What do you think of when you hear the word "team"? Does the word conjure up images of individuals working hard toward a mutual goal? Do you imagine careful strategizing, intense huddles, encouraging pats on the back, shared feelings of triumph over a job well done?
Or does "team" make you think of game-playing and competition? Heavy humans thudding weaker ones to the ground with bone-crunching force? Jockeying for position and advantage, trash talking, rivalries over leadership and playing time?
Your dealings with the "team" that plans your child's IEP (Individualized Education Program) may reflect both of those visions, and there may be times you'll wish you could load up on protective padding before heading in to be tackled again. Other times, you may feel that you and your teammates are actually on the same side, trying to score on behalf of your child and not against one another.
Before you get together with these accomplices/ adversaries on the field of battle, it helps to know who they are, what they do, and where they're coming from. This player's guide will help you with:
- Identifying those many solemn faces around the IEP-planning table
- Figuring out what each of those intimidating personages is responsible for
- Realizing which team member is the most important (Hint: It's the one not being paid to be there)
The Core Team Members
While there are a stunning array of people who will move onto and off of the IEP field, three players will probably do the largest amount of ball-carrying for students with special needs. They're the ones you'll find in the cramped little offices filled with files. They're the ones who will send you letters announcing scheduled meetings, and the ones who will hand you the 5,000 copies of the booklets on knowing your rights. They'll be responsible for evaluating your child on arrival in the system and periodically thereafter. One of these individuals will probably be assigned as your child's case manager.
These are people you will only see at big scary meetings, unless you make an effort to get to know them in smaller, less scary ones. In addition to their evaluating and program-planning responsibilities, they may actually be able to provide you with information and advice about situations that come up during the school year -- that is, if they're out of meetings long enough to answer the phone.
The School Psychologist: The psychologist is the person who will give your child IQ tests and other psychological surveys as part of the evaluation portion of IEP planning. If your child has mental health challenges, you may be more likely to have the psychologist as your case manager, but that varies with school districts and workloads. The psychologist may make observations during the meeting about your child's psychological state or concerns. If your child is having problems during the school year that require counseling, this psychologist may be able to help, or there may be another school psychologist who handles counseling of students.
The Learning Specialist: The learning specialist is the person who will give your child tests that assess level of educational achievement and ability. If your child has learning disabilities, you may be more likely to have the learning consultant as your case manager, but that varies with school districts and workloads. The learning specialist may make observations during the meeting about the appropriate educational placement for your child. Should your child need special learning techniques, modifications and accommodations in the classroom, the learning consultant may be able to strategize those with you and the teacher, and help monitor progress.
The Social Worker: The social worker is the person who will take down a family history during the evaluation process. If your child has had behavioral problems or personal struggles with school, you may be more likely to have the social worker as your case manager, but that varies with school districts and workloads. The social worker may make observations during the meeting about your child's relationships with other students and general participation in the school experience. Should your child need special assistance with peer relationships and conflicts, the social worker may be able to arrange appropriate programs.
Of all the people you'll work with in planning your child's IEP, these core team members are the easiest ones to classify as "the enemy" -- they don't work with your child on a day-to-day basis, they're charged with carrying out the district's policies, and they may seem heavy-handed in the way they run meetings and make decisions.
Take a closer look, though, and you may find good people who are overworked and underappreciated, feeling the pressure from both their bosses and the people they serve. You'll also, for sure, find human beings who quite naturally look askance at things that make their jobs harder. If you can be something that makes their jobs easier, that may go a long way to reducing tension and promoting teamwork.
For one thing, if you regularly give teachers information about your child's disability, give a copy to the case manager, too. The school psychologist, learning specialist, and social worker may not be experts on every disability and every new bit of research, either, and in providing background you'll make their job easier now, and your job easier later when you don't have to explain this all again and again.