The Mid-Year Check-In

advocacy

Did everyone’s family survive the transition back to school in 2021?  Whether your kids went back in-person (I’m jealous!) or are sitting at your dining room table with their Chromebooks like mine are, I hope that things are going smoothly. Zooming out a bit (no pun intended), I have an important question for you: how is your child’s school year going?  This sure does sound like a loaded question, doesn’t it? I mean, the 2020-2021 school year has been beyond challenging for most teachers, students, and families due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of us are simply trying to get through each day with our health and our sanity intact. But stop for a second and really think about how your child is doing with respect to their IEP. Are they on track to achieve their goals? 

If your answer is either “No” or “I don’t know,” then I have the perfect parent advocacy strategy for you. I call it the Mid-year Check-in. Contrary to what you might think, the Annual Review IEP meeting is NOT your singular opportunity to discuss your child’s needs in-depth and make IEP changes if needed. In fact, the school team is REQUIRED BY FEDERAL LAW to convene an IEP meeting whenever there is a concern that a child’s needs aren’t being fully met. 

This year, with many of our children learning virtually to some extent, we as parents have a front-row seat to their educational performance. We can see the skills that they’re struggling with firsthand. Seize this golden opportunity. Use your unique vantage point to empower you as an IEP team member and fuel your advocacy efforts. 

How does it work?

Parents can send a simple email to their child’s teachers around the midpoint of the school year to touch base about progress toward IEP goals (or lack thereof). You should already be receiving IEP progress reports throughout the school year. Most schools distribute them at the same time that report cards are given out. If you haven’t seen anything yet this year, then that’s an even bigger problem. Contact your child’s case manager to inquire ASAP. 

The problem with many progress reports that I see is that vague descriptors such as “progressing gradually,” and “progressing satisfactorily,” are used which aren’t particularly helpful for parents. Even more concerning, they’re completely subjective, if not substantiated with specific evidence and data. The Mid-year Check-in strategy will help you get to the bottom of exactly how your child is doing, and whether or not there is a true cause for concern.

1) Send an email to your child’s teacher(s) and related service providers.

When it comes to matters of IEP implementation, you should always cc the case manager as well. Here is a sample template:

Dear Mr. Smith,

 

Happy New Year! I hope that you and your family are well and that you enjoyed your winter break.

 

I’m reaching out to check-in about Emma’s progress so far this school year. Specifically, how is she doing with respect to her IEP goals? I realize that it has been an extra challenging school year, but I want to make sure that we’re working together to help Emma make the most of the months remaining. 

 

The biggest concerns that I have are:

 

[Here you’re going to make a bullet point list of exactly what you’re seeing (or not seeing) to make you think your child isn’t fully accessing their education, isn’t making meaningful progress, or worse, is regressing this year. You can include observations about your child’s behavior, feedback about assignments, test/quiz grades, the amount of help they need with homework, etc. Basically, anything that is raising a red flag.]

 

I appreciate you sending the most recent progress reports on 11/23. So that I can more fully understand what I’m reading, I’m requesting a copy of the data collected for each goal. 

 

Thank you so much for all of your efforts during this most extraordinary school year. I look forward to your feedback and working together to help Emma make meaningful progress over the next few months! 

 

Sincerely,

Mama Bear Advocate 

2) Carefully review the information that is provided.

In the best-case scenario, you will receive organized data collection charts in a timely manner. And then you will breathe a sigh of relief, assured that your child is in fact on track and making progress. After thanking the teacher generously, you can brainstorm with them about additional strategies you can provide at home to continue to support your child’s growth.  

3) Request an IEP Review meeting immediately.  

If the school team either cannot produce progress monitoring data or if it’s clear that your child is not on track to meet their IEP goals this year, an IEP Review meeting is the best next step. Come to the meeting prepared with specific suggestions about what you think your child needs, and ask for them! It’s possible that some additional accommodations are all that it will take to right the ship. Perhaps your child needs an increase in the frequency or intensity of the intervention that they are already receiving, or a new intervention needs to be tried altogether. The entire IEP team needs to put their heads together, roll up their sleeves, develop a solid game plan, and then execute. The website Understood is one of my absolute favorite resources for parents. Check out their list of IEP Accommodations for Distance Learning for timely ideas that you can bring to the table.

