Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Aug 15
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by Doug Goldberg

If you have been following my blogs lately, I recently got into a debate in the comment section of the Top Ten Negotiating Skills to Learn for an IEP. I’m going to focus this blog on one comment that was made:

“The (IEP) “team” concept does not in any way suggest a process of negotiation, rather it suggests collaboration. There is a significant difference with the former implying a relationship of possibly opposing views, while the latter implies a co-operative relationship.”

That was beautifully stated, but here’s the rub, IEP team collaboration is a myth. Here’s where I add my disclaimer, I am first and foremost a parent of a child with special needs and I am secondly a Special Education Advocate. This means I have been in a lot of IEP’s, and many of them have been collaborative, but that collaboration did not happen on its own. Assuming IEP Team collaboration happens organically is what keeps Special Education Advocates and Attorneys in business. There, I just gave away the secret. If school districts want to get rid of the Special Education Advocacy business, start working with parents to repair the trust that has been lost.  Don’t get me wrong, parents, including myself, can sometimes hamper the IEP Team Collaboration as well. So how do we get from the myth of IEP Team collaboration to actual collaboration?

Step 1:

Eliminating or inviting outside sources that are manipulating the IEP Team. Your school district is legally required to have a representative at the IEP meeting who has the ability to commit the resources of the district. Yet, you would be surprised at how often I hear the school district’s representative say, “I don’t have the authority to approve this” or worse yet, “I have been authorized by my supervisor to make the following offer.” Parents have the right to invite members to join the IEP team. The parents should try to determine whether the administrative representative from the school district has authority, if they can’t do this on their own, then talk with a special education advocate to help you in this process.

Step 2:

The Parents need to educate themselves on the Law, Assessments, State Academic Standards and their child’s disability. There are actually two reasons for this:

  1. By preparing for the IEP meeting the parents can participate in a productive manner. When the IEP Team members see that you have a firm grasp on the issues, they are more likely to listen to your comments and concerns causing better collaboration; and
  2. It teaches the parents what the law actually provides for children with a disability. It does not provide the best education, only an appropriate education. Once a parent understands this difference they are less likely to make extreme demands. Yes, sometimes the parents ask for too much just as School Districts sometimes offer to little.

Step 3:

Get along with the team and eliminate hostile environments as much as possible. There is a big difference between assertive and being aggressive. This goes for all members of the IEP team. The IEP Team members from the School are usually nice, caring teachers and therapists that went into special education to help children but their employers don’t always allow them to do this. If you don’t think that’s true, read yesterday’s blog Beginning a new School and Knowing When to Say Goodbye.

Step 4:

Don’t discount each other’s opinions. School District employees should never assume they know what will work for the child just because they spent a few hours administering a standardized test or spent a few days doing informal observations. The parents have raised this child since birth and have valuable insight. Parents, the school district professionals are trained and knowledgeable and most likely understand many different learning strategies and methodologies. If, after listening to each other a consensus can’t be reached that is when you would ask for an Independent Educational Evaluations.

Step 5:

Parents should invite other people with specialized information about their child to attend the meeting especially other therapists, doctors or teachers. They can help guide the parents on whether they agree with the School Districts results or whether they have a different opinion.

As you can see there can be many roadblocks on the way to IEP Team collaboration. Both internal and external factors are at work. Even if the external factors are dealt with and a valid IEP Team is put together, we are all human beings that are sometimes wrong, sometimes irrational and sometimes emotional. This is why true collaboration only happens when we not only listen to each other but actually hear what others are saying.

Originall published in December 2010

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17 Responses to “The Myth about IEP Team Collaboration”

  1. Great post! Too often it is true that collaboration is a myth. You make an excellent point about the “outside influences that manipulate the IEP team.” It is when the power to make real decisions about the child’s program is completely removed from the actual IEP team (including parents) that a breakdown occurs.

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  2. The only thing I might add would be the actual language piece. Depending on the team and the parents expertise or ability, one thing the professionals often seem to forget is that parents speak ‘everyday’ language, and then, perhaps, the medical jargon that’s involved with their child’s disability. After that comes the official education languages, and then the legal language of the IEP itself.
    That is a burden that doesn’t always get broken down well- sometimes, teachers and administrators don’t fully understand it, either- I have spent quite a bit of time explaining to each side that they are actually saying the same thing.

