Is your child’s IEP missing something crucial? 🔍 Check out our latest article on what could be missing and how to ensure your child is getting the support they need in school!
by Anneliese Knop
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I remember being bored, and feeling a little irrelevant. Not entirely so, but more often than not, my mind wasn’t required at the meeting. It was toward the end of the school year, with tantalizingly beautiful Oregon weather outside the windows at my back. I had a lot of things I wanted to do, and sitting at a conference table listening to hollow praise of new technology and how I was exceeding academic expectations wasn’t on that list.
In high school, this was my impression of my Individualized Education Plan (IEP). As a visually impaired child registered with the Willamette Education School District I had a team of educators, accessibility and independent living advocates, and my parents all working together to ensure I had the resources I needed to succeed at school, and eventually at life. This is something every child with a disability enrolled in public school has a right to, and it is a good thing.
But it can also be a mysteriously complex, dauntingly disengaging thing. Just because all parties are required to have a conversation a couple of times a year doesn’t mean that there is much being contributed to the Shared Pool of Meaning, and if that pool is shallow enough, the results can be a lot of wasted time, effort, and money. They may even set some dangerous precedents in a child’s life.
There is one key element missing from almost every IEP, one that ought to be introduced at the absolute earliest grade possible to begin building habits of reflection, self-awareness, boundaries, confidence, and safety that every child should be encouraged to develop. That element is consent.
What is an IEP ?
An IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is a document developed in collaboration between educators, service providers, and parents/guardians of a child with a disability (or disabilities) enrolled in public school in the United States. The plan outlines specific educational and developmental goals made more challenging to attain by the presence of the disability, and what assistive devices, altered protocols, and other services will be employed to help the child attain those goals. These plans are typically concocted in the spring, so that the previous year’s performance can be used to identify what’s working, and what isn’t.
What’s in an IEP?
Most IEPs focus on academic and behavioral goals. Reading and Mathematics are major focus points, and learning how to interact with peers, take directions from teachers, and respond appropriately to different social situations ran the highest in most cases. An IEP might describe how blindness makes learning to spell, and thus compose written material, more challenging so the child will need to learn Braille, have access to a Braille device both at school and at home, and be provided with Braille-embossed reading material for the purpose of improving vocabulary.
The IEP might also stipulate that the student requires additional time and a private location to take exams because of the space constraints of a small classroom. Children with neuro-divergent minds may also focus better in quieter, less stimulating environments, and those that need to stim can do so in relative privacy during the pressure of the exam.
An IEP might also address the need for counseling to address bullying, or the trauma of losing hearing or mobility through an accident or illness that is interfering with the child’s ability to concentrate, make friends, and react appropriately to micro-aggressions.
What’s Missing in an IEP?
I gave away the answer in the introduction, but the connection between academic success, social skills, and consent might not be readily apparent, especially when we’re talking about children in elementary school. Consent, for our purposes, is a person’s ability to enact a “yes” or a “no” answer with equal facility and effectiveness. Children learn the concept of “yes” and “no” fairly early on, and shortly after that they learn about others’ ability to say “yes” or “no” to something, and how their own yes might be limited by someone else’s (usually the parent’s) no.
This depends on the school district, but in many cases once the child reaches a certain age their presence is required so they can give direct feedback on what has and hasn’t been working for them. But that requirement doesn’t usually kick in until early adolescence. Before that, the reasoning goes that the child isn’t really old enough to reflect on an entire year’s worth of experiences and provide useful feedback, and wouldn’t enjoy having to sit still in a meeting about boring grown-up stuff anyway. I certainly don’t recall going to any before I turned 13.
But many people don’t learn the confidence and discernment skills necessary to back up their “yes’ or “no in challenging situations until adulthood, often to great cost.
Learning to wait turns, share toys, politely decline unwanted food, or suggest different games are all foundational skills for developing a child’s belief that preferences and concerns are worthy of acknowledgement and respect, but when a child has a disability, they might find themselves socially isolated from experiences that naturally teach these lessons.
Children might also be accustomed to having to put up with painful procedures, invasive treatments, and uncomfortable situations made necessary by their medical needs. Instead of learning that pain and comfort are “no” signals, they learn early on that they must tolerate them in order to be considered “well-behaved.” How might this impact their perception of their body’s natural warning systems later on in life in less-friendly situations?
Why Children with Disabilities Need Consent Training
We hear consent referenced most frequently when talking about sexual encounters, and that is certainly an area where it has profound implications. But it is also a more subtle concept with more subtle consequences in a wide array of areas. When children learn early on that they must patiently submit to discomfort, either at the hands of doctors or bullies, they have learned to believe that they have little or no right to determine what happens to their body.
When children are born or fall into a class of people regularly ignored and dehumanized in situations ranging from customer service to civil rights, they must learn early on that their voice is a tool that can be used to define boundaries, rights, and their selves. If not, they may never know they can confront and combat this reduction of self imposed by others.
The belief that the self deserves respect from peers and authority figures is most easily and best established early on in life. When a parent gives a child choices about what color sweater they want, the parent is teaching the child that their voice matters. But when a school district decides to remove a student with a disability from a sex ed class, or forces them to self-identify as the “other” in other various ways, they perpetuate the idea that the child’s comfort and confidence are unfortunate casualties of the disability. It erodes the child’s belief in inclusivity, the belief that their physical and emotional comfort signals are valid and valuable, and that they have any agency to put toward making choices.
How an IEP Can Provide a Foundation for Consent Training for Your Child
The cries of “lack of funding” and “we’re so short-staffed” are what school districts usually say when asked to re-consider how they do things. But adding a child’s voice to an IEP doesn’t cost money and might even take some load off an over-worked teacher’s shoulders.
Even a six-year-old can talk about what does and doesn’t help them in school. As a counselor, I have listened to children tell me when noisy classrooms give them headaches, or that having permission to get up and get a drink of water in the hall allows them to take some deep breaths and come back into the classroom ready to focus.
Children’s bodies can communicate loudly in an IEP meeting, too. When asked about being allowed to go to the front of the class to see the blackboard more closely, the little squirms and downcast gaze communicates volumes about the child’s desire to avoid exposure.
Enormous amounts of modern scientific resources speak to the harmful and counterproductive impacts of anxiety and over-stimulation on learning. If taking a little extra time to ask a child’s opinion on accommodations in one meeting can help illuminate their fundamental need for emotional safety and how it can be met, isn’t that reason enough?
Children should be allowed to contribute to discussions of their goals and accommodations, but there are also ways to include consent and boundary-setting in behavioral and social goals. Mental health counseling can be an invaluable avenue for providing a path to that goal, but also informing any in-class aids and teachers of the importance of guiding the student into socially appropriate scripts and behaviors around consent can be a good starting goal in and of itself.
Say Yes to Consent Training
Virginia may become the first state to require sex-ed and consent training goals to be considered in IEPs. That means that most parents of children with disabilities still have to take it upon themselves to advocate for these crucial elements to their children’s education.
If you want your child to be taught in an environment that doesn’t reduce needs to a diagnosis, if you want your child to grow up with the foundations of confidence required for maintaining healthy relationships and pursuing career goals, if you want the peace of mind that comes with knowing they will be able to take on at least some of the task of self-advocacy, then this is a conversation you should be fighting to have.
Others on the team may see it as an inconvenience, or a lower priority than Math and Reading. To them, it might seem too “woke” to take seriously a first-grader’s IEP. But it is nothing short of reclaiming a piece of personhood, long abandoned by the society your child will grow up to inhabit.