I Learned About IEPs the Hard Way
How did I become a special education advocate?
It’s been quite a journey to get to this point in my career. After 20 years of working in schools, I wanted to do things differently. It finally dawned on me that I've been an IEP coach all along!
Let me show you WHERE I’ve been and what I learned along the way.
Experience Changes You
My first experience with special education was as a teen designing Easter eggs for visually impaired children. As I thought about how they experienced the world I also thought about how life for disabled kids was both similar AND different from mine.
My biggest shift in perspective came when I became disabled myself. Driving home from work, I dozed off and hit the freeway divider going full speed. I was taken, with much reluctance, to the emergency room. To my shock, several doctors told me I had broken my neck in two places. It was a miracle I wasn’t paralyzed.
While I was grateful, my life changed dramatically. I was given a neck brace with metal bars (just like the 16 Candles movie) waist to mid-neck for 6 months. My university wasn’t handicapped accessible, so I took a leave of absence to move back home. My family helped me to navigate my surroundings, take care of personal needs and interact with the outside world. I felt lost and helpless. A specialist told me my sideways neck could never be repaired and to expect permanent “deformity”.
I felt different and less.
Eventually, things got better. I found a new specialist who believed my body could heal with lots of therapy and most importantly grit. The changes to my body became a part of my identity. I enrolled in a junior college and after 6 months, my brace was removed just before my 21st birthday. My experience of physical disability and pain since then has given me perspective and an understanding of how millions of youth and adults are treated differently across the world.
My Biggest Takeaway: Experience changes you. Walking the walk and having to depend on others is hard. Along with the challenges, also comes an opportunity. The decision is yours. You can surrender to negativity or harness this in order to make a positive impact on others. There is always a choice and the power to change.
Check Your Expectations at the Door
Fresh out of college I got a job as a teacher! I was thrilled to be following in the footsteps of my family.
I’m a helper by nature and was drawn to kids who struggled. One student, “Juan” (his real name has been changed to maintain confidentiality), gave me a run for my money. He was my lowest-performing student and constantly in trouble. He didn’t respond to behavior charts or anything else I thought “always worked.” I assumed Juan’s struggles were his “fault” and he wasn’t “trying.”
I thought I knew all the answers.
After months of no progress with traditional methods, I referred him for a special education evaluation. I told Juan’s parents he probably had a learning disability. He would DEFINITELY qualify for special education.
To my surprise, the IEP committee said Juan was highly gifted. I was blown away! How could I have been so wrong? The school psych said I wasn’t challenging his unique needs. Wait, what? A learning disability wasn’t “responsible” for his challenges, it was my failure to adjust to his needs.
My Biggest Takeaway: Check your expectations at the door. There is no one path, an IEP has to look. Every child has strengths and weaknesses, and presume competence. If you build upon a child's strengths, they’ll rise to the occasion. I was too busy focusing on what Juan COULDN'T do instead of how I could change my approach to meet his needs.
Special Education Can Improve
After my humbling first experience with IEPs, I became fascinated with what school psychs could do. I wanted to know more and help students in a way I couldn’t.
So I enrolled in graduate school and continued to teach by day.
2 years later I landed my first job as a school psych in Los Angeles, one of the biggest districts in the country. Overwhelmed and overworked, I completed nearly 200 evaluations per year (WAY above national norms). I was shocked by the number of referrals with no process in place examining HOW and WHY kids were referred.
My colleague and I decided to change HOW schools referred students when we were asked to go to sites and “clean up” overdue evaluations. We were coined the “sweep team” and were asked to come to a new school, every day to test AND complete the evaluation report. With nothing but an assessment plan, the task was nearly impossible. We consulted with district personnel and suggested changes. If schools asked for us to help, they were given a laundry list to fulfill, before they could request assistance. We rewarded innovative schools willing to change how students were referred with help.
We wanted to change HOW students were referred while encouraging schools to examine what they needed to do differently to improve their efficiency.
