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Integrating School and Community Supports through the IEP Process
by M. Ryan Growden, MA, LBS, BCBA

For many families of school-age children with special needs, the development and revision of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can be a difficult and even overwhelming experience.  Despite the many challenges associated with navigating the special education system, the IEP process presents a unique opportunity for parents, school personnel, and community service providers to collaborate and share ideas and information to promote student success.  The IEP identifies each student's unique skills, abilities, and needs for support and presents specific strategies and goals that will be utilized by educators and other professionals (Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, Counselors, Behavior Consultants, etc.) within the school setting to assist the student in reaching his or her full potential.  Since many students with special needs also receive similar therapeutic services in the home and community, coordination of care and consistency of interventions are essential.  By taking the appropriate steps before, during, and after the IEP meeting, parent(s)/guardian(s) can play an active role in the coordination of therapeutic services across settings and providers. 

One of the most important steps a parent/guardian can take to ensure continuity of care is preparation.  Prior to your child's annual IEP meeting, take some time to review his/her treatment plans from outpatient service providers.  It may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: What specific needs or concerns are identified?  What types of intervention strategies are currently in place?  Have these strategies been successful? And if the treatment plans have not been recently updated, have a conversation with his/her therapist to help identify progress and potential next steps.  This information can then be shared with the IEP team to identify any discrepancies in progress and to develop new intervention strategies to provide consistency for the student.  During this discussion, ask the therapist if he/she is open to collaborating with professionals in the school setting.  Many therapists are willing to share ideas and treatment strategies with school based service providers with parental consent. 

During the IEP meeting, parent(s)/guardian(s) should be active participants in discussions related to the student's progress, goals, and intervention plans.  Be certain to share the information that was provided by community based therapists as well.  This information can provide the school team with valuable insight into the child's abilities and needs in a variety of settings.  For students involved with multiple community supports, many families find it helpful for a Behavioral Specialist Consultant or Case Manager to attend the IEP meeting.  In addition to providing support for the family, these individuals will be able to gather and disseminate valuable information to other team members that may assist in promoting consistency of interventions.  Remember to also ask school personnel about their willingness to consult with or provide information to community based professionals.  Active and consistent collaboration is the key to successful coordination of care.  Above all, never be afraid to ask questions!  As critical members of the IEP team, parent(s)/guardian(s) should always be informed of and comfortable with the supports and strategies the team develops.

Following the IEP meeting it is important to review the information discussed with community service providers.  Some families find it helpful to share a copy of the IEP document or Positive Behavior Support Plan with therapists, while others prefer to provide only a summary of the student's progress, goals, and supports.  The amount and type of information shared is a personal decision for each family, however, it is important remember that open communication is essential to the coordination of care across settings.  While many families participate in the formal IEP revision process only once per year, parent(s)/guardian(s) should maintain regular communication with the child's teachers and therapists.  Again it is important to consider asking questions to gauge the student's progress.  For example:  What new strategies have been attempted in speech sessions?  Has the new reinforcement schedule been effective?  Has there been any improvement in the student's grades with the new testing accommodations?  By maintaining open communication and sharing information with both school and community based professionals, family members can take an active role in the education and treatment of their student.

In supporting students with special needs, consistency often makes the difference between an intervention being successful or unsuccessful.  Through the IEP process, parent(s)/guardian(s) have the opportunity to gather and share information from both school-based and outpatient service providers in an effort to coordinate goals, intervention strategies, and generalization techniques.  By maintaining active and consistent communication among school personnel, family members, and outpatient service providers, parent(s)/guardian(s) will increase the likelihood of a positive response to all supportive services.

M. Ryan Growden, MA, LBS, BCBA, is the Clinical Director at the New Story School in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. New Story is a licensed, private school which offers a special education academic learning environment and multiple therapeutic services to help children achieve success while coping with emotional and behavioral challenges. For more information, visit www.newstory.com or call (412) 373-5235

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