Individualized Education Plans for NYC Kids with Special Needs: One Mom's Insights into Getting an IEP

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With the Department of Education set to roll out its Special Needs Reform this September, many families with kids in public school are wondering about its implications. While we won't know how it will impact schools until later this academic year, one thing that isn't supposed to change is the process for obtaining an Individualized Education Plan, better known as an IEP.

The IEP process can be daunting. From the moment parents are told their child may need special services to sitting at a table with a roomful of experts mapping out the individualized education plan, families may be dealing with a lot of emotions as well as questions about how best to navigate the system to make sure your child is getting the right help.

As the mother of a child with autism, I've been through this process firsthand and have shared experiences with many other parents who have requested IEPs for children with various needs. Below are some of my insights into how to navigate the system as well as what to expect and when to ask for help.

Under federal law, all children must receive appropriate public education based on their needs. The IEP is a legal document that outlines a child's eligibility for services and develops a plan to put the necessary supports in place.

An IEP is called for when a child has delayed skills or other disabilities that require special services. Children may be evaluated for an IEP if their teachers or parents are concerned about speech, visual or hearing impairment, delayed motor skills, cognitive challenges, ADHD, autism or other needs that may require support services or a special learning environment.

Depending on whether your child has had early intervention and what school they are attending, you may not get a lot of support during the IEP process from your school. You may simply be given a list of evaluators, but given no information about them, how to pick one, or what to expect during the process.

At the same time, you are emotionally coming to terms with the fact that your child is somehow not "normal," at least in one small way that is affecting their ability to learn in the classroom like other children. At this point you may not know what the problem is. Hopefully, the evaluation will help give some insight into what is special about your child.

Requests for a child to be evaluated do not have to come from the school. Parents can also request an evaluation if they feel their child may need special services. Even if an evaluation is recommended, the school cannot force you to have your child evaluated. It's the parents' choice.

Evaluations can be performed in any areas that are of concern for the child; speech, hearing, gross and fine motor skills, cognitive functioning, emotional behavior, etc. During the evaluation process the parent will be expected to provide a medical and social history of the child and share any insight into your child's abilities or problem areas.

Remember that the purpose of this evaluation is to get insight into the type of help your child needs to succeed in school. As the parent, you bring knowledge of your child that no one else has and are your child's most important advocate. Respect the professionals, but also feel free to speak up if what they tell you does not jibe with the child you know. They are forming opinions after a brief interview with your child and can't possibly get a complete picture without you. Their recommendations will be passed on to form the basis of the IEP recommendation. You will have the chance to discuss the recommendations at your IEP meeting as well, but make sure the report accurately reflect your child's abilities and needs while you are with the evaluators. That will make your IEP meeting much easier.

If you do not agree with the evaluation, parents have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) and ask the school system to pay for the IEE.

Based on the evaluation report, your child will be declared as eligible for services or not. If you do not agree with the decision you can request a hearing, otherwise an IEP meeting will be scheduled for children deemed eligible for services.

Now that your child has been evaluated, hopefully, you have a good understanding of the issues your child is facing. Going into the IEP meeting I think it is helpful to have an idea of the possible interventions that are available and the outcome that you would like for your child. First listen to what the IEP team recommends, but do not be afraid to push for what you think is best for your child if it differs from the recommendation. Some of the most common IEP errors include not addressing transportation needs, incorrect class ratios, no start date for services and missing details about the frequency or duration of services, so those are things you may want to pay close attention to at your meeting.

The entire process can take three months or longer before your child has an official IEP and can begin to receive services, so don't expect things to happen too quickly. And remember, nothing is ever final. Parents have a right to disagree with the IEP and the placement. You can also ask for your child to be reevaluated, ask for a new IEP meeting, mediation or a hearing.

There are many supportive organizations to help parents navigate the system, from private evaluators and advocates to public advocacy organizations like the New York League for Early Learning or Advocates for Children.

While no parent wants their child to be diagnosed with special needs, IEPs have become so prevalent that the stigma that may have been attached to a child with special needs a generation ago really doesn't exist any more. However, it is vital for parents of children facing the IEP process to be very involved. Nobody knows your child like you do and, while the professionals bring their expertise to the table in evaluating your child, you bring your own expertise regarding your child which is vital to forming a full picture and creating the right program.

For more information, read the Department of Education's A Parent's Guide to Special Education Services for School-Age Children.


Read more of our posts about children with special needs in our Special Needs Guide.

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