The coronavirus pandemic has changed how our children will experience education, maybe permanently. Remember back in the spring, when we all thought our kids would be back in school by this fall (at the very latest)? Now, many of us are planning for an entire school year ahead without any onsite instruction.
Most of what I have read in the media thus far has addressed how parents of neurotypical children are coping with these changes. But families of children with disabilities are facing a whole host of new challenges, too. Some parents of children with autistic kids may already be feeling disillusionment with their school’s approach to special education in the pandemic.
So, that brings up the question: should you give up on your child’s IEP? Moreover, should you give up on the idea that they can make meaningful progress in general this year? Should you adjust your expectations for things like IEP meetings and reevaluations?
In this article, we’ll discuss these questions. We’ll discuss the ways parents can rise to the occasion, without burning out. We’ll discuss how to adjust to changes in your child’s education, without giving up on your goals and dreams.
What Should I Do About the IEP?
Chances are your child’s IEP goals got turned upside down sometime last March or April. You may not even know where to begin in regards to the new school year. The good news: you don’t need to give up on your child’s IEP. The IEP is a blueprint for you and for the team. It is a formal document, but it is also a living document. That means that you can make changes.
If your child’s annual IEP review is due this fall, consider using that time to reset the goals. You can do this in a way that is responsive to the impact the pandemic has had on your child. For example, your child may have regressed on a goal that it looked like they were about to meet back in February. Many children – including typically developing children – experienced regression and academic slide. Your child will not be alone in this. It is OK to take a step back, and reset some goals back to square one.
Your child may also be experiencing some new challenges due to the pandemic, that are not already in the IEP. This is also a good time to talk to the IEP team about adding in some goals to target these issues. You may want to think about (at least temporarily) closing out or pausing some of the goals that aren’t relevant right now. The right amount of goals to work on now might be less than what the right amount of goals was before the pandemic. Think about what your priorities are for the upcoming year. Think about your child’s shorter term needs first. Then, think about how those might fold into their future. For example, you might choose to focus on goals to build independent leisure time skills. You might focus on goals to increase your child’s independence with home routines. These are things that will benefit your child and you right now. But they will also benefit your child in the future. Working on increasing independent activities at home now can be generalized to independence in the school environment, later.
Your child’s IEP might not be due until next winter or spring. In this case, consider reaching out to the school team over the next month or so to talk about your options. It’s possible that your child’s IEP date can move up. Explain to the case manager that you need to reprioritize the goals on the IEP. Explain that this is due to how the pandemic has affected your child’s rate of progress. Explain that you want the team’s input and collaboration on how to rewrite the goals or write new goals.
Don’t worry, though, if it isn’t possible to move up the review date right now. Your next step is to reach out to the teacher and make a plan. The teacher can help make decisions about what goals to focus on. They can also help take baseline data for any new areas you want to work on. They can test out potential programming for those areas. The same goes for your child’s related service providers. For example, your child may have received speech therapy in their classroom before. Now, those services might be occurring via telehealth. You can work with them on setting goals for your child’s engagement in the telehealth sessions. Or, set up a schedule where you can be present to receive parent coaching. Ask for training on how to work on appropriate speech targets at home. Advocate for coaching that will be realistic for your home situation, your bandwidth, and your needs.
What Does Progress Look Like Now?
The truth is that the most challenging aspects of distance learning may still be ahead of us. It is more important than ever to pace yourself and your expectations. This is true for your child and for yourself. That doesn’t mean giving up, or settling for “less than.” It may mean measuring progress in different ways, though. For example, you will have increased opportunities to see how your child uses new skills at home. You may have more time to see them learning “in action” than you ever did before. You may experience the positive impacts of them learning a new skill they can use at home much faster than before.
What If My District is Late on Something?
There may be delays for reevaluations, IEP updates or amendments, and new referrals. If you are concerned that something critical is late, advocate for a solution. For example, ask what the plan is for reevaluations: will they be remote or in person?
Do you want your child to do their evaluations via Zoom (or a similar platform)? Or do you feel more comfortable asking for an extension? Or an alternative method of assessment, other than a standardized test? Can any evaluations happen via parent interview?
Remember that you and your child’s school team are both new at this. Special education in a pandemic is scary, because we don’t know yet exactly what it will look like. It’s also exciting, because we can explore new ways to teach kids with special needs. Parents can connect more closely to their child’s educational experience. Schools may figure out new ways to provide support to parents. They may consult parent expertise on their child’s development more. So: No, don’t give up on your child’s IEP.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.