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Navigating IEPs and 504s for Older Kids

Navigating IEPs and 504s With Older Kids

By Mir Kamin

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.

Published August 20, 2013. Last updated August 8, 2018.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] when you have a kid with an IEP or 504 Plan is a whole new ball of wax, man. I’ve got a few quick tips on navigating special education with an older child up at Alpha Mom today, just in case you, too, recently realized how little time is left before […]

  • Nancy R

    August 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    This Master Calendar Keeper is having difficulty imparting the wisdom of calendar maintenance and time management to her 15yo. The need for this skill became glaringly apparent during her online college class this summer. I’ve yet to convince her to look at her week as a whole to determine when she has time available and then plan time for study (and free time) to make sure she’s not slammed at deadlines. Social media management is a whole ‘nother struggle.

    • Mir Kamin

      August 20, 2013 at 6:09 pm

      Oh, I feel you, Nancy!! I wish I knew the answer to this. We have cell phone/FB usage rules that are constantly evolving, and sometimes I just have to try to make peace with knowing poor choices are being made and will bring natural consequences. It’s hard and I’m constantly second-guessing myself.

  • Andrea

    August 20, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    My snowflake is only ten, but I’m still gladly reading any advice I can get my hands on. I was finally able to get his IEP in place last year with public school, but this year we are trying a private school that is specifically for kids with learning differences. I am so so so hopeful that they will help him find his strengths, rather than just rolling past him because he’s not like all of the other kids in class. Why didn’t someone tell me being a parent is so damn hard?? Oh, wait…that was back before I listened to my mom…

  • Katherine

    August 20, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Getting your kid to advocate for him/herself is wonderful, but you need to realize that there are times when you, as a parent, still need to step in. Not often, but I had 2 times last year with my hs junior where he was trying to take care of the issue and the teacher kept saying she would take care of it, but wasn’t (teacher in one case lost his assignment at least 3 times! and in both cases weren’t putting grades into the system, weeks after the work had been done). Once I sent a concerned email to the teacher, the problem was fixed within hours. That’s good, but why did it take my involvement at all?

  • Autumn

    August 20, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    As a physical therapist who used to contract to fill a school PT position at a charter school, I feel for parents.  Its such a tricky minefield to traverse, and half the time, some of the providers (see, ME!) are tossed into the field not really knowing how things work.  

    The hardest days were when I had to recommend pulling PT off of several student’s IEPs.  It wasn’t that they didn’t have needs, but their needs (toe walking in a student with autism) was not affecting how they accessed the rest of their education.   I’m amazed I lasted 18 months there

  • ladybug

    August 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I’ve found being nice is just an invitation to be ignored.   I now have to have an advocate attend meetings in order to get anything done.

    Last year I dealt with everything from “your kid is just not smart enough to do the work and you should just let us drop her down a math track” to “it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for you to spend 6 hours/day refocusing her & supervising homework and you just have to deal with it” to “the information is all on blackboard” (it’s not), “we won’t tell you when she doesn’t turn in assignments” , “no we won’t check her agenda to make sure the assignments have been written down” (too much work).  And repeated polite questioning only served to get all my emails bounced to the principal for answer, which creates a giant game of “telephone”.  It’s really hard to supervise work if you can’t figure out what’s missing!  Or if you made sure it was done & in the folder, but the kid forgot to turn it in and there’s no way to find out.

    And FWIW, I’m SURE that if I brought food to a meeting, no one would touch it.  Eating with someone affirms your common humanity and establishes both parties as equals.

    My kids start school Monday and I already can’t sleep at night dreading what’s coming.  Dealing with school is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent.

    • Mir Kamin

      August 21, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      I’m sorry to hear your experience has been so difficult. That stinks. An advocate is a great idea in a situation such as the one you describe, and I hope he/she is able to get your daughter’s team on track.

      Perhaps I should’ve clarified that these are suggestions for situations where there isn’t an immediate crisis. (What you’re describing sounds like a crisis to me!) Unfortunately many parent-school relationships start out adversarial, needlessly, and my point was only that starting out cordial can be very helpful. If needs aren’t being met, of course you move on to making things happen by whatever means necessary.

      Best of luck to your kiddo (and you) for the school year—hopefully things will get to a better place, and quickly.

      • ladybug

        August 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm

        You are sweet!  And pretty!  Bringing food & being nice – those aren’t bad things, just not effective for me.  Maybe I can’t carry off nice?   It may be cultural.  I’m not southern, and it took me a long time to figure out that “spirited” was code for “pain in the behind”.  I thought it was a good thing!

        I will say that the teachers who are in special ed seem to take it as a calling and they have been uniformly helpful, compassionate and good at their jobs.  I try to support them with gift cards & teacher gifts & thank you notes as I think they are usually left out of the team level gifts.  

        Where I have had so many problems is with the regular teachers & the administration.  ADHD doesn’t LOOK like a disability to them, it looks like defiance and/or retardation.

        I appreciate more than I can express that you write about your family.  It is helpful to see someone who has dealt with some of the same issues and survived.

        • Mir Kamin

          August 22, 2013 at 6:33 pm

          Oh, I’m not southern. I know for a fact that school staff is apt to find my quick-talking yankee ways somewhat abrasive, which is part of why I bake to kind of balance things out. 

          I’m glad to hear that the SpEd folks have your back, at least. I agree that the field does seem to hold some of the most awesome folks around. But I also agree on ADHD looking like defiance; we deal with this constantly and I know some of the teachers just think “oh this kid is spoiled.” It’s a constant struggle.

          We’re all surviving as best we can. This stuff was not in the manual, but if we get these kids to adulthood in one piece, we win! 😉

  • Ak

    August 21, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Yes to the honesty thing! I’ve been in meetings where the child no longer needs to accommodation on the plan and hasn’t for years and there’s a move to either remove it completely or to suddenly reduce the support. In most cases, a gradual reduction of support (when the child is improving beyond the need) makes the transition so much smoother.

    And yes, sometimes parents have to get involved even when the student is stepping up their own responsibility. But in some cases, the student’s account of their own responsible actions are modified in in the retelling. In high school, as they gain that independence, there is a fine line of getting too hands on (outside of the legal accomodations) that both parents and teachers have to walk.

  • Julie

    August 23, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    From the other side of the table, I’m a little ashamed to admit how much we can be softened by a little snack. Also, gifts of appreciation say so much. Supplies for school are nice, but restaurant gift cards are better.

  • Laura

    August 26, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    From a general ed high school teacher’s standpoint, this is a great list! But no one ever brings me snacks… If you have older kids, email the teacher within the first week, letting him/her know your child has a 504/IEP and a general outline of services. The school bureaucracy is often running slowly, I see over 200 students a day, and it may be weeks before anyone thinks to notify me that your child needs accommodations. I’m happy to make them (and legally obligated)-but I need to know first!

    • Mir Kamin

      August 27, 2013 at 9:32 am

      This is a great point. At our high school, students’ files are supposed to be “flagged” with plan info, but this year we were a couple of weeks in when I discovered my daughter’s file wasn’t flagged. Her teachers had no idea she had accommodations on file. Totally my misstep for not mailing them first thing, and lesson learned.