Navigating IEPs: Setting Expectations for the Public School Setting

 [Disclaimer: The following content is intended to provide helpful insights only. Positive Behavioral Connections does not present itself as an advocate for you or your child during the IEP development process.]

If you have a child with autism, at some point you will likely need to create an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is a legally-binding contract between you and your child’s school that identifies the specific special education services the school will provide for your child.

However, sometimes there can be a gap between the services you seek and the services the school wants or is able to provide. This leads to the question, what precisely is the school’s role in the development of your child? Realistic expectations will go a long way toward maintaining a good relationship with the school for a more positive experience for everyone – including your child.

What You Can Expect in an IEP

The IEP should specify certain elements about their approach to educating your child:

Data, including your child’s present level of performance, standardized test results, curriculum measurements and observational behaviors. For example, the school should be able to definitively say, “David knows how to count to 10, knows his letters, and knows how to write his name.”

Measurable goals that specify what your child’s teachers are striving to achieve, how they plan to do so, and how and when they will measure your child’s progress toward these goals.

Commitments of specific staff members to work on specific goals. For example, the speech therapist will work with your child one-on-one for 30 minutes and in group settings for 10 minutes each week.

Communication should be consistent and predictable. At a minimum, you should receive quarterly updates. Weekly communication may be feasible. (Daily updates are, in our experience, difficult to sustain.)

What an IEP Can’t Always Deliver

There may be aspects of your child’s development that fall beyond what the public school setting can handle. This may include:

Help with issues outside of school. School services – by their very definition – are limited in scope. They are only intended to help address issues that impact the child’s ability to learn at school and in the classroom. School services are not intended to address issues that occur outside of school or the classroom, such as sleeping or food issues.

Time-intensive services. The school may not have the resources to provide the full amount of therapy your child needs. For example, even though your treatment provider says your child needs six hours of speech therapy per week, the school may only be able to offer 30 to 60 minutes per week. In fact, it is rare for a school to provide more than 120 minutes of speech therapy per week. Be prepared to seek outside services to make up the difference.

Best-in-class services. Public schools are mandated by federal and state governments to provide appropriate services. This doesn’t necessarily mean the services will be all encompassing.  We often use the analogy that the public school special education setting may not be able to provide Cadillac-level services, but should be able to be a Ford. Public schools must meet a wide and diverse range of needs, and although they may be able to provide services that match your child’s needs, they may not be able to provide field-level experts in every domain.

If you are still dissatisfied with the IEP and the school’s efforts to meet your child’s needs, you may decide to launch a mediation process. However, we often encourage our families to consider where their priorities lie. How much time and energy do you want to spend fighting the school, when you could instead be finding the right services for your child?

In some cases, it may be better to down-size your expectations of what the school can do for your child. Ultimately, what you’re looking for is a school that wants to partner with you and is willing to do what they can to support your child. The key is to identify the developmental areas the school should focus on, and then use private therapy to fill in the blanks.

And finally, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping a long-term perspective. Remember, the end game here is not that your child is successful in school. The end game is that your child gains the skills for lifelong independence. When your child turns 21, her grades won’t matter. What will matter is that she has the skills she needs to live a full and happy life.

Are you looking for the right therapy partner for your child with autism? Contact our offices today, and let’s talk!


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