The first time I walked into a review of my son's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at his school, I was met by his teacher, the teacher for the next grade, the school psychologist and the school speech pathologist.
It probably would have been more intimidating had we all not been sitting in tiny chairs around a table intended for 5-year-olds.
My son was diagnosed early on with a language delay. He spent two years in our school district's preschool program. That year, he was making the jump to kindergarten.
When a child with special needs qualifies for services from a school district in Arizona, an IEP is written to outline goals for the child, as well as information about what the school will provide (in our case, weekly speech therapy).
I think of IEPs each spring because that is when my son's is up for renewal, but really, an IEP can be written any time of the school year for children age 2 years and 10.5 months, up to 21, said Becky Raabe, coordinator for the parent information network, part of the Arizona Department of Education's Exceptional Students Services.
And parents - as much as the teacher, special needs coordinator, speech pathologist or anyone else at that table - should be team members in the process, Raabe said.
First, she said, know your rights. Families who suspect their child has a disability can request an informal screening. Concerns over vision, hearing, language development, fine or gross motor skills, behavior or socialization may all trigger the request, she said.
School districts or charter schools have 45 days to conduct the screening.
The next step, should a concern be identified, is an informed written consent to do a formal evaluation. A school then has 60 calendar days to complete it.
"The child is evaluated in all areas of suspected disabilities by qualified professionals," Raabe said.
If there is a need for services, an IEP is written. It is a one-year document that is followed by a re-evaluation for services every three years, or as deemed necessary.
"The purpose of the document is to describe the current level of the student's academic achievement and functional performance, and then they'll develop academic and functional goals," she said. "The document is an agreement the school district will provide their services."
Parents should keep a copy of the document and review it each year, as well as any other documents in a child's school file.
Anyone who hasn't walked the path with a special needs child, doesn't need to do so alone.
Parents should seek out others who have children with similar disabilities. Research information online. Join a support group.
"Something I have heard many parents say is helpful is to talk to your child about school. What do they like? What don't they like? What motivates them? What interests them? Build on your child's strengths. A child who needs extra help gets discouraged. You want to tell the teachers what motivates the child," she said. "Always be ready to advocate for your child."
Online resources can be found at www.azed.gov/ess/pinspals or by calling the parent information network's hotline 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at (877) 230-7467.