My Biggest Takeaway: If you want to improve special education, then you need to be willing to make changes in how things are done. Speak up, collaborate, and be willing to make adjustments to what you’re doing. Through these simple changes, special education can improve.
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Parenting Is Hard
This lesson might seem obvious, but I didn’t know exactly how hard parenting would be until I was a parent myself.
I got married to my high school crush and within the next 3 years had 2 beautiful boys.
I loved being a new mom. What I didn’t love was commuting more than 4 hours per day and spending every night writing reports. My work and life balance was out of whack. I spent so much time helping others, I was absent from my own children.
I was drowning and questioned my career. My heart told me there was another way to help kids AND keep my sanity. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do. The cost of childcare nearly took my entire salary. I wanted to work closer to home, however, there weren’t any positions open for school psychologists on my side of town. I was blessed to have my parents nearby. They helped out with school pick-ups and picking up sick kids so I could finish the school day. I was and continue to be grateful for their many years of help.
My colleagues who worked full time and had children, also struggled. We shared our challenges and parenting fails together. It was refreshing to have others validate my struggles and help me connect. Working with others, including my parents, was the only way I got through those years. In today’s world, both parents struggle to pay the bills and juggle working full-time.
My Biggest Takeaway: Parenting is hard. Period. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and okay to ask for help. Reach out to those who build you up and take time to care for yourself.
IEPs Need To Change
After a few years, I got a new job in a school district. It was completely different from my experience in urban LA.
A smaller caseload meant more time to expand assessments. Parents had more resources, they hired advocates and attorneys to educate themselves about special education. I LOVED the school teams at every site. IEP committees came together as teams. Schools let me suggest changes to interventions and spend more time educating families about the special education journey. We worked on understanding why students were being referred and helping families get quality support early.
Even with all these resources, IEPs were still a challenge. Parents, teachers, and staff wanted more productive meetings. We’d finish a 2-hour triennial only to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. More than half of the meetings reviewed existing data. I spent HOURS writing reports, struggling to connect evaluations to the IEP.
It dawned on me, we psychs were never taught HOW to write IEPs or craft consumer-friendly reports. A majority of my evaluations were +30 pages. Attorneys and school personnel told us we “must” use complicated language in reports and test “for everything” no matter why kids were referred.
I felt useless. Writing reports with such complicated language made no sense! Why we were testing was never individualized or based on need.
I knew from teaching, special education needed a fresh approach. Teachers can adjust HOW they teach instead of assuming kids can’t learn. It’s all about mindset.
Educators must presume competence for all learners. Why should we only focus on finding deficits by testing and categories? We weren’t taught HOW to utilize strengths in our evaluations to Build a Better IEP™️.
My Biggest Takeaway: Special education opens the door to opportunity and inclusion when it works. Limitations persist in how teams tend to work in isolation and not as a cohesive unity. When everyone understands why students are referred, they can collaborate to better individualize reports based on need. Focusing on strengths capitalizes on what kids can do and NEED to learn. Connecting assessments to IEP development is the key.
Burnout Is Real
When the 2008 great recession hit, I, like many people, lost my job. Money was tight. Both my husband and I were laid off in the same month I gave birth to my third child.
How would we put food on the table?
Luckily, I still had my credential and was offered a job teaching blended kindergarten. I was back in the classroom again but had never worked with 5-year-olds. I went all in and ended up loving kinder!
A third of my students had IEPs. I set up the class the way I WANTED but was stuck with limitations filling in for a teacher out on leave. Our team collaborated with tons of providers and together we created one of the best inclusive classrooms I had ever seen. EVERYONE got support in the entire class. Despite having to teach with someone else’s materials, the experience was a blast!!
I felt great about the work I was doing, and teaching took its toll on my personal life.
