Student At a Glance- Maintaining a Positive Note at the IEP Meeting
I am a parent of a student on an IEP. I have sat across the table at at least 10 IEP meetings for Q (my beautiful child with said IEP). He had the same teacher for 7 of those 10 IEP meetings. At our first meeting together she began the meeting with the PLOP (Present Levels of Academic Performance). I’ll never forget what she wrote about him in the very first section, which highlighted his strengths, “Q is a very handsome and sweet boy…” to paraphrase she went on to describe his love of Thomas the Train, Hot Wheels, his determination to always be the “leader” and his affectionate ways toward his teachers. I was SO touched that this woman (at that time a stranger to me) thought my kid was “very handsome” and “sweet”. The fact that she knew his likes let me know she was paying attention… and that thing about leadership? Well, that was a nice way of saying he was a bossy, challenging, pain-in-the-bottom handful! I knew that, but I didn’t care. I LOVED the positive spin!
As a parent, especially in those early years when we didn’t really know what we were dealing with in the way of a bona fide disability, the IEP meetings were pretty scary to me. Only after 1st grade (his 4th IEP) did I begin to head into the meetings with confidence that he wouldn’t be belittled and I wouldn’t be judged for being a bad mother (I was not an educator at that time). Of course, as educators we know that we should not, and hopefully do not, pass judgments on our parents and if we struggle with that, well an official school meeting is not the place to make such thoughts known. Actually, if you honestly judge your parents in the recesses of your mind it is best to leave the judgment there, or confide it only in someone completely removed from the school district, classroom and your social circles.
As an educator I have probably now led about 30 IEP meetings (that’s a drop in the bucket to a 25 year educator who has probably lead 2500 meetings). At my meetings have been advocates, parents, grand parents, guardians, siblings, translators, family counselors and district leaders. I’ve had a few meetings wherein no one came to represent the student. 30 IEP meetings do not make me an expert, but I think being a parent gives me a specific insight. So, when I set out to set up my IEP meetings, I followed the wonderful example of my son’s teacher of several years (Kristin Jacobson, the BEST teacher ever) and then added my own spin. Here’s my advice:
Be Positive! FIRST and foremost keep it positive. There may be disheartening news you have to share. If you can find a way, share it in a positive light. I try to avoid the words, “no, not, does not” in IEP meetings. Instead of saying “he does not do” I might say, “He struggles with…”. These are basic diplomatic skills. Which brings me to…
Be Diplomatic! Avoid using blaming language or judgmental statements. Be open-minded to the idea that this process is as much of a learning curve for the parent as it is for you or the student. Parents may or may not do a lot of research. They may or may not use an advocate. They may have a ton of knowledge, or like me in the beginning of our journey, have none. They may be hanging on your every word for a ray of hope. Keep your words “hopeful.” Speaking of being hopeful, let me add….
Be Compassionate! Your parents may not be fully aware of their child’s challenges. I know that my husband and I had no idea how extensive our son’s challenges were at first. He was 19 months but had the skills of an 8 month old. Because I’d never had a child before, I didn’t realize how far behind he was. That information was a blow to my husband when it was delivered. I had suspected pretty bad news, but my husband was really thrown for a loop. He grieved over that one statement for a few days.
Consider that your assessment reports and behavior analysis may be a shock to the parent, or may confirm their worst fears. Some of them sit across from you with no hope for the future. Some of them do not know what to do or where to turn. Some of them are in complete denial. Some of them have suspected for some time that something was different about their child, but didn’t know until that moment in the IEP when you confirmed it. Believe me, I’ve held back tears in an IEP. I remember thinking in his 2nd IEP (when he was just 3), “Hold it together, Natalie. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” I held it together. After the meeting I wept all the way to daycare to pick up my child. I cried most of the weekend. I was just coming to terms with how frightened I was for his future. Fear, hopelessness, uncertainty, and even anger, may rear their ugly heads at your IEP meetings. Be ready for that. If your parent is displaying any of those feelings then know it is not a reflection on you, but all about what the parent and child are facing.