Parent Advocate Alert!

If the IEP team suggests modifying your child’s goals to make them easier to attain, please proceed with caution. The decision to decrease expectations should NEVER be taken lightly. Instead, I want you to advocate to keep the bar as high as possible. Flip the script and ask for MORE from the educators instead of LESS from the student. How about an increase in specially designed instruction? More home-school communication? More intense intervention? More creative accommodations? Adding supportive technology? More frequent teacher check-ins? It’s only after options like these have been explored that the IEP team should even think about lowering expectations. 

All of that being said, the fact of the matter is that there ARE times (even under typical learning conditions) when a goal is too ambitious and requires modification. But, please be wary of jumping to that conclusion prematurely this year. 

Why are advocacy actions like this one so important? 

  • You’re establishing yourself as an engaged parent and a team player. It’s clear that you’re paying attention, are very familiar with your child’s IEP, and that you actually read the progress reports when they are sent home. Spoiler alert: may parents do not! The bottom line is that when all parties are fully involved and communicating regularly, the best outcomes for your child will be achieved.
  • A proactive stance is so much more powerful than a reactive one. If something isn’t working, it should be addressed as soon as possible. Time is a precious commodity when it comes to child development and special education. There are no do-overs. Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing worse than sitting down at an Annual Review meeting at the end of the school year and discovering that your child didn’t have as much growth as they could have. And then driving home with the nagging feeling that you wish you would have spoken up sooner. Becoming a more proactive parent advocate along the way is the solution.
  • It sends a strong message of accountability to your child’s school team. From my years as a teacher and now as an advocate, I can tell you that many special education departments are not as thorough about data collection and progress monitoring as they should be. If this is what’s happening in your case, your email request will shine a bright light on that. You will be sending the message that you expect all of the educators involved to be closely monitoring your child’s progress using quantitative, objective measures. That you expect them to be evaluating both your child’s learning and the effectiveness of their teaching on a regular basis. That you expect adjustments to be made in a timely manner. And that ultimately, you expect your child to be headed toward achieving their IEP goals.  

What the law says  

I always advise parents to do their research when it comes to their family’s legal rights. But unless you plan on enrolling in law school tomorrow, the process of fully educating yourself is daunting, to say the least. Here is a bite-sized nugget of information to put in your back pocket if you meet with resistance from your school team:

The IEP team (of which you’re a member) has a legal obligation to review and revise the IEP as often as necessary. One of the reasons specifically mentioned in IDEA is “any lack of expected progress toward the annual goals…and in the general education curriculum.” You can read the actual excerpt from the federal statute here. So, if your school fails to convene an IEP meeting, or refuses to make any changes to the IEP even after a lack of progress has been shown, that’s a huge problem. I suggest that you first reach out to the Director of Special Services in your school district for assistance, and then contact your local Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) and/or an experienced education advocate if you’re still not getting anywhere.  

Final thoughts

Last April, the US Department of Education stated that there would be no waivers to IDEA as a result of school closures. In other words, school districts are still required to provide students with IEPs a free and appropriate education (FAPE) to the greatest extent possible, even during these unprecedented times.

The reality is that I suspect that many children with disabilities will make less progress during this funky, hybrid-masked-virtual-asynchronous-Zoomtastic school year compared to other years. Why? Because I suspect that ALL children will be making less progress. Shortened days, technology barriers, increased levels of stress and anxiety, and a myriad of other obstacles have all taken a toll on our children’s learning experiences. BUT, and it’s a big but, that does NOT mean that the Covid-19 pandemic should be used as a handy excuse to lower our educational standards. Instead, let’s stand together as a special education community more resolutely than ever before, and rise above. 

The IEP Parent's Guide
to the BEST School Year EVER!

A month-by-month checklist of Best Practices 

This is the guide you need
to step up your advocacy game. 

Simple, monthly action steps to keep busy parents on track all year long.
*Relevant for all grade levels and disability categories.*