More than one hundred and eighty thousand children in the state of Indiana receive special education services from the day they turn three to age twenty-two. These services are provided at no cost to the families and include services and goals that reflect their academic and functional needs. Qualifying for special education services and developing the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a process that can feel honestly overwhelming.
I have sat at many chairs at the conference table as a special education teacher of record and also as the role of parent. I have written hundreds of IEPs and led case conferences where families, school staff, and therapists attend. Understanding the role and rights of a parent is crucial in advocating for the educational needs of your child. Still, before you dive in with evaluations and goal setting, it would be beneficial to be reminded of the heart within all of this.
The heart of special education services should be simple – finding what is best to allow your child to access a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. The journey to create a plan to provide that will be challenging at times because we are human beings.
Keeping in mind what is best for kids allows either the parent/guardian or the school to request testing in writing for special education services. This will be based on a wide array of information from formal and informal testing, observations in all settings, functional behaviors, or other outside medical evaluations that have prompted a request. I was told early on in my career that data does not lie. It is extremely helpful to have a paper trail of information that will provide insight into specific areas of concern that impede a child’s learning – especially if multiple interventions and therapies have been utilized over time. The main point of contact to direct this request would be to your child’s school psychologist or school counselor. A fifty-day timeline would then be put in place to respond to the request, specify the eligibility category, test, and hold a conference to share those findings.
If your child qualifies for special education services, that is when the IEP is created, and all supports and goals will be in place. Let me clarify here that an eligibility category is just that – an official label that qualifies them to access all of the services and support they need. While it is the first key that opens the door for your child, its criteria is only used for qualification. Categories and labels do not determine services. Needs determine services. That is why we call it an individualized education plan. It is based on the individual.
So, what is the criteria to inform what educational goals a child should have, where they will learn, and what staff will support them? You will hear this referred to as a child’s “present levels.” This is the main body of the IEP and serves as a clear snapshot of how the child is performing academically, socially, and functionally within the school setting. It will serve to answer the question, “How is this child’s disability affecting their learning?”.
Once the goals are made and agreed upon by the school and the parents, then you move on to services and accommodations. Services include who supports your child, where your child will be when these services are being used, and how long the services will be given.
Accommodations and services are the next key! What does my child need access to to get the most out of the grade-level curriculum and expectations? This could be a separate post just on the importance of this piece of the educational plan so I will just remind parents that this is where we need to think creatively and collectively as a case conference committee.
Finally, we come to the LRE, or the least restrictive environment. Comparing the number of minutes the student is accessing special education services vs. general education services will determine the child’s environment. This is simply the location where your child will learn.
This part of the process is where emotions are high, and we all have to be reminded of who and what this process is for. As a parent, you are the ones who bring a lived experience full of hopes and dreams and high expectations of what school would and could look like for your child. As a special needs mom, there is a grieving that no one truly understands. I have sat with families who now have to make a decision if they will agree that a separate classroom or a separate location is needed to serve their child best.
I have learned through my own journey in education and in parenting that the saving grace within the grief is the awareness to adjust – to pivot. It does not mean lowering or eliminating expectations. Our children do not have one button that controls the outcome – they bring many. Just as we adjust the environments to best suit our students, parents and caregivers adjust their expectations of what they thought would be.
But it all comes back again to this: What is best for the child? It is the simplest and yet the most complex question we must wrestle with as we support and advocate. What is best for one child may not be the best for another. Every single person who supports a child with a disability must not forget this.