Navigating IEPs and 504s With Older Kids
What I want to talk about today isn’t for folks who are trying to determine whether or not their young child may need some extra assistance at school. The world of 504 Plans and IEPs is extensive and complicated and I am not an education professional (nor do I play one on TV). Those early days of realizing my kids needed special services—and then fighting for said services—are softened and blurry in my mind, much the same way you sort of forget about how awful labor was, once the baby is in your arms. So this is emphatically not about identifying special needs and obtaining services. (That could be a 100-part series, and should be written by someone smarter than me.)
No, today I want to talk to those of you who—like me—already have a kid (or two or three) being served at school under a 504 Plan or IEP, where that child is now, somehow, not exactly a child anymore. IEP meetings when my son was nine years old vs. meetings now, for my 15-year-old daughter, are very different affairs. Some things remain constant, yes, but other things need to change. [And here let’s pretend that I’ve inserted a lengthy and detailed disclaimer about everyone’s needs and experiences varying, and this is simply based upon our experiences with a specific set of needs, tailor to your own situation, etc.] Whether it’s the same or different from how you handled your child’s early years, the end-goal remains the same: Getting your kid’s needs met at school.
Same: Catch flies with honey
Each move to a new school, or start of a new school year, brings new teachers and staff who will need to get up to speed on my child’s needs and provide services or accommodations beyond the “usual.” While these folks are legally obligated to fulfill these requests, they’re human beings, and results may vary. I’m a big fan of making it crystal clear that I appreciate the time and effort school personnel spend on my child. I bake treats for school meetings, always. It’s a small thing, but who likes meetings? No one. Who likes snacks? Everyone. If you’re not a baker, you can buy treats, instead, but I like letting this group of people know that I know they’re spending time on my family, and I want to return the favor via a tangible appreciation for them. Providing snacks isn’t something I invented, of course, but I know plenty of folks who stop doing that once their kid hits the high school. Don’t stop. Bring coffee, too. Trust me.
Other “honey” tips: Write thank you notes after meetings, and/or when a teacher has done something that really made a difference. Send in little gifts for holiday or end-of-year thank-yous (and this needn’t be anything extravagant, either—if I notice someone raving about a particular cookie at a meeting, I will often gift that teacher a full batch later on; school supplies are always welcome, too), especially at the middle- and high-school levels, because by this point most parents aren’t doing teacher gifts. Volunteer, if you can possibly work it into your schedule; a teacher is much more apt to help you out when she sees you around the school helping to make her life easier, too. Acknowledge obstacles and effort even when demanding changes. There is a world of difference between, “My kid needs X and I don’t care how it happens,” and “My kid needs X and I know making that happen might be difficult, so let’s brainstorm the best way to do it and figure out how I can support you.” Being nice always matters, but it’s invaluable when building your army.
Same: Be honest
There is nothing to be gained from dishonesty in the parent-school relationship. You don’t want to be “tricking” the school into things, nor do you want to withhold information about your child. This should be self-evident, but we’ve all found ourselves in situations where a little fib or omission seems like it might get us what we need in the short term. Example: I know lots of parents who are reluctant to share when a child has improved or met a goal in some way that might not be immediately obvious, lest the school use this as a justification for pulling a service or accommodation. It is my opinion that being dishonest in these sorts of situations is likely to backfire and breed mistrust. So be honest that things have improved, and firm in your belief that continued support is what enabled this change and will sustain it.
I also like to sit down at the first meeting of the year and have a candid talk about my whole child. She has special needs, yes, and her team needs to understand those and where they come from and how they are to be handled, but they also need to know that she’s funny and brilliant and sassy and sharp and difficult and wonderful. Not sharing the ways in which she may be trying doesn’t prepare her teachers for the challenges ahead. Only sharing the challenges and not sharing the joys of her unique gifts will leave them dreading her. I share everything for two reasons: First, because I view it as their crash course intro to my child, and second, because it’s important that I establish myself as my child’s advocate, yes, but also someone who is realistic about her. A parent who doesn’t acknowledge the ways in which her child is a challenge is a parent who can later be ignored as unrealistic when times get tough. Don’t be that parent.
Different: Coach teachers that support ≠ no responsibility
Educational supports and personal responsibility can and should coexist, especially for older students. Hold teachers to the agreed-upon supports, but encourage them to hold your child to the rules in appropriate ways, as well. Don’t call me when there’s a problem unless you’ve tried working it out with my kid, first. If there’s an issue, talk to the student. I’m here and ready to participate, but part of the agreement here is that my child understands that she’s still responsible for speaking up if things aren’t working, and that a specialized education plan isn’t a “get out of jail free” card. Let’s start treating her more like an adult so that she learns how to act like one. Again, this is a gradual transition, but a teacher who is going to the parent before going to the child, or, conversely, dropping the hammer any time there’s a problem, needs to be redirected.
Different: Start pulling back
When my kids were in elementary school, I perfected the art of micromanagement when it came to special education. I did the meetings, I stayed in constant contact with teachers, I checked homework each and every night, I ran the master calendar. We’re just a few years out from college, now, and continuing in that vein would be a huge disservice to my child. She needs to start learning how to be her own advocate. We’re working on the complicated dance where she takes on more responsibility and I bite my nails and let her. Teenagers can and should attend their own 504/IEP meetings (at least sometimes, if not always). Supports at this point should involve a lot of “helping her help herself” sorts of things, like periodic checkpoints with teachers, while my role retreats to something more like, “What do you need to work on this week? Got it under control? Great!” The balance between support and skills-building is an ongoing process, and in the teen years “Let me talk to your teacher” should be replaced with, “What do you think would help you here? Can you ask for that?”
Same: Love the stuffing out of your kid
Growing up is hard, no matter what. Don’t forget to remind your child that you always have her back. Teens can make this difficult—sometimes my “loving” reminder is uttered through gritted teeth—but no matter what they say, they still need us, and it’s our #1 job to let them know we’re here for them.