When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended in 1997, Congress recognized parent participation in educational planning as key to the success of children with disabilities. IDEA requires that:

  • Parents have an opportunity to participate in meetings about the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child, and the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child;
  • Parents are part of the teams that determine what additional data are needed as part of an evaluation of their child, their child’s eligibility, and the educational placement of their child;
  • Parents’ concerns and information are considered in developing and reviewing their children’s Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

How do you prepare for your role in educational planning for your child? You begin by carefully looking at the central figure in the whole planning process – your child. This article suggests a way to observe your child to gather information. It will help you be effective at any stage of the planning process, whether it be for your school-age child’s first formal evaluation, or your child’s 10th IEP meeting.

To begin focusing on your child, think about the following:

  • What are three things your child has recently learned or accomplished?
  • Choose one of the items above. What helped your child learn this?
  • What are three things your child is trying to learn now?
  • Choose one of the items that your child is having trouble learning. What is causing her trouble?
  • What one thing would you like your child to learn within the next six months?

Observing Your Child in a Systematic Way

Sometimes parents have trouble answering the above questions. You know a lot about your child, but your knowledge is often “felt” in a general sense rather than in the specific terms needed to answer the questions.

Since planning an appropriate program for your child requires specific, documented facts rather than generalized impressions and concerns, you will need to collect your own facts. To convey personal knowledge of your child to school personnel – people accustomed to dealing with test scores, specific behaviors, goals, and objectives – written, concrete facts will be most influential.

One way to collect these facts is to observe your child in a formal way. “Observe!” you say. “When? How?” You think of the days you barely have enough time and energy to brush your teeth before turning in for the night. But observations can be made. Gathering and organizing information is a vital part of becoming an effective educational advocate for your child.

Guidelines for Planning an Observation

Before you begin to observe your child, think about:

  • What will you be looking at during the observation?
  • How your child solves disagreements or problems
  • What distracts your child
  • What holds her attention
  • Who, if anybody, will be interacting with your child?
  • Friends
  • Brothers
  • Sisters
  • Teachers
  • Tutors
  • Where will you observe your child – in what setting?
  • Home
  • School
  • Neighborhood
  • Picnic
  • Ball game
  • When will you observe your child?
  • Mealtime
  • Before school
  • After school
  • At school
  • Bedtime

Tips for Becoming a Skilled Observer

  • Step back. Suspend for a brief time (three to five minutes) your normal role in family life. Step back from your family situation to put some distance between you and your child. By not intervening where you normally would, you may see your child’s abilities and problems in a new light.
  • Start fresh. Try to be open to new aspects of behavior you may have overlooked before. Observe behaviors that are happening now. Although reports on the past are important in describing a child’s development, school personnel are interested in fresh, up-to-date information on what she can do now.
  • Get focused. Decide upon a specific behavior or skill to observe. How, you ask, should you make this decision? The best rule is to look at those areas that trouble you or your child. You may want to examine one of the problem behaviors you have listed in the questionnaire, or you may want to ask a doctor or other professional to suggest behaviors to observe.
    You can plan your observation to include various factors: who will be with your child, as well as where and when you will observe her. Concentrate on the one skill or behavior you have chosen, ignoring, as best you can, the other things going on.
  • Go with the flow. As you watch your child’s activities, record what you see actually happening, not your interpretations of your child’s actions. You should become a “candid camera,” waiting until later to reflect upon what you see.

Write down detailed, factual information. You will find this is easier if short periods of time are spent observing – perhaps five minutes or less. You can go back at another time, review your collection of observations, and then interpret the data. Use the Parent’s Observation Record to document your observations.

Example Of a 5-Minute Observation

Reason for observation: Parent frustration over child’s difficulty getting ready for school on time
Focus: Getting dressed for school

  • Opens his sock drawer, stares at contents.
  • Notices battery on top of bureau and picks it up.
  • Takes it over to battery tester to test; decides not to.
  • Sets battery down on floor.
  • Comes back to bureau, shuts drawer.
  • Remembers he’s looking for socks and opens drawer again.
  • Picks out socks.
  • Sits on bed with socks in his hand.
  • Notices deflated balloon on floor.
  • Puts socks down; picks balloon up.

Throughout your child’s school years you will need to make new observations of her growth and development. Fresh observations collected prior to meetings with teachers and other professionals can assist in providing specific recommendations for her special education program. By having this valuable information at your fingertips, you will feel confident as you fulfill your role as an equal partner in the special education planning process.

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