Heard on The LDA Podcast
“I had an IEP through high school and I really know the power of the special education system…And I feel like I’m living out the purpose of an IEP, which is to prepare you for life after high school.”
Disability advocate, speech-language pathology assistant, and IEP coach Courtney Burnett had an IEP herself growing up, and now she uses her expertise to empower parents to help students get evaluated and supported. Courtney discusses the main barriers to accessing special education, the purpose and goal of an IEP, how parents can have an active role in their child’s education, and much more!
Read the Transcript:
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Welcome to the LDA podcast, a series by The Learning Disabilities Association of America. Our podcast is dedicated to exploring topics of interest to educators, individuals with learning disabilities, parents and professionals to work towards our goal of creating a more equitable world. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the LDA Podcast. I’m here today with Courtney Burnett, she is a certified speech language pathology assistant, IEP coach, disability advocate, and mother. Courtney also presented at our 60th Annual Conference this year in Las Vegas. So Courtney, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
We’re so happy to have you. So could you tell us a little bit more about your background?
Yes, actually, I grew up on an IEP. And I do have a learning disability myself. And so that is one of the reasons that led me to the work I do. And like you just mentioned, I am also an SLPA and work as a disabilities advocate. I’ve also helped pass a bill in our state for universal changing tables. So I do a lot of advocacy work, because I’ve really started to understand the power of our voice and sharing our stories. So I’m really excited to be here.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. That’s amazing. We’re so excited to have your advocacy expertise. And we’ll dive into some of that now. You touched on this, but could you share a little bit of your personal experience with navigating through the special education system? You mentioned that you had an IEP yourself.
Yeah, so I am a product of Child Find, you know, my teacher went to my mom and was like, Hey, she’s a hard working student, she seems to grasp the information and then come Friday, she doesn’t seem to have the information anymore. So I’m a little bit concerned. And so that was in second grade. And so I was actually evaluated, and they didn’t separate it so much as I’m learning, like reading comprehension, it was just kind of a general learning disability. But I had that IEP through high school. And I really know the power of the special education system. And I know later we’re going to be talking about the purpose of the IEP. And I feel like I’m living out the purpose of an IEP, which is to prepare you for life after high school, right? And then I went on to have a daughter who has cerebral palsy. And so then I navigated getting her on an IEP in preschool, and going through it from a very personal perspective as a mom. So I really feel like one of the things that sets me apart from other advocates is the fact that I grew up on an IEP, I’ve navigated it as a mom. And I’ve also sat at the IEP table as an SLP. So you really get to see all sides of how this system works. And it changes your perspective.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
A lot of great perspectives,. Have there been a lot of major changes since you’ve had an IEP, versus your daughter’s IEP, of how things are handled?
I think so. One of the things that I think has come a long way is I really feel like I should have had occupational therapy. My mom doesn’t remember anybody bringing that up to her. But if you see my handwriting, you would say, okay, you definitely probably needed occupational therapy. So I think the services with speech, OT, PT, integrated with assistive technology have come a long way. And even assistive technology for my daughter, she’s non-speaking and having an AAC device, and having that integrated to the school system versus where she was in kindergarten. And now she’s 19. It’s significantly different. And there’s a lot of positive changes. And I know sometimes changes move slowly, more slowly than any of us really want. But they do move. And so I have seen a positive movement in special education in those regards too.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. Well, it’s good to know that we’re moving in the right direction, even if it is a little more slowly than we like.
Yeah, I think a big part of that is podcasts and access to networking in a way that my mom never had in the 80s. Like, how are things being delivered in Utah? Or how are they being delivered in Washington? And so I think one of the powers of social media and other forms of learning is that parents are able to better get their hands on information and educate themselves and empower themselves. And I think that’s also helping move the needle too. And that’s just stuff we didn’t have, you know, before technology moved along this way.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. So what are some of the most common obstacles to students accessing special education?
I think there’s a couple of key obstacles. One is it’s a process to get qualified for special education. And if the teachers and therapists and the people in charge of those procedures maybe haven’t had extensive training, what I tell parents is you’d be shocked at how little training they get. And teachers will tell you this, like I went through a whole program, we never learned how to write an IEP or we never wrote an IEP and IEP PRO and implemented it. And so sometimes what I see parents facing is misinformation. So the people feel they’re informed, and they are sharing that information.
So the biggest barrier I see is actually getting the evaluation, I see a lot of stalling or ‘we want more data.’ But the paperwork is not done quite right. And the paperwork being done gives the parents their timeline. And then when the timelines are not followed, it gives the parents the right to contest that and say, ‘hey, this isn’t done in the timeline.’ And I think for parents, there’s a misconception of realizing that it’s not quick, it’s 60 to 90 days, from the time that you sign that you will allow them to evaluate. And sometimes you have a couple of meetings before the team decides to evaluate.
