Meetings: the final frontier

In this article, a parent of a child with significant learning disabilities writes about how having her son in the meeting provided important information to the IEP team about the reality of what was going on in the classroom.  A few good grades were being taken out of context to indicate that he was doing extremely well, and the team was on the verge of exiting him from the special education system, until he pointed out that there were good reasons why he had done well on those assignments that had nothing to do with his disabilities having magically been cured.

http://www.ncld.org/at-school/your-childs-rights/advocacy-self-advocacy/a-parents-perspective-why-my-son-attended-his-own-iep-meetings

That’s an excellent point.   But I’d like to extend it.  I would say that in general, kids’ input should always be sought in the IEP process, as well as in any legal or other processes where grownups are talking with each other and making high-stakes decisions about them.

If a kid cannot behave in the meeting or tolerate having all of those grownups talking about them or about their situation, okay, fine.  Have a parent, therapist, guide, adult friend, or other safe adult who does not work for the school (or court, or whatever), someone who has no reason to pressure the child to give any specific answers, sit with the child ahead of time.  Explain the purpose of the meeting, explain the questions that the adults will be thinking through, and take the time to make sure the child understands as well as they are developmentally able to.  (Since I work primarily with gifted and multiply-exceptional kids, they tend to be able to understand this information at very young ages, and they tend to be very upset when they are aware of people talking about them without seeking their input.)  Invite the child to offer their own experiences, ideas, or opinions.  Ask things like, “What would you like the grownups to know?”  “What would a good solution look like for you?” “What are you most hoping (or most worrying) that they will say?”  And listen attentively to the answer.  If you can predict what the adults’ concerns about the child’s proposals might be, offer them for the child’s consideration.  You might be surprised how much depth of thought you will hear.

(Side note: those who are fans of Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon’s work around teaching kids to self-regulate will recognize this process, and those who are not familiar with it should read their book (professionals should read this one) or check out the website.  It’s not just for “explosive” kids.)

I also strongly believe that as soon as the kids are capable of tolerating the experience, they should be members of the team and participate in the meetings themselves.  I’d like to see them there by late middle school or early high school age, and absolutely by late high school age.  If they need to have an educational advocate, therapist, adult friend, or other non-parental helpful person sitting next to them to help them understand what is going on and to help them figure out how to express their own ideas appropriately, then that’s a great service to provide for them.

Think about it… when they’re 18 years old, legally, they chair the IEP meetings.  If they don’t want help, we can’t force them to accept it.  We can’t schedule a meeting if they don’t consent, and we can’t hold a meeting if they don’t show up.  Absent certain really seriously exacerbating circumstances, adults have the right to make their own decisions, no matter how foolish.  (I have personally see this play out, at times tragically, in a few situations, where a newly-minted legal adult made decisions that were mostly informed by their lack of experience.)

So part of the goal of the whole process is to train them to be good at the role of team member, and eventually to take on the role of team captain.  That’s good, because in real life, we are all captains of our own teams.  This is a great thing for them to learn to do, and a nice well-constructed venue for them to learn to do it in.  But they won’t learn how to do it without guided practice.

Are there kids for whom this kind of self-determination is not a realistic goal?  Certainly, there is a very tiny minority of children who will not be able to handle it, even with guidance and training and practice.  But if you feel that a kid shouldn’t be present in their own IEP meetings by the mid to late teenage years, chances are good that you also need to be thinking about legal guardianship or conservatorship in adulthood.  If you feel that a certain 16-year-old cannot even meaningfully participate in a meeting that may decide the course of their life, then I would be very, very concerned about that same person at 18 years old having the right to manage all aspects of their life on their own.

If your concern is that the child may be upset by the process, particularly if the child’s disability affects their emotional stability, let me say two things.  First, by high school age, even kids who are below average in intelligence tend to be aware that people are making decisions about them without their participation.  That’s really upsetting, too.  Second, one of my predoctoral internships was at the Arlington School.  It’s not in Arlington.  It’s a therapeutic high school on the campus of McLean Hospital, one of the world’s premier psychiatric hospitals.  The kids there are all there, at enormous school district expense, because they have debilitating major mental illnesses and really honestly cannot emotionally handle being in a regular high school.  If you were going to say that a kid couldn’t handle being in their own IEP meeting, those kids would be high on the list of kids you’d assume couldn’t cope.  Yet they do, and dialogue with them is an important part of the process both for the team and for them as they move into adulthood.  So I don’t think I’d be too quick to assume that a kid can’t learn to tolerate the experience.

Properly handled, having kids participate in their own meetings can contribute to their own maturational process.  Special education shouldn’t be something we do to kids, it should be something we do with them.

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