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  3. Well, I have to admit to enjoying the quotation with which you began this discussion! And in the interests of full disclosure i have to admit to having been a special education administrator for the better part of 30 years. I also need to say that there have been about a half dozen times a friend or a friend of a friend has asked me to accompany them to a district I.E.P. meeting to “advocate” for their child with a recalcitrant school district. I add this last part because it is true that sometimes districts, for the wrong reasons, fail to respond to a student’s needs. But by and large I disagree that collaboration is a myth. A myth implies a degree of untruth or fallacy. Given that nationwide there are only about 2000 adjudicated Due Process (2008-2009) hearings would suggest that there is more collaboration going on then some advocates would acknowledge.

    When one puts aside the districts that fail to offer fape through a collaborative process; and parents who believe that collobaration only occurs when the district says yes to what they perceive to be the “best” program, most problems are communication issues that can be resolved by everyone listening to one another.

    Unfortunately with notable exceptions I have found most advocates are more interested in winning and not in collaboration.

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    • I have found that, often, the ones who are getting paid by the hour are the ones who stall out true collaboration by their own self-interest ($$). Often the teachers and the parents are far more successful at collaboration and the advocate just adds fuel where there may never have been a fire.

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    • Hmmm..yes due process cases are down. Parents lose here and they know it. Do a public records request for settlement agreements for a few years from your selpa in california and you might have a different perspective..

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  4. Hi William,

    First, thank you for coming back and sharing your opinions. It’s not easy always being the dissenting opinion on a parent centered website.

    There was a famous study done a number of years ago by Dr. Alessi. He interviewed 50 school psychologists who had each adminstered approx. 100 assessments in the prior year. Dr. Alessi and the 50 school psychologists all agreed that learning and behavior problems in the school could be caused by five reasons:

    1. Curriculum problems
    2. The Teacher
    3. The Administration
    4. The Parents
    5. The Student.

    When Dr. Alessi reviewed the over 5,000 reports the School Psychs had written in the prior year 100% of them blamed the student, 20% blamed the Parents and none of them blamed the curriculum, Teacher or Administration.

    As you know, this is statistically impossible so when Dr. Alessi asked the 50 School Psychs about their reports many said that “informal school policy dictates that conclusions be restricted to child and family factors. Many feel that they could lose their jobs were they to invoke school related factors.”

    So as you can see, whether it’s formal manipulation of the process by the School District or just fear of losing one’s job IEP Team collaboration does not happen organically.

    I for one, as an advocate, try to cultivate the team collaboration that does not happen organically. The main point of the article is that it requires alot of effort from all sides for collaboration to occur.

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    • This is a 23 year old study reflecting 23 year old data. One would hope it has changed, as have services and attitudes toward speical education.

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      • One would hope it has changed but in my opinion it has not. I attend many IEP’s a year and constantly hear the School say, “The child just need to work harder” or “the child is lazy”.

        If you have empirical evidence to the contrary I would love to see it.

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        • The study may still have some validity.In addition, as a school psychologist it is my duty to rule out curriculum, instruction, and other environmental variables prior to doing an assessment. I will not ever assess a child without these factors being ruled out. You must (in several states) have documentation that these factors have been assessed and ruled out. All too often, it is the curriculum alignment, instruction, content coverage, etc. Furthermore, I have been an advocate, a state monitor, a district school psychologist, and a consultant. I have never allowed anyone to tell me that if a child needs services that are “reasonable” that he or she cannot have them.The team decides and all members are equal. The PLP (present level of performance) should dictate what the needs are and services for the child. I understand that often times school members get it wrong. All too often I have seen advocates get it wrong. What is the point of laying blame and accusations? It still does not get to the real need…….meeting the child’s needs!

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  5. Collaboration and negotiation are not mutually exclusive. Negotiation is needed whenever parties have differing interests which need to be reconciled. That happens all the time – in marriage, between parents and kids, in all human relationships. So part of negotiation is finding out the other party’s gotta-haves, being clear on your own, and making sure that the agreement takes care of both, because it will otherwise unravel. There’s no reason that can’t be collaborative if there’s good faith all around. But in IEP meetings that is frequently not the case, because, as an ALJ once told us in mediation, “it’s all about the money.”

    That is a real problem, and parents have to recognize it, but for them it has to be about the kid. As long as these facts are in play, negotiation is necessary, and frequently will have to look like settlement talks. We don’t have to be mad about that, and we don’t have to miss any available opportunity to be collaborative – but let’s not hallucinate.