So I think parents understanding…I have a lot of parents that hire me for getting started with special education. And I think that’s really smart. Because there’s a lot of steps in the initial process of getting qualified. And then we have 13 ways you can qualify. And so it’s really overwhelming. So I think getting started with it and then secondly, is having the staff support to implement it and writing it at that time, the IEP, making sure we’re really going around the room and saying, ‘what support does speech therapy need to really implement this goal correctly or accurately or have the bandwidth to do it?’ So sometimes we get really great IEPs, but we didn’t talk about implementation, and then it just stays a really well-written IEP, but it doesn’t get implemented. And that’s really frustrating for families.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
When parents are navigating the special education system, what are some key rights that they should keep in mind? I know you mentioned some delays, I’m sure we’ll talk about some more laws regarding IEP s a little bit later. But what are some of the key rights that parents should know?
Well, one of the biggest ones is you are an equal member of the IEP team. And oftentimes it doesn’t feel like that when you’re sitting at a table. Oftentimes, when my daughter was little, she had a lot of specialists. So I was sitting there with, like, 12 other people that you are an equal member, and you have the right to understand the different placement options, to tour them, to have a draft copy. It’s not a requirement but it’s really important you get a draft copy of the IEP, because I tell schools, how can my parent be an equal member if they didn’t get to see the IEP like the rest of the team prior to this meeting, then they’re kind of behind the ball there.
And then you have your safeguards, your parent procedures, and it’s a big booklet that they offer you at every IEP meeting. I know, it’s really boring, but sit down and take a peek at that, because that actually outlines all your rights, and how you can escalate things or how you can disagree. And one thing I did way too late for my daughter is understand that I could disagree. Because I felt like I’m sitting at a table with occupational therapists who went to school for all these years. Some of them are doctors, and I’m going to disagree with them. So I never really disagreed until later on. And when I realized, wait a minute, things aren’t quite getting done the way that I think they should for my daughter, however, they’re feeling confident at the IEP table.
So I know a lot of parents have fear in disagreeing or advocating. But you do want to enact your voice because you do have the power to give a parent input statement. And that’s another thing, some people don’t call it that. So this is how I describe it to my families. You’re sitting at the IEP table and they say: what goals do you want your child to reach this next year? And you’re kind of like, I have so many goals. I don’t know how to answer this, because I know my child has a learning disability or learning delay. And so how do I answer what I want them to do in a year? And so prepare that ahead of time, because you can really use that parent input to shape the IEP. They’re supposed to consider it, and then show how they address your parent concerns in the IEP. And I didn’t know that until my daughter was in middle school.
So that’s another really important one is to write out your statement, write out your thoughts prior to the meeting, because you’ll forget. You think you won’t, but then you get in there and everything’s fast paced and everybody’s trying to get the stuff done quickly, and you’re like, hi, I forgot to bring up this. So having that written notes and agenda for yourself talking points is so helpful for families.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. Well, that’s something we’ve heard a lot too. That parents are surrounded by all these experts in IEP meetings and they can feel intimidated. But it’s so important to remember that you are your child’s first advocate and you know them best. So yeah, parent input is key.
Yeah, and the parent is one of the only people that has access to all the medical information and how they’re doing at home, in school. So you really have a unique perspective on your child that obviously no one else has. And one of the things that just popped into my head was time limits. So I often see on parent notices, like 30 minutes or an hour, and they’ll often also say, well, we only had an hour, so we need to wrap this up. You have the right to say, okay, well we’re not done and I don’t want to be rushed. There’s no time limit on…I mean, there’s legal timelines.
So when they’re supposed to write the IEP, and have it locked in everything, but what I’ve seen presented is like that this meeting is 30 minutes and that’s all it can be. And the school can’t do that. I say at least an hour. And sometimes I’ll even write back and be like, I see that 30 minutes is only documented on here, I would like it to be an hour. Because then what ends up happening too, is therapists and teachers think the meeting is a half hour, they might book another meeting, and then they have to leave the meeting. And so then you end up having your IEP meeting with an incomplete team.
And so do not feel rushed to sign and to be done, and say we need to reschedule and have an additional meeting so we can finish and go through the goals. Because that’s another thing that sometimes happens is that pressure to get it done in this small timeframe.
Lauren Clouser (Host) 11:31
Absolutely, that’s a great point. So can we touch on what the purpose of an IEP plan is?
Courtney Burnett 11:38
Yeah, the biggest purpose of it is to prepare your child for life after high school for independent living, to employment and further education. So when I’m looking at an IEP and my kid is in kindergarten or first grade, I really encourage parents to start young, and think about what are the foundational skills that I want my child to have so that they can have their best life after high school. Because when I was looking at reading interventions, I’m so passionate about that, because reading is the foundation of every subject. So getting your child to where they have the best reading interventions, and trying to get the best you can is really important because every subject, especially after third grade, it really picks up, math problems and reading these things in science books and in history. And so that is a big deal.
