Note to self: if you want lots of traffic, be sure to use Oprah’s name somewhere in the title.
We’re down to the last 6 weeks of the year and it will streak by quickly, except for the last week which is longest of the year. IEP season is in full swing and my dance card is rapidly filling up as teachers are looking for someone to LEA. LEA = Local Education Agent who represents the local educational agency (also sometimes referred to as an LEA). I don’t know how well I represent our district as much as I try to do best by the kids while balancing against local resources. But most of the time my best move is to be quiet while parent and teachers work it out.
With the decreasing supply of trained special educators, more demand is placed on those of us who are trained. Functioning as the local agent is one of those increased responsibilities.
Teachers introduce me as the LEA and I’m not sure what parents think. Administrators probably do most of the LEA duties around the country, and yet I’m not one of those nor am I their child’s teacher. It’s not until we are well into the meeting that my role sometimes shapes up and becomes clearer.
My primary goal is to make sure that every parent leaves feeling satisfied. The route to doing that involves different paths for different parents.
One way I do that is by trying to make sure the teacher is at ease. It’s important to be a bit nervous without being a wreck. Being confident is the best way to instill confidence in a parent. If you’re new to special education and IEPs, make sure there are some other competent teachers at the meeting to support you. Having that sort of support can be crucial to being at ease and keeping people at ease. As a parent, I’m every bit as nervous as I am as a teacher which might contribute to tension in the room. A decent LEA should be able to keep tensions low.
Another way is through competence. While I have not met most of the students I’m doing meetings for, I do know enough about disabilities and have been around the block enough to know what I’m hearing when a teacher or parent begins to describe difficulties they are having with a student. I can tell when I’m hearing about learned helplessness or problems with self-regulation which are common amongst those with milder disabilities. Sometimes I can spot a problem that hasn’t been addressed before.
Another thing I do is push without being pushy. I am definitely an advocate for a lesser restrictive environment if at all possible. Most of the time, parents also seem to want to move their students ahead while a teacher may take a more conservative approach. If I get the feeling the student has a chance of handling more time in regular education, I’ll see about making it so. I’ve noticed that new teachers are more prone to wanting to keep the status quo, because that’s their comfort zone. But with a bit of encouragement the committee can take a chance in favor of the student.
One of the most common experiences I hear from frustrated parents is that they feel they are not being heard by the school system. A big part of my job as the system’s representative is to listen and make sure they know I’m hearing. There are certain points where a parent needs and wants to speak, and it is important to give them the opportunity. The present level is a big one, but since it comes at the beginning, parents are not warmed up yet. I can often hit some present level concerns later during the discussion about transition since this takes place later.
It’s during the transition discussion that parents and students often hit their stride in the discussion. At the high school level, this is a hugely important discussion that is too often rushed over. I’ll do another post about it in the next couple of weeks, but this does impact goals and service options most heavily. It’s also where every parent’s anxiety lives.
I’ve been to meetings where the LEA was an absolute pinhead. They knew nothing about special education and treated parents as idiots. At other times, when tensions were abnormally high, they got stuck in an adversarial posture nearly dooming themselves to a future court appearance. At some point, these administrators would do well to turn down the administrative intimidation and think like human beings.
If you’re a parent who is stuck with one of these jokers and paired with a new or incompetent teacher, look to the specialized service provider for some competence and sanity. The SLPs, PTs and OTs have likely been around the block enough times to know the business. And since their stake isn’t as intense as the caseload teacher, school system or parent, they might be more objective. They still have to tow the company line but they usually see dozens and scores of meetings per year. Ms. Cleo has a caseload of 50-60 this year which is not far out of line for PTs and OTs.
Last week I did a meeting with a teacher who has a history of difficulties and she had a parent who she described as difficult. It turns out the parent was a former special education teacher who knew a thing or two about the business. Her son was doing well enough and had actually made a stellar transition to high school. So listening to parent and student talk, we actually moved the young man from resource to a consultative model. What we ended up with was a meeting where the parent was thrilled and so was the teacher. And that’s really the beauty of cooperation. If the parent is thrilled, everyone else on the committee will be too. If the parent is not happy, neither will anyone else feel good about the meeting. This is why committee members and especially the LEAs need to have some background and knowledge in order to deliver something everyone can feel good about.