All children are different. Some begin walking before age 1, while others only crawl at that age. Some will be holding conversations with their moms at the tender age of 2, while others have more difficulty speaking.

All children are different. Some begin walking before age 1, while others only crawl at that age. Some will be holding conversations with their moms at the tender age of 2, while others have more difficulty speaking.

If a child does struggle, he or she may qualify for early intervention services through the local public school district. When a child is three years old, parents can request to have her evaluated, which will help determine if she qualifies for special education services and needs to be placed in a special-needs preschool program. In such programs, educators will work on improving the child's foundational skills with the goal being to mainstream her into a typical classroom by kindergarten.

Educational goals are developed based on the initial evaluation, along with observations and parents' input. These goals are discussed and written during an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meeting by the IEP team. This team consists of the child's teacher, therapist, general teachers and, most importantly, the child's parents.

If your child qualifies for services, her civil rights for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) are protected under a federal law called IDEA 2004-Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (see sidebar).

Dissecting the IEP
Every IEP is written to suit the unique needs of a specific child, but all contain the following sections:
Present levels of educational performance: The child's current skill level. Goals and objectives: Specific skills the child needs to be working on. Measuring progress: Different methods for charting the child's progress. Placement: Which classroom the child will be placed in. Related services/therapies: If there is a need for speech, occupational or physical therapies. Modifications and accommodations: A list of special needs for the child's specific disability. Prior to the meeting, parents should communicate with the lead teacher on the team expressing desire to help set the goals. "Being involved in developing the goals is probably the most important thing the parents need to do, because that's the blueprint for their child's future," said Colleen Miller, statewide trainer for the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities (OCECD).

Special-needs preschool teacher Laura Sherrod involves parents in the process by sending home a letter asking the following questions:

1. What are their goals for their child?
2. What is their short- and long-term vision for their child's education?
3. What do they consider to be their child's strengths and weaknesses?
4. What is their most immediate concern for their child?

"The parents know the child best and any input they have is important. Oftentimes it is the wording that needs tweaked so the goal is measurable, but I want parents to be a part of the process," said Sherrod, who teaches a class of autistic children in Westerville.

LeAnn Miller of Hilliard, mother of a 6-year-old child with special needs, agreed and advised parents to "really understand the goals you set and make sure the goals are appropriate for your child. Nobody knows your child like you do."

Parents have to find the root cause of their child's learning issue to help figure out what the goals should be. "Don't be afraid to ask why your child can't do [a certain] skill," said LeAnn Miller. She said an IEP goal may read, "Johnny will read first-grade-level books." Parents should investigate further by asking, "Why can't he read books?" They may discover the real problem is he can't phonologically sound out words, which should be listed as an IEP goal, she added.

"An IEP is a contract for your child's educational future. You wouldn't sign a contract [to buy] a house if the plumbing is broken. This is your child's future; it needs to be detailed and skills-based," Miller said.

Once the goals and objectives are drafted, parents have the right to request a draft of the IEP to review before the IEP meeting. During the meeting, the teachers and therapist will review their goals and discuss the placement of the child. This is the time to speak your mind and ask for changes or clarifications in the goals.

Many parents will bring an advocate during the IEP meeting who can help them understand the process. There will be many professionals at the meeting, which may seem overwhelming and intimidating for parents. Advocates may be parents of older children with special needs, or a professional therapist who works with your child.
Parents need to know they have the right to disagree with the IEP goals and placement and that there are methods to resolve issues with their school district through mediation and due process. To learn more about these processes, visit the Ohio Department of Education's website at www.ode.state.oh.us.

"Parents should remember that IEPs should document measurable progress and that they [should] meet the unique needs of the child," said Miller.
The IEP team typically meets each spring to update goals for the coming year. Every three years the child also will be re-evaluated-called a multi-factored evaluation-to determine if they still qualify for services.

Last-minute advice for parents
"Find an advocate that can work with you and fight for what you know is right for your kid, because nobody else is going to do it. When you have an advocate present, they know you are serious about what you are talking about," LeAnn Miller said. She also suggested that parents not be afraid to speak up when they don't agree. "Don't be afraid to step on somebody's toes. Nobody is going to advocate for your child but you."


Special education resources

BOOKS
A Parent's Guide to Special Education: Insider Advice on How to Navigate the System and Help Your Child Succeed, by Linda Wilmshurst and Alan W. Brue The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence M. Siegel Negotiating the Special Education Maze: A Guide for Parents & Teachers, by Winifred Anderson, Stephen Chitwood and Deidre Hayden Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives, by Barbara Bateman
Web sites
Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities (ocecd.org): A statewide nonprofit group that supports the appropriate education of children and youth with disabilities through parent mentors in several school districts. Offers free parent training workshops and publications year-round throughout the state. Ohio Department of Education (ode.state.oh.us): The Students with Disabilities page offers many resources on state-level programs and regulations. U.S. Department of Education (ed.gov): A federal site that offers helpful parent resources on special education. Wrightslaw.com: Contains accurate, reliable information about special education law, education law, and advocacy for children with disabilities.

Pattie Stechschulte is a freelance writer living in Westerville with her husband, Steve, and two sons, Will and Jack. She has survived the IEP process seven times for the sake of her younger son, who has autism.