So really thinking about…and sometimes it’s really hard because we have so much on our plate, and we’re just trying to survive today, that looking ahead is almost too much for some of us parents. But I really encourage them to do that. Because we want to be looking at what would employment look like? What would my child need to have to be able to have meaningful employment? If my child wants to go to college what would they need to be able to access that education and potentially get a degree? So I really encourage parents to be looking at that because IEPs really build off each other.
I always tell parents, it’s really hard to get it on. And once it’s off, it’s really hard to get it back on, whatever you took off. Like if you give up 30 minutes of therapy, it’s really hard to get it back. And so making your IEP really great from the beginning. If you want inclusion, if you want these things, get in there, the sooner the better, because then it’s going to build off of it for your child’s future. And having their independence and self-advocacy is really important too. That’s one thing that my resource teacher did for me in elementary school was they helped me understand my learning disability, helped me understand how my brain works and how I learned, and how to advocate with my gen ed teachers. If they were saying I couldn’t go to the quiet testing area, she gave me the words that I could use to tell my gen ed teacher actually I can go there.
And so teaching your kid…I hid my disability for so long because I wanted to fit in. If nobody noticed me in school that would be for the better. I just never wanted to be different. And as I got older, I started realizing, why am I hiding this? There’s nothing to be ashamed of. This is how my brain works. This is how I learn. And so I started sharing about my experience growing up on IEPs and having a learning disability, and I think it really helped parents and students realize that how I feel today isn’t how I’m going to feel forever. And I did learn to read and now I actually love to read as an adult, and I read all these books. And if you could have told me that when I was younger, I’d be like: you’re kidding. Because I hated reading. If I’d never see a book again after I left high school I would have been fine with that. But then as I started reading for enjoyment, I became a better reader.
So it all comes together. So really having your eye on the future and looking for that really is the purpose of it. And sometimes we get tangled up in the weeds of writing this goal or this accommodation, and we forget to keep our eye on the future for that child.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
That’s great advice. So could you walk us through the steps of getting an IEP? I know, you said that you help a lot of parents at the start, at the beginning, because it’s such an intimidating process. Could you sort of walk us through some of that?
Yeah, so there’s a couple of different pathways. So if your child is in an early intervention program and they’ve already been identified with a disability, usually your early intervention will coordinate with your local school district, your home school, and help them get kind of automatically sort of qualified for preschool interventions if they have enough information that the school can use. So for my daughter, that’s what happened, she was already identified. So my support coordinator for early intervention coordinated with the school district, shared the information, and Hannah got into the preschool program.
Another way is your child is at school, and your teacher is noticing that your child is struggling, like my teacher did with me. They’ll take data, they’ll try some interventions, and then they’ll identify them as a possible student needing special education services. And that will trigger a meeting. So your child cannot be evaluated without parent permission. So the parent has to be brought into the process, agree to the evaluation, then they’ll evaluate. And they have that timeline to complete it. And then you’ll have a multiple disciplinary…that’s a big word….meeting or basically like the OT, the speech therapist, the teacher, anybody who did an evaluation comes together, they share their findings, and then they determine: can we qualify this child under the one of the 13 areas that it’s outlined under the federal law? And then usually, if they can, they’ll recommend an IEP and start that process.
They have 30 days from the time that you identify, but again, the parent has to agree. So they agree to the evaluation and then they have to agree they understand they’re going to have an IEP, and that they might be pulled from some of the gen ed classes. And they need to make sure the parent understands the next part of it. So as a parent, you’re involved every step of the way. And you can say, okay, they’ve identified my child as a special education student, I want to think about that, or whatever. And then you could sign for them to receive services. If they can’t qualify them for an IEP, sometimes they’ll recommend a 504 so that you can still have some accommodations and different things. That’s really when they identify them as not needing, like indirect instruction, or specialized curriculum, sometimes they’ll recommend a 504.
And then the other options are for a parent to say, oh, my goodness, we’re in first grade, I feel like my child is not grasping the concepts. They’re coming home really emotional. They don’t want to go to school. They’re saying they hate it. And dig into that, why do they hate it? Is it a problem with a friend? Look for these things. And then start that, I recommend a paper trail. I’m a huge advocate of that, not only because it creates timelines and proof of timelines, but the other thing is, we are all human. And so if somebody says to me, you know, I’ll even tell my speech clients, if one of the parents wants me to do something, I said, if you don’t hear from me by 3pm, then you send me an email. And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to do or follow through on what I said, it’s just life happens, and the next emergency comes up. So emailing them and starting that paper trail of my child struggling, I feel like they’re not being able to read, they’re not grasping the concepts. They’re having difficulty focusing, sometimes we see that there might be some behaviors, behaviors are a sign of something, they are communication of something.
