In my role as an allied health professional, I have advocated for children, teachers, and parents in so many IEP meetings that I have lost count. I have helped teams create SMART goals, brainstorm accommodations, and plan differentiation for children who have learning difficulties, anxiety, autism, ADHD, and trauma.
Yet today, I had my first IEP meeting for my son, and I felt disappointed, frustrated, angry, and helpless.
As you may already know, my son has had delays in his gross motor and fine motor skills since birth. What he lacks in physical ability, he has made up for in his language skills and academics. What we have discovered this year is that he has been diagnosed as mildly gifted, and his time at school has been confusing, frustrating, and boring for him.
As I entered my first IEP meeting, I was waiting to see an IEP document, with SMART goals listed down the side. I was waiting for his teacher to ask me what I wanted my child to achieve, and how we were going to work together to achieve the goals that create the best possible outcomes for my child. I received the opposite. I received blame, judgment, and hostility.
The first topic that came up in the IEP meeting was Hugh's social skills. Hugh's teacher was right, Hugh has gained improvements in his social skills at play time. He is now starting to play with other children, rather than play alone. However, her example that she gave me for Hugh's social improvement, was that Hugh played soccer with a group of children. Although, when I asked her whether Hugh was allowed to have a turn of the soccer ball, by this particular group of friends, she didn't know. She also couldn't see why I was concerned that my son was playing soccer now with a group of friends, but these friends weren't giving the ball to Hugh because he was "too slow". These friends were also making Hugh goalie most days, so that they could get more turns of the soccer ball. Was this really helping Hugh's social development?
Hugh has struggled socially with his peers since kindergarten, because he is understanding jokes that his friends don't understand, he is reading about space and nature and weather stations, that his friends aren't yet ready for be interested in. He can't keep up with their physical abilities just yet, and to make his social life more difficult, most of his teachers have used Hugh's academic success and kind nature to their advantage, pairing him with the children in the class who need additional support with maintaining focus, following classroom rules, and completing their classwork.
Now, Hugh loves taking on this role of helping. We have taught our children to be kind to all, and help whoever we can. But Hugh is also a young boy, wanting to learn more, and challenge himself, and by the end of the day, sitting next to children who distract his learning time, and invade his personal space, Hugh feels emotionally exhausted by the demands that are placed on him in the classroom.
When I shared my concerns about Hugh being paired up with children in the class who typically demonstrated poor behaviours, rather than being paired up with children who are like-minded with Hugh, I was quickly accused of not wanting my child to support children with special needs. I was asked about what my qualifications were, as the teacher didn't believe that I worked with children with special needs, and the teacher continued with her negative judgment of me, dismissing my concerns as Hugh's mum, and wanting it to be noted in the minutes that I requested for Hugh to not sit next to children with special needs.
I was absolutely devastated.
Where were the social development SMART goals? Where are the accommodations and strategies for Hugh to build social connections with children who understand him, and can relate to him?
The second main topic was my suggestion of providing Hugh with more problem solving and creativity work, as he is clearly already 1 year ahead with literacy and maths. My reasoning for this, was because if Hugh isn't intellectually stimulated, he struggles to fall asleep because he makes up maths equations in his mind at night time. Well.... When I mentioned that I give Hugh puzzles and STEM type activities after school, I was parented by the teacher about me needing to take pressure off of Hugh outside of school hours, because I was judged to be pushing Hugh's growth too much.
When I further argued for Hugh's need to be spending time with like-minded children, who he can have an intellectual conversation with, I was told very abruptly, that there are "children who are smarter than Hugh you know", and we can't pressure children to be friends with Hugh. Another judgment, where the teacher thinks that I am trying to make Hugh a genius. Where all we are trying to do it help Hugh feel fulfilled at school.
The 4 hours of extension work that Hugh is getting in the areas of literacy and maths with a small group of like-minded peers (one of them is his twin sister) seems to be more than enough apparently, and our request to have Hugh be given the opportunity to chat with other children at his level, just for social growth, was not accepted. Instead we were encouraged to source outside social support for Hugh through a sporting team, or scouts.
For an hour we went round and round in circles, not a single SMART goal was set. I was asked to read through the minutes, and once I agreed to them, I could sign them. Well that wasn't going to happen. Instead I asked for the minutes to be printed. I refused to sign minutes that accused me of not wanting my son to help children with special needs. As soon as I got home from the meeting, I wrote my own notes all over the print out, and sent the amended minutes back to the school after school hours. I added my own SMART goals, and made it very clear what Hugh's social and emotional needs are.
My concern tonight is, what happens to parents who don't know what I know about IEP's and goal setting? What happens to parents who sit in these meetings, and get negative judgments thrown at them, but don't know their rights?
I left that meeting with tears in my eyes, feeling so deflated. But I had the ability to head back to my books, and throw research back at the teacher. I am outraged that other parents are being treated like I was, and I am determined now to advocate for other families, like ours.