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To the moms who cry in their cars after IEP meetings: Someday, you won't

I saw the tearful Facebook live video posted by blogger Dena Blizzard last week after she'd been to her daughter's IEP, and my heart went out to her. She wanted her daughter, who has learning disabilities, to be tested orally instead of with a traditional written exam, so the team could figure out what she really knows.

"I only have a few more months to figure this out before high School," Dena noted. "I said, 'Isn't this what we should be doing?'" And the case manager said, "I am not making any changes to her IEP, that is the high school's job." At that point, Dena said, "my head exploded." They had three months left—why wouldn't they change the IEP now if it wasn't working? Why wouldn't they try everything? She sat in her car, despairing.

I have been that mom crying in her car (and, a few times, in the IEP meeting). I am not that mom anymore. Well, not during the last one, anyway, cause you never know. These meetings really can push your mom buttons—there you sit, surrounded by the very team of people supposed to be educating and nurturing your child's development, as you hear that your child can't get what he needs. You feel frustrated, anxious, angry, perplexed, disgusted with the system and helpless, all the feels.

If you're new at this, you will get used to IEPs and even master them. There may always be roadblocks and curveballs, but you will get better at handling them. It might be hard to believe but someday, you may not even dread them.

With at least a dozen IEPs under my belt, I'm a bona fide IEP veteran. (Hey, where's my medal?) We just had Max's annual one, and it was great...words I never thought I'd say. And so, for any parent who's left an IEP and sobbed in their car, here's hope—and ways to make the process less painful and more productive.

First up: request a copy of the IEP draft.
Coming to an IEP meeting without first reading a draft of it is tough—you have to absorb, react, question and come up with requests and changes as your child's school team sits there. I've learned to ask our district coordinator to make sure I get a draft of the IEP in advance. That way, I walk into the meeting with a list of notes. Now, this won't work for every IEP, especially if you are creating one from scratch or majorly reworking one, as that has to be composed as a team. But usually, it's possible. Also helpful: Often, teachers reach out ahead of time to ask what goals I have in mind for the IEP; if they don't, I reach out to them. FYI, it is your right to record IEP meetings, so do so if it'll help. (Not for nothing, this also sends the message that you are not a parent to mess with.)

Yes, you will run into roadblocks—and you can blast through them. 
You do not have to sign the IEP presented to you—you can challenge it. Dena noted, "Yeah, I might send an email." But there are other options, too. If an advocate did not previously work, you could try another or an education attorney. (If you're ever in need, you can find an expert through the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.) You can get supportive letters from the doctors, specialists and therapists in your child's life that bolster your request for changes. You can go over your case manager's head and to her supervisor, and then to the district superintendent. Reach out to other parents in Facebook groups for parents of children with disabilities and ask their advice. Forget squeaky wheel; be that sound-barrier-breaking wheel. 

Sometimes, you will lose, but you can try, try again.
You don't have to wait a full year to make changes to an IEP—it is your right to request an IEP meeting at any time to make changes, especially if there is a lack of progress toward goals, you get new information from an evaluation or reeval or you just have concerns, period. Put your request in writing, and explain the reasons why. In any case, if your child makes a major grade shift—say, going into first grade or high school—it is likely you will revisit the IEP a couple of months after school starts, and the new team has gotten to know your child. That's what happened with Max. Remember, one "no" on an IEP does not mean the door is permanently closed. (If you want to familiarize yourself with your child's IEP rights, check out the articles at Wrightslaw.)

It helps to do IEP prep work.
Over the years, I have expressed any large concerns I've had to our case manager ahead of time. Recently, I reached out to ours about the fact that Max's transportation to school takes more than an hour—sometimes, an hour and twenty minutes—despite the fact that we live less than 20 minutes away. I'd posted about the problem on Facebook, and found out that it is possible to have transportation accommodations written in to the IEP. I went back and forth a few times with the case manager. I got a letter from Max's pediatric neurologist to support why being on a bus for an hour-plus was medically problematic. By the time we discussed it at the IEP, it took just a couple of minutes: it will be written into his IEP that he would be the last to board the bus and the first to get home. 

Also get the ball rolling at parent-teacher conferences.
I knew that Max would benefit from another session of a therapy at his school, and so, I brought it up during a parent-teacher conference last month. I laid out the reasons, which included safety ones. I figured I'd start my campaign before the IEP. I know how hard it is to get extra therapy sessions, especially in high school, where therapy is less of a focus. To my surprise, Max got the extra session, and we found out about it before the IEP. I'm not saying that making a request at a parent-teacher conference works, but I think it can pave the way.

Invite your child to the IEP.
Max has been coming to IEPs for several years now, sometimes for the entire session, sometimes for just part of them. He needs and deserves to be there, as the IEP is about him. It's empowering for him to voice his wants and needs, to hear how great he's doing, to be a part of solving problems and to learn self-advocacy. At yesterday's IEP meeting, Max and all of us agreed that he should ask questions if he is not understanding something (he tends to not like to admit that). We also agreed that he might someday enjoy doing computer work for a living.

Max brought the house down when our case manager asked what his favorite subject is.

"Lunch!" said he. 

This post first appeared on Love That Max, please read the originial post: here

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To the moms who cry in their cars after IEP meetings: Someday, you won't


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