If you have been around my blog long or know us at all, you know that I have a heart for kids with Special Needs and their parents. Having both a son and niece with special needs these kiddos and their families are close to my heart and I LOVE being able to encourage them, support them and help them in any way I can.
Any parent of a special needs child who is of school age and in the public school system will tell you that one of the hardest times is that of the school IEP or Individual Education Plan meeting. The basis of these meetings is for your child's educators, therapists, service providers, and you as parent to come together and discuss the needs of your child, where they are at in their academic and social progress, where they are lacking and what supports and helps can be put in place to help them.
For a parent, these meetings can bring feelings of sadness, being overwhelmed, intimidated, frustration, anger and even defensiveness. At times, you feel as though it is you vs a room full of professionals who "think" they know your child better than you but yet you know your child the best. All you have to do is google IEP meetings and images to come up with a WHOLE HOST of memes about angry parents headed to IEP meetings, derogatory remarks about teachers etc, and more. While in some ways, these can be true...I want to propose that they don't have to be true, there can be a different approach and especially as a Christian parent...you have an excellent opportunity to yes be a strong advocate for your child BUT to also be salt and light to their educational team!
In the past 11 years of working with various schools and attending countless IEP meetings, Here are some guidelines that we have discovered for Christian parents in their approach of these meetings....
1.) Prayer. Perhaps this should be the assumed approach but it took me several years before I would regularly bathe my child's IEP meetings in prayer before the throne and even longer before I would regularly reach out to my close team of prayer warriors and ask them to join me in praying over the upcoming meetings. Yet, when this became my habit - I noticed BIG changes in the overall atmosphere of our meetings and most of all in MY attitude approaching them. I pray over my child of course but also for the teachers and service providers and that I would represent Christ well in these meetings! It is also a great reminder to me that the ONE who created my child loves him so much more than me and will go before us!
2.) Open-Mindedness. I had to learn to have an open mind going into the meetings and to not automatically assume that the school is against me or my child. It is important to not go into these meetings automatically on the defensive but to go in with the idea that you CAN work together WITH the school for your child.
3.) Gentleness. To piggy back on the previous guideline - go into each meeting with a gentle and calm spirit. Approach the team with an attitude that assumes the best not the worst of those working with your child.
4.) Firm Advocate rather than a Defensive Advocate. It has taken time but I have learned that I CAN be a firm and strong advocate for my child without being defensive, abrasive, rude or out of control. I can advocate for my child and his needs with an attitude that brings glory and honor to Christ and is a witness to those around me. Go into your child's IEP with the idea that God has placed you in THIS meeting to be His ambassador and witness. With this in mind, speak truth YES but in love. State what your child needs but in love!
5.) Should you have to change direction - do so with grace. We have found ourselves in a position where we realized that the school simply wasn't going to work with us or our son to meet his needs and for the sake of what was best for our child we had to withdraw him from that educational setting. I wish that I could say that we handled this with 100% grace and love but that wasn't the case. We withdrew him and chose to homeschool him for a time but I was angry and put out to say the least. at a follow-up meeting I did approach it with grace though and it was so much better. Again, I had to remind myself to represent Christ well...as hard as that may be.
6.) Relationship is key. Regardless the situation, as believers we need to remember that the relationship is the key. We need to maintain the relationship even in the midst of advocating for our child. Remember that there really are times that teachers and administrators hands are tied due to resources, laws, etc. This is where we found ourselves when we withdrew our son but to maintain the relationship, we thanked the staff for their efforts and time while still taking the actions that were best for our child.
7.) Even if the previous meeting went south...follow these guidelines every time. In our humanness, sometimes we just mess up or the meeting just takes a bad turn. DO NOT take the baggage from one meeting into the next one - start again with prayer, a fresh mindset, a good attitude. You will get no where if you are carrying a grudge and in most cases, it just gets worse!
8.) If needed - take a friend or another advocate. Many times we really are too emotionally involved to approach an IEP with an open mind or calmness. We need to recognize this and if our spouse is able take them, if not find a friend or advocate that will be the voice of reason, help keep you calm and collected, and still advocate for your child!
To summarize, as a Christian parent yes you have a responsibility to advocate for your child but you also have a responsibility to represent Christ well in these meetings and to be the hands and feet of Him! You CAN do both. Above all PRAY over your child, their teachers, the meetings, the services, service providers, etc!
Footnote: You may notice that throughout this post I don't use the term "fight for my child" or "do battle on his behalf" but rather advocate. The reason for this is simple - fight or battle automatically put me in a defensive mindset and make me go into the meeting with an us vs them mentality and that is just not correct. I honestly believe that the majority of teachers and administrators DO want to see students excel and succeed, they just have much more to consider than just my child and like I mentioned earlier they are restricted at times.