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  6. Unfortunately, I believe that just the nature of Case Conferences and IEPs leads to problems. What the parents are saying when they come to the table is “I don’t trust you so we are going to write this down.” Understanding the need for legal protection for both parties, I cannot help but wonder how much better it would be for all if we could just sit down and chat. You said it perfectly that what we get is “appropriate” – not necessarily the best or even what the child needs. By taking the emphasis off the IEP and placing trust in the school and their teachers, I have freed them up to practice their art. And because of this, my daughter thrives and I lose the headaches!

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  7. Thanks for a great discussion. I would like to add that in my experience, most parents are unaware they do not have ‘veto’ power to stop the recommendations of the school part of the multidisciplinary team. Most parents believe they can withhold a signature on the IEP to disagree with the ‘team’ recommendation, which is not the case in the majority of districts. Most of the time, parents must file a request for a due process hearing to stop a ‘team’ action with which the disagree. Hearings are costly and can have serious impact on a child,family and team. This is an important issue, especially in light of parents’ burden to prove a denial of FAPE in a due process hearing in most districts.

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    • Parents do have more power in that. In our state, I have been told by a special education attorney that the only two people that really have decision making power is the district rep (that controls the purse strings) and the parents (i.e. 1 vote to 1 vote). Everyone else is simply giving their input, ideas, and suggestions. IDEA does require that parents have substantial input and say in the child’s program, and to say that 10 school district personnel get to veto a parent’s input (based on some majority rule ?) does not confur the level of equitable power that I believe IDEA was meant to give to the parents.

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  8. This article shows what is fundamentally wrong with the entire IEP process. Specifically, the line about The law “does not provide the best education, only an appropriate education.” Mainstream educated kids are judged based on academic performance. Special Education kids should be judged on similar performance. It is an ABSURD concept to talk about what is an “appropriate education” for a special needs child given the full potential of a child is highly dependent on finding unique ways to “unlock” their potential. But it does show that those involved in this process “don’t get it”. When it comes to special education situations, trying to find the BEST way to try allow the child to reach their potential would come about so much more often if every one who gets PAID to be a part of the IEP team – especially those paid with tax dollars – did what was BEST for the special needs child instead of trying to minimize cost, time and effort spent by the district.

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    • Well said! This has always been my biggest rub too. So tired of hearing “appropriate” education as means to simply save money or staff resources. Please, someone tell me what is appropriate? Do we have a check list to use…that shows us when we’ve reached the appropriate level? How do you define that “appropriate” for a a child or a group of children. Is this OK for our typical kids? How about our high ability children? It would seem that not challenging them to a higher level might still be “appropriate” yet we have laws requiring them to be challenged at their level…which is better (a form of the word “best”) because it helps them reach THEIR potential. The bottom line…”we” want high ability students to reach their potential b/c “we” see them as having something more to contribute to society and “we” get the glory when they go on to do something really successful. Children on the other end of the spectrum…some people still believe don’t return enough gain on their investment. That’s what the problem is…attitudes. While we’ve come a long way as a society in the last 50 years regarding treatment of people with disabilities, we still have oh so far to go.

      *Written by a mother of 2 children, one on each end of the exceptional spectrum…whose seen one school district bend over backwards to meet the needs of her H.A. child, while doing as little as possible to meet the needs of her child with complex special needs.

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  9. Our district comes to meetings and writes a letter of prior written notice for anything that isn’t preauthorized by the administration. This is how they get away with doing nothing in the IEP meeting. If I say, wait I thought the team was supposed to determine this then I am tagged the bad guy and no one even answers. I could see if I sprung a new idea on them at the meeting but at the last meeting I asked for an IEE in response to not agreeing with their OT evaluation and the answer was we will give you a PWN. Shouldn’t we be able to determine that there is disagreement at a meeting and authorize an IEE? They have determined that my daughter does not need OT anymore – just increased last year due to sensory issues, because they don’t require her to type – excuse me she needs to learn to type if she is to go to college and this isn’t something she will just pick up like her peers.

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  10. I just came across this blog. I am currently in a dispute with my son’s school. They are trying to pull his IEP and put him on a 504 plan. I have an advocate and have spoken to many people who all have said not to even entertain the idea. My son has a diagnosis of PDD-NOS but is very high functioning, was reevaluated over the summer and did very well academically and I think this is where the school feels the need for change. Does anyone happen to know if there is free legal aid in Pennsylvania (Montgomery County) if this should go to due process? My advocate did speak to an attorney that advised as well not to entertain the idea as well and that if this goes to due process the district could get into trouble. Anyone know anything about this?

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