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How To Survive The IEP Process, From A Special Ed Teacher Who Knows

Academic or behavioral supports exist for a reason, but they exist as rusty cogs in a vast, arcane machine.

I’ve taught special education just shy of 20 years, in enough settings and ZIP codes that I can safely say I’ve seen almost everything. For most of my career, I’ve taught in a therapeutic milieu classroom, which is a fancy way of saying that on a typical day in the classroom, it’s me, a therapist, and some combination of other specialist staff members (paraeducators, intervention coaches, etc.). Lots of school districts have some version of this; some don’t. They go by many names and acronyms, often implying intrepid explorers or bougie day spas: Day Treatment, S.T.A.R.S. (no one ever told me what that stood for, afraid to ask), Hope, Harbor, Pioneer, NOVA. Historically, these classes tended to be staffed as an afterthought — I think maybe the old guard of administrators saw it as a place to send difficult students and teachers, figuring, well, why find two warehouses for problems when one will do? While that still happens, of course, I’m pleasantly surprised at how much sincere thought and effort districts put into who goes where. It’s still not the type of classroom that teachers are banging the door down to work in, but those of us who know the deal know how cool it can be.

Sometimes when I talk about my job at parties, though, I really bum people out, especially as my peer group gets older and their own children begin to need academic support in school. I can’t imagine a more vulnerable place to be as a parent: You’ve somehow managed to drag yourself across the broken glass of early infancy, trying your best to raise your new child well while also working and keeping the house together and your partner feeling supported and not going absolutely fucking crazy listening to “Let It Go” for the billionth time, and now your kid is in school and you feel some relief not keeping them alive every waking moment, only to have a disembodied email from some school counselor explaining that your child isn’t learning like everyone else.

What I want to give my bummed-out parent friends at parties, though, is enough clarity to ease their anxiety, maybe demote it down to “worry” level. Academic or behavioral supports exist for a reason, I want to tell them, but they exist as rusty cogs in a vast, arcane machine. It’s a machine cobbled together with good intentions and (mostly) well-meaning legislation, but once assembled, it’s a lot more like an impossible Seussian contraption than anything that actually functions consistently. That said, with a little bit of awareness and some helpful reframes, it can often give a student the help they need.

For some parents, this is terrifying. For some staff, this is Tuesday.

The road to services begins with someone noticing a child is having a hard time in school. Often, it’s a staff member who reaches out first, but it’s also common for a parent to reach out to the school with concerns. There will be a meeting here or there, and ideally some initial interventions will be tried (Are you working with the teacher? Are you using tutorial times or support times? Are you attending regularly?) before more intensive supports are considered. This beginning phase can also be a really emotional moment, and a lot of resentful feelings can begin to develop: The parents’ responses to staff outreach can range from high anxiety to silence, and staff responses can range from perfectly empathetic to icy indifference. For some parents, this is terrifying. For some staff, this is Tuesday.

Depending on the severity of a kiddo’s struggles, this initial round of conversations sometimes jumps directly to two different types of support plans: something called a 504 plan or something called an IEP. The 504s came from a disability rights campaign from the ’70s, where disabled activists used Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act to draw attention to systemic mistreatment and othering of people with disabilities. Shortly after, those protections were extended formally to disabled people. The way this looks in education, as far as I’ve seen it, are less intrusive academic supports: having access to calculators, speech-to-text, computers for writing tasks (because of poor handwriting or motor skills). These are pretty standard accommodations for a student who needs help. Some teachers embed these supports in their classes for everyone, just as a matter of course.

The next, more intensive set of interventions are IEPs, which stands for Individualized Education Plans. They are hefty things, capable of legally requiring a district to pay for all sorts of things that school districts hate paying for. This can be as uncontroversial as large print text for students who qualify as vision impaired and as hot potato as paying for a monthslong stay at an out-of-state residential facility. IEPs require a ton of work to get established, but they are legally binding documents designed to hone in on a students’ academic needs and explicitly outline how schools are addressing those needs.

When you work with a student for all four years and you watch them grow into a person you barely recognize, it’s indescribable. And when you help a family that has been terrified there was no help, the relief and joy they feel is like nothing else.

The IEP process is too specialized, too rooted in specific children, families, schools, time, and space (as it should be), to offer general advice. Although there are what I consider to be archetypes, it’s really one step in a long journey with seemingly limitless outcomes. The few commonalities that I do think are overall helpful are:

Know your ultimate goal.

So many decisions we make about our children’s schooling are immediate transactions. What do you want for lunch? Do you want to do this thing after school? It’s not really reasonable to have a 10-year plan for your kid at age 8. However, it’s good to know generally what you and your kiddo are aiming for. It’ll change no matter who you or your child are, but having a true north you’re holding to will help make decisions in the long run. Even if it’s what you don’t want for them, that’s better than not having an idea.

Influence, but not control.

That said, you can’t curate your kids’ school experience. It’s just not possible. Even if they follow every step of the path perfectly, eventually they will run into something they can’t overcome with your help. The best you can do is try to prepare them for that discomfort. It’s an inevitable part of life. I see a lot of preventable frustration and conflict when families realize the path they’ve been trying to carve for their student isn’t going to happen.

Assume positive intent.

If you’re going through the process of an IEP evaluation, do your best to assume positive intent, and make sure you feel the school team is doing the same. In my experience, this is achieved most easily by being as transparent as you can. Ask questions; answer questions; be involved in the process as much as you can. Obviously, you should give the school staff room to do their jobs, but even that means you have to assume they’re professionals doing the best they can.

Pushback is OK — healthy, even.

And, finally, you can challenge and argue with them. I don’t like when families disagree with me, but ultimately it’s their child and their decision about how they utilize the services we’re offering them. I have heard a lot of parents express concern that they’re being overbearing or “that parent.” Man, do I appreciate that sentiment, but I would rather someone tell me they disagree and express their feelings about what’s going on for them. You’re a parent, trying to help guide your kid through a really difficult time. It’s important — and productive — to show the rest of the team how you feel about what’s beginning to materialize as a school plan.

Bureaucracy is weird, but we’re all human.

Once you watch it from the inside long enough, this entire arcane dance of a school system will upset you. You see how maddeningly opaque it all is — not through malice but institutional inertia and the dumb brain of the patchwork organization that is a school district — and it’s hard not to be furious. But those of us who know, know there are incredible moments, too. When the light bulb of learning goes on, it’s glorious. When you work with a student for all four years and you watch them grow into a person you barely recognize, it’s indescribable. And when you help a family that has been terrified there was no help, the relief and joy they feel is like nothing else. It’s weird. Schools are weird things, but then, so are people. Reality is nobody knows what’s going to help a particular kiddo until we’ve tried a lot of sh*t. This takes time and trust and collaboration, and while not everyone’s great at any of those things, let alone all of them at once, with enough patience and goodwill, it usually works out OK.

And if it doesn’t, you can always hire a lawyer and sue the sh*t out of the district.