And so starting that paper trail, and then you can actually put it into writing, I would like to have my child evaluated. The school has to acknowledge that and then give you ‘let’s have a meeting to discuss it. We want to try this first.’ And they have the right to try some interventions, but they still have to acknowledge your request and say what they’re going to do and then maybe when you’re going to come back and revisit that. And that’s the part that we have to stay on top of, because once we do that, or the months pass by, sometimes we need to circle back and say, ‘hey, is that intervention working? Or are we going to move forward with an evaluation?’ The school should be in communication with you on that, but far too often I see that it didn’t get to someone’s desk or whatever.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Definitely, well, that’s so key to make sure that that timeline is being followed. Because time is so important for these students, like you said before, the skills build on top of each other. And by third grade, they’re reading in every subject.
Right, exactly. And I also want to encourage parents, just because your child didn’t qualify…So this is just really important to say to people who say: ‘I asked once.’ So in the lower grades, kinder, first, second, a child might not qualify, but then when you get to third grade the requirements start changing, and then your child might be able to qualify, because let’s say their reading stayed here. But now the kids are here, you have a bigger gap that you could qualify. And then if everybody is just kind of here, so it’s not a one and done. And just because they didn’t qualify, or they didn’t move forward with a recommendation for evaluation in first grade, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t revisit in third grade if your child is still struggling.
And that’s when you say, hey, we’ve done this a couple of times, the student does good for the first couple of months of school, then I don’t know if the tutoring stops, I don’t know what happens, and then we’re back to struggling and he’s still below grade level. The other thing I wanted to touch on, it wasn’t on there. But good grades, often, I hear this a lot. Well, your child has good grades, so they can’t have an IEP. And the federal law actually has verbiage in there that says that it can’t be the sole reason that they don’t recommend an IEP, meaning if your child has enough markers and struggles, and they happen to have good grades they happen to be making it through, that does not mean they can’t have an IEP. That happened with my son. And I’m like, okay, he is passing, I get it. But we’re really struggling here and you don’t really know what it’s taking for him to continue to pass and have decent grades. So I just want to help parents understand that.
And they can go to the federal website, IDEA website and kind of read through there, it’s very cumbersome, but you can kind of get an idea. And this is another big kind of umbrella term, it does not matter what state you live in. This is the federal law that every state, every school district has to follow. Their timelines can be faster, but they can’t be slower than what the federal government says. So they might be slightly different from state to state. But the federal guidelines are the kind of the maximum amount of time that can take. And it has the verbiage, some school districts change it a little bit, like they want the IEP to be written in five days after the meeting, and they technically could have a little longer. So parents understanding that…I get that a lot to like, ‘well, does that matter for my state?’
And yes, and public charters, if you’re not paying private tuition. I’m on a mission to spread that to public charters or public schools. So they have to follow it a lot, too. I’ve ran into a lot of charter schools thinking that those rules don’t apply to them. Private schools or religious schools where you pay a tuition, that’s when they are on their own, and you don’t have the protections of the public school. But anywhere your child’s going where you don’t pay tuition, and they’re taking public dollars, education dollars, it does apply. And that’s really important for parents to understand too.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely These are all great things to keep in mind, so thank you for adding those. So what should a parent expect from an IEP? And how can they tell that the IEP is a good fit for their child?
Yeah, so when you do your evaluation, and then they come over and they write the IEP, they have a section called the present levels. And that’s where we should be identifying any of the areas in the evaluation that were noted for qualifying for services. So if we see occupational or sensory needs, then we should see something in the IEP supporting that. If they qualified for speech, you should see a speech goal, and the speech goal should tie back into pragmatics or articulation, where your child struggles.
So I like to see it like a map where you have like this, it’s like a spiderweb, right? So our present levels are the center, and then we should see services and supports coming out from that that are supporting our child. Those should be child-centered goals, you know, and making sure there’s a lot of things you can work on. So I run into this a lot with my own kids and with the clients I help. There’s so much you can work on. And just because a therapist suggested this one goal or this one idea, you might think that working on a slightly different goal or objective is most important for your child right now. That’s where that ‘individualized’ comes in, and collaborating with the team.
And so when I helped my parents say we want to do a collaborative approach and come back and speak kindly and share ideas. So everybody should be able to share their ideas and collaborate and tweak things. Because it’s a draft, it’s a fluid document. So making sure if somebody has a goal, and you’re looking at that goal, as a parent, you’re like, my kid hates holding pencils, they can’t stand the sound of a pencil on paper, how are you going to work on that goal? Share that with the team, because you kind of already know that goal is not going to go very far, you have to get in your child’s mind. So really looking at what are their goals? How are they being implemented? It? Are they in a small group, one-on-one, push into the classroom, pull out, those are going to give you an idea of what your child’s day looks like, and how services are being delivered.
And then as a parent, you kind of do a checklist like, yeah, I think that’s going to be really good for them. Or I feel like that’s not. The other thing is, if you feel that you really want a social emotional goal, you really want your child to be able to make some friends, and they’re isolating, and they’re not making friends, you can suggest and ask for a social goal, or different things like that, too. Because we want to look at all the different areas and how we can help our child access their education, and then again, prepare for life after school, being able to get along with peers, and work in a small group, and those things are academically appropriate. So you can ask for those services if you think your child can really benefit and then have that team discussion.
