As a special education teacher I have been in many initial Individualized Education Plan meetings over the years.
An initial IEP is when a student has first been diagnosed as having a learning disability. As a parent of a child who was born with a disability, I am very familiar with the emotional process that parents go through when they are learning about this new challenge for their child. It can be difficult to break the news to the parent but when it’s done well, you have the ability to leave the parent feeling comforted and even empowered with having the information they need to make their child successful.
Here are some of the top things I would always recommend doing during an initial IEP meeting….
1) Respond with empathy.
The parents are now questioning every decision they have made over the years. They are mentally reviewing every night they put the kids to bed without reading a book to them. They are kicking themselves for having to travel for work and not going over their homework one last time…
It is important for them to know that learning disabilities are not their fault. Most are genetic and a lot of them have to do with connections inside the brain, it’s just how the child is wired…. However, that alone can still leave them frustrated when learning to accept this diagnosis, so keep reading.
Also, they are grieving. That may sound weird, because they still have their child, but they are thinking about the loss of what could have been.
With that, I’ll share a personal story. My son has Down Syndrome. We love him to pieces and would never change the fact that he has Down Syndrome. He has brought us immense joy every day over the last 13+ years. However, we did not receive an empathic diagnosis. We were young parents and first time parents. We were clueless what to do with ANY baby, let alone a baby with special needs and at that point there were many unknowns for his future as far as health concerns. I knew and cared about several people who had Down Syndrome before we had him so I knew, on many levels, that he would live a full life. Even with that background knowledge, I had many concerns about what his future would be like. Even when a parent is joyful, the surprise diagnosis of a disability clouds the joy with fear, mostly fear of the unknown. The grief is the loss of security found in feeling like we understand what our future holds.
I know none of us know what the future holds, and if you are a parent of a child with special needs you understand what I’m trying to say. Suddenly you are hit in the gut with KNOWING that you don’t actually KNOW what’s going to happen. With a typical child you imagine being the room parent for PTO at school and your kid leading the games for class parties. When you know your child has a disability, you are now suddenly wondering how your child can be involved. What if they don’t have verbal communication? Will they have friends? Will people understand him? Will he pass his classes? Will he earn his diploma? Suddenly the things that you thought were certain in your future become uncertain, and that is what you are grieving when you get a diagnosis of a disability.
2) Disability does not define your child.
This is when we really start thinking about whether “politically correct” language is truly political, or if it’s really just respectful semantics. For example, there is a big difference in how we think of “special needs kids” vs. “kids with special needs.” This isn’t political at all. This is recognizing that the child is a child first. A child who loves sports, candy, kittens and hanging out with Grandpa long before the child has a label of “dyslexic.” With the term “special needs kids” we think about how dyslexia (or whatever the diagnosis may be) comes before all the other great attributes the child has.
During the IEP meeting, let the parent know that. Reassure them that their child is amazing and that they have gifts and talents unique only to them. The parents obviously know this, but if the parents are reassured that YOU, the educator, also knows this, they will have more faith in the plans you have developed in the IEP.
3) We will do everything we can to create a successful environment for your child.
It’s important for the parents to know what all is in the scope of a public school IEP. When I think of this statement I think of the things that we do within an IEP that are beyond the scope of academics. I’m thinking of the things we do for social-emotional development, facilitating relationships among friends and shaping behaviors.
If a child’s disability is impacting them socially, emotionally or behaviorally, it is within our duties to provide explicit instruction and practice opportunities for them to improve those areas just like we do with math and literacy.
This is sometimes the hardest when a child has a behavior disorder and their behaviors can injure themselves or others. I have talked to parents who are completely embarrassed that their child is doing these things. I tell them it’s ok. I understand their feelings but these behaviors are the child’s way of expressing a need. We will work through it and teach them appropriate ways to communicate that need and it will work out. It will take time and probably trial and error, but it will be ok.
4) Your child continues to be a valuable part of our school.
This is really important. On our IEPs, there is a statement regarding extracurricular activities and participation. I usually take that as an opportunity to talk about extra activities the school has, such as sports and clubs, that their child can be involved in.
This year our son, who is in 7th grade, started participating in school football and basketball. This has helped him build strong friendships with his peers, or in his words, “My boys.” He feels like a valuable part of the team and the school as a whole. So many teachers and community members have told my husband and I that they are so glad that he participates in these activities.
Yes, there are challenges sometimes when a child has a disability and they want to participate but that’s why the IEP is a team. Everyone can sit down and problem solve together.
5) We are a team. We will work together. Your child will be treated with dignity and respect EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
All the other tips kind of culminate into this last one.
Many parents fear that a “label” will negatively impact their child, when what they should really feel is that now there is a team of specialists lined up with tools and strategies to help your child be successful.
Their child will not be ridiculed for their disability. They will not be mocked or disrespected.
The initial IEP is a wonderful opportunity to not only establish services for the student, but to also help the parents move past the concerns they may have.
How do you work through these issues? I would love to read them in the comments section!
For a library of resources to use in special education, click HERE.
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