Back-to-School Advocacy Strategies for September
Let’s start at the beginning.
Scratch that. Let’s change things up and start at the end…
Picture it. It’s the last day of school in June and you’re reflecting upon the school year that just concluded. Your heart is happy because by all accounts your child had an EXCELLENT school year, quite possibly the best one yet!
Succesful School Year...Loading NOW!
So, what does a successful school year for your child actually look like?
- Meaningful academic progress.
- Positive relationships.
- Improved coping skills and behavior.
- Increased independence.
But the best marker of a wildly successful school year if you ask me—your kiddo is happy.
They have an overall sense of well-being that if we’re being honest, is the ONLY thing that truly matters. Isn’t that all we really want for our children? For them to be content, fulfilled, and comfortable in their own skin? To have a feeling of belonging, accomplishment, and pride? Now, that’s the cherry on top of a successful school year in my world. Something that isn’t reflected on a report card or measured by standardized testing. But maybe it should be.
The Secret to Success
Want to know the secret to helping students with educational disabilities achieve all that?
It’s pretty simple actually. Not easy, but simple…
An appropriate IEP, implemented with fidelity.
An individualized education program that meets all of a student’s needs with instruction delivered by competent educators using evidence-based practices where student progress is consistently monitored. This is what ensures that a student is fully supported and able to flourish. This is the secret recipe to the school year that your child deserves. And that your family deserves.
So how can we as parents guarantee that this end-of-the-year vision becomes reality?
It all starts in September.
The First Month of School
There are a few steps YOU can take to lay the groundwork for all of the above and set the stage for a successful school year. The key is to be proactive instead of reactive. Don’t wait until a problem develops to get involved in your child’s education. The time is now. Month 1. Ready???
1. Read your child’s IEP.
I know, I know.
Reading this thing sounds about as appealing as a night of folding laundry. But it’s really important. Take it slowly, page by page. One page a day if you have to. But make sure you read every word and really understand them. The IEP is a legal document that outlines everything your child is entitled to receive. It’s your child’s guidebook for success. If it’s designed well and comprehensive enough, it’s the greatest asset ever.
To start the school year, I want you to zero in on three things in particular: 1)All of the things that they’re “getting” namely their special education services, related services, supplementary aids, etc. 2)And then look at their list of modifications and accommodations, including assistive technology. 3) Review the IEP goals so you know exactly what the focus of specialized instruction will be on. If your child’s behavior interferes with their learning or the learning of others, their IEP should include a Behavior Intervention Plan. Make sure to read that over too. If your child’s behavior is not being managed effectively, it will have a huge impact on their ability to make progress in all other areas.
2. Get connected.
Read all of the paperwork that comes home those first few days to learn how to stay connected with teachers and staff. If there is a messaging app you need to download or an account you need to create, make it a priority. Parents who aren’t as savvy with technology should dedicate time at the beginning of the year to get assistance from the school or a family member. If we want to hold high expectations for the educators who work with our children, we need to do our part on the homefront by meeting communication efforts halfway.
Most of the schools I work with have robust parent portal systems. Ongoing grades are posted along with the dates of specific assignments and teacher feedback. I’ve seen discipline reports, IEP progress reports, and even IEPs online and accessible to parents. If a student is struggling with behavior or academics, a phone call home to the parent is still best practice. But this doesn’t always happen as quickly as it should (or at all). The next thing you know, it’s the end of the marking period, and you’re shocked to learn your child has an F in Math. By checking the parent portal regularly, you can avoid fun little surprises like this one.
Attendance at Back to School Night is a must. Collect all of the handouts and syllabi. Try to learn as much as you can about the teacher’s expectations for things like homework, long-term projects, and tests/quizzes so you can reinforce them at home. Finding out that your child is going to have homework for the week assigned every Monday and a spelling test every Friday will allow you to work on time management and study skills at home. If your teenager has the opportunity to re-take failed assessments but will be expected to initiate it themselves, parents can actively encourage them until they are able to take action independently.
Keep beginning-of-the-year paperwork organized in a folder or binder so you always have things like email addresses and passwords handy.
