My daughter's first year of preschool has not exactly been all I had hoped it would be and much of that rests on my shoulders and how I approached our very first IEP meeting. Here are some of the mistakes I made:
- I Should Have Educated Myself: Those first couple of years with our daughter were busy and stressful. I'm a college-educated man of at least average intelligence so I figured there was no reason I couldn't sit down with a preschool teacher and hash out a common sense approach to what my daughter needed at school. Plus, who wants to read up on public school IEP mumbo jumbo when you already have your hands full with the day-today? What I should have done is started reading little by little once my daughter turned two so that I was better prepared for our first IEP meeting once she turned three.
- I Didn't Ask For Help: While slowly reading up on the ins-and-outs of the IEP process, I should have been interviewing friends and relatives who were teachers. I should have spoken with other parents who had already been through the process. I should have contacted a local advocacy program for a consultation. I should have considered enrolling in one of the many affordable (if not free) seminars on special education that are offered in my area.
- I Went In Alone: I didn't have much faith in the abilities of our Early Intervention Coordinator so when she offered to come to the IEP meeting with me, I declined. Instead, I should have contacted my Early Intervention office and asked to be switched to a coordinator who had the most expertise with IEPs and then taken him/her with me to the meeting. If not that route, I should have hired an advocate or at the very least taken a more knowledgeable friend with me (at least for that very first IEP meeting anyway).
- I Assumed That the Large Number of People at Our IEP Meeting Was an Indication of The School's Dedication to Serving My Daughter: The truth is, certain people from the district are required by law to be there (generally speaking they are): At least one general education teacher, at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, the person who assessed your child, often a typist taking notes and others as needed. The reason so many people need to be there is 1) To protect the school district and 2) To craft the best plan for your child. In. That. Order.
- I Assumed The IEP Meeting Was a Kum-by-ya Event: where people who had dedicated their lives to helping darling children such as mine would hash out in a common sense way what was best for her education. In reality the IEP meeting is a quasi-legal proceeding in which the parent advocates for how their child is going to be treated, educated and what services will be provided. The IEP is a written contract between you and the district. You want the IEP to protect your child if the district doesn't hold up their end of the bargain and the district wants the IEP to protect them in case you decide to file a complaint or worse yet, sue.
- I Assumed the School Would Make Necessary Modifications to the Playground as Needed: My daughter is in a wheelchair and even though the school did not have an accessible playground, I assumed they would make reasonable modifications. Imagine my surprise when my wife came home in tears after volunteering at our school because my daughter was spending recess time in her wheelchair watching the other kids play. I spoke with the principle and her response was, "I will have to look at her IEP". I should have addressed the issue of integrated play more aggressively in our IEP meeting.
- I Assumed the School Would Integrate My Daughter with the Other Students in Her Class: When an emotionally disturbed student began attending my daughter's class, we became concerned she would be trampled if she was playing on the floor. The school district's answer was not to get the new student what he needed but instead to confine our daughter to her wheelchair for the entire school day; even when the other students were sitting on the floor playing or in singing/circle time etc. I should have more aggressively addressed classroom integration at our IEP meeting.
- When Many of My Assumptions Proved to be False, I Felt Betrayed: The truth is, I had an understanding of the IEP process that was not rooted in reality. My lack of preparation contributed to me making all sorts of "common-sense" assumptions that proved to be false. When my assumptions proved to be false, I had many sleepless nights bemoaning how the school district betrayed us.
I should have educated myself, asked for help and taken an IEP ninja with me. Instead, I went in with a song in my heart and my heart on my sleeve. I could have sent a Golden Retriever in my place for all the good I was at our first IEP meeting.
The Good News Is: You can always call another IEP meeting when you feel the need to make adjustments or corrections.
So I Have Learned: Its okay to love and support your school and your teachers:
But when it comes to crafting an IEP, do yourself a favor and become an IEP ninja or take someone with you who is:
I have learned from my mistake. If you have your first IEP coming up, I hope you have too!