How I’m making peace with my son’s IEP

“Don’t do anything stupid,” my wife warned me as we drove to a meeting with the school to discuss whether my 4-year-old son would get an IEP and services. “I know you’re not happy about this, but it’s the best thing for him.”

I grunted.

“And remember how much we’ll save if he gets services,” she added. “We won’t have to pay for speech or occupational therapy ourselves.”

I grunted louder.

“You know you don’t need to be here,” she said as we left the car. I stomped past a school maintenance worker who looked up from his push broom. “You really should go home.”

I yanked open the school door and steeled myself. I was ready for my son to be analyzed, dissected, and ultimately classified as a “special ed kid” by the school.

At first, I hadn’t picked up on my son’s speech delay because he was so good at pointing and nodding and making various hums to communicate. Likewise, his general jumpiness — his inability to stay still when he was excited — never registered for me until we were at a picnic with my wife’s family. That’s when someone saw him flapping his arms and suggested to me that he might have a “disorder.”

I was still uncomfortable with the idea that anybody would think my adorable, wavy-haired little boy was anything less than perfect. And now I was formally surrendering that belief.

By starting the IEP process and getting the school involved, I was openly acknowledging and putting in writing that my son has learning and thinking differences.

My wife and I were led into a cramped room at the grade school. The people who evaluated my son were already seated around a table — like a criminal parole board, it seemed to me.

My wife and I sat, and the young woman who was his case manager immediately told us that my son qualified for services. I think she thought saying this would defuse any tension and prompt me to gush with appreciation.

What she hadn’t picked up on was that I didn’t want my son to have an IEP. If he had been denied services, I might actually have hugged her.

The specialists around the table then took turns sharing troubling statistics. My son was in the thirty-fifth percentile in this category, the twenty-fifth percent for another, the third percentile in this, the tenth in…

I wanted to interrupt this swarm of numbers and speak my mind on the rigidity of developmental milestones. (“Kid are not robots!” I would have said). We’d already brought my son to a neurologist and ruled out autism and severe disabilities. So why not let him go along on his own pace? Why did we need an intervention?

But I said nothing, because how could I criticize them when we had applied for their help?

My son was identified as a child with a “disability,” and we left the room.

“Thank you for being good,” my wife said to me as we walked back to the car. I didn’t say anything. Inside, I was heartbroken, thinking that I had somehow sold out or let down my son.

The truth is I didn’t miraculously make peace with my son’s IEP. Not that day, or even afterwards. In fact, it still bothers me that he’s been identified as needing special education services, if I stop and think about it. But that’s the thing — I don’t really think about it.

I watch my son at playdates and on the playground, and I watch closely how the other kids treat him. No one makes fun of him because he gets services. He attended an inclusive preschool program with kids who weren’t receiving services, then went on to a regular kindergarten class and now first grade. I think it’s a testament to the school district that being in special education doesn’t seem to carry the same stigma as it did when I was young.

A couple times a year, we receive a packet from the school district containing an update of his IEP. I stare angrily at the envelope for a few hours before finally opening it.

I mull over the areas where he’s progressing satisfactorily or the one where he’s progressing gradually or the few were he’s achieved the stated objective. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Get the truth behind 10 myths about special education, and read about what happens at an IEP eligibility meeting. And explore a collection of personal stories about IEPs, including how a dad who felt “invisible” at IEP meetings made himself heard.


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