Happy I.E.P. Day!

Honestly, navigating my kids’ special education world has proved to be as much about finding my way as it is about educating my kids, and – wooeee! – I was totally unprepared for that at the beginning of this gig!

In the early years of stumbling through the special needs dark, which I like to call the Befuddlement Time (or, the What The Hell time), I thought I was searching for the One True Path. Kind of like the Path of Righteousness or the Path of Eternal Security. Except, in this case, I was hoping to find the Path of Special Needs Success.

And, really, is that too much to ask? That my city planners pave some kind of wide, well-lit trail, line it with chocolate and parenting manuals, and then issue me a sweet, bespectacled case worker to hold my hand and show me the sights?

Instead, I found myself at the beginning knee-deep in the underbrush of a special education jungle, turned around and rather hopelessly lost. I felt alone and confused, and I was saddled with an enormous backpack weighted with equal parts grief and self-pity. How is it possible that my baby isn’t developing on schedule? I asked myself. Why can’t my son tell me what he wants? How come my kid gags when I get too close to him? And what if we’re stuck here, deep in this jungle forever and ever and ever?

It was exactly the opposite of rad.

And it was just like parenting teeny, tiny children in that people said perpetually, “It will get better. Someday. You’ll see.” I waited for it to get better, but it didn’t, and so I doubted.

But then, after a very long time, which I shall call Millenia, but which was probably only Years, it did get better. And better. And better. Ever so slowly. Almost imperceptibly. Until one day I looked around and said, “Heeeeey. This is sort of better.”

Now, thanks to Hindsight, I can see that Better Happens. (Although Hindsight is also a punk because he totally withholds his sight when it matters. I would appreciate Hindsight more if he was Foresight or InTheMiddleOfTheMessSight. But I suppose he’s got to be true to himself, so Hindsight is what I have.)

Now I know that somewhere along the way, teachers and friends shoved tools into my hands and, more importantly, into my foggy, murky brain. Thanks to the Colleens, Nicoles, Cindys and Marys of the world, I figured out that it was my job as a mama to pick up my advocacy machete and start clearing trails side-by-side with my kids’ teachers and their practiced blades.

I learned how to be the squeaky wheel without driving educators straight into the nearest bottle of tequila. I learned to keep taking my kid to the dressing room to try on program after program ’til one fit without chafing… and then I learned how to back off and let those teachers and programs work without lobbing mama-interference balls all over their court.

In other words, there was a lot of learning. And learning is sweaty, dirty, hard work. Some days, I’m glad I get to do it. Other days, I’m just tired and achy and hungry, and I’d gladly trade my machete for a hot bath and 15 minutes of rest. (Teachers? Can I get a what what?)

If you’re the parent of a school-aged child in the U.S. of A. and you’re not familiar with Individualized Education Programs (I.E.P.) for special needs kids, you are missing out. Miss-missing out. Miss-missity-missing out.

(Psst… you are not missing out, but thank you for letting me pretend that you are. It’s really very kind of you, and it helps me get through the day.)

I’m the mama of one boy child with Communication Disorder and one girl child with the same, so I know my way around an I.E.P meeting, and I get to carve out my kids’ jungle annually with the help of incredible teachers, specialists, and administrators.

An I.E.P meeting, by its very nature, is full of uncertainties. For me, the mama, it’s a vulnerable thing, opening my pack in public. I’m never entirely sure what part is going to fall out. And it’s risky, exposing my love, my grief, and my fears, and then entrusting my heart – my baby – to others.

As for the teachers, if the parents aren’t careful, I imagine those jungle meetings can feel like Judgement Day.

So today, just in case you’re mired in a special needs jungle of your own, I’m going to share my top tip.

You know what helps with all of the uncertainties, all of the trust issues, all of the tension and grief and opportunities for misunderstanding?


It’s snacks, you guys.

Partially delicious, completely ridiculous, store-bought, imperfect, inexpensive snacks emblazoned with hopeful words like “Happy I.E.P.!”

Snacks like cake…

…which I brought last year to Ian’s I.E.P. meeting.

And snacks like circus animal crackers…

…which I brought last week to Ian’s I.E.P. meeting because “circus” and “animals” seemed spot-on for the meeting where we discussed Ian’s move from elementary to middle school. (Heh heh.)

I am 8 years into navigating this special needs world – a world I never imagined would be mine – and I will tell you, snacks are my very best jungle-navigation tip. If I could wrestle a hot bath and 15 minutes of rest into the classroom, I’d bring that to the I.E.P. meeting, instead (seriously – hot tub I.E.P. meeting, anyone?), but short of that option, I suggest snacks.

There’s something magical that happens when people break bread together… when we muscle our way into a clearing after a hard year’s work, build up the campfire hot and bright, reminisce about how far we’ve come, and, munching away, map out where we think we’re headed next. It doesn’t make the jungle less hard – not really. But it does make it more friendly and, frankly, more fun.

Happy I.E.P. Day, y’all!

