When happy rumbles about a program to help families navigate the IEP process started rolling in from Snohomish County, our ears perked up.
While there are many good programs and supports in place to help families advocate for their child when problems emerge during the IEP process, The Arc of Snohomish County looked around and asked: What if we help parents before there is a problem? The answer to this question became the genesis for the IEP Parent Partner Program.
The fledgling program seeks to help families, particularly those facing their child’s first IEP, understand the IEP process, what’s required, and what to expect. Families are paired with a Parent Partner who acts as a guide, helping to empower families with knowledge and confidence in their role. There’s a training component to to program, plus one-on-one support that takes place before, during, and after the IEP meeting.
“It’s not advocacy with a capital A,” says Jamie Coonts, Program Director for The Arc of Snohomish County. “There are other programs out there that know about the law. We’re more in a collaboration role [between families and schools].”
Coonts explains that a lot of problems arise due from lack of communication and the parent feeling that their input isn’t valued. Often, the parent goes into the IEP meeting with a mental list of things they want to see and those things are specific services.
“We get them to think about the most important things to include in the IEP and to really think about why those things are important.”
The goal is to help families identify the underlying needs, rather than specific solutions,
so that the team can brainstorm how to meet those needs. The approach inspires collaboration and reduces the risk of families feeling dismissed.
Parent Partners also encourage families to give input into the IEP draft that the school works on prior to a meeting. It’s an action that not only helps parents clarify their needs, it also strengthens the relationship between the parent and professional team members around the table. According to Coonts, the practice is gaining a lot of traction with schools. One school district liked the the approach so much, it asked for permission to share the worksheet for all families of students with IEPs.
In keeping with the intent of the program to be a navigator, the role of the Parent Partner during the meeting is specifically defined. “At the meeting, their primary role is notetaker,” says Coonts. “Really, the only time they should be speaking up is if something needs to be clarified. They are not there to say, I think this… or to participate.” After the meeting, the Partner helps debrief and “decompress” with the parent to assess how they feel and if any follow up steps might be in order to clarify what took place.
Coonts is encouraged by the response to the program so far and hopes to see it continue. “It’s evolving,” she says. “I think it’s going to be a really good thing.”
We think so too!
To learn more about IEP Parent Partner Program, contact Jamie Coonts at The Arc of Snohomish County.