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Getting off to the right start

Ten tips to make sure your child's IEP is ready to go on day one.

By Valle Dwight

Remember that IEP you so carefully crafted back in the spring for your child’s new school year? Don't look now, but summer's almost over, and it’s time to find that IEP, dust if off, and make sure that his team is ready to go on the first day of school.

Often parents find that the school is in fact not ready to implement the IEP on that first day, and they are told to “give us a few weeks to get things set up.” That might be fine for some kids, but for others it might start their school year off on a bad note that takes even more time to recover from.

So what can you do to make sure that your child’s education plan and team is ready to go from day one? We talked to special educators, lawyers, advocates, and parents to compile this list of tips.

  1. Meet early. Try to meet with your child’s team before school starts to talk about the IEP. Keep it casual and set the tone for future interactions (you’re going to be seeing a lot of each other in the months ahead!). If there were issues that were a problem last year, make sure to talk about them right away.
  2. From the mouths of babes. Before school starts, talk to your child and ask what "works" at school and what does not, and what he would like to see done differently. Use that information when you meet with his team.
  3. Go to the pros. Find other parents who have kids a bit ahead of yours to learn about their experience and maybe get some tips that could help you and your child.
  4. Make it stand out. Make sure the new teacher has a copy of the IEP (and has read it!). If the child is transitioning from elementary to middle or middle to high school, it’s even more crucial. Make copies on brightly colored paper for all of the teachers, including the PE teacher.
  5. Aide first. If your student has an aide, talk to the school principal a few days before school starts to ensure that the aide is in place when your child arrives. If you can, set up a meeting with the aide to talk about how your child learns best.
  6. Check in. Schedule a meeting for a few weeks into the school year to check in with your child’s teacher. See if she has any questions about the IEP or about your child now that she has gotten to know him a bit. Tell the teacher how your child learns best. Offer to answer questions about the disability and how it affects your child in the school environment.
  7. Fill them in. When you’re setting up meetings, don’t forget the “related services” folks — the physical, speech, and occupational therapists on the team. Find out when they are planning to work with your child. Make sure it’s not interfering with crucial academic time. Also if they are new to the team, fill them in about your child, his strengths and weaknesses, and any tips that will help them work with him.
  8. Make a plan. Set up a communication plan with the teacher(s) to stay in touch about daily issues, such as homework assignments, social skills progress, and behavior issues. Many teachers are comfortable doing this through email.
  9. Progress report. Keep a close eye on your child’s program the first few weeks and if you sense that things are not going as well as expected or that a specific IEP goal/service is not being implemented, immediately call for an IEP meeting.
  10. Medic alert. If your child has medical issues, make sure to talk to the teacher (and the school nurse) about special diets, medications, and food allergies before school begins. Let them know about any warning signs of allergies or illness such as a rash or flushed skin.

Thanks to a team of experts for their input on this story:

  • Stephen S. Rubin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education at Adelphi University; Garden City, N.Y.
  • Mark Melton, associate professor, Department of Special Education, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago
  • Dr. Richard Horowitz, parenting coach and advocate
  • Kim McReynolds Bell, attorney, special education and family law; South Pasadena, Calif.
  • Jan Gambino, preschool special education teacher; Arnold, Md.
  • Jennifer Wagaman, special education teacher and tutor

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"Helpful article. My child is being held back in 1st grade. He attended a private school that had no services for him. He is now starting in an IEP. I want my child to be placed in his grade level. Any suggestions?"
"Great tips Ms Dwight! I particularly like the part about contacting the teacher/s 1-2 weeks before the term starts. As a forensic nurse who reviews thousands of foster children in placement, connecting with the teacher before problems start is so critical. By week 3 most teachers are gasping for breath from the routine admin foul-ups, getting to know new students, Boards of Education, etc. and, most teachers are ill equipped to read, less comprehend an IEP, and too ashamed to 'let on'. When the parent has knowledge, patience, and time (esp BEFORE the term), the new teachers are much more emotionally accessible to learning about their new students. And their particular IEP. complementing these teachers on the second week about how the child likes the class, etc also goes a long way (whether it's true or not...) I liked the legal spin on this article, and hope some of the foster Care Agencies pick up on this great article. Thanks again! LMark, RN"
"I am a resource specialist at an elementary school. You give good advice to parents, Valle. The one clarification I think needs to be made is regarding meeting with the aide. Special Education aides work under the guidance of the special education teacher. I work with a group of aides who are experts in what they do, however if they are asked to meet with a parent, it is along with the teacher. Also, please don't be so quick to think that the school doesn't want to implement the IEP. We have written the IEP as a team. We want our students to be successful and meet their goals. That's why we do what we do. Robin Albany, CA "
"Thank you for the great articles. With our son having an IEP these articles are very helpful. Thanks! "
"OK, I feel a little dumb asking this question, but what does IEP stand for? If I had to guess, I would say Individual Education Plan, but I have to say, I have never heard of that. "