Those three letters can strike fear in the heart of the most ferocious mama bear. The meeting for a child’s Individual Education Plan are the bane of many’s existence, the subject of online name calling, and sadly one of the negative necessaries in navigating the world of special needs in America. For me, those three letters mean a 2” binder full of paperwork written in the most awful legalise, many nights of restless sleep followed by anxiety during the day, and weeks of overthinking and self-doubting. And it’s not even my IEP.
My first exposure to this special needs rite of passage was three months ago, after we completed a full assessment for Mila through the school district. They tested cognition, speech, physical ability, academics, and many other things that seemed to blur together. The results were not unexpected, but anytime someone can quantify your child’s deficiencies with numbers and comparisons, it’s a little disheartening. Flipping through pages of assessment results and evaluation summaries was confusing and mind numbing. And at the same time, the ever present question of ‘what do I want out of this’ was becoming more and more difficult to answer. I was blessed to not have to face this question and this initial stack of papers alone. My friends- one a special education teacher and the other a seasoned IEP mama- as well as some family members with special education experience weighed in, explained wording, and even accompanied me to my first IEP meeting for Mila.
I experienced the song and dance that is an IEP meeting. These teachers, psychologists, and therapists who had been approachable, friendly, and caring were suddenly seated across a wide table and were awkwardly professional and distant. Their slight smiles and brief moments of eye contact were somewhat reassuring but the room set up and the formality all spoke to the message: “it’s us against you.” How sad when the message should be “its us and you and we’ll do whatever it takes for your child to succeed.”
Despite the awkwardness of the first IEP, I was happy with the results and felt as though ‘the team’ heard me and understood Mila’s needs. She was set to begin 5 day a week preschool with lots of speech services. We were very excited.
And school was exactly what Mila needed. She thrived in the classroom environment. She made friends, started learning her letters and colors, and got excellent report cards each day. Her teacher was wonderful about keeping me informed about what they were working on and was very receptive to my insights on Mila’s background and behavior.
She had three months of preschool before the school year ended. We learned that because of her birthday, she would be required to move on to a transitional kindergarten next year. I began asking around and learned that at our local school, she would either be mainstreamed with services or in an exclusive special needs class. Both options seemed less than ideal. She’d get more one on one attention in the exclusive class but was it a step back? Could she handle a regular classroom? Would that push her on to excel or would she get lost in the shuffle of a big class filled with ‘typical’ students? Could she do it?
I received very mixed messages from her teacher when I approached her on her thoughts. Some days she sounded like Mila would have to be in exclusive special education class while at other times she indicated inclusion would be better.
The IEP meeting loomed and I requested drafts of the team’s reports. Again, some of the results were not surprising. She has a significant speech/language delay that greatly hinders her ability to communicate. Mila had no formal academic training prior to starting preschool. The baselines for most of her goals were zero. But as I looked closely at the summaries, I began to see our little girl with new eyes. She had six goals written to be achieved in one year’s time. Since she started the school year late, she only had 3 months to work towards these goals. And she had met four out of six of them. The remaining two were partial meets- each of these had notes indicating significant progress. The notes from her teacher described a cheerful, helpful student who understands classroom rules, follows directions, is on task, and is a pleasure to be around. Her results from her initial assessment stood out in such contrast to her progress made that I wondered how this would all be interpreted.
Here’s how I interpreted it: our girl is amazing. Just eighteen months ago she was living in an orphanage in China. Her life had been turned upside down and here she was rocking preschool. If only ‘the team’ could understand what I understood then they would see Mila’s potential like I was. Encouraged by online friends, I wrote a parent statement to be sent to her IEP team and included in the actual report. Here’s an excerpt of what I shared:
I share this background to not only seek understanding for behaviors and deficits you may have noted but to show the magnitude of growth and the yet untapped potential that is buried within our little girl. The pig-tailed, exuberant girl who uses words to make her own needs known and is learning her letters and numbers is unrecognizable from the shell of a child we met in China just a year and a half ago."
After many moments of overthinking and self doubt, I concluded three things; 1. Mila was amazing regardless of her progress at school. She has overcome so much but even if it weren’t measureable in test results and progress reports, she is still valued, loved, and cherished just because she is ours. 2. I would give up the fear and chose to focus on what was true- God had a plan for Mila that was bigger than an IEP or any statement I could make. 3. Though I would loosen my grasp on my perceived control of the situation, I would gladly tighten my grip on the great honor that had been entrusted to me of being Mila’s mom and advocate. I would fight for her as best as I knew how.
We had our IEP meeting. The formality was all there- the wide table and strangers seated across from me. It was slightly less intimidating since we were in Mila’s classroom and everyone had to fold themselves into preschool-sized chairs, but the awkwardness still prevailed. The mood was quickly changed though as Mila’s teacher broke protocol and breezed over the written summary to give her recommendation. Then the speech pathologist jumped in and proclaimed how amazed she is each and every day with Mila. Her eyes began to water as she mentioned the parent statement that was copied and pasted into the report for all to read. “She’s even more incredible than I thought.” she said. Mila’s physical education teacher shared her amended goals and then told us stories of Mila’s participation in her class and how she somehow garnered an audience of big kids to applaud while she worked on the balance beam.
I’m left pondering this quote, “There are two gifts we should give our children: one is roots, the other is wings.” We have spent so much time and energy on giving Mila roots. We kept her world small when she came home. “Cocooned” and slowly earned her trust. We took baby steps and kept Mila’s attachment to our family in the front of our minds. Our work isn’t over here. But it is exciting to see her spread her wings and I can only think that those roots have something to do with her ability to fly.
Go Mighty Mila Go! We know that Mila is fearfully and wonderfully made and are honored to be her family. But even greater than that knowledge is knowing that God has a plan for her life- He holds her in His hands.
“Not one sparrow (What do they cost? Two for a penny?) can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t worry! You are more valuable to him than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31
One more excerpt from my statement to Mila’s team:
“While we know that Mila is developmentally behind peers of her same age, it is difficult to discern if this is due to a specific disability or a result of her past and the trauma-behaviors we now see. She has learned so much, overcome so many obstacles, and continues to amaze us each and every day. We want her to be in the very best academic setting to encourage her growth and development and unlock that potential that we have had glimpses of. We are confident that she will soar if given the confidence to spread her wings.”