I came home exhausted every night. I spent as much time as I could with my 3 little ones (all under 6), but my body started to break down. My back hurt, I wasn’t sleeping and my marriage suffered. I wanted to work less, but our financial situation was dire.
After 17 years, it was time to end the marriage. I filed for divorce and moved into a small apartment with my boys. Life was hard as a single parent with limited income. However, I knew in my heart that being single and happy parent was the best choice for me and my boys. The change felt good because I had been the one to decide. I missed my job as a school psychologist and wanted to return to special education with my newfound knowledge in collaborative teaching.
As luck would have it, a part-time position became available across town. I would have to commute across town, but the days off and higher pay were worth it. Living on a teaching salary as a single parent is nearly impossible.
My Biggest Takeaway: Teacher burnout is real. Being a good educator often means sacrificing yourself and your family. With low wages and high expectations, it’s no wonder that U.S. teachers report the highest burnout rate of any profession. We need to rethink how we retain existing educators and recruit new ones. We can improve education, only if we work together.
Don’t Wait for Opportunity, Create It
3 years after my divorce, it was time to get back into the saddle. I joined the online dating scene for the first time in my life.
It was fun, totally weird, and one of the best things I ever did. I met the love of my life, who happened to live just down the street and graduated from the same school. After a comfortable and easy few years, we decided to blend our families and get married!
Right before the wedding, my district transferred me to a new school. This meant I now had to commute even further than before (+2 hours). The newly formed middle school needed lots of support and I would be given 1 day a week to get things into shape. Um, that’s not possible. I flashed back to previous districts, remembering high caseloads, stress, and long commutes. What did I really want?
I knew what I wanted. The choice was clear. It was time to put into action what I’d always dreamed of.
I gave my notice. When I told the director I was going to become a special education advocate, her only response was, “You’ll be great April”.
When the door opens, you’ll know when to walk through
I went back to school to become a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP). The week after I passed my exam, the pandemic hit. It was a setback, and my vision for online coaching came to life.
To serve clients virtually, I needed training in IEP development. Despite being an educator and school psychologist for nearly 20 years, I never actually learned how to write IEPs. I needed training to help others.
I enrolled in the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) SEAT 2.0 and 3.0 programs. Wanting more, I became a Board Certified Education Advocate, BCEA through National Special Education Advocacy Institute (NSEAI) as well as a Master IEP Coach®.
I formulated an action plan to help parents and teachers advocate at the IEP table. Parents want to understand the process and learn how to support their children without stress. Spending all your time searching on listservs or parent support networks, can often be stressful and counterproductive. As a teacher and school psych, I desperately wanted IEP training. However, the general focus of many special education departments is to write “correct” IEPs to avoid litigation. What about working with the family and what’s best for the child? I sat down and over the next few months, wrote my own curriculum. Families, schools, and clinicians all need to work together to improve special education. With a bottom-up approach, advocacy can be taught to everyone at the table.
Only together, can we Build a Better IEP™️.
My Biggest Takeaway: Don’t wait for opportunity, create it. You can change yourself if you’re willing to take the first step.
I’ve Been Where You Are Now
I was completely overwhelmed with the IEP process despite my experience and expertise. I wanted to do things differently. I know that special education can change, for the better. Parenting is hard and teacher burnout is real. Don’t wait for the opportunity, create the change you want NOW.
After sitting on all sides of the table, I’m excited to help everyone on the IEP team through my unique curriculum. Special education can improve only if everyone works together to create a better way to craft IEPs.
My do-it-with-you approach to advocacy is different. I pull back the curtain taking you behind the scenes of the entire special education process. Then, I teach you a more effective method to document and communicate with your team. All techniques and strategies are action-oriented and provide quick results.
IEP trainings are online and on-demand. I’ve made learning easy with bite-size videos, worksheets, and fillable templates. Every course takes less than 24 hours to complete. Gone are the days of stressful meetings. Get the training to help your child or student thrive.
Learn to advocate the way you’ve always wanted.
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