Autism Society records most keynote and concurrent sessions at their annual conferences. You can see and hear those recordings by purchasing full online access, or individual recordings.
STEP 1: LEARN, LEARN, LEARN
You are already an expert on your child, now make yourself an expert on your child’s disability. Keep in mind that the definition of an expert is someone who knows more about a subject than the other people in the room. If you have done some reading on autism, make a list of the books and articles you have read as well as any presentations you may have attended, and bring it with you. Nothing increases your standing in the IEP meeting more than starting a comment with “according to Stanley Greenspan...”, or “the research conducted by the National Research Council concluded...” The same is true when discussing the law. School personnel frequently cite the law but often get it wrong. Therefore, it is important that you know and understand special education law better than the rest of the team. The best way to learn about the law is to attend a special education law conference.
STEP 2: ORGANIZE AND PREPARE
Be sure you have your child’s complete school file. Organize your file in a manner that it is easy for you to quickly find any document you may need. You want to be able to reference a document and quickly produce it at the meeting. Whatever method allows you to do that is what you want.
STEP 3: BUILDING YOUR OWN TEAM
Parents are often at a disadvantage in IEP meetings. To the extent that you can afford private assessments I strongly recommend them. Speech/Language assessments and Neuropsychological evaluations are often extremely valuable for children with ASD. Some private health insurance plans will cover a portion of the costs of the assessments. Private evaluations provide parents with an unbiased view of the child’s strengths and needs.
The private evaluation alone will often not be enough to change the position of school personnel. That is why you need to build your own team of experts. Have the private evaluators attend the IEP meeting. It is much harder for the school team to ignore the findings and recommendations of a private evaluation if the evaluator is sitting there before them. Your team should consist of individuals with expertise in the areas of greatest need to your child. Any private evaluation should include feedback from school personnel including the child’s teacher(s). It is highly recommended that at least one member of your team conduct in-school observations of your child. Parents should also do observations.
Share the private evaluations with the school in a timely manner so they have time to review them prior to the meeting. Be sure your experts have seen and reviewed each other’s reports as well as school reports and your child’s IEP. Schedule a conference call with all of your experts at least a few days prior to the IEP meeting. You want to ensure that your experts are aware of all the issues that may be discussed at the IEP meeting and address any differing viewpoints prior to the meeting. Your experts must also be aware of what you hope to accomplish at the IEP meeting.
STEP 4: EVALUATING PROGRESS
It is important for you to know how to evaluate your child’s progress using empirical methods. There are several ways to do this. Charting assessment results is often the easiest and most graphic way to plot progress. To do this you will have to develop a basic understanding of standard scores, percentiles, and grade equivalents. It is easy to compare your child’s assessment results if he or she has been administered the same tests over time.
Goals that are repeated year after year indicate that a child is not making progress. Comparing goals involves not only looking at the wording of the goals but also the criteria for mastery. A goal with criteria for mastery of 70% accuracy one year and 80% the next year may or may not indicate meaningful progress. It depends on the goal and the child. But the same goal with the same criteria for mastery continued into a subsequent IEP would indicate no progress.
STEP 5: EVALUATING THE DRAFT IEP AND OTHER DOCUMENTS
It is hard to participate equally if you are shown documents, including the draft IEP, for the first time at the IEP meeting. Therefore, you should request in writing that you receive a copy of all documents that the school team expects to review at the meeting at least 5 business days in advance of the meeting. You should stand firm on this demand and postpone the meeting if you have not received the requested documentation in advance. (NOTE: Some states do not allow schools to draft an IEP prior to the meeting. )
Supplementary Aids and Services and Classroom Accommodations
The supplementary aids and services and classroom accommodations often directly impact the placement. Thus, this section, often overlooked, should be carefully reviewed. If the classroom modifications include your child receiving all instruction in small groups with reduced auditory and visual distractions and with children having similar academic skills, your child will likely be placed in a self-contained special education classroom. However, if you believe your child can be educated in an inclusive setting, the aforementioned modification will work against that. Hence the need to review this section carefully. Supplementary aids and services can typically be provided in the general education classroom or in a self-contained class. They are often vital to a child’s success in either class.