May you find your jungle (special needs, loads of kids, or another type of jungle entirely) as bold and as beautiful – as friendly and as fun – as I find mine.

And may you discover a hot bath smack dab in the middle of it.



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48 responses to “Happy I.E.P. Day!”

  1. Beth, you are a gift to your children and to your children’s teachers. In 22 years of teaching, I have worked with parents who are combative, and parents who are partners. What most parents don’t know is that the teachers often feel nervous, too. There is only one child exactly like yours and we sometimes feel like we are walking in the dark as well. We might know of a few more resources, but we know that you are looking to us for help and we don’t want to let you down. I have NEVER had a parent bring snacks to a meeting and I have never thought of it either! What a brilliant idea!

  2. Beth,
    As a teacher, I have been to my share of IEP meetings (just had one yesterday, in fact), and I have yet to encounter a parent who goes into it with the understanding that parents and educators are a team working toward a common goal. They often have an “us” against “them” mentality and it can be so uncomfortable and intimidating to discuss a child’s struggles and shortcomings with parents because you never know how the parents are going to react. Your post was refreshing and inspiring and I wish more parents had your attitude.

    • Been a parent here and also an aid in an IEP meeting. This is what breaks my heart the most–it ISN’T us against them. It is us FOR him/her. So if food breaks down walls, bring food 😀

  3. Thanks for re-posting this! I think we’re entering the tall grass and seeing the jungle up ahead. My son is a little over 3 and we’re waiting for our referral to go through on his first evaluation. I’ve felt so ill-equipped for so long and now I’m so hopeful that I’ll have some tools to communicate with him soon, but I also know that I have a long road ahead of me. Thanks for the reminder that it’ll get better. Someday. And thanks for the encouragement to pick up my mama machete and advocate for my kid without sending his pediatrician or teachers to the nearest bottle of tequila.

    Actually, I have to say that his preschool teacher has gone above and beyond for my little boy. She has asked me kind questions over and over the help me see the need that he had. She also advocated to have him observed at school so we could get a better idea of whether he was just acting out or whether there was a bigger need we should address. Then she typed up a list of her observations to send with me to the pediatrician to get his referral. Thank you for showing me how much I have to be thankful for!

  4. Thanks for re-posting this. I have only been following for a few months. We are just about to dive into the Early Intervention world with my 2 year old son. After seeing my parent’s journey with my younger brother through many years of IEPs, I know we are in for a wild ride. I am thankful for others that share their experiences and make it a little less scary.

  5. Ah just read this again through your “Spread the Word to End the Word” post today.

    I have recently plunged into The Befuddlement Time with my 4-year-old son. Not that there wasn’t a lot of pre-befuddlement, but now it’s like more official with observations and evaluations that we can’t even get appointments for for months. And yeah, lost in a jungle…

  6. I am going to my son’s second (third, technically) IEP meeting tomorrow. And I am bringing snacks. We got his diagnosis of Sensory Integration Disorder last year, his second grade year of school. It was so hard for us. New school, new teachers, fresh diagnosis, initial IEP and later, an addendum IEP. There were also therapies and specialists. So much to take in! I have high hopes for this year to be better for us and feel a little more comfortable with the IEP process. So, I have my 3 ring binder of Important Papers, the knowledge that I am not alone, and snacks. *deep breath* Everything will be ok, right? Right. Thanks, Beth, for being there. Your blog is inspiring.

    • Sending you love, mama, for a very Happy IEP Day. Learning the steps of the advocacy process is so overwhelming at first, isn’t it? I’ve been there. Oh, HOW I’ve been there. I always think of the wise words of a fellow mama-of-twins who told me “Just watch, Beth. Something will get easier every 3 months.” SHE WAS RIGHT, and it’s true for special needs, too. If you ever have time to breathe (yeah, right), just take a trip down memory lane and think of all you’ve learned already. WOOEEE! Dawn, you have GOT this – you do. You’re already stronger, smarter and better prepared than EVER before, and your son is better for it. It’s so tempting to think about all we don’t know – to look UP the mountain at how far we have left to climb and to see the top covered in clouds so it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact target for the finish – and to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. We forget to secure ourselves to the side for just a minute and halt the climb and see HOW FAR WE’VE COME.

      You’re on your 3rd IEP! Congratulations, experienced mama. And you have SNACKS!

      I, for one, am cheering you on, fellow climber. Check back in and let me know how it went.


      • Beth, you were SO right. I rocked that I.E.P. Well, the really great team of educators, therapists and I rocked the I.E.P. meeting. We all had a much better idea of where to go, because of all the progress we made last year, all of the progress Zane made last year. Our goals for this year are much more clear. His new teacher jumped right in and had some rad ideas as well. I’m sure you know how it feels to have a teacher that GETS IT. It’s a great thing. There were belly laughs, there were a few tears, there was great communication. We were all on the same page. This school year is going to be a good one.

