For a child on the autism spectrum, the IEP is the most important document in their school file. Having an IEP that comprehensively addresses all of the child’s academic and functional needs is critical to the child’s success in school and future development. Developing an effective IEP for children with autism presents additional challenges because schools are often reluctant to provide the intensity of services the child needs due to financial and staffing limitations.
Since the IEP is developed in an IEP meeting, you must have a strategy going into that meeting if you hope to develop the plan your child needs. The steps below will help you develop that strategy. These steps represent the gold standard in strategic planning for an IEP meeting — it may be difficult to follow them all exactly, but the closer you come, the greater your chances of having a successful IEP meeting.
STEP 1: Learn, learn, learn The adage “knowledge is power” is more true than ever when it comes to your IEP meeting. You are already an expert on your child; now make yourself an expert on your child’s disability. Keep in mind that the definition of an expert is someone who knows more about a subject than the other people in the room. Make a list of the books and articles you have read as well as any presentations you have attended, and bring it to the meeting with you. Nothing increases you standing in the IEP meeting more than starting a comment with “According to Stanley Greenspan…,” or “The research conducted by the National Research Council concluded…”
The same is true when discussing the law. School personnel frequently cite the law but often get it wrong. Therefore, it is important that you know and understand special education law better than the rest of the team. The best way to learn about the law is to attend a special education law conference. Wrightslaw presents conferences around the country that are specifically directed to parents. The Council of Parents, Advocates, and Attorneys (COPAA) holds an annual conference that provides extensive information about the law and advocacy.
If you want to dive in on your own, read some court cases that have interpreted the law. The best cases to read are Board of Education v. Rowley, Burlington School Committee v. Department of Education, Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F., and Shaffer v. Weast. All of these are Supreme Court decisions and are controlling, which means that all courts and Hearing Officers must follow the Court’s interpretation of the law. The IDEA requires every state to pass its own laws and regulations to implement the IDEA. State laws generally mirror the IDEA but you should try to be aware of any significant difference. For example, with the exception of children who take alternate assessments, the IDEA does not require short-term objectives or benchmarks in the IEP, but many states do require them.
STEP 2: Organize and prepare Be sure you have your child’s complete school file, including old IEPs and assessments. If you are unsure whether your file is complete, request to see the school’s file on your child. Upon written request, a school must provide you access to your child’s file. If you find documents that you are missing, ask for copies.
Organize your file so that you can quickly find any document you need. I use a three-ring binder with numeric tabs for each document and a Table of Contents. For larger files I also create an index in which I separately list all of the IEPs, assessments, report cards, etc., with their tab numbers. It provides another quick reference tool. The school team will be very impressed if you can quickly produce documents referenced during the meeting, especially if they are unable to find the document in their file.
STEP 3: Building your own team Parents are often at a disadvantage in IEP meetings because they have to rely on the reports and expertise of school personnel and school system representatives far out number them. To the extent that you can afford private assessments I strongly recommend them. Speech/Language assessments and neuropsychological evaluations are often extremely valuable for children on the autism spectrum. Some private health insurance plans will cover a portion of the costs of the assessments. If you disagree with the school district’s evaluation, you may request an independent evaluation at public expense and the law requires the school district to either agree to pay for the evaluation or file for a due process hearing to defend its evaluation.
Private evaluations provide parents with an unbiased view of the child’s strengths and needs. Be sure the private evaluator has the expertise and skill to conduct the evaluation you need. Also be sure the evaluator meets your state’s certification and licensing requirements. The private evaluators you choose should be respected and known for their objectivity in the community.
The private evaluation alone will often not be enough to change the position of school personnel. That is why you need to build your own team of experts. Have the private evaluators attend the IEP meeting and explain as well as defend their evaluations. It is much harder for the school team to ignore the findings and recommendations of a private evaluation if the evaluator is sitting there before them. Your team should consist of experts in the areas of greatest need to your child. That may be a Speech/Language Pathologist, Neuropsychologist, Occupational Therapist, Educational Consultant, Behavioral Therapist, etc. Any private evaluation should include feedback from school personnel, including the child’s teacher(s). It is highly recommended that at least one member of your team conduct in-school observations of your child. Parents should also do observations.
