hernandez, a special education advisor and advocate with the Brighton Center, to speak to parents at her school about how to prepare for an ARD, as well as how to decipher the school’s special education plan, and hold them accountable to it. 

“The parent is the most powerful person in the room,” Hernandez said. But seizing that power on behalf of their students parents need to understand where and how to apply pressure. 

Pressure Point #1: Become the IEP Expert

Parents have every right to push back, request revisions, or ask for more information about their student’s IEP, which should include the following, Hernandez said, whether the student’s disability affects their classroom learning, behavior, or both.

Check the Present Levels of Achievement and Functional Performance

This is the baseline assessment of the students strengths and needs. Parents should make sure that this reflects the student they know, and speak up if they feel like their child is at risk of being misunderstood based on the description (not included in image to protect privacy). 

Specific academic or behavioral goals and at least one measurable, definite skill that will serve as evidence that the student is advancing toward the goal for the next year. Everything from identifying letters to raising one’s hand to speak can be included among the skills that lead to goals, such as literacy and appropriate classroom participation.  

Parents should offer feedback if they feel like the goals are either unrealistic or too dumbed down, Hernandez said, helping the district find the right balance. If parents see something listed as a goal that is already happening at home, this might be a good opportunity to share insight with the ARD committee. Likewise, if something looks unrealistic, but teachers have had success achieving it at school, they might have a strategy that could help at home. 

Parents Should Keep Track of the Goals and Ask About Them Regularly

Progress reports on those goals should be included with their child’s report card every nine weeks. 

Accommodations and Modifications to the Child’s Classroom Instruction

Accommodations are changes in how the student receives instruction or evaluation. This can include more time on tests, stand-up breaks, a cool-down corner, someone to read tests aloud to them, and many more alterations to traditional instruction methods and the classroom environment to help a student absorb the most content possible. 

Modifications Are Changes to What Is Being Taught

For instance, this allows a student to receive instruction in specific subjects at a lower grade level. Students with physical disabilities will need detailed explanations of how their school day will look different from their peers, including an “adapted physical education plan.” 

The IEP will also be filled with other language specific to the child. Parents should be on the lookout for where the student is spending most of their day ( look for LRE, which stands for “least restrictive environment,” and  “inclusion”) and what therapies they will be receiving at what frequency. On the topics of accommodations, modification, “least restrictive environments,” and “related services” parents often have to follow up regularly—more frequently than once per nine weeks, to make sure things are going according to plan. 

Related services like speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, etc, are tied to state and federal funding, and parents should monitor them closely. 

Pressure Point #2: Take Control of the Meeting 

Parents can call an ARD anytime they want to. They are required by law to happen yearly, as the IEP is valid for one year. However, concerned parents can call a meeting at any time by contacting a member of the ARD committee. Any member, Hernandez said. He offered some tips for calling, convening, and following up on ARDs. 

Use Email to Call an ARD Meeting

Veteran parents of students receiving special education always leave a paper trail. Because there are time limits on how long the district has to comply with parent requests, having the date and language used in the request is essential. If a school official attempts to handle something over the phone, advocates advise asking to handle it by email, so that a record of the district’s answer is preserved. 

While parents can call ARDs whenever, Hernandez did remind parents that IEPs take time to prepare and that getting all of those people in one room can be a scheduling nightmare. He recommended giving the district a reasonable amount of time before the desired date of the ARD. Asking for something within one to two weeks might not yield much useful information.

Prepare by Informally Reviewing the IEP

Before each ARD, parents should prepare by informally reviewing the IEP, marking questions, making sure they understand each component. 

This is easier, of course, if schools provide the IEP with ample time for the parent to review. When a parent knows their ARD is coming up, they should ask to set an agreed upon deadline for the IEP to allow the time they need to look through it. 

Taking it all in can be daunting, says Anne Childers, a California SPED mom, data coach, and writer, and sometimes districts don’t send the IEPs until the day before parents are expected to sign off on them.

That needs to change, Childers said in a seminar at the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning Summit in 2019, “If you really considered me a stakeholder in this, you wouldn’t send me a 50 page report the night before we’re going to meet.”

Anyone can answer questions or look over the document with parents, including members of the ARD committee, but not everyone will be comfortable with the jargon or the laws involved. The most effective preparation comes from outside advocates who have experience looking for blurry lines, gray areas, and trouble spots in IEPs. Advisors like Hernandez contract with school districts to help parents understand their IEPs, and some families hire advocates privately. 

Be Prepared to Raise Issues in the ARD Meeting

Once in the ARD, be prepared to raise these issues. Changes can be made on the spot, or in subsequent meetings. 

At the end of the ARD the parent will be asked, “Do you agree with these plans?” 

The parent should be ready to say “yes,” Hernandez said, or to say “no” and explain why. 

Pressure Point #3: Ask Your District to Consider Asset-Based Language

Left untended, IEPs lay out how much of a problem a student presents to school-as-usual. Perpetually seeing their student through this lens is demoralizing to parents who have high hopes for their child’s future, and paralyzing to those who fear the worst. 

This might seem like a minor thing at first, but ARDs and IEPs will be more effective if everyone uses “can” words instead of “can’t” words. 

The IEP “should include strengths,” Hernandez said. 

This may seem like fluff, but some ARDs last for hours, and if parents leave feeling demoralized, they aren’t going to be eager to call the next ARD.  Some feel like the child being described is unfamiliar to them—a problem, a liability, or a failure. This is especially true for students whose differences affect their behavior. Parents lose hope after years of hearing, essentially, that they have a bad kid. 

Because special education services are governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act, a federal law, most schools are concerned with limiting liability. They want to make sure they are checking all of the legal boxes, which leads to a lot of legal language.  

While he understands that the language is often auto-filled using software designed to keep schools within their legal obligations, special education expert Jason Davis would like to see more asset-based language chosen to populate the forms.

“Compliance doesn’t require deficit language,” Davis said to 25 educators in the seminar he led with Childers. They would like to see more language to explain what is  working, and the strides the students are making.

Asset-based language that keeps accountability on the adults delivering the services. It presents the students as capable learners, who simply need the school to do their job. 

A Parent Can Be a Special Needs Child’s Best Advocate

That’s where McMains finally found herself. When she started her journey as a special education parent, she sympathized with the excuses and dismissals as the earnest complaints of people putting in their best effort. Now, she’s prepared to be “that parent” who shows up ready to hold feet to the fire on behalf of her student, and all students, and she’s ready to raise an army of parents willing to do the same. 

Heart graphic and title "Towards a Kinder World: A Series on Special Education" IEP

About the Author

Bekah McNeel is a San Antonio-based education writer who focuses on equity, innovation, and social-emotional learning for publications such as The 74. Over the years, we have republished local education coverage from her Hall Monitor site, and last November she wrote for us a four-part series, “Punished, Not Served,” about unfair discipline for students with disabilities.

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