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. I have only just found your blog and am enjoying it so much. I see this post was written in 2012 and your son was entering middle school. That means you have been ‘preparing for transition’ already. Can I give you a head’s up? There will be no one holding your hand after public school, so posse up with your mom friends! In our state and county (Michigan/Ottawa) there are resources, but there is no one helping us navigate. So we help each other. May God give you grace, courage and GOOD SNACKS! Also, I think for his final meeting you SHOULD request it be held in a hot tub. Why not? You do have choice of venue!

    Keep the funnies coming — we need them so very badly. I was reading post after post yesterday and making the bed shake. Poor hubs may have thought it was an earthquake (but not likely as this is Michigan). Thanks so much!

  2. I have two boys with the tiniest visual impairments, just enough to qualify them for special ed. Our ARDs are pretty easy, but the teachers and administrators sure do love the snacks. I think it’s made me one of their favorite parents! I usually take freshly baked cookies (the break and bake kind of course!). Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  3. As a retired special educator and the parent of a special needs child I can honestly say that the IEP jungle is a rough place and snacks are wonderful in rough lands. I spent 35 wonderful years educating special needs kids and thought that if my wonderful adopted child had special needs I would find the IEP jungle so much less threatening than the average parent. Boy! was I wrong writing goals for someone else is child is not easy but listening to goals and having to make sure they are the right one for your child and that they are implemented properly and consistently is nearly impossible. I remember my first IEP meeting as a mom and how hard I had to fight to get the services my daughter so needed. Thankfully, I generally won the fights and along the road have met some very caring individuals and have learned that I really don’t care if you like me or not just give my daughter what she needs and stop looking for reasons why she doesn’t qualify. The first 4 years of this I was still teaching and remember a professional who asked me if I thought that because I was a teacher my child was entitled to more then the child whose parent doesn’t know the ropes. I was horrified no she is entitled to more because I am a teacher every child is entitled to as much and as many services as they need to become the best possible adult they can be was my response.
    I love the timing of this post as yesterday I received that wonderful letter inviting me to her annual review which cause the stress level to rise to at least 900% for I know there is no program that she will fit perfectly into so I will be spending the next few weeks stocking up on snacks as well as researching what if any new programs have opened in my district and if they might be a better fit or just refining what she is already receiving so that she can perhaps she can actually spend two years in the same school program rather than switching school once again. Thanks for giving me a reason to smile over something so stressful.

  4. As a parent of an IEP student. Nicely said. At the end of the journey it will all be worth it. But it can be a very LONG journey in some cases. My son has dislexia and they don’t diagnose it in the school system we are in. It was quite a challenge but in the end he finished his education.

  5. As a SPED teacher, thank you for not bashing us in this post. I was a little nervous when I found it a few minutes ago, because I know how imperfect the “system” is, and how frustrating it can be. But I want the best for “my kids,” just like their mommas do, so I do my job to the best of my ability. It’s nice to be on the same team with parents instead of at war with them. Thanks for being on the same team…and for bringing snacks. GENIUS.

  6. I’ve been navigating those IEP jungles for..at least eighteen years now, and am about to go into battle over the services my school system claims are not available to my high school freshman. We’re dealing with Asperger’s syndrome, raging ADHD, and learning disabilities.

    It’s tough. But it teaches us empathy, and strength, and how to fight for our kids. Because we are all they have.

    And I say Three Cheers for us SAHMs! We rock! And so do all the SAHDs, and the parents who go to work every day and bust their butts for the kids. This parenting gig is rough.

  7. Holy Crap! I was a SPED teacher for 10 years (and numerous IEP meetings) why did I never think of bringing snacks? Such a simple solution for such a tense situation. I feel like I wasted all those years I could have been calming the masses. Many times I thought of bringing mixed drinks but alas that would have ended my career very quickly! Maybe shared valiums all around. But for the past 7 years I have been just a lowly SAHM (amusing me to know there is an acronym for my current position as well). And while I have been plenty lucky to not need SPED services yet I frequently find neighbors and friends who need some advocating help. I am seriously considering this as my next career and if this works out I am definitely going to be bringing snacks! It may just be the key to my success!

    • I applaud you for your Heraculean efforts — 10 years! Wow! My brother had special needs and IEPs galore.

      But I mainly wanted to say: You are not “just” a “lowly SAHM”. I had a medical professional tell me (and moms everywhere) just this week that moms are the ones with the tough jobs, on the front lines with kids. So go you, Micki! 🙂 Mamaraderie — whoop!

      • Yes, snacks work for us just as they do our kiddos. Chocolate in particular is key in some meetings. I do know a few teachers that provide a bottle of water and a selection of fruit and snacks to all the participants. It does help. If a parent of one of our kiddos were to walk in to a meeting with snacks that would be an extra special treat!! Nice way to break the tension early! The animal crackers idea was classic!

    • Micki, you didn’t bring snacks because you were with the kids during the day:) Thank you and all those SPED teachers for working with kids like mine. You are a gem to us parents and I applaud your work!

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