Dear Dr. Wes & Julia: Awhile back you suggested getting an Individual Education Plan (IEP) at school for kids with behavioral or psychological problems. We've been trying to do this for over a year, and it has been awful. The school keeps putting up roadblocks. We aren't even asking for a lot of services or adjustments. We just want something in writing for our child who has some serious emotional problems. Any suggestions?
Wes: I wish there were a support group in this area for parents in similar situations. I sometimes think about starting one, but it would be better if it came directly from the community. There's a lot to learn about this issue, and you pretty much have to be a lawyer, psychologist, psychiatrist, school counselor, teacher and student - all at the same time - to appreciate everything that's involved. Trying to give even a basic overview would take 20 times the space available in this column.
I agree that IEPs are getting harder to obtain. Schools really are becoming more resistant to identifying kids, much less serving them. I'm sure I'll get hate mail for saying this, but I have numerous examples over the last few years, none of which I can discuss in detail due to client confidentiality. Most families have to strenuously advocate for an IEP in their home school, and increasingly that's not even enough.
I understand why. Schools are increasingly stuck with stagnant budgets, increased societal demands, fewer involved parents and declining real-world salaries. Nevertheless, the law is what it is, and it must be followed, even if that is difficult. Moreover, these laws (known as IDEA and PL 94-142), aren't just nuisance legislation. They exist to ensure that kids who have special needs or problems - cognitive, emotional, psychological, or behavioral - aren't denied an education because of those issues. Period.
I'm actually going to offer a seminar on this topic in conjunction with a Kansas City attorney who specializes in cases like yours. We don't have a date or location yet, but it will probably be in late April or early May. We won't be charging anything for this program, selling anything or begging for business. Our only goal is to provide this information as a public service so families like yours will be able to walk through the steps necessary to get an IEP - and to learn what to do when facing resistance. If you and other readers are interested, you can reach me at the Double Take e-mail address, and I'll send you an e-mail with information when we have it. This will also give me an idea of how much interest there is in the seminar.
Beyond this, I'd again recommend the book "From Emotion to Advocacy," by Pam and Pete Wright. Everyone I've loaned this book to has come back and written me a check asking to keep it. It's that helpful. If you've been at it for a year without results, then I'm assuming you've exhausted most of the obvious solutions. I don't know your financial situation, but if you can afford it, you may wish to consult an attorney. I'm not a fan of getting lawyered up for no good reason. In fact, those TV commercials begging me to sue someone kind of make me sick. But a child's education isn't something you get a second shot at. You don't want to be sitting around with your child at age 21 wishing you'd have pushed harder. If you're correct in your assessment that your child needs these services to succeed in school, it's a good investment of time, money and effort. Good luck to you.
Julia: I'm not the best at suggesting successful legal or education pathways for parents. My best advice would be to have a backup plan that doesn't require all of the appointment and paperwork-based decisions that can get you nowhere. As Wes said, budget cuts are really inhibiting the amount and accuracy of IEP analyses, so even if you do get an IEP, there's no way of telling whether it's any good or will be followed. Here are a few ideas that may or may not help crack the IEP problem.
When I looked up the components of an IEP, I saw that it required an "IEP team" composed of "the student's parent(s) or guardian(s), a special education teacher, at least one regular education teacher, a representative of the school or district who is knowledgeable about the availability of school resources, and an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of the child's evaluation results (such as the school psychologist)." Seeking a special education teacher from a different school or a specialist in that field might give way to a better analysis and in turn, a better program for your child. Along those lines, choosing, rather than being assigned a psychologist, a regular teacher and school district representative might better the overall understanding and addressing your child's needs.
I also read that other people, like therapists or psychologists from outside the school, could be brought onto the team to help with getting or specializing of the child's program. Mixing and matching the people who know your child best as well as people you know will help get an IEP into action could work to your advantage. Also, depending on the extent of your child's needs, you could research programs at other schools and see if your child couldn't gain anything from attending enrichment programs at another school in addition to their regular education. Finally, if you find no help in public or private school programs, home or virtual schooling with the help of special education teachers to customize or run a personalized program is an option.
It shouldn't be such a struggle to gain access to something as necessary as an IEP but, if the school is resistant, you should take matters into your own hands to put what your child needs into action.
Next week: Julia offers "Eight steps to being happy." Can happiness be found in self-help books, magazines and the like, or do we just think we're happy because that's what we were promised?
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.