If you are a parent advocate, you are certainly not alone! The CDC reports that 7.3 million, or 14% of the student population is defined as having a disability and receiving special education services in the United States. These children need supports and services to be able to access their education. However, today’s educational landscape presents a particular hurdle with teacher burnout and staffing shortages from COVID-19.
This puts parent advocates in a very tricky situation.
A parent’s job is to stand tall and speak up for their child’s needs, while also fostering relationships with the school team to support the child from both school and home environments. Without this partnership between school staff and parents, the quality of supports can suffer, and frustration and burnout can be felt on both sides (and inevitably spill over to the child’s stress level).
The daily support children receive comes from a variety of professionals. This includes special and general education teachers, special service providers such as occupational, speech, and physical therapists as well as psychologists and counselors, and paraeducators or aids. Even transportation services and custodial staff make up the network of people who support children in every aspect of their education!
Although the IEP is a legal document and all minutes of services are required, parents are feeling the stress as teacher (and all school staff) burnout is at an all-time high. In fact, half of teachers are considering leaving their positions, US News reports. As some professionals consider leaving (or already have), it’s hard to know what you can ask for to support your child, and what services are actually going to be provided and not shorted because of staffing issues.
As an occupational therapist, I’ve been supporting school IEP teams and parents in navigating these tricky situations from the pre-COVID era to now. Even when staff and parents are stressed, there absolutely are strategies and little tips and tricks expert parent advocates do to recenter the team and get the best IEP plan, and services, for their child. Call me a fly on the wall (even though I participate, too!) to how this interaction works-in more than 80 meetings per year over the past 6 years. It truly has been a challenging and interesting time. And even with the burnout, people are still people. We respond to connection with others, empathy, and feeling needed.
As you go into this year’s IEP spring season and possibly some transition meetings, it may be harder to advocate so strongly this time around. Finding the line between understanding the school’s situation, but also standing up and ensuring your child is supported is going to be tricky. However, you still do have the legal document backing you up, and there are absolutely strategies that will be helpful in finding that line and walking it well!
Parents have a unique ability to set the tone for the IEP meeting, and the secret sauce is really in the little things you do to interact with your team! This is great news! As you actually have more power and control over the situation than you think. This time is tricky, but it also has created opportunities to create win-win advocacy situations. So, let’s dive in, shall we? Here are the top 10 tips to advocate with confidence in 2022!
Top 10 2022 Advocacy Tips
1. Have Regular Contact with Your Child’s Team
The thing that makes IEP meetings so intimidating is that you never know quite what you are walking into! Checking in with your child’s team throughout the year, not just right before the IEP meeting time, is extremely helpful. It helps you know if your child is progressing in their goals, what the team is struggling with or what is working for your child. Also, it helps you keep a pulse on how the staff is handling the stress of the year! You can touch base through email, a back and forth book, and checking in with the special educators during parent-teacher conferences are great ways to get a heads up on how your child’s team is doing themselves and what’s coming up in the IEP meeting.
2. Learn about the parent role on the IEP team
You may not know what education looks like inside and out – but guess what – that isn’t your job! You know your child better than anyone else at the IEP meeting. You know what they like, don’t like, and who they are outside of school! Feel empowered in your role that you are your child’s voice. You are also going to be the one in future years to know what your child needs when they are older or get ready to transition to life after school! You definitely want to take advantage of services and professional guidance while you have it available, and informing yourself in how you fit into the team is essential!
3. Seek credible resources
Schools provide minimum information to their parents about the IEP process and document. Don’t blindly trust that the school team has your child’s best interest at heart, and seek out your own information! There are a ton of resources out there, from podcasts to blogs to state resources and online courses! Networking with other parents is helpful, too, just be sure you are getting the whole story and you realize that absolutely everyone’s experience is different and people typically share their negative experiences, and not often their positive experiences. Finding a group of parents that are honest and not biased can be a wonderful support system for as you navigate this process.
