The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is like an ever-changing piece of artwork. Parents initially "paint" the canvas with their interpretation of their child. The school then adds more paint based on their perspective. Additional "layers" are added over the years until the student graduates, said Lake Country parent Robyn Hardt-Schultz.
"I don't think most parents understand they have a paintbrush," said Hardt-Schultz, a 10-year veteran of the IEP process who now helps parents with newly diagnosed children make their way through the system.
The IEP meeting is where the artwork is created. Each meeting reviews where the student is in terms of strengths, challenges, interests and goals. Updates are recorded in the IEP, which essentially is "a contract between the family and the school," said Hardt Schultz. The document is the school's commitment to provide accommodations and set goals.
Hardt-Schultz's two sons, Joshua, 17, and Marc, 15, (names have been changed for privacy) who both have special needs. Her experiences with IEPs have fallen on both ends of the spectrum.
The youngest, Marc, needed support for a speech impediment. The process was a "breeze," and renewing the IEP was "really easy," Hardt-Schultz said.
So when Joshua presented with problems in preschool, she expected a similar journey. What she got was anything but.
"My older son had trouble with separation anxiety," she said. "We were carrying him in to school on a daily basis."
Once inside the classroom, there were more problems. "The school thought he was shutting down and being obstinate and purposefully giving the wrong answers (when asked questions). We were denied an IEP at school even though Joshua was absent for 40 days, wouldn't do standardized testing and would scale cars and trees (on school grounds) to avoid going in to the building. The IEP that had been my experience with the younger one was not happening," she said.
Instead, the school assumed that Joshua's problems were due to conflicts at home that needed addressing. But Hardt-Schultz and her husband were searching for answers, even admitting Joshua to a psychiatric hospital.
Because people were unaware of the existence of psychiatric illness in children when Joshua first entered school, Hardt-Schultz found herself becoming an expert. As an adjunct professor at Carroll University, she leveraged her research skills to educate herself on what the law required and what the school needed to do for her son.
Over the years, the IEP meetings for Joshua have grown more successful.
Parents as equal partners
Hardt-Schultz has attended IEP meetings with as few as two and as many as 13 people. And despite being able to successfully handle a board meeting in her professional life, when she's in a meeting for Joshua "my voice shakes."
IEP meetings can seem intimidating, but parents are allowed to bring a support person or two. At one meeting, a family friend spoke about how she witnessed Joshua behave in different settings.
"My friend gave me credibility," says Hardt-Schultz.
Parents of students with special needs need to know they're an active member of the team. They are equal partners at the table and have an equal voice. However, "equal doesn't mean whatever the parent says the school must do," said Cheri Sylla, a CESA 1 family engagement coordinator and the mom of a special needs child.
Parents can request that certain people be present at the meeting. The child is also invited to participate.
"Often (in a meeting) we encourage young children to talk about what they think about school," said Sylla. "With the older child, we want to build self-determination and self-advocacy and give them a part in the decision-making."
Strategies for success
Meeting times will vary depending upon the content. In theory, the meeting lasts as long as the parent wants it to.
If a meeting didn't cover certain things, parents can ask to meet again, and parents can decided to stop the meeting whenever they'd like, especially if they feel it has become too emotional.
While successful outcomes usually revolve around positive relationships between the parents and members of the IEP team, Hardt-Schultz's problems in getting the school to understand her son's mental illness and its implications meant a different approach for a short period of time.
"Being cantankerous worked for me for a bit, but then I had to transition back to being nice when the team was positive and headed in the right direction," she said. "You have to be able to be flexible."
One strategy she has found helpful is submitting an agenda ahead of the meeting. "The school only knows what it needs to do to be in compliance with the law," Hardt-Schultz said.
"I always encourage parents to prepare a report before the meeting and share it with school staff," said Sylla. The report should note where the student is at "from the present level" and then identify annual goals.
CESA 1 provides a Positive Student Profile form with seven questions that parents can send ahead of time, so the school knows what's on the parent's mind.
When parents want to request additional accommodations for their child, Sylla encourages them to be upfront prior to the meetings. If problems or solutions need to be investigated, it gives staff time to get answers or research alternatives.
Parents have a responsibility to learn the "language" of the IEP and how it functions. Hardt-Schultz encourages them to occasionally review the IEP. "It might change their minds about what the school is really doing," she said. "It's more than likely they're doing more good than you realize."
By law, schools have the right to keep a child at the school or not. When Joshua missed school because he was hospitalized for six months for his illness, his parents had to move him to another school.
Parents also must realize that the school can't be proactive. According to Wisconsin law, schools must only be reactive.
Progress, not attainment
Goals can address behavioral, cognitive and physical needs. Having the school remind parents that the IEP does not ensure that the student will reach a stated goal is helpful.
"Just because the student hasn't reached a goal doesn't mean the school isn't implementing the IEP," said Sylla. "Maybe an intervention we thought would work didn't."
Special education ensures that students with a disability can participate in the general education curriculum with their regular education peers to an appropriate level.
Should things between parents and the school come to a standstill and friction prevents progress, the Department of Public Instruction has free mediators available to facilitate IEP meetings.
Although the journey might be different for each child, the intended outcome is the same.
"We want students to grow up to be independent individuals and not rely on supports and accommodations," said Sylla.■
M.L. Santovec is a freelance writer and author of several nonfiction books. She lives in Lake Mills with her husband.