The IEP Meeting That Started It All

It’s March again. The sometimes-warmer weather teases us, the stale news pesters us, the shorts-and-sandals section of the store tempts us, but the special education teacher doesn’t have time to notice.

She’s stuck inside every night writing up IEP’s and 504’s.

If you love a child with special needs, you know there’s nothing small-potatoes about an IEP meeting. An “Individualized Education Plan” is a legally-required document which parents, teachers, and other service providers are required to meet to discuss – around the same table—to determine the fate of a single child for an entire school year.

I wish I was being over-dramatic, but I’m not.

This “team,” which in reality is more like a Congress composed of individuals representing entirely separate and often-opposing teams, has a near-impossible task to accomplish: negotiate a legal contract between the State and the family that certain needed services will be provided to the child for a certain number of school hours each week, in a certain location, a certain number of times each week that everyone can be content enough with to each sign in turn, within an hour’s time.

Professionals anxious to be on time for the next meeting turn their diplomacy gauge way up, and best practices too often take a backseat to the priority of completion.

I’m not bashing teachers, either. I’ve been on both sides of that table.

But that’s not what this story is about.

The IEP meeting that became a pattern for my life was one I did not attend at all.

In fact, I didn’t even know it was happening at the time.

At this particular IEP meeting was for my sister, Crystal. Her teachers suffered from a then-undiagnosed frustration that IDEA called a Learning Disability, but we would later come to call Asperger’s Syndrome. I say her teachers suffered from it, because in those early years I am sure she did not. Asperger’s helped her remember things, notice things, and read like no one else’s little sister I knew. But her teachers couldn’t understand why such a healthy, pleasant, and attentive girl didn’t seem to understand how school was supposed to go.

When I was old enough to understand, my Mom confided in me that she often left these IEP meetings in tears, after being blamed, interrogated, and berated for her to-them obvious role in Crystal’s deficiencies.

But not this one.

This time, Dad came.

My Dad worked hard, long hours to support our family so my Mom could stay home with us—a sacrifice, from both of them, that I will forever be grateful for. But he came to IEP meetings as often as he could, because he felt it was important.

And when he did come, he had a message to share.

The blaming, interrogating, and berating still happened, but he held my mother’s hand and helped her not flinch. Then, when the time came, he answered calmly and with a single sentence:

“Thank you for helping us educate our child.”

When my mother first told me the story, I latched onto that sentence, and made it mine.

“Thank you for helping us educate our child.”

When I met with the parents of a young boy I tutored in reading, I pictured them saying,

“Thank you for helping us educate our child.”

When we met with the teachers that assessed my preschooler and found she was eligible for behavior services, I clung to,

“Thank you for helping us educate our child.”

When I submitted my Letter of Intent to Homeschool to the Superintendent of our new school district, it was not in a spirit of separatism from “the system,” or resentment for having to be counted, but,

“Thank you for helping us educate our child.”

Those words, that perspective, has reminded me who I am—and the limits on the power others have over my children—time and again.

You’re still reading.

What does this mean to you?

Do you believe what studies show us, time after time, that no matter how many teachers, service providers, coaches, mentors, peers, diagnosable special needs or unseen challenges a child has, the strongest predictor of a child’s academic success is his or her mother?

Do you believe that, no matter what “school” looks like in your family, it falls to you to teach those in your care what “normal” means?

I turn to you now, not in defiance or with pride but full of gratitude,

“Thank you. I am honored to have any part in the education of your child.”