Be sure to give the school a copy of the private evaluations so they have time to review them prior to the meeting. If you wait to give the evaluations at the meeting or just prior to the meeting, you run the risk of having the school postpone discussion of the evaluations to a later meeting. Be sure your experts have seen and reviewed each other’s reports as well as school reports and your child’s IEP. Schedule a conference call with all of your experts at least a few days prior to the IEP meeting. You want to ensure that your experts are aware of all the issues that may be discussed at the IEP meeting and address any differing viewpoints prior to the meeting. Your experts must also be aware of what you hope to accomplish at the IEP meeting.
Scheduling an IEP meeting with outside experts involved can be difficult. Schools sometimes set meeting dates and times without conferring with parents in advance. Keep in mind that the IDEA requires schools to schedule IEP meetings with parents on a mutually agreed upon date. Be sure to inform the school of all individuals you intend to bring with you to the IEP meeting. You should offer several dates in writing to the school that are available for you and your experts. If the school refuses to cooperate with you in scheduling the meeting, it runs the risk being found in violation of the IDEA’s strict requirement of parent participation in the decision-making process. Once a mutually agreed upon date has been established, the school is required to send written notice of the IEP meeting, That notice is extremely important and should be reviewed carefully. It should include not only the date, time and place of the IEP meeting, but the purpose of the meeting and who will attend. Be sure that at least one purpose of the meeting is to review and discuss the private evaluations as well as review and revise the IEP as needed.
STEP 4: Evaluating progress It is important for you to know how to evaluate your child’s progress using empirical methods. There are several ways to do this. Charting assessment results is often the easiest and most graphic way to plot progress. To do this you will have to develop a basic understanding of standard scores, percentiles, and grade equivalents. For a good explanation of how to do this, go to Wrightslaw.com (http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/progress.index.htm ). It is easy to compare your child’s assessment results if he or she has been administered the same tests over time. You will want to compare composite scores and subtest scores using percentiles, standard scores, and grade equivalents. A chart or graph showing your child’s decline or lack of meaningful progress over time can be a very effective means of convincing the IEP team that your child needs more intensive services or a different type of program.
Goals that are repeated year after year indicate that a child is not making progress. Hence, charting goals over several IEPs may reveal a lack of progress even when school personnel report sufficient progress being made. Comparing goals involves not only looking at the wording of the goals but also the criteria for mastery. A goal with criteria for mastery of 70% accuracy one year and 80% the next year may or may not indicate meaningful progress. It depends on the goal and the child. But the same goal with the same criteria for mastery continued into a subsequent IEP would indicate no progress. It is difficult to discern how many repeated goals constitute an inadequate program, but as a rule of thumb 50% or more repeated goals would certainly indicate a lack of meaningful progress. You are entitled to view all data the school relies upon to assess your child’s progress. The type of data the school collects is dictated by the IEP in the Goals section titled “Evaluation Methods”. Make a request in writing prior to the IEP meeting for all data relied upon by the school in assessing progress.
One other progress monitoring method is charting Present Levels of Performance. The IDEA requires that the IEP include the child’s current functioning levels in academic achievement and functional performance. If a child has made progress, it should be reflected in the present levels in each succeeding IEP. The present levels should include scores from standardized assessments, classroom based assessments, informal assessments, progress made on IEP goals, information provided by parents, and narrative comments concerning other areas of performance. If the present levels are the same or almost the same one year to the next, little or no progress has been made. You can chart present levels in the same manner you chart test scores and goals.
The more data/evidence you have to support your position the more likely you will achieve the result you are seeking. Do not stop with just the charting of test scores if the charting of goals and present levels will also support your position.
STEP 5: Evaluating the draft IEP and other documents The IDEA requires schools to encourage parent participation in the development of the IEP and considers parents equal partners. It is hard to participate equally if you are shown documents, including the draft IEP, for the first at the IEP meeting. Therefore, you should request in writing that you receive a copy of all documents that the school team expects to review at the meeting at least five business days in advance of the meeting. Five days may seem like a lot but given the amount of work involved in preparing for the IEP meeting it is quite short. At least one state, Maryland, has recently enacted legislation requiring schools to provide parents with all such documents at least five business days before the meeting. You should stand firm on this demand and postpone the meeting if you have not received the requested documentation in advance. (NOTE: Some states do not allow schools to draft an IEP prior to the meeting. In that case I recommend that you attend the meeting, obtain the IEP but state that you can not decided whether it is appropriate for your child until you have had a chance to review it with your experts. You can then request another IEP meeting to revise the IEP.)
In reviewing the draft IEP, first break it down into its components: present levels of performance, supplementary aids and services and classroom modifications, goals (and objectives or benchmarks if your state requires them), transition goals if your child is 16 or over (or younger depending on your state’s law), hours of special education instruction and related services, and placement. Present levels are discussed in Step 4. Be sure they contain complete information including information provided from your private assessments. In this same section should be a “parent statement.” It may not be in the draft IEP so you should prepare a statement that comprehensively addresses your concerns. You are not restricted by the space provided on the form. If you have multiple paragraphs or even pages, ask that they be attached to the IEP.
The supplementary aids and services and classroom accommodations often directly impact the placement. Thus, this section, often overlooked, should be carefully reviewed. If the classroom modifications include your child receiving all instruction in small groups with reduced auditory and visual distractions and with children having similar academic skills, your child will likely be placed in a self-contained special education classroom. If this is what you believe your child needs, there is no problem. However, if you believe your child can be educated in an inclusive setting, that is the general education classroom, the aforementioned modification will work against that. Hence the need to review this section carefully. Supplementary aids and services can typically be provided in the general education classroom or in a self-contained class. They are often vital to a child’s success in either class. However, care must be taken not to “over accommodate” a child so as interfere with the child’s progress toward independence or to provide an inflated impression of what the child is capable of performing. For example, an IEP team sometimes assigns a one-to-one aide to assist a child in navigating the school environment and participate in classroom tasks. However, an inadequately trained, albeit conscientious aide, may foster increased dependence by doing things for the child which he or she needs to learn to do independently. Or, the aide may complete academic work for the child leading the teacher to believe the child is functioning higher than he actually is which leads the teacher to report inaccurate progress. The best way to avoid the development of such problems is to set very specific parameters in the supplementary aids and services of what supports the aide will provide and the type of training the aide will receive. Additionally, a data collection system is essential to monitoring the fidelity and efficacy of the aide’s services.
As noted in Step 4, it is important to compare the draft goals with the goals on the current/prior IEP. Aside from that, the draft goals should be Specific, Measurable, contain Action words, be Realistic, and Time limited. (ie, SMART goals.) Also carefully review the criteria for mastery and the method(s) by which progress will be measured. “Teacher Observation” should not be the only method of assessing progress. The goals are dictated by the needs identified in present levels of performance. That is, if a need is identified, there must be a goal to address it. Thus the importance of having comprehensive and accurate present levels cannot be over stated.
If your child is going to be 16 or over (younger in some states) during the IEP implementation year, the IEP should include appropriate measurable postsecondary transition goals and services. Transition goals must meet the same requirements as other goals on the IEP. That is, they should be “SMART.” Transition services are defined in the federal regulations as “a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that is designed to be within a results-oriented process that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities.” Post-school activities include postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment, continuing and adult education, independent living, and community participation. (For a more extensive explanation of the IDEA’s legal requirements for transition goals and services see Drabut Public Schools, No. 08-5330 (Mass. State Educ. Agency, March 13, 2009). www.doe.mass.edu/bsea/decisions/08-5330.pdf.
The service hours on your child’s IEP may be the most important section because it dictates the type of services and intensity of services your child will receive. Remember that special education is a service not a place. Your child could receive 30 hours of special education instruction per week without ever leaving the general education classroom. So the service hours should also identify whether the services will be delivered in the general education setting or in a separate special education class. This section of the IEP should be specific enough that you know exactly how many hours per week of special education instruction your child will receive in each academic area, i.e., reading, math, written language, etc. The IEP goals will dictate what areas of special education instruction your child receives and, to some extent, the amount of time. For example, if there are no reading goals, there will be no special education instruction in reading. If there is a single reading goal the amount of time identified on the IEP will be minimal. The same rule applies to related services. Whether a child receives speech/language therapy, occupational therapy, or other related services depends on the IEP goals. Thus it is important to ensure that the IEP contains not only SMART goals but a comprehensive set of goals so that the child receives all the services he or she needs.
