London Rains just turned 3, but she already has a SoonerStart therapist, a neurologist, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a nutritionist, a speech therapist, an optometrist and a pediatrician working to give her the best chance to thrive. Born 10 weeks premature and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, London struggled to meet many developmental milestones as a baby and was unable to sit up independently by age 1.
Her mother, Christy, refers to the dedicated team of specialists as London’s “team of angels” and recounts how her daughter is now a walking, chattering and extremely high-functioning toddler. “Working with the team on a weekly basis, she has come within 18-24 month old capabilities,” Christy explains. “Now that she is turning 3, we have to transition out of SoonerStart and into the public school system. As a family we were not ready for such a change, but we know it is necessary.” After evaluations from therapists and Oklahoma City Public Schools teachers, it was determined that London is eligible for services in the 2012–2013 school year.
London will join the 3- and 4-year-old special needs preschool program at her local school, and Christy and her husband Jeremy will meet her teacher and a team of other educators in the fall to set goals to help London continue to flourish. “Her goals will obviously change as the year progresses and we can reevaluate them as needed,” Christy explains. “Her eligibility is for three years, at which time she will have to be re-tested to determine her needs. In the meantime, she will continue weekly therapy with her team—and we look forward to that team growing in the fall!”
London’s story is similar to that of many families who work to ensure that their children with special needs are provided with the best educational opportunities. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 14.5 percent of students in Oklahoma are on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
Mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act, IEPs are designed to meet the unique educational needs of a child who may have a disability, as defined by federal regulations. Tailored to each student’s individual needs, IEPs are designed to help both the child more easily reach educational goals and the teachers and other schools personnel to understand how the student’s disability might affect the learning process.
“Since they are individualized, the school can start differentiating instruction for the child,” explains Monica Pevehouse, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist in Putnam City Schools. “Their education becomes more specialized for their needs, rather than just the general curriculum.”
To establish an IEP, the student is fully evaluated in all areas related to the suspected disability and goals are developed to help place the child in the least restrictive environment possible. The IEP is written to provide specialized assistance only when absolutely necessary—ensuring that the child is still able to interact and participate with classmates in the regular classroom environment as much as possible.
Once in place, the IEP provides an assessment of the child’s current academic performance, establishes measureable yearly goals and identifies what special education services or supplementary aids will be provided, such as program modifications, specially-designed instruction, classroom accommodations and more. An IEP team, usually consisting of the student’s parents, teacher, a special education teacher/case manager, a representative of the school or district, a psychologist, speech or occupational therapists and others, is established to monitor the child’s progress.
The IEP Process
The Rains’ 7-year-old son Nathaniel has been diagnosed with ADHD and is currently being tested for autism. “His IEP was a lot harder to come by than my daughter’s,” Christy explains. “Actually, it was not until when we began working on hers that I got one started for him. The school thought he had no need for one because, other than his hyperactivity, they saw no signs of a disability. It has taken almost two years to get his going. While the process totally stresses me out, I am thankful there is a process in place and am grateful we are another step closer.”
Kerri Groves, a resource teacher at Fisher Elementary School in Moore and former special education director for the Bridge Creek School District, explains that the IEP process can originate from either the parent or the regular classroom teacher. “If parents have concerns, then the teacher probably has concerns, too,” Groves notes. “Parents can provide background information that teachers will not know, as they are usually the first to hear the kid say ‘I don’t get it’ or “I don’t understand.’”
First, the school will examine methods of differentiated instruction. “The school will always try to see if something will work in the classroom before moving to special education,” Groves explains. “They will look to see if these specific modifications are working. If not, they will start looking at testing and other options to evaluate the student for special education services.”
Once a child is determined to be eligible for special education services, the school has 30 days to write an IEP plan to address the child’s educational needs. “Parents and teachers can make changes to the IEP and parents are extremely important in the process,” Groves says. “It can be intimidating sitting at the table with all the teachers, but it is important to remember that everyone there wants the best for the child.” Once the plan is established, the IEP team must meet at least once annually, before the current plan expires.
What’s the difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP?
504 plans, which fall under Civil Rights law, are modifications made within the regular classroom for students who have medical issues or other situations that impede learning. For example, a diabetic students who needs to check blood sugar multiple times a day may need to be in class with a teacher trained to recognize signs of low blood sugar.
Individualized Education Programs fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and provide educational services for students with disabilities. Only certain classifications of disability are eligible for an IEP, and students who do not fall within those classifications but still require assistance to be able to participate fully in classroom activities might be candidates for a 504 plan.
Want to research more? Beyond the Label: A Guide to Unlocking a Child’s Educational Potential (by Karen L. Schiltz PhD, Amy M. Schonfeld PhD & Tara A. Niendam PhD; Oxford University Press, $25) offers a step-by-step guide through determining how and why to get an IEP or 504 plan for your child
Successfully Navigating IEPs
Pevehouse acknowledges that the process of establishing an IEP is lengthy and can be frustrating to parents, but assures that it is not because schools wish it to be so. “There is a qualification process that we are required to follow. Depending on what the disability is, it can be quite lengthy and involve lots of people, including psychologists, teachers and therapists.”
“Once the parents sign the consent form for testing, the school has 45 school days in which to complete the assessments and hold the eligibility meeting,” Pevehouse notes. “The best thing a parent can do is to understand that the process takes awhile for all the components to be met. If there are medical forms or checklists to fill out, complete them as quickly as possible. If the school is waiting on those things, the process can’t go forward.”
From her personal experience, Christy offers three pointers for parents seeking an IEP for their child:
- You are your child's best advocate. “Speak up and speak out when necessary and never take no for an answer when your parental instincts are telling you otherwise,” she encourages. Also, learn your legal rights as a parent of a special needs child. You should receive a copy of the Parents Right in Special Education: Notice of Procedural Safeguards from the school site. “When you stay with it, then they will know that you mean business when it comes to your child.”
- Put everything in writing. All of your requests, concerns, expectations and appeals should be put in writing, including communication with teachers, principals, doctors and anyone else involved in the process of diagnosing or evaluating your child. “This way you have a paper trail of your journey and to back you up if needed.”
- Stay positive. A cooperative demeanor and encouraging outlook can be very helpful when interacting with school personnel. “If your child sees that you can handle their challenges head on, then they will be able to better conquer the world!”
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor of MetroFamily Magazine.