3. Share helpful information about your child.
Teachers and therapists have access to your child’s IEP which they are legally required to read, but it can be extremely helpful to highlight the most important information for them right off the bat. One way to do this is with a one-page introduction sheet that I call a Student Snapshot. Include just a few points for these 6 categories: Personal strengths, interests, academic strengths, academic needs, social/emotional needs, and strategies that work. Make it as creative or simple as you’d like. For little ones, include a photo of your child and put the information on their favorite color paper. Alternatively, send each teacher and related services provider a brief introduction email with the same information bulleted out.
Reaching out in this way at the beginning of the year opens up the lines of positive communication between home and school. It makes it clear that you desire partnership and wish to be actively involved in your child’s education. If frequent communication with a teacher is needed, inquire about their preferred method of communication. Email? Phone call? Messaging app? Will there be a notebook that goes back and forth each day? A weekly summary that goes home on Fridays? Coming up with a system that works for all parties and is respectful of everyone’s time is key.
4. Start an advocacy notebook and folder.
Your notebook will be a place for you to jot down notes following quick conversations with staff, observations of your child during HW, feedback from tutors or private therapists, and anything else related to your child’s education. Make sure to include dates. A simple composition book or even a digital list in Google Docs or the Notes app on your phone will work. In a two-pocket folder, collect work samples and graded papers showing progress or a lack thereof. This counts as data that may come in handy to substantiate your position when you make a request to the IEP team. Emails from teachers can be logged in your notebook so you can easily retrieve them at a later date, or printed and kept in your folder. Behavior monitoring sheets and IEP progress reports can also be collected here.
5. Look for opportunities to volunteer in your child’s school or classroom.
If your schedule allows, sign up to be a room parent, mystery reader, field trip chaperone, or helper at the book fair. The insight you gain from seeing how your child performs in the school setting is invaluable. Pay attention to how they compare socially, academically, emotionally, and behaviorally to their peers. How much assistance do they receive? What is the classroom environment like and how is your child responding to it? When it comes time for your next IEP meeting, you will be able to leverage your observations to help you advocate.
6. Set the stage for self-advocacy.
Self-advocacy should be a long-term goal for every student with a disability. Use your best judgment on this, but if your child is ready, have a talk with them about the services they’ll be receiving this year. For high school students, give them a copy of their accommodations page to keep in their school binder. Talk about everything they’re entitled to receive and what they can politely ask their teachers to provide. Instead of the parent sending a Student Snapshot, encourage older students to send their own introductory emails to their teachers. As a middle school teacher for many years, I can assure you that these messages will be very well received and your child will learn several important skills at the same time. Win-win!
Final Thoughts and a Peek Ahead
Please don't stress about doing all of these things if it's too overwhelming for you to take on right now. Pick a few and execute them to the best of your ability.
It’s important for parents not to come on too strong at the beginning of the school year. You want your first impression to be a parent who is positive, collaborative, and proactive, not aggressive, demanding, and high-maintenance. Once your child has transitioned successfully to the new school year and everyone has settled into new routines, you can focus on more of the nitty-gritty IEP stuff.
Here is a brief preview of two important things special education parents want to be thinking about in Month 2 (that’s October for my family):
1. Ask for a copy of the baseline data for all IEP goals.
The single best way to hold your child’s school accountable for doing their job, AKA delivering appropriate instruction, meeting your child’s needs, and helping them make progress, is to ask for the receipts! This means asking for the DATA showing progress toward IEP goals. Basically, you’re looking for objective proof that your child is learning. In September, teachers should collect baseline data on each of their student’s IEP goals to determine where they are starting the year off. IEP goal progress monitoring (data collection) should then take place on a regular basis throughout the school year. At the end of the school year when IEP data is collected, you will be able to compare it to the September data to obtain a pure measure of student growth.
2. Consider requesting an IEP meeting.
Requesting an IEP meeting that takes place 6 weeks into the school year (early October) is one of my favorite advocacy strategies. If it’s your child’s first year at a new school or with new staff, you want to make sure that your child had a successful transition. Or if you weren’t 100% comfortable with the school’s recommendations for placement or services, an IEP meeting at the beginning of the year is the perfect forum to reiterate your concerns and receive direct feedback about how everything is going so far. When the IEP team gathers in a formal way like this, they have the authority to make IEP changes if needed. Waiting 6 weeks gives teachers the chance to get familiar with your child and allows everyone to settle into their school routines.