The first time I received accommodations for my disabilities in school, I was a sophomore in college. I’d struggled for years to keep up in elementary through high school without supports. It was only in advocating for myself as a college student that I learned the school had an entire department to help make accommodations for students.
In going through the process for myself, I learned there was a lot of back and forth of sending forms, documentation, and organizing calls with my specialist. In talking with other friends and peers who’d requested accommodations, I learned the process was also difficult. They needed to provide proper and continuous documentation, have the ability to advocate for their needs, and the finances to provide copies and attend the necessary doctors’ appointments—a barrier for many who cannot afford to get diagnosed.
So when one of my children was diagnosed with Autism and needed accommodations in elementary school, I already had some idea of what to expect.
When one of my children was diagnosed with Autism and needed accommodations in elementary school, I already had some idea of what to expect.
After looking up the types of accommodations and services available, I learned that in his school district, he would be getting an IEP. An IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is an individualized document that parents, teachers, school staff, and the student come together to create, making a program for the needs of the child with disabilities. Each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an IEP.
I know that many parents are not as familiar with the system, so I wanted to share some information I learned advocating for both myself and for my son. Here are a few terms and information to know.
What does an IEP include?
- Current performance in school that often is evaluated by current tests and assignments.
- Annual goals and objectives that the child can reasonably accomplish in a year. They are often broken down into short-term objectives.
- Progress tracking, whether it is simply regular testing or feedback from teachers.
- Special education and related services must clearly describe the student’s special education program and how it is designed to suit their needs from one-on-one aides to special faculty training.
- Educational placement that will keep the child in the least restrictive environment.
- Transition services begin at age 14 (or younger if appropriate) and must address the courses the child needs to reach their post-school goals.
- Testing adaptations that will lay out what types of testing accommodations will be used, from things like extra time to wheelchair accessible tests, and will specify whether or not the child will participate in state tests.
- Duration of services from the frequency to where they will be delivered so everyone understands where the child’s individual program will take place.
What’s an LRE?
A least restrictive environment (LRE) refers to the principle that guides a child’s education plan and is a part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It states that children with an IEP should be with other children in general education as much as is appropriate and that a child should not be placed in separate classes or schools unless the need is so severe that the child’s education is impaired in the general classroom.
An example of an LRE using my own special needs would be that I did well in general classrooms but struggled with taking tests in my normal class. Using the least restrictive environment standard would mean that just because I struggled during test taking, I shouldn’t be put in a small classroom for teaching and tests. In my case, a quiet testing environment with extra time was the appropriate accommodation. For a person with severe anxiety or severe migraines, they may benefit from online learning or smaller classroom sizes. What’s important about this principle is that the child’s accommodations are specifically tailored to that child’s needs, not just their type of special need.
How can I prepare for the IEP process and best advocate for my child?
Going into your first IEP meeting can bring up a mix of feelings. Here are a three ways to feel prepared and empowered.
1. Gather copies of all your child’s school records, diagnosis, and treatments
While you may be provided with emails or copies from the school, it is important to have a file of the doctor’s diagnosis, current support from aides, or even information about speech or group therapy. The more information you have available, the more thorough the records can be, so if you find that the school is denying something you and other therapies have deemed necessary, documentation can help get those supports included.
2. Make a list of your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and support needs
It is important to have your own notes about your child’s skill level in front of you during the meetings to make sure that the school’s assessment is aligning with what you’ve observed. During these long meetings, it can be easy to forget something important you want included—or even excluded—based on your child’s needs. Having a written list can help make sure nothing is missed or overlooked. While my child’s teachers were very thorough, there were a few things that I needed to advocate for my son. Some things to keep in mind that may not be initially included in IEPs are: fidgets, quiet spaces in classrooms, or countdowns to transitions from one activity to the next.
3. Know your rights
You have the right to receive copies of any district evaluation two days before an IEP meeting, and you also have the right to audio-record the entire meeting as long as you give prior notice. The school has a responsibility to notify parents of meetings with enough time to allow them to attend, and then it must be a mutually agreed upon time and place. If neither parent can attend, the school must accommodate individual telephone calls. During the pandemic, my family was able to have virtual meetings.
Don’t forget that you have the right to a translator if you need one; just let the school know in advance so they can make arrangements. And in most cases, you can also bring a friend or advocate to help take notes or offer added support.