The Individualized Education Program (IEP)
The primary mechanism for ensuring that your child's needs are met is the Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is required by the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); your child's first IEP meeting must take place within 30 days of the time your child is determined to be eligible for services. Your child qualifies for services if he has been found to have dyslexia or any other learning disability, and if his disability impairs his school performance.
An IEP has two purposes. First, it sets reasonable learning goals for your child. Then, it outlines the services that the school district will provide and specifies where they will take place.
The IEP Meeting
As a parent, you are entitled to have input into the entire IEP decision-making process. The school must take steps to ensure that one or both parents are present at each IEP meeting and are given the opportunity to participate. This includes notifying you of the meeting early enough to enable you to attend, scheduling the meeting at a mutually agreed-upon time and place, and providing you with all the necessary information regarding the meeting and your rights as parents. Your child may also attend the meeting if you wish.
You can improve the quality and effectiveness of your child's IEP meetings by bringing a buddy. Bring your spouse or a close family member if you can. Consider pairing up with another parent of a special needs child — offer to attend her IEP meetings if she will attend yours. Don't forget your child — he can learn useful self-advocacy skills by being an active participant in the IEP process.
The IEP team will also include your child's regular teacher, a special education teacher, a person who is qualified to interpret the instructional implications of your child's evaluation results, a school system representative who is qualified to provide specialized services to your child and is knowledgeable about the general curriculum and availability of resources, and other individuals who have special knowledge or expertise about your child.
The school must initiate and conduct a meeting to review your child's IEP at least once every twelve months to determine whether the annual goals are being achieved, and to revise the IEP as needed to address any lack of expected progress. You can ask for more frequent meetings if you feel they are needed to address concerns or issues that arise with your child.
Contents of IEP
The IEP should begin with a statement of your child's present levels of educational performance and explain how your child's learning disability affects his involvement and progress in the general curriculum.
The IEP should then specify a set of objectively measurable annual goals, including benchmarks and short-term objectives. These goals should be related to your child's needs regarding the learning disability specified in his evaluation, and should enable your child to be involved in and progress in the general curriculum. The IEP goals should focus on reducing or eliminating your child's academic problems.
The IDEA was amended in 2004; the amendments may change some of the ways that IEP short-term objectives are set, as well as affect the means for you to appeal or challenge a decision by school authorities. As of the time of writing this book, the law had not been finalized by Congress, so it is not possible to explain the changes. Be sure to check the legal resources in Appendix B for up-to-date information.
IEP goals should be specific and directly related to your child's learning needs and achievement levels. For example, “Robert will increase oral reading skills to fifth-grade level as measured by the Gray Oral Reading Test” is measurable and specific; “Robert will work to improve reading fluency” is not. Make sure that goals are both reasonable in light of your child's present level of functioning and his expected grade level.
The IEP must also specify how your child's progress toward the annual goals will be measured, and the means by which the school will keep you regularly informed of the degree of progress. You are entitled to regular progress reports at least as often as school report cards are regularly issued.
Finally, the IEP must specify the services and modifications that will be provided to address each of your child's needs. The actual availability of services has no bearing on the IEP. That is, if a service is needed it must be written in the IEP; if the school district cannot directly provide the service, it must arrange for and fund the service to be provided by another agency.
The IEP must be individualized. It is not appropriate for the school to present you with a form IEP that is used for all children with similar learning issues; your child is entitled to a unique plan to meet all of his specific needs. The plan may address his nonacademic as well as academic needs. For example, if your child has social or behavioral issues that are connected to his dyslexia, the plan should specify those and provide for appropriate interventions.
Preparing for the Meeting
It is important for you to prepare in advance for the IEP meeting, so that you can advocate effectively for your child. If you are unprepared, you are likely to find the process intimidating — you may arrive to find yourself confronting a roomful of teachers and school administrators, and find it difficult to express yourself or hold your ground.
Start by talking to your child. Ask her what is going well in school and what she would like to do better. Explain the purpose of the meeting, and ask your child whether she would like to attend.
Write a short description of your child, including a list of her strengths and weaknesses.
Include such items as: hobbies, behavior at home, and relationship with family and friends. Focusing on your child's strengths, interests, and preferences will help develop an IEP that best meets her needs. Write out a list of your specific concerns and questions, and list your own recommendations or ideas for how to best meet your child's needs.
Write down some goals you would like to see your child achieve in the coming year.
Be sure that you know your options. Gather information about various programs offered within your school district, as well as any privately provided programs that may be appropriate for your child. Talk with your child's teacher, the district special education administrator, and other parents. Visit your child's classroom so that you can observe her present learning environment. As much as possible, visit potential programs that might be indicated for your child before the IEP meeting.
The IEP meeting is a time to use teamwork to help your child, and create goals for the future — not to revisit or argue over past mistakes. At the meeting, show a positive outlook. Start by talking about some areas you know everyone will agree with. Avoid speaking in absolutes, such as “always” or “never.” Focus on your concerns about your child and specific needs, and use questions (“What if we tried…?”) to elicit suggestions from other IEP team members, rather than a declarative statement of a firm position.
Use this information to develop your ideal IEP to present at the meeting. Gather all available information that supports your position and your child's ideal IEP. This can include new information, such as an evaluation by someone outside the school district or a statement from your child's pediatrician.
Ask for a written list of the people the school plans to have at your child's IEP meeting. Let your school contact person know if you plan to bring others to the meeting as well. Try to find out in advance what school staff members are likely to recommend at the meeting. It is especially important for you to know what to expect from your child's teacher, as her opinions and suggestions will usually be given great deference. If possible, meet with the teacher in advance to go over your mutual concerns — things will go better if you and the teacher present a united front.
Invite appropriate people who can support your position to speak at the IEP meeting. This can be an experienced advocate, a professional who has worked with your child, or someone who provides services that you would like your child to receive. If a key person cannot intend, have her prepare a written statement for you to read at the meeting. It is also a good idea to bring a support person, such as a friend or another parent, who can assist you by taking notes and helping you stay focused at the meeting.
Organize your materials in advance and make photocopies of any important documents or exhibits (such as samples of your child's school work) that you are bringing, so that you can distribute these to the other people at the meeting. You may want to assemble a portfolio of your child's work, and keep a binder with all school documents, reports, and information related to the IEP process. These can be updated from year to year.