12 Unhelpful Pieces of IEP Advice for Parents

If you are reading this blog, chances are you are in at least one (but probably several) different parent groups for your child’s condition. It might be an IEP group (my IEP group!), it might be for your school district, your town, your specific condition that your child has…and it may be in person or online. And these groups are a FANTASTIC support system. They really are. Nothing makes me happier than when a blog reader contacts me and says that because of the blog and the Facebook group, her child’s situation is really turning around. The internet has been a game changer in all of this, and it’s wonderful. The amount of IEP advice and guidance that some families can receive now is amazing.

But there’s also a not-so-wonderful side. Sometimes I cringe at what I see posted. Mind you, I know that most everyone who shares advice is well intentioned. But sometimes their passion clouds their judgment, and as we say in advocacy, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Laws and regulations can really vary from state to state, and what may be true in one state may not be true in your state. Also, some of the advice I see tossed around is not for novices. So, here it is, some of the most common and yet worst advice I see tossed around from parent to parent about IEPs and special education.

Please note that each item I am going to list below certainly has its merits, within the right context and knowing the state, the situation and the family…plus having all the data in front of you. The problem is that online, you generally don’t know everything about the situation…and then these items are read and completed in isolation and do nothing. And in full disclosure…I have said and done some of these myself, with either poor or zero results.

Also, I hate to see parents spin their wheels. We have enough to do, so we have to make sure that the tasks we are doing are valuable. When we know better, we do better!

