Monday, March 28, 2011

Gladiator Games and IEP's

I enter the coliseum, ill prepared for my first battle as Gladiator and Protector of a son diagnosed with special needs. 

The coliseum is a conference room, and in it, a round table where the battle over my son’s IEP will take place. I have been given no weapons, no rules of engagement. Several teachers march assuredly into the conference room. I am drastically outnumbered. The challengers have come prepared for battle. In their eyes, a calmness, an inner confidence in their combat abilities derived from many years of fighting skillfully and winning victoriously together. Armed with progress reports and therapist recommendations, they are fearsome opponents. Instinctively, within seconds, they size me up and determine my worth as a potential adversary.

I am immediately intimidated. 

I am seated at a table alone, across from me, my opponent, the school. Their objective: to spend as FEW precious dollars as possible in providing my son with an education that MEETS expectations. My objective: to get them to spend as MANY dollars as possible in providing my son with an education that EXCEEDS expectations. The difference between meets and exceeds, and few versus many, is significant and always results in a good fight.

During my first IEP, my inexperience in this foreign arena, causes me to sustain mortal wounds. I am carried out of the conference room by stretcher, bleeding and bewildered. Much like Gladiators in Roman times, I learn quickly how to engage skillfully in debate or suffer the dire consequences of another lost and frustrating year at public school for my struggling child.

The second time into the coliseum, I understand and respect the fierceness of my adversary. Briefed on my opponent's few weaknesses by fellow Gladiators, I develop a false sense of confidence. I enter the arena too boldly, anxious to avoid another exit by stretcher, I swiftly and viciously lop off the head of my unsuspecting foe.

I feel pleased at first, of my swift victory and unscathed body. But it isn’t long before I realize, that my fierce opponent, is also the sole guardian, during school hours, of my precious child. I quickly grasp the important concept that a spurned and bitter teacher is not an ideal caretaker for my child. I made a big mistake.

A few battles more and I begin to find my pace. I discover if I temper my anxiousness with the ability to calmly listen, and adeptly explain, I begin to earn the respect of my opponent. This new-found ability usually helps to develop a more cooperative exchange with much better end results.

As the mother of two children diagnosed with special needs, my experience participating in the Gladiator Games is extensive. I have many battle scars to prove it. The greatest difficulty I face now is simply entering the arena void of emotion, since a brilliant performance in the ring directly depends upon it.  Like a true Gladiator, I need to act calmly, to think strategically, to gather any and all resources and to fight with courage, honor and dignity.

A true victory in the ring is only achieved when I am able to motivate my IEP team to see my son for who he truly is, a unique and valuable human being. A child who is worthy of their empathy, their hard work, their commitment to doing all that is necessary to see him succeed.  I have yelled, screamed, begged, and pleaded with both teachers and administrators alike in an effort to get them to see my child as if he was their own. 

The night before an IEP is always a sleepless one. The day after, it’s battle fatigue. As a parent of a child with special needs it is just another sweaty and grueling role I play to ensure the quality of life for my child. I am a fighter, a warrior, an advocate, a Gladiator.

And so, let the Games begin.

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  1. Omgoodness, this so hits home. We have an IEP meeting on Thursday morning for my son who is on the spectrum. I've been sick to my stomach for several days now just knowing this is coming up. I am trying to prepare myself as best as possible, as we want to request the school to "release" my son to a special needs school - it's a private school and each school must pay the tuition - hence why we need their ok. But the school doesn't see him as special needs - they don't pick up on the little things that he does at school - they don't see it, so he appears fine to them. But the poor kid is doing his best all day to hold it all in - deal with all the things that are thrown at him - and then he comes home and all hell breaks loose - finally able to release all he has held in for the day.
    I am nervous about the resistance we are going to meet. What it comes down to, is that I want the best possible education for my son based on *his* needs...not the needs of the average student.
    I will be bookmarking this to show my husband and will have to visit your blog. Thank you so much for putting into words what I've often felt going into these meetings.

  2. Thank you for your comments Erin and good luck with your upcoming IEP meeting. Like you, I have had to go though something similar. My older son, diagnosed with ADHD, has always been the most difficult to advocate for... since he also does not appear to have special needs. His issues however, require so many more school supports to be in place in order for him to be successful. We finally brought in an advocate who was very successful in educating the school. It also took a lot of "debating pressure" off of me. Good luck again Erin. If you're not satisfied with the school response, you may want to also consider an advocate. And most of all, remember to just breathe! Best wishes to you and your family.

  3. Another important point to remember is that you NEVER have sign anything the day of the meeting. You also have the right at any point during the meeting to table the meeting and reconvene when you can bring someone like an advocate with you.

  4. While I do see your points, I have the ability to see both sides of this fight because I have a child with special needs and am a preschool special needs teacher. I do not see IEP meetings as an “us against them” and consider my students to be like mine. I want them to succeed and work very hard to teach them and help them to learn. I am not out to spend as few dollars and find this to be offensive, while there are people (administration perhaps) with that mindset in my experience it is not the teachers and therapists. We are bound by legal requirements to provide a free and appropriate public education and appropriate does not mean best even though we often do the best that we can. I am sorry for the hard times that you have had and that you feel you have to fight for what your son needs. I am in the process of having my daughter identified and she will go to preschool for the first time. I get how terrifying and scary it can be but I also know that the school is not an enemy, but can be an ally to get your child to succeed and learn.