And if a parent doesn’t understand how the goal is being tracked, we have to ask questions, because we’re gonna get progress notes. And that’s another way we can know if the IEP is working or how well it’s working. And if you don’t understand how they’re taking the data, then you as a parent can’t really see if your child’s making progress. So I’ve had to have them break it down for me before, break it down for my clients, collaborate about it. Ask for home to parent school communication, so that we can really make sure that we as parents are trying to facilitate and support those goals at home too. And so getting involved with them, and having that communication will help you know your child’s IEP is getting implemented as well.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. Yeah, asking questions even if you’re intimidated by the professionals in the room, it’s so key to understanding what’s going on and making sure that you have a good say in your child’s IEP.
Yeah, and checking in. I highly, highly recommend parents…I know it’s kind of hard, but quarterly, I’ll send to my daughter’s PT, OT speech, I’ll do a little check-in, and it’s nothing scary or like I’m trying to catch them or anything. It’s not negative, oftentimes I’ll share something about what my daughter is doing at home that was really cool, if they’re doing any projects, or how they’re implementing some of their goals. And what it does is it builds a relationship with your child’s team beyond just that one meeting. And two, if an email bounces back, and they’re no longer at the school, you’re like, oh, what happened to speech? Oh, they’re on maternity leave or whatever. Okay, who’s filling in? So also, by doing those check-ins, you build that relationship, but you also stay kind of attuned to staffing issues, or anything that might happen at the school. If you’re reaching out and no one’s responding back to you, that’s often a sign that they are no longer with the school.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
That’s a great idea. So if a parent feels like they’re not really being heard in an IEP meeting, how can they make sure that their concerns are addressed?
Yeah. And so I start with your case manager, I always try to go in order because when we jump ahead, we were not giving the school the proper opportunity to try to rectify, so reaching out to your case manager. So that’s usually if it’s a speech-only IEP, that would be your SLP, or the resource teachers, often the case manager. So make sure you know who your child’s case manager is. That’s who is kind of in charge of making sure everything gets delivered and everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do.
So starting there, then oftentimes, I’ll loop in like assistant principal, like, hey, I’m trying to reach them. I’ve tried, when my concerns are not being addressed, asking for a parent concerns meeting. So having them come in and share your concerns. And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll usually go up to like the special ed director or director of exceptional students, sometimes it’s referenced as that, and say, hey, I’m trying to work with my team, I’m not feeling heard. Again, creating that paper trail.
Then another option, you do a letter outlining all of your concerns. And then the key thing is to send that to the case manager and CC my educational file, meaning it goes in your child’s actual school district file of these concerns. That way you’re going on record expressing your concerns, expressing that things aren’t getting done, and you’re giving them an opportunity to look into it to figure it out. So sometimes when I’ve done that, they’ll say you’re right, we had an OT quit, we haven’t been able to get one replaced, we were going to reach out when we had a plan, we didn’t have a plan. So we’re working on it, or whatever.
So sometimes they’ll give you a reason, sometimes they’ll just apologize, and then try to move forward with whatever we’re going to do to have that done. But being open and treating you as an equal member of the IEP team is important. So if you’re bringing research or valid concerns up about how things are being implemented, or your child’s mental well being and how they’re responding to that, and they’re dismissing you, that’s not okay. Because they might not be able to fix it, they might not be able to do exactly what you’re asking, but validation and saying, I hear you, Mrs. Burnett, this is what we can do. I looked into it, these are our limitations, or I can’t do anything about that right now. But I’m noting your concern, and we’re going to keep an eye on it. That goes a long way.
And so for any admin or teacher listening, I just encourage you to build those relationships. Because time and time again, if I have a good relationship with my IEP team and something goes awry, I’m so much more likely to handle it so differently if I already feel like I’m valued, and that they care about me and my kid, then if I feel like they’ve dismissed me, they’re not listening to me, I’m more likely to escalate it quicker and faster if I don’t have that relationship. So that goes a long way.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. Because then you’re on the defensive. So you want to have that relationship, it’s huge, I agree. How should a parent prepare for an IEP meeting if they’re new to IEP meetings? What sort of materials should they bring along? What should they expect?
Yeah, so one thing is to be expected to be asked, what do you want your child to learn? Or what are some of your concerns or goals for your child this year? That was really hard for me to answer for my daughter with complex medical needs and a significant cognitive delay, because obviously, I wanted to say I want my daughter talking, I want my daughter walking, I want her to participate. So preparing that ahead of time where I could take the emotion of the sadness that my daughter wasn’t where I had envisioned she might be, and realizing some of her limitations with her disability, and then coming up with what could be a realistic goal for us this year.
So take the time to really understand what you’re hoping to get out of this year. What are your top concerns, what are things that…if my child could wait, and they understood waiting and they could wait five minutes while I’m cooking dinner, share that because then maybe they could build in waiting or staying on task or whatever. And they can build in these goals that could help support things at home that you’re like, if we could do this, this would be amazing.
Or if you have a real concern about stranger danger or safety, things like sharing that with the team. So bringing that in, sharing any pertinent medical information, I don’t suggest sending them the whole file. But if your child has seizures, making sure they know that they have seizures, what the protocol is, the safety plan, if your child’s allergic to bees, any pertinent medical information that they would need to help them access their education and keep them safe is really important to share. Sometimes parents think I don’t want them to know all of this personal information about my child, I totally get it. But giving them enough to be able to keep them safe and understand is really important when you come to the meeting.
And know you can bring people with you. I didn’t do that for a long time. It doesn’t have to be an advocate, although I’m always honored. But you can bring grandma, you can bring a home speech therapist or occupational therapist that understands your child and can speak to how they’re doing. And I’d recommend bringing someone because it’s an emotional experience, and you’re not going to catch everything at the meeting, because they’re gonna say something, your brain goes over here, you miss the next three sentences. So one time I had my friend and she’s like, what am I going to do? All I want you to do is just take notes, you don’t have to say anything, I just want you to sit here and capture any big things that kind of come up that I might forget after the meeting. And so my friend was like: I can do that. And so she just kind of took notes and made sure anything you wanted me to remind you of.
And so just bringing a support person, I think it’s just life changing for an IEP because it’s overwhelming. And if they’re a seasoned parent, and this is like your second or third IEP, I highly recommend taking a peek at the service minutes. Any of the goals they had, how did they do? Did they meet them? Did they not even make a movement on them? Do you want that goal carried forward if they didn’t make any progress? Do you want it copied and pasted for it or what do you want to do?
And I gave you guys the link, I actually have one that says five questions to ask at the IEP table that they can grab and download. And what’s really cool about that PDF is I have a little video in there on how to utilize the checklist. And then I also have some questions to ask if you think your child should have assistive technology, or they have an AAC device and you want to ask some questions about making sure it’s getting implemented. So it’s a really powerful little PDF guide that I made for anybody who wants it. And I highly recommend going through that, and preparing yourself mentally, gathering some of your documents so that you go in feeling confident as you can and proactive and knowing that you kind of have at least this base ready to go. Take control of what you can control, you can control what you bring to the meeting. And if you prepare your parent input statement. So doing that is really helpful.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. Well I love that you brought up that you can bring somebody with you to help make that process a little easier, a little less intimidating, or to bring in some new information. I think that’s a great point.
Yeah, and I just recommend, I don’t like surprises. Nobody likes surprises. So you can tell them you’re bringing them, but you don’t have to. It’s something that has come up for some of my clients. ‘Well, you didn’t tell us,’ you don’t have to. I recommend it because they can have the right number of seats or whatever. But just know, again, go take a peek at the federal guidelines, you’re allowed to bring anybody with you that has information or can support you in that process. So I just don’t want any parent to feel bullied and saying you can’t bring them. You can.
And if we’re doing everything the way we should, we should not feel worried or be pushing people out. If we’re being transparent as a school district, and we’re doing a great job, and we’re confident in the services, then we should have no problem collaborating and working with whoever the parent brings, and letting grandma ask questions, and having her understand the process. Because when we’re all rolling in the same direction for the child and we all know what’s going on, that child is going to make so much more progress than a fragmented system where only these people are working on this, these people are doing it totally different. The child’s not going to make as much progress. So it’s not only emotionally good, but I think it’s for the betterment of the child as well.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Absolutely. That’s so true. Have you ever encountered school districts where they either undermine the impact of a student’s learning disability or had lowered expectations for students with LD? Like they might have said ‘this is the ceiling, this is all you can expect from your child?’ And if so, how do you recommend parents to approach that?
Yeah, I always want to presume competence from my kids who are non-speaking to any other disability. I often feel like the reading is at the heart of it. So while they’re going to struggle because they have a learning disability with that, what program are they using? Have they tried a different kind of intervention? What’s happening? So if your child isn’t moving, and they haven’t tried a different type of intervention or different reading program, just because this is what the school bought for everybody does not mean that’s the only option that your child has for learning to read.
So I highly recommend looking at…and I probably don’t have enough time to go all the way into my other passion, which is assistive technology evaluation. So just like with you have an evaluation for education, speech, all these things, you can actually have an assistive technology evaluation where they look at your child in all of their areas of learning life skills, and then they come and say: what tools and support…some of them are expensive, some of them are free, so really customizing your child’s IEP to have the appropriate tools and supports for them to maximize their learning. So if they’re not making progress, let’s say on handwriting, it’s still completely illegible, we’ve really tried to get the letter formation, is it time to move on to typing? Do we need to have a different kind of intervention to strengthen the hand muscles and get spatial things going, then come back?
So if you feel like we’ve not tried different reading programs, we haven’t tried a different approach, they’re not making progress on their goals, then that’s your time to say this isn’t working and I feel like my child’s being limited. And then start asking for the assistive technology evaluation. Or if you’re coming up on your every three years, your child is being reevaluated, well, what happens a lot is if they think they are still going to qualify for special education, they’ll do a RED, which is a review of existing data, and then they move them forward in special ed. So that’s great, your child still qualifies for special ed. You have the right to say I still agree, you’re right, my child 100% still qualifies for special ed, but I have not seen very much movement in reading or math or, we weren’t doing a math intervention or having specialized instruction for math. But we’re really struggling in that I would like an actual evaluation to look at math. So utilizing your evaluations to not just copy and paste forward, like my daughter had gotten to middle school and we had not had a new speech eval.
I know that she’s still nonspeaking and I know that she’s still qualified for special ed, but can we try and look at where she’s at? And what other information, because you might get really valuable information from that eval that changes the goals or the treatment plan, because now we’ve identified this other area that wasn’t in their previous eval because they were three and that wasn’t really appropriate to do that test on a three year old. But now they’re in sixth grade, so really looking at has my child been reevaluated? Or did they just do a review of existing data? So I know it’s kind of a long answer. But really realizing that if you feel like your child is not making progress and you feel like they can do more if they had this support, like I think if my child could just type, or talk to text sends it to the computer, I feel like they could write a paragraph. But they can’t when they’re trying to write the paragraph. So really exploring that and getting your concerns into the IEP, into the parent input statement. And then leveraging the different options you have for assistive technology, evaluation and reevaluation, that sort of thing.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
That’s great advice. So how can parents, if they run into trouble with the school district, whether it’s a time delay in services, or even an IEP violation, what are sort of the steps that you would recommend parents take to resolve that issue?
Yeah, so we’re seeing this a lot with post-COVID world and how things were delivered during COVID and school closures, and then a lot of staffing issues. So the first thing that I want to help everybody understand is the IEP is a legal document, and it does not care if there’s staffing issues. What I mean by that is, the services were still laid out and the child still needs them. If the school doesn’t have the school personnel to deliver the IEP the way it was written, we need to have a meeting with the parent and we need to come up with a contingency plan.
Okay, this child is supposed to have reading intervention. We don’t have a reading intervention specialist right now, we’re working on hiring them, so here’s how we’re going to support your child in the meantime. Then it’s important to help parents understand that, or I’ve seen this also happen, like somebody goes on maternity leave, and then nobody does therapy while they’re on maternity leave. They’re certainly allowed to have a baby and go on maternity leave, but what needs to happen is those service minutes have to be made up in some way, and that’s called compensatory services.
So if your child’s listed on there for 120 minutes a month of speech, and they miss three months of speech because they didn’t have anybody to do it, then they need to come to you and figure out… it’s basically an offer and compromise. Like, we know we owe you 500 minutes, we’re going to try to give you 250. And then you say you’re okay with 250 or not, and you kind of negotiate those compensatory services. And then documenting how they’re going to support your child’s speech right now with no specialists, how are they going to do that?
They don’t like to do this, but eventually you can request outside services and the school will reimburse. So if they’re not hiring that, and your child’s gone months and months and months without it, then you can say I’m requesting that tutoring be reimbursed because we’re going to get an outside reading specialist and work with the school. It’s not usually dollar to dollar, maybe they say they’ll pay for X amount, but you have a right, your child has a right to the services that are outlined in their IEP, their needs didn’t change. It’s the staffing that’s usually the problem. A gap in services happens when there’s a gap and not having staff.
So working with them, you have the right to know how they’re approaching that and that those services need to be made up in some capacity. I’ve seen some schools offer summer school or like I said, paying for outside therapists to come in, and then they pay the clinic directly for those services. But just knowing that your IEP for your child is a legal document, that’s why they’re very specific on what will go in there and the words they use, because it’s a contract of ‘this is what your child needs, this is what’s going to be delivered, and this is how it’s going to be delivered.’ So when there’s a breach in contract, then we have to address it. So you have the rights as a parent. And again, it shouldn’t be our job, but it is, to stay on top of are my child’s services being delivered? Do they have the right personnel and getting it documented? How long did they go without that service? So you know roughly how many minutes they missed, so that you can start to do that offer and compromise when they do get somebody back into place. I’ve seen some schools be very transparent. <claps> I’m so happy for them. That’s how it should be. They send a letter home and they say so you’re aware, we do not have an OT right now, we are actively searching, here’s what we’re doing. We will be in touch with you when we have an OT and we will start to figure out how to mitigate the situation. But not every school does that. And so if you don’t know they miss three months, how can you make sure that they get that? You can’t.
