As a special needs Dad and a Special Education attorney I have participated in and listened to enough IEP meetings to need therapy, or at least a stiff drink. In some ways it can be like watching a horror movie, you know something bad is going to happen, but there’s nothing you can do about it. No matter how many times you scream “He’s in the house” or “don’t go into the dark basement” it’s not going to change anything, and you have to watch the inevitable. It’s hard to simplify the many ways that IEP’s go wrong. And, it’s hard to prep someone for the twists and turns, traps and tricks that occur at so many IEPs. But, as I reviewed in my mind what characterized a good versus a horrid IEP (horrid referring to both the experience and usually the result) I began to realize the more the Parent/Attorney/Advocate talked the worse the meeting.
Any interviewer, detective, or trial attorney knows that you don’t get good information from your subject by talking, you do it by getting them talking. You see, I view IEPs differently than most. I don’t see them as a battle over scarce resources, or a place to prove my knowledge of the law. In fact, they aren’t about me at all. I see them as an opportunity to gather evidence. I go into IEP meetings assuming the school won’t give me what is appropriate for the student, and making a record that makes the wrongfulness of their decision undeniable. This was a strategy I developed years ago when dealing with difficult judges. Fighting against the person that is empowered to make the decision (and make no mistake your school is empowered to decide against you) is an art. Ultimately, I decided to deal with it politely and not confrontationally. Your “opponent” is powerful and not stupid. So if you devote your time and efforts to creating a solid factual record that deciding against you would be wrong, they are far less likely to decide against you. You create a record by asking open ended questions that make it clear, in your opponent’s own voice, that they are aware of all the facts that make their decision wrong, and can offer little real evidence or analysis that supports their decision. Confronted with that sort of record a smart opponent leans your way, and a dumb opponent has armed you for the real fight. So, how do you create that record? What are these 10 magic words?
When I taught trial practice I divided the ten into the “front line” which I called “The Magnificent Seven.” A blatant homage to Kurosawa, I admit. Who, What, Where, When, Which, Why, and How. These seven leads, are the key to any good direct exam, interview, or interrogation. There partners I called “The Three Amigos” (Please don’t call me racist, it was a Steve Martin Movie and sounds more powerful than The Three Stooges). Explain, Describe, and Demonstrate.
That’s them: Who, What, When, Where, Which, Why, How, Explain, Describe, and Demonstrate. Those ten lead words are all you need to turn around your next IEP. Now, take a deep breath. I know, from experience, that I just annoyed, or even angered you. “So smartass, you really think ten words can change my results at IEPs? Where were you when they were handing out brains?”
I’ve been through this before, so no offense taken. The answer is yes. And, it will be almost fun. Now open your mind a bit and start thinking about how you can use these ten words to be a more effective parent/advocate/attorney. Here are some simple, straight forward questions in this style.
“What is the difference between the approach that failed last year, and what you’re proposing for this year?”
“Who will be responsible for assuring we get the daily/weekly updates that you’re promising?”
“When did you begin to realize Johnny/Janey wasn’t making any progress in your class?”
“What are the continuum of placements that the team has considered, and why were others rejected?”
It’s really a mindset, once you start thinking of each response or explanation as an opening to a new question it becomes natural. Don’t expect one layer of questions will get to the core, just listen to your own mind’s voice as the District ladles out it’s BS. And, nicely ask that question.
“How can being in a mainstream class with an aide be more “restrictive” than a special day class?”
“What policy prohibits you from doing that, and might I please have a copy of it?”
I know this is a tough sell, but I want you to dwell on it. Do you like the fighting (I do, but I’m weird)? Isn’t is really about the results, and helping your child? Wouldn’t it be nice to win for a change? I’ve used this approach, and coached many others who have succeeded with this approach. At least think about it, until you read my next post, “53 “W” Questions to Ask at Your Next IEP.” Maybe then you’ll be ready to ride into your next IEP with The Magnificent Seven and the Three Amigos by your side.