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Everything you need to know before your first IEP

Local mom takes you through each step

Rielly (right) and her son Simon (left) are experts at meetings, paperwork and getting Simon what he needs to succeed.

Your very first IEP can be nerve racking - all those meetings, evaluations and paperwork. I know, I've been there. Whether you're transitioning from early intervention or starting your little one with services for the very first time, I'm here to help you through it all.

Understand the acronyms
An individualized education program (IEP) is a written plan that outlines what your child needs in order to be successful in school. This plan includes services such as occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, audiology services, physical therapy and other services that will assist your child in a learning environment.

If your child receives services through early intervention, they have an individualized family service plan (IFSP). The difference: before age three, an IFSP outlines goals to help your child navigate their world at home, with family and in the community. After age three, your child will receive services to assist them in school, navigating peers and academics.

In addition, a 504 plan might be discussed. This plan covers accommodations your child might need, such as classroom modifications or special equipment.

First things first
If your child has been receiving early intervention, they may be eligible to continue services in preschool. A service coordinator will help you register with your local school district to start the process.

If your child (age three to five) has not been in early intervention but you believe he may have physical or cognitive delays, he may be eligible for services in preschool. Contact your local school district to request an
evaluation for special education services. Most school districts will have a website tab for "special education" that provides a contact person to get in touch with.

Once that initial call is made, you'll work closely with a team called the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE). This team consists of a chairperson, school psychologist, general education teacher, special education teacher and you. They will help you understand state laws and regulations, discuss evaluations and work with you to develop the IEP or special equipment.

Evaluate your child to determine needs
Evaluations are an important step to determine how your child might fair in school. Will they be able to hear the teacher? How will they react to other children and instruction? Will they be able to focus, play, walk, etc.?

Prior to your first IEP meeting, your child is evaluated to determine what services are beneficial and necessary. Even if your child has already been evaluated during the early intervention program and/or has a diagnosis, New York state still requires these evaluations.  

Evaluators have a checklist of specific tests to determine your child's abilities. They will watch your child play and complete quizzes. This is a good time to share prior evaluation results, goals and special notes about your child. You know your child best. Relay your understandings about capabilities and challenges.

After the evaluation, the evaluation agency sends their official report to your CPSE team. You also receive a copy to review.

Set goals, decide on services, make a plan
Your CPSE team schedules a date to meet with you to review the evaluations, determine eligibility for services and develop a plan to help your child succeed in school. The IEP will outline which services your child will receive as well as the frequency. Make sure to bring your notebook with questions. It's important that you understand the plan.

It's also important to remember the IEP will only include services to help your child in school. For example, if your child cannot brush his teeth due to fine motor delays, that would not be part of the IEP. However, if his fine-motor delays also prevent him from grasping a pencil or handling scissors, that would be included in the IEP.

The goal of this meeting is to ensure your child gets the support he needs. If for any reason you do not agree with the CPSE recommendations, you can ask to table the meeting. At this point, reach out to an advocacy agency to help navigate the next IEP meeting so that everyone comes to an agreement.

IEP changes with your child
You have the opportunity to choose which preschool your child can attend within New York state. You are not restricted to only your school district. The CPSE team will provide recommendations for preschool programs that will best suit your child's needs. You'll be able to visit the preschool as well, to speak with the teachers and aides prior to your child's first day.

Every year, you and your team review the IEP to change goals and services based on progress. Additionally, special service educators might request IEP changes during the year.

The IEP is an ever-changing document that will change with your child as he changes and grows. The IEP should always be a current reflection. And just like at the very first meeting, you always have the right to review and request changes.

Stay organized
There's no way around it; there's just mounds of paperwork. Every evaluation, meeting and New York state regulation comes with forms.

The best advice I can offer is to photocopy whatever you're given to sign, and keep it organized in a binder. Use folder tabs to separate all your paperwork so you're ready for easy reference. The binder I keep at home looks like this: Evaluations, IEPs, School Info, NYS forms. Make a new binder for each school year so you have a record at home of your child's progress.

You got this!
Take a deep breath, grab a cup of coffee, join a mom's group on
Facebook, shop at Target for fun new organization supplies, and remember, you are your child's best advocate.

For more specific information, check out your local school district website or the NYS Office of Special Education: P12.NYSED.gov/SpecialEd/

Rielly is a part-time writer and full-time mama to an adorable toddler with autism. Follow her online at HVParent.com/Sailing-The-Spectrum/