  5. Lisa -- I so relate! I've had such similar experiences and have finally learned to speak calmly and bring documentation, and, often, an advocate who pinches me under the table when I stray from my calm demeanor. It is SO stressful. Thanks for putting it all into words here!

  6. Hey Patty, clearly you haven't sat in on any due process hearings where a school district is trying to deny a child appropriate services. Sorry but in many cases the school is doing nothing but trying to save money by watering services down as much as possible. It's sad that you have no problem with "the best" not being a requirement. Not by law, but autistic children need the best and most highly trained. I'm glad my child doesn't have you on her team.

  7. Ellen, it is parents like you that make teachers bitter and frustrated, believe it or not we did not go into special education to make your life miserable and are tired of being made the villain. If you want to dig at someone you don't know by all means go ahead but know that the changes you seek will not be found without legislation and funding to the schools.

  8. Awesome metaphor! I have so been there. To the teachers who feel slighted, not all school districts are the same. Our first district was okay ( during the preschool years). Our second district, K-4, was devious and often acted illegally denying services. I lost count of the times they outright lied. Our current district and teachers are awesome! We moved for better schools and services. Through the years, I have volunteered multiple times weekly in both districts since Kindergarten. I feel qualified to judge their merits. While your school and staff may be dedicated, I can say that is not universal.

  9. Patty,
    Thank you for your inputs. Please know, the purpose of my post is not to attack teachers, therapists or administrators. In fact, many individuals in each of these roles (including administrators) have made exceptional contributions to both of my son’s lives. As I mentioned in my post, I have worked very closely with the school to overcome this adversarial relationship with much success. You can read several of my posts which reflect this attitude if you check out my blog at: I would suggest you read “Mr. Walsh’s Gift,” Mr. Belanger and a Random Act of Kindness,” Mrs. Bissaillon” “Skylar Comes to Read and Nicholas Pays it Forward” or “Nick’s Face.”
    The true purpose of my post is to describe my journey in learning how to achieve better IEP end results. I have learned to temper my emotions, speak calmly, bring documentation and earn respect, or, in other words, work better as a team. Since you are offended, perhaps I did not do well in communicating my thoughts.
    I would not, however, change a word of my post since this is exactly how I felt as a special needs parent. This is simply my perspective.
    Please do not be offended by what you read on this website. The author’s words are not intended to be personal attacks. In fact, the posts are simply one parent’s thoughts in what it feels like for them to raise their child with special needs.
    This website is meant to be a safe place for parents to express these emotions and perspectives. And perhaps these perspectives seem off base to you or just downright angry. But sometimes by simply expressing these emotions it is a cathartic release for our tortured souls. And we are always hopeful that it allows others to gain valuable insight into our uniquely personal worlds. Parents of children diagnosed with special needs so often lack understanding from others. This was one of the important reasons why Hopeful Parents was initially created.
    You certainly have the right to choose to be offended. I am hoping instead, you choose to seek to understand. Your daughter is still very young, but soon you too will experience your own perspective on the IEP process. If you have a positive experience please feel free to share your success story with the group. Positive stories receive much positive feedback.
    It is my hope that this post helps educate others in how one parent experienced the IEP process.
    Thank you again for your inputs Patty, wishing you much peace.
    Lisa Peters

  10. It depends on the district. Some are great at providing services or outplacing children when they can not meet FAPE within their school and some lie, deceive and are full of horrible so called educators.
    As for Patty, it's educators with your attitude that makes parents want to run to another district.

  11. Barb and Lisa, it's probably not my place to referee or moderate, but I'd like to point out that Patty's original comment was compassionate and informed. She was goaded into an adversarial and defensive posture by other comments. if you'll read the comments from top to bottom, her position was that the school is in fact not the enemy, and that the teachers and parents should not have an "us vs. them" mentality.
    Patty, thank you for your perspective. I've known special ed teachers who have spoken as you do, who have called parents the night before IEP meetings in order to educate them on how to make their child's education more appropriate, because classroom teachers wouldn't be allowed to speak up in such a fashion during the actual meeting. Unfortunately when you're the only "civilian" at the table, it's easy to get the idea that the educators aren't on your side. Once burned twice shy.

  12. Hi Lisa~
    I understood the evolution of your gladiator games metaphor, but you're right, not everyone did. I was just sad that Patty came here to share her dual perspective as a parent and a teacher and had to be counseled not to be offended. I'm not sure I'd like to read about your weather next month, either, but by then spring will have sprung, so perhaps that would be hopeful enough... :)

  13. As a writer, I realize, that invariably someone will not agree with my perspective.
    I do, however, feel personally obligated to respond to any reader who comments that they are offended by my post. I thanked Patty for her comments and asked her to choose not to be offended since this was not the intent of my post.
    I am sorry if this makes you sad.
    I believe healthy discussions (from both parties) are very important to begin the process of understanding each other’s perspectives. So please, let us agree to disagree and move on with positive attitudes and continued respect for one another.
    I am hopeful that we can separate the personal from the perspective and welcome you and Patty both to continue to read and comment on my posts.
    Thank you again for your inputs.