BY DIANE WISCARSON, WISCARSON LAW
As a parent of a child with special needs, you may be particularly anxious about sending your child to elementary school. After all, you want to make sure that your incoming kindergartner gets the full benefit of a public school education, and has a positive experience in the process.
Prior to your differently-abled child reaching kindergarten age, they will have likely been getting services through your local Education Service District (ESD), which could have started shortly after your child’s birth. If so, your Service Coordinator helped figure out a plan for your child’s services, focusing on the needs of the family to enhance the development of your child. As a part of the help provided for your child, your Service Coordinator helps develop an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP).
An IFSP is a written document based on an in-depth assessment of your child’s needs. It includes a child’s current developmental levels, desired outcomes for the child and family, and a plan for how to achieve those outcomes. IFSP services are provided at home, or in other “natural settings,” such as a child care facilities, preschools, or other community settings in which children without disabilities would frequent.
The IFSP is largely family driven. The family determines priorities, needs, and wants for the child. Parents often describe IFSP meetings as collaborative, congenial, and usually “warm and fuzzy.” There is not often much conflict in deciding which services a child and the family need to enhance the child’s development. Those IFSP services will continue until a child starts kindergarten, with changes along the way, as a particular child and family need.
In the spring before a child is set to begin kindergarten in the upcoming fall, there should be a transition meeting. This meeting is really a hand-off from the IFSP providers, to the school-age providers. Parents should attend the transition meeting and be prepared to discuss their child’s educational needs. At the transition meeting, parents are told that the IFSP will expire before the child starts kindergarten, and a new document, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be developed instead.
An IEP is for students who will receive special education services, typically at the neighborhood school. The IEP outlines the child’s present level of educational and functional performance, then sets concrete goals to be measured and achieved via special education services, over the course of a calendar year. The IEP must be reviewed at least annually, and a child can have an IEP until they graduate from high school with a standard diploma or age-out of services after turning 21.
The biggest difference between an IFSP and an IEP is the noticeable removal of the word “family” in the IEP. When a child starts kindergarten, the focus shifts from the family and the child’s development, to the educational needs of the child while at school. Parents are often dismayed at the change of focus, and the lessened emphasis on the family.
With any transition, whether from pre-school age to elementary school, from elementary to middle school, from middle to high school, or even from high school to a district transition program, the importance of being prepared and involved cannot be overstated. A transition meeting should be held any time a child will transition from one school level to the next. Start preparing for a transition meeting by making sure a meeting is getting scheduled the spring before your child’s transition.
Before any transition meeting, make sure the right people are invited and are actually attending. For example, for a preschooler, make certain that the IFSP “Service Coordinator” and someone from the elementary school, usually a case manager, will each be attending. Review your child’s IFSP carefully to have a full understanding of the services your child currently receives. This is the meeting at which the IFSP and developmental progress will be reviewed, and then an IEP written. The IEP will be in effect the day your child starts kindergarten.
The IEP will define services at school, and except in rare circumstances, no services will be provided at the child’s home, or in other “natural environments.” All IEP services will be provided at school, and the parent’s participation in those services is mostly nonexistent. This is sometimes a difficult change for parents whose ideas for their child and education suddenly have much less influence at the meeting table than during the IFSP process.
In advance of the meeting, ask for a draft IEP and copies of any evaluations or observations of your child so you can review them and be prepared with questions or concerns. At the meeting, ask questions about anything you do not understand or that does not make sense, whether on the IEP or a discussion occurring during the meeting. Keep asking questions until you are satisfied. Don’t fall into the trap of, “We don’t do that at elementary school,” or “middle school,” or “high school.” If your child has a need that results from a disability and impacts their education, that need must be addressed on the IEP.
Most practical piece of advice? Take your best smile, patience, and yes, water and fruit, or another edible treat, to any transition meeting. Except for the parents of each particular child, all of the attendees at any transition meeting will attend many transition meetings each spring. After the first 10 or 20, they are tired, and all of the kids’ individual information starts to run together in their minds, despite best efforts. It is always more successful to attend a meeting where people are polite, patient, well-hydrated, and can focus on the immediate task at hand – your child’s educational needs and success! •
Author’s Note: This article originally appeared on www.PDXParent.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Diane Wiscarson worked her way through the special education system on behalf of her son, and in so doing, found her passion for helping other families navigate special education and the law. Since graduating from law school in 1996, and founding Wiscarson Law, she has helped thousands of Oregon and Washington families obtain appropriate services and placements for their special needs children in public schools and education service districts in both states. For more information call 503.727.0202, or go to www.wiscarsonlaw.com
Exceptional Parent Magazine; September 2017