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5 Things to Know About an Individual Education Plan

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From the moment my now 8-year-old son was born, our family has navigated the mazes of social services and public special education. My son, who has Down syndrome, is entitled by federal law to an education and various other services to support his development and maturation.

These services include a variety of therapies, depending on his individual needs. U.S. citizens born with or who develops some type of life-changing disability is entitled to a number of federal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law makes it possible for children who have debilitating physical infirmities to have a teacher or tutor come to their home and teach them. This law also gives families with children who are in public schools the right to call a meeting regarding any part of their child's education at any time. This meeting is where teachers, administrators, counselors, therapists and the parents come together to create a specialized and personalized plan for the child's development, known as the Individual Education Plan (IEP), for the child.

Here are 5 things to know about the IEP:

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1. As a parent of a child with special needs, you want to be sure that your IEP entitles you to the right to call a meeting at any time for any reason.

It doesn't matter how "small" your concern might appear to someone else. If you ever feel your child is not progressing under the terms of the plan, or if you'd like to add or remove a term of the agreement, you can schedule a meeting to address your concern.

2. The IEP is a legal document.

It's admissible as evidence in court should something go wrong. With this in mind, be thoughtful before signing it. Your signature is saying you agree to the educational plan for your child.

3. You lead the team.

Even though your child's teacher, therapist(s) and specialist(s) are professionals, you are their boss. They work for you and your child. If there is something you want, an IEP meeting is where it needs to be requested. Any special needs around travel, one-on-one care, behavioral plans and educational advancements that you desire should be addressed in this document.

4. Never hesitate to invite other professionals to participate in an IEP meeting.

It's always helpful to have a person who isn't a part of the school system attending. If they work with many children with special needs, they tend to know the laws and the rights of families in connection with the services to which they're entitled. The perspective of an outside professional can be very helpful.

5. Do your research.

Educating a child with special needs can be a huge endeavor depending on the level of care and specialized attention needed. With this in mind, it is also a very costly experience that the average family cannot afford. Do your research to discover programs that will assist in this process. The Regional Center, which is a federally funded and nationwide agency, is the gateway into the services for those with special needs and for disabled persons from the time of birth. The Regional Center and the school district share responsibilities, and at times the Regional Center might pick up the slack in an area that the school district does not shoulder well.

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Although children and people with disabilities have a great deal of protection under the law, I've discovered that knowing your rights is what will make the difference. It is rare for schools to offer services and tools without being asked to do so.

Let's say, for example, that your child has behavioral challenges, and a therapist outside of the school recommends a one-on-one therapist in the classroom the entire day. For the school this means an additional salaried employee, but for you it means getting your child what he or she needs. You will request an IEP meeting to ask for this support, and it's your right to do so. The school can decline to meet your request, but it has to offer something else that will adequately support your child.

Special services are expensive, and special education is an industry in which costs can quickly balloon. If the school district is looking for ways to cut costs, and it often is, the special needs programs are frequently targets. But if you know and assert your rights, services supporting your child cannot be withdrawn, underfunded or refused by law.

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