        You know what else was awesome? The looks on their faces when I began pulling snacks out of my bag… chocolate chip cookies, Cheese Nips, creme-filled pirouettes. Huge smiles, like kids at Christmas. You know those smiles. I honestly think I am the only parent at the school who has brought snacks to a meeting. They all loved it. So, thanks for that suggestion Beth. 🙂 I’ll never I.E.P. without snacks again.

        I have one more thing to tell you. It’s pretty important, so I’ve saved it for last. It’s a Big Thing for us. Are you ready? Zane has very recently learned how to tie his shoes!!!!!! He can TIE HIS OWN SHOES now. 😀 He is so proud, as are we.


  7. Thank you for your input. I have the good fortune of being a special education teacher and I love my families and admire their commitment. By the way, a hot tub IEP would be fantastic.

  8. Hi there,
    I just found this through a link from another site. I’ve been a special education teacher for almost 13 years now. I work at the elementary level so a lot of the parents I work with are pretty shell shocked by it all. I absolutely love your comment that you try to fight for your kids without driving the school folks into a bottle of tequila. I truly never know whats worse, parents who just nod and agree with everything I say, or parents who fight me on everything.
    Thanks! Your insight is so refreshing and so realistic. I am not a perfect teacher, but I try really hard to be a good one. It’s nice when parents work with me.

  9. ‘But then, after a very long time, which I shall call Years, but which was probably actually Millennia’ We (=my husband and I) wondered whether this could have anything to do with the whole ‘Time Dilation’ thing? (see Greg’s last status update on FB) 😉

  10. I love you. Love love love you. I want InTheMiddleOfTheMess Sight too, with breastfeeding, working, stress, yadayada. So thank you for telling me that someday, I’ll meet Hindsight, look around and say, “Heeeeey! This IS better!” As a teacher, thank you for striving for that balance of protecting your kid without attacking the the teacher. And bringing snacks while doing it! Hooray! Really, thank you for being you. And for writing about it. <3

  11. Thank you all for the beautiful words of encouragement. The biggest challenge of raising kids well who have special needs is feeling lonely. Thank you for being my community and helping me remember that we walk no road alone.


  12. In all the years I sat in on IEP meetings for my students, no one EVER brought snacks. How tragic none of us thought of it! I’m sure those times would have been much more productive. I’m so proud of you and Greg for persistently searching out the very best opportunities and programs for both kids, and so very pleased to see the progress they have made–evidence all that hard work is paying off.

    • I agree, Judy. In almost 19 years of attending special ed meetings, no one’s ever brought snacks.

      As a classroom teacher, I will also agree that it’s a jungle. Even as a teacher, it’s tough to wade through all the lingo: IEP, ABBLS, CBA, Woodcock-Johnson, Keymath 3, Stanford-Binet, Wechsler…? I still have to ask what they’re talking about, since they change all the tests and the acronyms on a regular basis.

  13. It’s so wonderful to hear of other IEP adventures! I have had 5 years of fun with it (Child #3 out of 5) and we just had a meeting to take him off of it. I have to say I was a little bit hesitant and still am but know deep down that they are right and that he is runnin’ with the big boys now and doin’ fine. I will always have my eyes peeled just a little bit closer with him but I also know that these past 5 years of experience have made me a better parent, friend and all around human being. thanks for sharing your experiences along the way!

  14. Beth, that is a great idea. I played the IEP game starting at 13 for myself, and then again for my kids (my oldest graduates this May) – and never once thought to bring snacks! Just did the addition – 5 years of IEPs for myself + 13 years for DS18 = 18 years of combined experience in IEP’s and special education, and the experience keeps coming: my DS13 is an 8th grader this year and will definitely be on an IEP through High School. I’m thinking, all those years of “advocating” for my child’s rights, maybe Margaritas would be more welcome! 🙂

  15. Somehow, first time round, I missed your suggestion of a Hot Tub IEP Meeting. THAT is GENIUS 😀 I dare you to suggest it to the principal. Go on, I dare you! And then please report back on the reaction you get. The headteacher I worked under as a special needs teacher wouldn’t have gone for it, which is a shame xxx

    • The more I think about this hot tub meeting, the funnier it is. I can picture you all sitting round sipping non-alcoholic cocktails adorned with jaunty little umbrellas, benefiting from an overhead power-point presentation (paper handouts would only go all crinkly) and a relaxed and convivial atmosphere. Surely far more progress will be made under these conducive conditions! xo

      • And if you threw a few sensory toys into the mix–a good time could be had by all!! I want to join this IEP meeting!!

  16. Love this, Beth! I’ve been a Special Needs teacher and have attended annual reviews, and I just know that snacks would have livened up the proceedings no end, especially that fantastic cake. The kids are blessed to have you as their advocate. Keep going and keep laughing. All your hard work is so worth it xo

  17. Beth, although I have never been to an IEP meeting for my children, several of my dear friends have, and I am so humbled and impressed by theirs (and yours) dedication and courage as they navigate the jungle and tirelessly advocate on behalf of their kids. Keeping a sense of humor in the midst of the jungle, or a marsh, or another less-than-comfy environment is a huge blessing. Best wishes to you and your special blessings!

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