Monday, November 14, 2011

Parenting 911: What To Do When Your Child Is Failing at School

Or, What To Do When Your School is Failing Your Child. Or, The Heartbreak and Hope of a Child’s IEP, Part I.

Many of you probably don’t know what an IEP is, nor will ever have occasion to find out. I didn’t know what one was, either, until a few years ago. I certainly never thought I’d be a parent that was not only acquainted with, but well-versed enough in Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) to write about them on-line. Like I am about to do right now, as it turns out.

Three years ago, my husband and I were devastated when our then six-year-old son’s teacher proposed getting an IEP in place to get him “extra help” at school. I swear she said “extra support,” but all I could hear was “special ed” and think about it with the narrow-minded point of view that years of childhood mean-spirited-ness, movies and television had impressed on my mind. I was so shaken by the words that I momentarily lost faith that our little boy was as clever and outstanding as I had always thought he was. I allowed a label that is so deeply imbued with negativity and prejudice to color my view of our precious son. Where I had always laughed in the knowledge that he seemed to be cut from a different cloth and was happy to walk to the beat of his own drum… I faltered and wondered if he could somehow be less than what I had believed.

It is a shameful moment in hindsight, but where some parents approach their parenting like mama bears protecting their cubs, automatically leaping to their child’s defense in any situation, I am not programmed like that. When a teacher tells me that my child is not performing or is causing trouble in class, I believe them. It is that simple. I don’t assume they are wrong and must’ve misinterpreted my kid, I trust that my little gems have shown their teachers the same not-so-charming traits that surface at home occasionally and I say, “I will talk to him about it and make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Or, when they aren’t performing up to standard, “OK, they aren’t succeeding, so what can we do to make this better?”

When our IEP was proposed, it came to me awash with feelings of not only my child being inadequate is some way, but that I, as his parent, had failed, too. That I might be responsible because I didn’t do flash cards with him at three, work on math puzzles after school, or that I let him play too many video games. No matter how much I might tell myself that I don’t base my own self-worth on the successes or failures of my children, it is impossible to completely remove myself from the equation when it involves a person that shares half my genes and is the repository for not a small amount of my hopes and aspirations.

After a tearful meeting with the school psychologist, counselor and his teacher, I was so relieved to find out that I could not have misunderstood or belittled special education more. Where I had thought of an IEP as a means for schools to segregate the “dummies” from the average and gifted kids, it turns out that the children who need extra support “getting it” with a certain subject, need that extra help for a variety of reasons that often have little or nothing to do with their mental capacity. And the extra support a school can provide through an IEP is vital because if they don’t get that extra help now, they will be behind forever and might end up going through life thinking they’re an idiot when they are most definitely not.

Somewhere along the way I had conveniently forgotten that two years before I was invited to participate in the gifted and talented program at my grade school, I was the recipient of an IEP. I had never thought of it that way before, I guess, and had honestly almost forgotten that I had ever been ashamed that I needed to go to the “math trailers” for the entirety of fourth grade. (A bit of explanation: all the special education took place in trailers behind our grade school because there wasn’t space inside the main building or enough money to build more rooms.) I remember asking my mom and dad to not tell my older siblings that I had to go because I didn’t want them to tease me or call me stupid, but my strongest memory of that entire year’s experience was the simple joy I got out of going to the trailers and enjoying math instead of being so terrified of it that I would get stomach aches and diarrhea, like I had during third grade. With only five kids in the group, I not only started “getting it,” I actually got pretty good at it. 

I know now that if I hadn’t gotten the help I needed, when I needed it in fourth grade, I never would’ve been asked to be part of the gifted program. And, I will happily admit, being part of that group of 6th-grade geeks and nerdettes was probably the most formative school experience I had in grade school and played a crucial part in shaping my self-image, identity and confidence in school for years.

Once I heard what the school staff had to say and took the time to saunter down my own memory lane, I could finally let go of my ill-formed notions of what an IEP is. I was able to not only get over it, but ended up being happy that the school was aware and proactive enough to identify that my son needed one before he lagged too far behind and was able to provide the support to put a plan in place.

I used to laugh ruefully sometimes that parenting is the incremental lowering of expectations one has for their children. But I realize now that it’s not that my expectations are being lowered – they are simply adjusted to meet the needs of my children, not my ego.

No matter what kind of troubles your child is having at school, don’t ever feel like you can’t talk to their teacher about what can be done to help him or her succeed. I have found that teachers are sometimes reticent to say exactly what they mean unless prompted, so it can be a tough conversation. I only made it through a round of parent/teacher conferences without crying for the first time last year (that’s six years of kleenex, folks), so if you’re just getting started with this, I feel your pain and won’t lie to you that it will get easier. It doesn’t, as long as your child continues to struggle.

IEPs can help immensely in making things better for kids who aren’t able to “connect all the pieces” at school and in most cases you are the only person who will advocate for your child to get the assessments to determine what help is needed. So step up, let go of any out-dated bullshit that is keeping you from embracing what schools will do for kids these days, and be your kid’s advocate.

I’ve got tons more to say about this, as my eldest son is just embarking on the IEP process at the tender age of 12 – about five years later than he probably should have – but I will save it for another post.


  1. Amy this is exactly what I needed to hear before our own conference on Thursday. I was cringing and ready to get beat up. This piece has given me the tools to go in there w hope!! Thank you!!

  2. The boy was referred for title 1 reading this year. As the mom who took him to library religiously and read to him since he was wee it felt like a travesty. We had him retested (as he was ill the day he took the test last spring) and the score wasn't any better and we accepted the extra help. I felt like Worst Mom Ever but it would have been worse to deny him the assistance. We are the best advocates for our children and I agree that having a good relationship with the teachers really helps. Good luck! :)


Thoughts appreciated. Advice welcome. Douche-baggery scoffed at then deleted.