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“The IEP Meeting Gut Punch: How I Learned to See My Daughter’s Whole Self”

Despite years of progress, occasional setbacks in my child’s education still leave me reeling. I call it the IEP meeting gut-punch. Over time, I’ve found a way to cope with the anxiety and keep breathing through the test results and assessments with these tips.

I have attended 8 years’ worth of IEP meetings. Since my daughter was 5 years old, I’ve sat down twice annually with teachers and school therapists to talk progress (or lack thereof), accommodations, and goals. By now, you would think the school’s Child Study Team could no longer surprise or deflate me with comments about my daughter. You would be wrong.

As you likely know, IEP meetings offer a report card on how your child is excelling (or failing) in certain academic areas, but they also go a bit farther to set forward-looking goals and tie those goals to speech, occupational, and physical therapies, as well as school accommodations (eg, extended test time, front-of-class seating). Often, the news they expose is a bit hard to swallow.

Any parent of a child with an IEP will recognize the escalating dread that begins when the annual Child Study Team meeting is scheduled or when an unopened progress report hits the mailbox. You, too, may feel the pit forming in your stomach when a teacher calls, an ADHD or anxiety prescription needs to be renewed, or new testing is required. We do so much for our children who struggle with learning, and yet it often seems as though our only movement is backwards.

Add on top of that the special meetings during which administrators share new testing results. In my experience, schools recommend new testing every 2 to 3 years to ensure that an IEP or 504 Plan is properly updated. Tests may involve educational assessments, such as the Woodcock-Johnson for reading and math; and psychological assessments, where third-party experts examine the child’s social/emotional functioning, comprehension, IQ, etc. Depending on the child’s special-education needs, a neurological or speech evaluation may be recommended as well. My daughter received all of the above as part of her most recent IEP testing.

Waiting to Exhale

So, at our latest IEP meeting, I had the privilege of hearing from both my daughter’s testers and her teachers – and the undeniable feeling of anxiety, frustration, and fear closing in as they spoke. In terms of testing, I was not surprised by her “low” and “below average” rankings. Test-taking is not my daughter’s strong suit, but knowing that didn’t make the latest round of scores any easier to swallow.

[How Do I Create an IEP for My Child? Download This to Find Out]

Worse was the confirmation of a hard truth I already knew: my daughter is having a hard time adjusting to middle school. The increased workload and focus on independence and self-advocacy were taking a toll, the teachers told me. She had forgotten to hand in a few assignments on time and failed to follow written instructions for a book report. She seemed to be having more trouble paying attention in class and was not participating unless called upon (always a unique trait of hers!).

The teachers were “concerned.” Was she under any new stress at home? Was she having any social challenges? All of a sudden, I was wondering these things, too – when just 30 minutes earlier, I hadn’t considered any of them at all. Middle school was new for my daughter but the building wasn’t. She’d been a student at this school since Third Grade and was comfortable in the environment. Why wasn’t she getting up to speed?

I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach.

As the parent of a child who has always struggled academically – and socially – I was accustomed hearing about the skills we needed to “work on,” “improve,” “develop,” and “strengthen.” Learning first became a challenge when my daughter was just 13 months old and could not yet pair words or walk.

Twelve years later, her brain is undergoing major neural (yet normal adolescent) changes and, as a result, new-found difficulties are emerging. Homework sessions take longer than they should; studying for an exam has to begin a full week before the test date; independent reading is rarely independent; and so on. But despite working below grade level in several subjects and needing some extra nudges in the executive functioning department, my daughter seemed to be making progress year after year. So how did we get back to this point, where her ability to keep up was somehow “less than?”

[Free Sample Elementary School IEP]

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

I couldn’t think straight. Had all these years of resource classrooms, learning specialists, and conversations on “the plan forward” been useless? Had I only seen what I wanted to see and ignored the weaknesses I knew existed? Why hadn’t I done more flashcards with her over the summer? How quickly could I hire a tutor? Would she ever make it to, or through, high school?

My downward spiral had begun… a mentally exhausting, doubt-triggering, sleepless existence I experienced every time an IEP meeting took place.

But what the teachers didn’t share with me until a week later, casually, at a school-wide event was that most of the new middle schoolers were having a hard time adjusting. In fact, they were “concerned” about many of the students in this particular group.

Then, a few weeks later, my daughter’s grades picked up. She was surprising several of her teachers with her improvement and I was noticing a difference at home in her organization and determination. As usual, she simply needed a bit more time to adjust – and caught up in the IEP flood of emotions, I had forgotten who she truly was.

In hindsight, things weren’t all that bad. The test scores weren’t great, but they likely never would be. There was a rough patch, yes, but we got through, and there would certainly be more. When the next one arises, however, I hope to keep these strategies in mind – a sort of mental checklist I have shaped to deal with the aftermath of an IEP meeting:

  • Forget the labels. Don’t let words or statistics spin in your head. Child Study Teams are forced to use certain terminology in their reports and to follow strict state guidelines when setting recommendations or sharing test results. It’s not their intention to deliver doom and gloom. In fact, they likely feel the same worries and hopes for your child but, as professionals, they are unable to share them openly.
  • Remember your child’s true self. You know him or her better than any teacher, tester, or therapist and only you can see them fully. Think about the quiet moments, the laughable moments, and the proud ones, too. With this perspective, any feedback that seems too huge to bear will become more bearable.
  • Take comfort in knowing you aren’t alone. Others are going through the same thing. Thousands of parents participate in IEP meetings and are familiar with the emotional roller-coaster that accompanies these sessions. Try sharing your own concerns and fears with them — the response may surprise you. I’ve found that this simple communication can lead to a world of support.
  • It’s OK to disagree. Child Study Teams may not have all the answers and it’s perfectly normal to have a different take on an academic need, challenge, or resource. Be transparent about your concerns during the IEP meeting or request a follow-up meeting to engage in constructive dialogue. Ultimately, teachers and therapists are your partners and you both want what’s best for your child’s long-term education.

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