So you want me to touch on IEP in a Day, I think? So it’s an advocacy service that I developed. And really what it is is the parents sign up for the service, they send me their child’s IEP, I review it, and I created my own little parent handbook roadmap. And so we meet together, on Zoom, and we go over my findings, and then I help them fill out their workbook. So I have, red is stuff that’s missing or wasn’t there, green is stuff that was there, but could be better. And when they’re done with our two hour working session, they walk away with their advocacy roadmap and their to do list, and then they get 30 days of my ongoing support through an app, essentially, that helps them work out the advocacy plan that we came up with, because they’re going to hit snags where the school says ‘we don’t do that here.’ Or we don’t want to do that, or we don’t think we have to do that. And so I coached them through it.
And so I had come up with the name IEP In A Day, because we do that coaching session in a day. And I just find that everyone’s so busy. And so doing a lot of back and forth about the IEP can be overwhelming for families. So having a structured time where they can get together with me and roll that out is one of the things that I do in my advocacy business. And I really love supporting families. And the other thing about that advocacy model through IEP In A Day, is I have a teaching section in there too. So every section of the IEP, in their advocacy roadmap book, they get their customized workbook. I teach them about what that section is and why it’s important, why it’s included in the IEP.
So the families who have worked with me and we’re like, just the education piece, like why this section of the IEP matters was so helpful. And so my goal is to empower families. A lot of them do use me again and again because they like the support. But my goal was to have them feel empowered and have the tools and knowledge to where they didn’t feel like they had to have me at every meeting because I’m empowering and teaching them how to do this for their child, year after year, because they need to have those foundational skills and knowledge for the IEP to be able to effectively advocate for their child. So the families…they loved it. It’s been out for about a year. And then I do IEP reviews as well. And that one is the parents send me their IEP, they fill out a Google form about their top concerns, I review and go through their IEP highlighting things that I feel might be missing or where their parent concerns could be plugged in, and then might give them a video review of their child’s document so that, again, they can go and feel empowered to get those things adjusted for their child.
And I know some people are like, I hate IEPs. I love them. Because I know, they’re cumbersome, and they’re not that fun. But I know the power of them. And so I think for me, helping families feel empowered and ready to take on this journey with their child is going to change the outcome of their child’s life. And some of what we’re doing as parents and advocates is also helping advocate for the right support that teachers need that they’re not getting. It’s not that they’re not asking, it’s that they’re not getting it. So again, not to go off on a tangent on that.
But oftentimes, as parents and advocates when we’re advocating for something, and we get it approved, all behind closed doors. Thank you, I’ve been asking for that for four months, and nobody wanted to give me the one on one aid for my classroom, or no one wanted to give me the staff training, you know, that you can have that run into your IEP, that the staff can be trained on this communication system or this intervention strategy. But it costs money. And they know they can’t deny it for the cost, because that would be illegal, but not bringing it up, just not getting it out there. So sometimes teachers and therapists are begging for support, and they’re not getting it. So when you bring it up, and you start the ball rolling forward, as a parent, you’re going to save teachers from leaving, and you’re going to save therapists from quitting because they want and they need the support, too, that they’re not getting.
So sometimes I advocate for therapists too. I’ve had a teacher call me and say, can I hire an advocate? They’re railroading my student. So I want all the teachers to know, my husband’s a teacher, I love teachers, I know how hard they work. And I really don’t want it to be us versus them. That’s not the kind of advocate and I am, that’s not the kind of parent I am. Because in order to do change, we need to have it from a collaborative standpoint and try to take in all the different situations that are happening for teachers and therapists as well as parents and children. And then how can we write the best IEP to support everyone, because having a teacher shortage is not helping anybody get the services they need.
So oftentimes I’m like, I saved another job, because if we get them supported, then they might not leave. And that’s important, too. So if a parent’s like I’m on the fence, ask your teacher like, hey, do you feel like this would be helpful for you? Ask them, what could I ask for at the meeting that might support you, too? You’re not going to call them out and say, you know, Miss Smith said this, but have it in the back of your mind what your teacher needs to be able to implement this IEP better to get your child where they want them to be. And, you know, there’s good and bad in every profession, but I tell you teaching is so hard, I feel like if you’re not there for the kids, you’re not there for the money. So like, why are you there? Really trying to figure out how we can have their backs too, I think will help your child as well. And oftentimes, it might just be as simple as having paper to print. I mean, so we just don’t know, until we ask our teachers, what help could I get for you to be able to implement this? So that’s important too.
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Well, I love that you said it’s not us versus them, because that’s so key to keep in mind. It’s training and empowerment on all sides. So thank you so much for advocating for that.
Yeah. And I’m on Instagram, I’m active in my story. So if families want to follow me, it’s just @courtneyburnettadvoate. And I give weekly tips on different things happening in special ed. And so I welcome them to come and check it out. And I’m just honored to be on the podcast and to present in Vegas at the conference. It was amazing. You guys did a great job, so I highly recommend it. I just saw what is it, is it in Florida?
Lauren Clouser (Host)
Yes! We’re in Orlando next year. Well, Courtney, thank you so much, you have provided us with just a wealth of information. So thank you so much.
You’re welcome. Thank you for inviting me.
Lauren Clouser (Host) 54:54
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