My son starts 9th grade tomorrow, and my daughter begins community college classes next week. I have many feels (as my daughter would say.) I have started and deleted a couple of blog posts. There are so many different things on my mind and I can’t seem to settle on one as a focus. Finally, I decided to give a piece of advice to parents of kids who have IEPs or 504 plans.
My son has a 504 plan due to auditory processing difficulties. The process of diagnosis, plan development and interaction with various school staff will make for a book some day when I have time to write it. Right now, I’d like to share one of the most important things I’ve learned through hard experience.
Get. It. In. Writing.
Let me put that another way for emphasis: GET IT IN WRITING!
When you’re sitting by yourself as your child’s sole representative in an IEP or 504 meeting, it can be hard to steel your nerve and speak up. You want to seem reasonable. You want these people to like you and your child. But when a staff member says a specific item doesn’t need to be written into the plan “because it’s a service we can offer to any child,” this means they’re not going to do it. Unless you get in in writing and they’re legally obligated to. If it’s something your child needs, don’t worry that they’ll call you a helicopter parent or that they’ll think you’re too demanding, or not nice. Be polite, of course, but also firm that you want it in writing. If it’s something that’s no problem to offer, then why can’t they put it in writing?
My hard experience came with the verbal promise that a teacher would be assigned in my son’s eighth-grade year to go over his agenda with him each day to make sure he knew what his homework assignments were. This has been something that nearly drove me mad in his middle school years – trying to help him figure out what homework he needed to do and whether he’d done it. Often the assignments are told to the students at the end of class when everyone is packing everything away, creating lots of distracting noise – noise my son can’t filter, so he needs another way to know what’s going on. Some teachers were great about communicating and posting everything on-line. I love them. Others posted almost nothing. One teacher repeatedly posted things on-line and then changed the instructions verbally in class, so my son was spending time working on stuff that got him no class credit. I was literally in tears a couple of times from the frustration.
So when the junior high counselor sat in our 504 meeting and said, “We can designate a teacher to collate his assignments and check in with him each day to make sure he knows what they are and whether they’re getting done,” I felt as if I’d been handed a winning lottery ticket. I saw hours of work and worry lifting from my shoulders. When the counselor asked if it was something I’d like them to do, I didn’t hesitate. I said, “Yes, let’s put it in the plan.”
Hmmm…I should have been more suspicious when a different school staff member jumped in with “We don’t even have to put it in writing because…(chorus) it’s a service we can offer to any child.” They assured me they did it for lots of students and they’d do it for my son. They’d let me know if he was getting behind.
The school year started, and it was such a relief not to have to be an inadequately informed micro-manager any more. I kept thinking, “I really can let go of some things. It’s okay. I don’t have to do *everything.* Sometimes I really can leave it to the people who get paid to do it.” I did ask my kid sometimes if he knew what he was supposed to be doing, and he’d say “I’m pretty sure I do.” I did see him doing homework. I was tempted to check in at the school and ask, but didn’t want to be called names, you know, like “helicopter mom.” I figured I hadn’t heard anything and they’d let me know if he was behind.
Then, about four weeks into the year, I casually asked him which teacher was doing the homework check for him. And he was all like “What are you talking about?”
“You know, they said they’d assign a teacher to check in with you every day whether you know what your homework is from all the classes and whether you’re doing it?” I prompted.
Nope, nobody was doing anything like that. It hadn’t been done once. So I went to his 504 case manager (one of the school counselors) and asked what was up. And she was all doe-eyed innocence, like “We do that for some students, but it’s not in his plan anywhere.”
And I was all like “But you guys promised.”
And she was all like, “He does have all sorts of accommodations. I just don’t see that one written down in the plan anywhere.”
And then I realized the verbal promise wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. And the “all sorts of accommodations” remark? Intended to deflect attention away from the issue of them breaking a promise by making me feel bad about being overly demanding. Suddenly the “service we can offer to any student” had been transformed into a request for the sun and the moon. I haven’t asked for the sun nor the moon, I’m here to tell you. I’m starting to think maybe I should.
To get on with the story – I checked in with all of his teachers and discovered he was missing at least some work in every single class, a significant amount in a couple of classes. And then I had to negotiate terms of catching up. The process of catching up consumed every evening and weekend of our lives for the next month or so. And then I was back to sitting down next to him every afternoon with his school binders and the computer logged in to his school account, trying to help him figure it all out.
I have since talked to enough parents in similar situations to find out empty promises are distressingly common. I don’t want to paint with a broad brush, because we’ve dealt with some truly wonderful teachers over the years. But there are a few school personnel who, with no intention of following through, will promise almost anything in a meeting (verbally) simply to get you to stop talking about it.
This year, at least, I’m not lulled into a false complacency. My son was doing a better job by the end of the school year last year of knowing how to get the information he needed on his own, and I hope he’ll continue to improve and move toward independence this year. But I know I need to be right in there right away to help him get off to a successful start. At least this year I know.
One more point. I’ve decided the use of terms such as “helicopter parent” is nothing more than an attempt to control parents through humiliation. Keep us in our place. I’m not falling for it any more. I’m doing the best I can to help my kids grow into independent adults. But even independent adults sometimes need advocates. I’m going to do what I believe is best, without being cowed by the fear of a label.
And I’m getting all promises in writing.