  1. Get a doctor’s note! This is one I see often, especially when parents are seeking a 1:1 aide or para for their child. There are many reasons why this advice does not work out of context. First, it matters if the doctor is writing a note for something like Type 1 diabetes or food allergies, which require accommodations…or if they are asking for Special Education, such as ABA programming or a 1:1. As part of the big picture, yes, a doctor’s note could help if you end up in due process. But a doctor’s note by itself doesn’t always provide the data that is necessary to get a child ABA or a 1:1. As it should be! Imagine if all it took to get a 1:1 was a doctor’s note! What you want to ask from your doctor, if you are asking for a letter of some kind, is the data. What are the manifestations of the disability? What treatments/therapies have been found to be successful with this? And once you have the note, you have to specifically request that it become a part of your child’s educational record.
  2. Sue the school! It doesn’t really work that way, though I’ve seen several variations of this gem on Facebook chats. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act gave us a due process framework, and in my opinion, it is very flawed. But it’s all we have. You generally cannot just hire an attorney and sue your school district. You have to use the process, disagree with IEP, and then choose mediation or due process and so on. If you choose to go straight to a lawsuit, the chances are very good that it will just be dismissed because you didn’t go through due process, leaving you with wasted time and money….spinning your wheels.
  3. Give your 10-day notice and put your child in private school! Ok, so this one is definitely not for novices, in my opinion. Yes, this is a strategy and it is a provision where you can pull your child out of public school (because they are unable to provide FAPE — free appropriate public education) and enroll them in a private school and let your district know that you intend for the district to pay for it. It’s a very bold move, and I personally would not do it without consulting an attorney or a very skilled advocate. If you don’t have the data to show that a private school is appropriate, you could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in tuition. Plus, around here anyway, most of the APSs (approved private schools) won’t even let you visit and tour without a referral from your district. A referral from your district at least shows the APS that they are considering private placement at district expense.
  4. Just pull him out and homeschool him! Sure, the homeschooling movement has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and it’s a wonderful option. But my son, in addition to getting all-day ABA, gets occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech, vision, orientation and mobility, music therapy, adaptive physical education and more. I am a great mom! What I am not: a special ed teacher, a board-certified behavior analyst, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a speech-language pathologist, a teacher of the visually impaired, a gym teacher or a musician! My child regresses on four-day weekends; I can only imagine the damage I’d do as a homeschooling mom. I firmly believe that homeschooling should receive extra consideration if your child has special needs.
  5. Call the school board! I know and like many school board members from my own school board and others. I can tell you right now that they’d pretty much rather do ANYTHING than get involved in an IEP dispute. And they really can’t. They are not a member of your child’s IEP team. And we don’t really want a corrupt system, right? I mean, imagine it this way: You call the school board person, you tell them your complaint and what you want, they call the administrator and get it done. That’s not really how the system should work, in my opinion. Now, if there are abuses going on, or if you are filing state complaints for either compliance or professional conduct, then by all means, include the school board on your correspondence or let them know, if you want. But I would not expect them to resolve an IEP dispute. If you believe this is a common occurrence, then gather up parents, document your concerns and ask to be put on a school board meeting agenda and present them.
  6. Go to the Dept of Ed! I just saw this one the other day. Mind you, I have called the Dept of Ed (in my state) and have gotten clarification and answers that I needed. But this mom was telling the other mom, “Don’t call, just go there!” Um, no. It’s not the DMV or the Post Office. You don’t just walk up to a counter and get assistance. And mine is two hours away…so really, not productive to waste a day driving there and back. Look online for complaint procedures, call if you need to…and then who knows? Maybe they will ask you to come in. But certainly don’t drive down there without an appointment.
  7. Don’t sign anything! Ok, I get it. You’re ticked off, the IEP is garbage and everyone knows it…so you’ll be damned if you’re going to sign it. But here’s the thing, in Pennsylvania, we don’t sign IEPs (at least not as far as agreeing or disagreeing with them). We sign a form called the NOREP which is really our PWN (prior written notice). So when PA parents receive their final IEP copy, they receive this NOREP to sign. If they follow the advice of “Don’t sign anything!” guess what happens? It automatically goes into effect in 10 days. Not signing equals agreement. I have seen parents lose pendency/stay put over this! This is important! By all means, don’t sign anything at the meeting except the attendance sheet and the sheet that says you’ve received Procedural Safeguards. Use your full 10 days to review the finalized IEP. But blindly following a “Don’t sign anything!” philosophy can get you into a lot of trouble.
  8. Don’t complain! They’ll take it out on your child! Stay child focused. This isn’t about complaining. This is about reviewing your child’s IEP and progress and determining that, as a parent, you feel it is insufficient, so you use the IEP process to get it resolved. That’s it. Stay professional, stay child focused — focus on what your child is or isn’t getting, rather than what staff is or isn’t doing. Retaliation is both illegal and difficult to prove, and I’ve seen it happen. But what happens if you don’t speak up? Do you think the situation is miraculously going to resolve itself?
  9. Just wait it out, it will get better, just give them time! Um, no. Moms, go with your gut. Dads, too, of course. If your gut is telling you something is not right, pursue it. The IEP process is dreadfully slow as it is. Waiting it out will not make things better; they will just fall further behind.
  10. Can you transfer to a different school? Transferring, moving, I’ve talked about these issues before. I’ve seen very poorly rated districts do a good job with special ed, and I’ve seen top-rated schools suspend kindergartners. There are no guarantees. All schools are in crisis, in my opinion; public education in this country is in crisis. And transferring, moving….that just creates more tasks for the parent, more transitions…I think your time is better spent getting some really good training under your belt and learning how to effectively use the IEP process.
  11. You are your child’s best advocate; you don’t need one. I agree that no one knows a kid like his parents do, and you probably are his best advocate in life. But that doesn’t mean that you know all the ins and outs of the IEP process. Most parents don’t know about PWN and how to use it to their advantage. Most don’t know how to develop a strategy for the IEP process; they just dive in head first. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know. I have spent the better part of the past 10 years doing nothing but learning about IEPs….and I still learn new things every single day. Personally, I think it’s a dangerous and pretty egotistical thought to say “I don’t need any help with this.” We all do.
  12. If you cry at IEP meetings, it shows them how passionate you are. I  just disagree with this. I have not cried at an IEP meeting in years, and I’m quite proud of that. There is a time and a place to mourn our kids’ losses and struggles; the IEP meeting is not the time. Treat it as a business meeting. Would you cry at a business meeting? I’ve been there – I’ve been crying at the meeting. And I know what happens when you’re crying; you’re not thinking about your kid, now you’re thinking “Oh shit, now I’m crying.” And trying to compose yourself.
  13. Take them donuts! It’s not a continental breakfast; it’s a business meeting. See the link in #12. Are they bringing gifts for you? Then why are you bringing gifts for them? Save gift giving for the holidays and Teacher Appreciation Week.

Ok, so that is actually 13 points, and I’m starting to lead into other posts…so I’ll stop now. What is some bad advice you’ve either given or received?

Lisa Lightner is a Chester County, PA mom of two. This post was adapted from the blog A Day in Our Shoes, which she co-authors. It provides support, resources and advocacy services for parents of children with special needs.

Categories: MomSpeak