4. Spend quality time with your child before the IEP
Everyone is so busy, but try to carve out some time to spend some quality time with your child before the IEP meeting. Clear the calendar and join them in play or their favorite activity, weather inside or outside the house. It is a simple activity to remind yourself of why you are working so hard to support this growing person, and that they deserve all the supports you are advocating so hard to get them! Notice their strengths during your time with them and share those strengths with the IEP team during the meeting.
5. Bring a vision for your child to the meeting
Thinking ahead to your child’s future (at least a few years into the future) is so hard, but it’s so worth the time! If you have a younger child, think of what you want their school experience to look like in a few years. If you have an older child, think about what skills they will need when school services end! Either way, communicating this to your team before or at the meeting helps focus interventions and the IEP itself to support your vision being realized! When parents aren’t present at the meeting to share their vision, or if their vision isn’t clear, teams can be disoriented and lost on determining priorities for the next year…speaking of priorities…
6. Establish 1-2 priorities for the year
Too many priorities can lead your child and staff to feel too spread out. Just imagine trying to implement 12 different goals for your child all at once! It’s likely not going to result in building meaningful skills over the course of the year! But not having any priorities can leave your team feeling a little lost. Share 1-2 priorities you have for your child in the next year, and be willing to stand by them unless there is some good information and data that sways you otherwise. Also, don’t forget to consider the little things that make a huge difference, such as addressing attention or organization skills, or professional and personal relationships.
7. Ask for a draft IEP
Once the IEP meeting is scheduled, ask for a draft IEP to be sent out a few days before the meeting. This can prepare you for what the IEP team is thinking and make the meeting more efficient and focused. It also gives you time to think – not react in the moment – to any information in the IEP that you may want to change. Or to process the information and revise those priorities that you’ve been thinking about. It’s amazing when all members of the team are on the same page (or at least know what each other is thinking) prior to the meeting. The collaborative problem solving and discussions can be electric and can result in the best plan for the child!
8. Share a story about your child at the meeting
Think back to the focused time you spent with your child before the meeting. Parents often get focused on the hard job of advocating and forget to share the special and fun moments of their child with the rest of the team! Share a quick story of something you just saw your child do that amazed you or made your day. It can be a show of their strengths or an illustration of something they have no desire to do! Sharing a story of the child from the parents’ perspective helps the school team remember why they got into education in the first place! It can center the whole team and inspire them to work again to support the child in what they need-no matter the outside stressors!
9. Send your thanks
Everyone puts in a better effort when they feel valued and appreciated. Even if you’ve had some conflict with your IEP team in the past, it always amazes me how the team responds to a parent who is kind and grateful for the work they do. Don’t forget to thank your team in a quick email before the meeting, or if this is your style, show up with some treats! Any gesture you make to thank and connect with the team will be rewarded and may even defuse a tense situation at the IEP table.
10 Send a quick email after the IEP
The work doesn’t stop after the IEP meeting! In fact, most of the cleaning up of the IEP plan and followthrough of ideas discussed in the IEP meeting happen within a week or two after the meeting. Make sure to follow up with any questions or further input to the team after the meeting. Again, thank your team for their work on helping your child and watch your child grow in 2022!
These tips are little, actionable tidbits I’ve seen parents over the years connect with their team, inspire their team to build the best plan for their child, and implement the plan with fidelity. Even though times are certainly tough right now inside school walls, this doesn’t make the school team any less capable with a little encouragement. Take your role seriously as a parent advocate, but don’t forget to take a breath and have fun with your child as well! As many parents say, these days go by so quickly. Take advantage of resources and support while they are there, and appreciate the little life that you were put in charge of to watch grow and learn!
Beth Liesenfeld, MOT, OTR/L is an occupational therapist and founder of ParentFriendlyOT, an organization dedicated to helping parents step confidently into their Parent Advocacy role through IEP education. She focuses on providing tools and resources for a busy life! She can be found at www.parentfriendlyot.com where links to her podcast, Elevate Your Advocacy, and her online course, The Parent IEP Academy, can be found! She can also be reached at [email protected]