Children with ASD often have interfering behaviors. Be sure your experts review the Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), if your child has one, to insure its effectiveness. If you child does not have a BIP, discuss with your experts whether a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is needed. The IDEA requires schools to use “positive behavioral interventions and supports” (PBIS) to address interfering behaviors. Be sure that your child’s BIP utilizes PBIS rather than punishments.
As noted in Step 4, it is important to compare the draft goals with the goals on the current/prior IEP. Aside from that, the draft goals should be “SMART.” That is they should be Specific, Measurable, contain Action words, be Realistic, and Time limited. The goals are dictated by the needs identified in present levels of performance. That is, if a need is identified, there must be a corresponding goal to address it. Thus, the importance of having comprehensive and accurate present levels cannot be over stated.
Service Hours and Placement
The service hours on your child’s IEP may be the most important section because it dictates the type of services and intensity of services your child will receive. Remember that special education is a service not a place. Your child could receive 30 hours of special education instruction per week without ever leaving the general education classroom. So the service hours should also identify whether the services will be delivered in the general education setting or in a separate special education class. This section of the IEP should be specific enough that you know exactly how many hours per week of special education instruction your child will receive in each academic area, i.e., reading, math, written language, etc. The IEP goals will dictate what areas of special education instruction your child receives and, to some extent, the amount of time. For example, if there are no reading goals, there will be no special education instruction in reading. If there is a single reading goal the amount of time identified on the IEP will be minimal. The same rule applies to related services. Whether a child receives speech/language therapy, occupational therapy, or other related services depends on the IEP goals. Thus it is important to ensure that the IEP contains not only SMART goals but a comprehensive set of goals so that the child receives all the services he or she needs.
Your child’s placement is based on all the other components of the IEP. The IDEA requires placement to be in the least restrictive environment (LRE) meaning that to the maximum extent appropriate, the child should be educated with his non-disabled peers in the regular classroom. Appropriate is the controlling word and courts have consistently found that appropriate trumps LRE. Obtaining the appropriate placement for your child is your ultimate goal but you will not be successful unless all the components of the IEP are properly aligned.
STEP 6: FINAL PREPARATIONS
Once you have reviewed the draft IEP the next step is to make necessary revisions to it or draft a whole new IEP. Your experts can help you with the revisions. Follow the same rules in drafting your revisions as noted in Step 5. Create a pre-meeting checklist to include final organization of your file; written confirmation with your team of the date, time and location of the meeting; a letter to the school to inform them of your intention to bring outside individuals to the meeting; and verification that the meeting will include a review of the private evaluations you have sent by checking the notice letter. Send the IEP revisions you have made to the school as soon as you can.
STEP 7: THE IEP MEETING
School teams often want to focus immediately on the new IEP. Before doing that, “close out” the existing IEP. This means obtain a final report of progress made on each goal. Was the goal achieved and if not how much progress was made? A goal that was not achieved should be continued on the new IEP, albeit with a higher baseline if the child made any progress.
Disagreements are not uncommon but arguments should be. Treat all members of the team with respect. If you disagree with someone’s comment or assessment express your disagreement in a calm and reasonable manner. It is important, to note your disagreement for the record. Although the goal is to obtain the IEP your child needs without resort to a due process hearing, if you are unsuccessful you do not want the school to claim at the hearing that you never disagreed with them. The outcome of the meeting and placement decision should be clearly stated in the IEP. Anyone looking at the IEP should be able tell exactly what services the child will receive and where he will receive them.
STEP 8: FOLLOW-UP
Regardless of the outcome of the meeting, send a letter to the IEP chairperson which summarizes the meeting. If the school provided a summary at the meeting, identify what parts of the summary you agree and disagree with and why. Whether the outcome of the meeting met your goals or not, thank the IEP chairperson and school team for the work they did in drafting the IEP. If the final IEP fell short of what you had hoped, it is important to identify in detail all aspects of the IEP with which you disagree. If you eventually file for due process, your letter could be an important piece of evidence. So be careful and take the letter very seriously.
Every IEP meeting presents its own challenges and nuances and every member of the IEP team brings with them their own agenda. Developing an effective IEP for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder presents additional challenges because schools are often reluctant to provide the intensity of services a child on the spectrum needs due to financial and staffing limitations. Comprehensive preparation is critical to the success of the meeting. By following the steps listed above you significantly increase your chances of having a successful IEP meeting.
Content Area: Education
Wayne Steedman, Esq.
Callegary & Steedman, P.A.