Give your Parents the Benefit of the Doubt When You Can. I’ve said it before; you are a mandated reporter so it’s always best to err on the side of the child. If you suspect abuse, report it. Period. But, also, don’t be quick to assume your parent is lying in an IEP. Admittedly, after a few years with a lying parent, you do figure it out. When there is a whole lot of talk but no action, you may wonder. But always give the benefit of the doubt when you can.
When Q was in Kindergarten his teacher asked us what we did to discipline him when he melted down and emptied the contents of the bookshelf all over the room. WHAT?! We had NEVER EVER witnessed that kind of behavior at home. So, when a parent says to me, “He never does that at home,” well, yep, I often believe it. In our case school was entirely more rigorous than home. He still had very little language. At home he didn’t need language, even though we were trying to force him to need language by not meeting his needs unless he spoke them. The bottom line was that he felt safe at home, as he should have and as we would have hoped he would feel. When the rigor of the classroom took its’ toll, he took it out on the bookshelves, unfortunately for sweet Mrs. Jacobson! Long story short, a behavioral analysis and a sensory diet went a long way as well as Todd & I making home more rigorous, while maintaining the safety and respite it provided to our son. Oh, and time was on our side. He flourished over time with the right positive behavior supports. But I digress, in that positive behavior supports is for another blog entry.
Back to the IEP….
Student at a Glance!
This is a picture of the first thing I hand a parent at an IEP meeting. I print it up in color on an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. My hope is that they take it home and put in on the fridge as a reminder to the whole family how special and important their child is. When the parent walks into the room, this picture is on my Smartbaord, front & center of the meeting. It’s up there in “life sized” style. I want to make an impact on the parent, a positive one. I hope this does it.
You’ll notice there is no negative word on this document anywhere. Instead of writing, for example, “Does not like to do tasks he thinks are too hard” I wrote, “Avoids tasks he thinks are too hard.” And instead of saying, “talks to much” I wrote, “Areas to Develop: maintaining a quiet voice in class.” Believe me, a parent of a child who has the need to vocalize constantly does not need me telling them, “Your child has to vocalize constantly.” They know it. But if I say, “working on maintaining a quiet voice in class” that implies I know it, they know it, and this is what their child and I are doing about it. It’s proactive.
Instead of using “Strengths and Weaknesses” I chose to focus on “Strengths and Areas to Improve”. Yep, they might be weaknesses today but the reality is that given time they can be areas of improvement. They might even become strengths someday!
I also include a section on the Positive Behavior Support system I have in place. This gives me an opportunity to reinforce what I am doing in class. Notice that this student is 50 stars behind the class average, but at least he is actually earning stars. I focus on what he is earning and not how far behind he is.
This particular student (name and picture have been changed from the actual student) had just come from general ed to my SDC. I had had him for almost a year when I had his IEP and had the first opportunity to meet his family. His mother came in stoic and unemotional. By the end of the meeting she told me, “At all of his other meetings all we heard about was how hard he had been. How he had to move all the time and make noise and cause trouble. You are the first teacher to notice all the things that make him special, the things we love about him. Thank you.” The next day was Valentine’s Day. He proudly came in with a really cute, big teddy bear for me and a note that read, “I love you, Mrs. Jager.” Ahhhhh…. That’s one reason I do what I do!
Now, in general ed defense, a student like this little guy in a classroom with 35 other students and a general education teacher possibly not equipped for his diverse needs (or certainly without the support of a classroom aide), might convey some things to the parents that are perceived by the parents as negative. If he is behaving completely opposite of everyone else and making it impossible for others to learn, then that is what the gen ed teacher has to report. The other teachers may not have said anything negative… perhaps the parents just perceived it as such. It was a different educational setting… it was more restrictive to him and his needs as opposed to my class, which is his least restrictive environment. Of course he’s going to fair better behaviorally in my room with sensory input, access to frequent breaks, an appropriate workload, specialized academic instruction and a focus on small groups. So, my meeting would appear to be more positive and to the parent may seem more productive.
In Summary! Look for the good stuff. Find it. Dig. If you look hard enough and long enough you will find a lot of positive things to put on your student’s “At A Glance.” I am not perfect by any stretch. I do not always keep it 100% positive. I have had a few students that I liked a lot, but could not reach. Keeping their IEP positive was a challenge. But I keep trying!