Your child’s placement is based on all the other components of the IEP. The IDEA requires placement to be in the least restrictive environment (LRE) meaning that to the maximum extent appropriate, the child should be educated with his non-disabled peers in the regular classroom. Appropriate is the controlling word and courts have consistently found that appropriate trumps LRE. Obtaining the appropriate placement for your child is your ultimate goal but you will not be successful unless all the components of the IEP are properly aligned.
STEP 6: Final Preparations Once you have reviewed the draft IEP the next step is to make necessary revisions to it or draft a whole new IEP. Your “experts,” the team you bring with you to the IEP meeting, can help you with the revisions. Follow the same rules in drafting your revisions as noted in Step 5. Create a pre-meeting checklist to include final organization of your file; written confirmation with your team of the date, time and location of the meeting; a letter to the school to inform them of your intention to bring outside individuals to the meeting; and verification that the meeting will include a review of the private evaluations you have sent by checking the notice letter. Send the IEP revisions you have made to the school as soon as you can. The meeting will likely move far more efficiently if the school team knows in advance what changes you would like to make to the IEP. It is not always possible to get your revisions to the team in advance. It is a lot of work to do with limited time in which to do it. If you can not get your revisions to the school in advance, try to give them advance notice that you have concerns about their draft IEP and will bring suggested revisions with you.
STEP 7: The IEP meeting Prior to the start of the IEP meeting, you should determine who among your team will be the primary spokesperson. That does not mean that no one else can speak but having a designated person to convey your team’s position helps with efficiency and avoids confusion. Whether you are allowed to audio record the IEP meeting is controlled by state law. If your state allows recording, I highly recommend recording using a digital recorder. It is very difficult to take complete notes and participate in the team discussion at the same time. It is not unusual for memories to differ on what was said and even decided.
School teams often want to focus immediately on the new IEP. Before doing that, “close out” the existing IEP. Close out means to obtain a final report of progress made on each goal. Was the goal achieved and if not how much progress was made? A goal that was not achieved should be continued on the new IEP, albeit with a higher baseline if the child made any progress. As noted in Step 4, progress on goals should be reflected in the present levels.
Disagreements are not uncommon but arguments should be. Treat all members of the team with respect. Raised voices and clenched fists accomplish nothing but make you look unreasonable. If you disagree with someone’s comment or assessment, express your disagreement in a calm and reasonable manner. I find it useful to start such comments with “I respectfully disagree…” It is important, however, to note your disagreement for the record. Although the goal is to avoid a due process hearing, if you are unsuccessful you do not want the school to claim at the hearing that you never disagreed with their assessments or the IEP. The outcome of the meeting and placement decision should be clearly stated in the IEP. Anyone looking at the IEP should be able tell exactly what services the child will receive and where he will receive them. Many schools will provide a written summary of the meeting. If the school reviews the summary at the meeting be sure that it accurately reflects not only the decisions made but any disagreements.
STEP 8: Follow-up Regardless of the outcome of the meeting, send a letter to the IEP chairperson that summarizes the meeting. If the school provided a summary at the meeting, identify what parts of the summary you agree and disagree with and why. Whether the outcome of the meeting met your goals or not, thank the IEP chairperson and school team for the work they did in drafting the IEP. If the school team drafted an IEP that met your expectations, thank them for their cooperation and collaboration. If the final IEP fell short of what you had hoped, it is important to identify in detail all aspects of the IEP with which you disagree. If you eventually file for due process, your letter could be an important piece of evidence. So be careful and take the letter very seriously. I recommend having at least one other member of your team review it prior to sending it.
***Wayne Steedman is a co-founder and President of Callegary & Steedman, P.A., a law firm located in Baltimore, which primarily focuses on disability law. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland Law School and the School of Social Work, and has practiced law for 19 years with his primary focus on special education. Wayne has represented his clients in due process hearing, state and federal court, and the Third and Fourth Circuit Courts of Appeals. He is admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. He has presented nationwide on special education law and written numerous articles which have been published on-line and in print journals.