Over the past eight years, I’ve had the occasion to participate in many school based team meetings for my two sons. Both of them have learning issues, both have been on IEPs and on 504 plans at different points in their education.
I barely remember our first meeting, back when my now 8th grader was in preschool. I do remember walking into it full of fear and expectations, feeling that the team would have answers for us and a plan to help my son function in the classroom. I walked out with more questions and little confidence that the meeting had made any difference.
It had nothing to do with any animosity between us (parents) and the team—in fact, the members of the team were kind, caring, and responsive. The failure of that meeting was due to a mismatch of expectations. I was emotionally vulnerable, trying to adjust to this new universe of having my child diagnosed with a developmental disability. In those early days, I mistakenly assumed that my son was a problem to be fixed, and that the team knew all the tools and tricks to do just that. I don’t know what the educators assumed, but I think they wanted to make me feel better about my son’s issues. Neither of those attitudes were conducive to identifying specific problems, and strategies to overcome them.
By early elementary school, I was better prepared. Because I have been a physical therapist for many years, I have a great deal of experience in participating in and leading rehabilitation team meetings. My new strategy for school team meetings was to prepare as if I was at work. Below are specific techniques that, over the years, have made our team meetings productive and ensured that my children are adequately served at school.
Sit at the head of the table—physically if you can, metaphorically if you cannot. That means taking control, in a subtle way. For example, welcome the team to the meeting and thank them for attending. This is your meeting, not theirs.
Set the agenda, and ensure that everyone is prepared to address your concerns.
At least a week before the meeting, send an email to each team member reminding them about the meeting and indicating your agenda. For example: “I am concerned about Johnny’s social skills in unstructured times, such as gym and lunch. He has been coming home every day with his lunch uneaten and says no one will let him sit with them. Please be prepared to talk about alternate lunch plans.”
Also, ask that the team members read one another’s reports before your meeting, so you don’t need to waste time reading them aloud.
Establish specific time frames for follow up. “Wait and see” will only hold your child back from achieving his or her goals. Yes, children mature and change, but “wait and see” can lead to unacceptable delays in implementing treatment plans. The school is focused on this year, this teacher; you need to keep them looking forward, and hold them accountable for timely feedback. For example:
“We know Jane has trouble with transitions. It’s two years until middle school. We need to start now on teaching her how to organize her backpack and her homework.”
“When we meet next month, let’s assess the effectiveness of Jorge’s new social skills class.”
Be clear about your goals. Whenever the team wanders into anecdotes about your child, bring them back to his or her current status and what the goal is. Instead of letting them talk about what happened in library last week, when the librarian insisted your child take out a fiction book instead of the same book about dinosaurs and had a melt down, redirect to what his reading level is, what it should be, and how the school can narrow the gap. The larger the gap between where the child is and what is grade level, the more the school needs to focus on appropriate interventions. If that gap is narrowing, then the team is on the right track. If it’s not, or if it gets wider, your plan is not working.
Ask for specifics. “He’s doing better in PE” is not a progress report. What does “better” mean? Focus back on the goal, and the discrepancy between current status and goal. Be persistent and assertive in this redirecting the conversation The only power we have as parents is to show the school how their implementation of a particular education plan is or isn’t working.
Acknowledge successes and struggles. Let the team know when something was particularly effective. This is especially helpful in transition from grade to grade. Equally important, if things are not improving for your child—if the gap between current performance and goal is not closing—re-evaluate. Not every school will be able to serve every child. This is not have to be a failure of either child or school, but a mismatch. Even with the best of intentions, educational plans don’t always work. Rather than sticking to something that isn’t helping, focus on alternatives.
It is difficult to put aside your personal hopes and fears, but if you are to be an effective advocate for your child, you must work to be as objective as possible. Approaching my sons’ team meetings as if they were part of my work tasks has been a successful strategy to keep me focused on those specific problems and goals that the school can and should address. As the parent/guardian of your child, you know that child better than anyone at school. You are your child’s expert. It is your job to be a proactive advocate for your child’s best future.
Lisa Janice Cohen is a physical therapist. She is the parent of a child with AS and a child with NLD.