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posted: 2/21/2013 6:36 AM

How to navigate your child's education plan, the IEP

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By Sherry Manschot

If you have a child with special needs in the public school system, you know the importance of an IEP. If your child isn't yet of school age, you need to become familiar with what an IEP is and what impact it will have on your child's future.

An individualized education program (IEP) is a plan developed in cooperation with parents and a team of school professionals to access special education services offered through the public school system. It is customized to your child's specific needs, will follow your child through his or her school years, and is a fluid plan that changes as your child's needs change.

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Parents of a child who has a disability that could interfere with the learning process can request an evaluation to determine if they qualify for special education services. Services can include, but are not limited to, special education, speech therapy, occupational or physical therapy and counseling, among others.

The objective of an IEP is to identify measurable goals to be accomplished during the school year with the support of special services. Ultimately it is meant to provide a customized, fluid plan to help your child succeed and progress throughout a defined period of time. The IEP team includes parents as well as key professionals such as the classroom or special education teacher, a psychologist, physical therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, or others depending on the specific needs of your child.

The process, though, can be confusing and overwhelming especially as you first start out. Services available are not always clearly identified, there are specific procedures and timelines to follow, requests for changes must be made in writing, and information can be difficult at times to locate and understand.

With the help of some educated parents and advocates, here are some tips to help you navigate your way through the system to make the IEP work successfully for both you and your child.

• Prepare for your first IEP meeting by doing your homework. Come ready to discuss what your child's needs are and do your research on what types of services your child is entitled to receive. According to special education and disability law attorney Mary Denise Cahill, there is an abundance of information on the Internet. But sorting through it all can be a daunting task. She recommends parents become acquainted with a few resources. The first is the website wrightslaw.com, which provides a wealth of information regarding the law, advocacy and even practical samples of how to submit requests. Cahill suggests parents sign up for their "Special Ed Advocate" newsletter. The second resource is your school district, which should be able to provide a parent's rights booklet. Lastly, there is the Illinois State Board of Education website, isbe.net, where you can find specific forms, instructions, and timelines regarding the entire process.

• Be your child's best advocate. While there is a team of professionals involved in the IEP process, your role is to determine if your child is getting the appropriate services delivered at the proper times. You can request an evaluation from the school district starting as early as 3 years old and then until they turn 22 years old. Determine if your child has been properly evaluated in all areas relevant to their needs. Don't be afraid to identify issues or new needs as they become apparent.

• Be sure to ask for what your child needs. An essential part of advocating for your child is knowing what you want when you go into a meeting and not being afraid to ask for it. According to several experienced parents, the IEP process is one of negotiations. While parents and school professionals are a team working together to serve your child's best interest, sometimes a parent needs to be persistent in requesting services they feel are necessary.

Cahill suggests when you and the team are setting goals for the year, be sure to make them SMART -- setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely provide the key to properly evaluating if they have been met or a reassessment if required.

Also, as your child's needs change, so too should the goals, even if that means that the IEP changes midyear. You do not have to wait for an official date for an IEP meeting. Although scheduling an IEP meeting can be a large coordination effort by the family and the team, one can be called at any time by the parent to address changes or modifications that are needed.

Timing is everything and the time is now to start the process for setting next year's goals. According to Cahill, February is the best time to submit a written request for a case study evaluation, re-evaluation or an additional evaluation. This will trigger the state requirement that a school district must complete an evaluation, meet and write a new IEP within 60 school days of the date the parents sign the document authorizing the testing.

Finally, Cahill suggests that you trust but verify the recommendations being made and the information you receive with your personal team of experts. You have a team of doctors and advocates that know your child. Check with them if you are unsure as to what types of services would be best for your child.

• Find other parents or support groups that can provide guidance. Other parents are often a good source of information as they share their own experiences with the IEP process. There are also organizations that will provide an advocate to attend IEP meetings with parents. Perhaps even bring someone with you who can take notes for you during the meeting. If the process does get overwhelming, and it can, you will need to rely on your team to help you sort through the confusion.

The IEP road isn't always a straight one, nor is it always clearly marked. Just remember that you are your child's best advocate and with an educated support group you can keep headed in the right direction. On a final note, both Cahill and parents say "you have to ask to receive" all the services to which your child is entitled.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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