Along with special needs comes the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process. When a child with special needs is encroaching on their 3rd birthday, the county that you live in will begin an evaluation of your child to determine need and placement in a preschool program for early intervention.
The process is murky at best, though I think that our county tries to provide accurate and adequate information to prepare parents. Both my husband and I were confused about what each step would look like, so we asked several of our friends who had been through the process. No one described it well, so our expectations were different from what we experienced. Because of that, I wanted to take the opportunity to describe our experience in detail for those of you who may want to know more.
Six month out meeting:
In June, our county preschool coordinator, Matt, came to our house and met with my husband and I to gather some information and coordinate with us on dates for future meetings. Three future meetings were scheduled in succession one week after another starting in November and ending in December. We provided Matt with paperwork on Ouisie’s diagnosis as well as all of the documentation we had of her doctor’s visits, surgeries and therapies. We also provided him with names and contact information for our therapists and current school so that they could contact them for their progress notes. I believe it was at this point that we signed consent forms at this point to allow for the transfer of that information.
First IEP meeting:
We were told to bring Ouisie and her birth certificate to this meeting and that we would determine what she would be evaluated on going forward at the meeting. My husband and I sat with 6 professionals around a table while Ouisie roamed the room playing with toys and eating the snacks we brought for her. The professionals were the preschool coordinator (Matt), school psychologist, occupational therapist, a special education teacher, and our CDSA coordinator. There would typically be a physical therapist in the room as well, but she was out that day. We sat in a U shape, looking at a projector screen. On the projector screen there was a database called Goalview (by PCG Education), and Matt was entering in information into the database based on our answers to the questions asked by the professionals. The questions they asked were to determine what areas Ouisie would be evaluated on in the following meeting. Possible evaluations include Academic/Readiness, Cognitive, Communication, Behavioral Emotional, Motor (Gross and Fine), Medical, Adaptive Behavior, Social/Developmental, and Transportation. For each area, they asked us questions to indicate Ouisie’s strengths as well as her needs.
To be honest, the meeting went quickly and we felt that everyone in the room was supportive and open to conversation. We brought all of Ouisie’s medical records with us, and as I mentioned before, we had already provided her medical history. We also brought with us notes from her therapist at TEACCH and progress notes from her sign language instructor, both of whom had been through this process before. Their notes were similar in layout – they mentioned their history with Ouisie, her strengths, her challenges and her emerging skills. Her sign language therapist also listed her goals for Ouisie. These were helpful to have, as they were better able to express some of her educational needs than we would have been.
At the end of the meeting, we were given a printout of everything they put into the database based on our conversation. We were also given 2 questionnaires to answer as well as a medical form to fill out. Additionally, they gave us 2 questionnaires for Ouisie’s teachers to fill out.
Because some of the evaluation professionals would be unavailable at our next meeting, we were told that they may visit Ouisie at school, and would coordinate that directly with our preschool director.
Second IEP meeting
My husband and I brought Ouisie to the same building and she went into a room with the OT, school psychologist, special education teacher, the assistive technology coordinator and Matt. When we realized that he didn’t need to be there, my husband left to go back to work. Matt came out after about 30-45 minutes to ask me about Ouisie’s vision, but other than that, Ouisie was in the room with her evaluators by herself for about 80-90 minutes. I assume that the expectation is that the evaluation will be 90 minutes or less because while I was waiting for Ouisie to come back out, another child came in for an assessment. Our appointment was at 9:30 and they showed up right around 11.
When Ouisie came out after the evaluation, I took that opportunity to ask some questions about the printout from the last meeting. Other than that, I had minimal interaction with the staff at this meeting.
Third IEP meeting
There is a place in my brain that knows everything I was told in the third IEP meeting. I don’t access that part of my brain that often, because if I did, I would not be able to function on a daily basis. A child with special needs often comes bundled with an incredible amount of joy that is wrapped up in fear, sadness, and an abundance of worry. We choose to live in joy as often as possible in order to hold onto the hope that everything we are doing on a daily basis is going to allow Ouisie to live the fullest life possible. With the being said, I have been crying off and on since we had this meeting yesterday afternoon. Sometimes it’s a few tears, sometimes it’s outright sobbing. I know it will eventually stop — this has happened before — but for now it’s here to stay. A close friend died several years back and his dad gave me the best advice last week, “Sometimes when it hits you, it’s best to just stay down. Like a boxing match. Stay down for at least 8 counts until you know you are strong enough to get back up. If you get up too early, you might get hit again and not be able to handle it. So, just know your boundaries and stay down for as long as you need to regain your strength.” So, I’m writing this while it’s fresh and staying down for now.
This was the meeting that I was most prepared for and knew the most about what to expect, but there is nothing that can fully prepare you to hear that your 35 month old is functioning on an 11 month old level across the board. At the third IEP meeting, the evaluators gather all of their observations into the Goalview database. We went back into the same room from the first meeting and we sat in a U shape, looking at a projector screen again. All of the evaluators’ information is used first to determine eligibility — they had to first determine if Ouisie was actually eligible for services. They went through their observations one by one starting with the school psychologist. Each evaluator had their own area that they went through individually where they told us Ouisie’s strengths and weaknesses, and, based on what they observed, the percentage delay that they would attribute. It is honest and kind, but heartbreaking. There are 14 different areas of eligibility and Ouisie was determined to be eligible under the area of developmental delay. From there, the evaluators outlined goals that they created for Ouisie based on their observations. There were too many goals to provide here, but as an example, goals read like this:
Ouisie will participate in and complete self-help skills (hand washing, toileting, feeding, etc) starting (date) with 80% target achievement completed by (date). Methods of Evaluation: Observation, Informal, Observation/Demonstration; Evaluation schedule: Quarterly
Ouisie will engage in teacher directed turn taking activities with up to 2 peers, starting (date) with 80% target achievement completed by (date). Methods of Evaluation: Observation, Informal, Observation/Demonstration; Evaluation schedule: Quarterly
Ouisie will walk fast with controlled speed for 20 feet starting (date) with 70% target achievement completed by (date). Methods of Evaluation: Observation, Observation/Demonstration; Evaluation schedule: Quarterly
After we read through all of the goals, each therapist told us their recommendation for therapy that would be provided throughout the week. Recommendations vary from child to child, but we heard things like “speech therapy 2x weekly out of class for 20 minutes and 2x weekly in class for 30 minutes.”
Based on those therapy needs, the evaluators provided a recommendation for Ouisie’s schooling. In New Hanover County, children can qualify for 2, 3 or 5 days a week. Due to all of her needs, Ouisie qualified for 5 days a week of a full school day from 8:00-2:30. We learn about her school assignment next week. Matt told us that it is dependent on both geographical location and available space. Before we make the decision, we will go on a tour of the school. I am hopeful that it will be an incredible experience where we see that Ouisie will be safe and loved and challenged to her fullest ability. We’ll keep you updated.
- Always take someone with you for the meetings. If your child’s other parent or guardian is not involved, see if you can bring a therapist, close friend, grandparent or someone else that you trust. It is important to have a second set of ears and someone to support you and your child.
- Read everything they give you. No matter what you think you know and what you remember was written, it’s always worthwhile to read back through the material to make sure that things are correct and nothing was missed.
- Keep a running list of questions to ask.
Organizations that provide helpful prep for IEP meetings: