Guiding Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families through the IEP Process

December 2, 2016

The Special Education evaluation process can be a labyrinthian course fraught with confusion and misinformation. However, it also has the potential to be a rich source of information and a time for deep planning around the needs of a particular student. For teachers of students who come from culturally and linguistically diverse families, it is essential to deeply consider how we are ensuring understanding of this complex process at each step of the Special Education journey.

I worry about the effects of poorly-facilitated special education processes on children and their families, given the importance of ensuring that families of all backgrounds have a mutually respectful relationships with schools. A kindergarten student whose family speaks Portuguese transferred to our K-8 school from another district school last year. When the team mentioned the IEP documents to his mother, she seemed confused. We looked back into the special education folder and noticed that she had not attended the initial evaluation meeting, that no interpreter had been requested for the meeting and that she had never received a translation of the IEP documents. The mother was confused about what the IEP meeting was and what it meant that her son had a disability. When she signed the IEP documents, which had not been translated, she was told that she needed to sign them for her son. No one had taken the time to call her, to meet with her, or to explain the process.

Our team set up a meeting to review all of the paperwork we had and to educate her about the process. Without these steps, how could this mother possibly know how to partner with her son’s teachers around supporting her child with his academic and behavioral needs? She shared that she had often been embarrassed by his behavior at family gatherings, and she was glad to know that a plan was in place to support him in his development.

I have witnessed significant transformations from students whose families have been able to participate fully in the IEP process. One student who comes to mind is currently in 8th grade, and is preparing for the transition to high school next fall. From Kindergarten through Grade 4, she was in separate classrooms with a small number of students. Her mother, who speaks Spanish as her dominant language, has consistently attended her IEP meetings and has found ways to support her daughter at home, especially with her reading. Due to improvement in all areas, the student was placed in full inclusion classes starting in fifth grade, and was exposed to the same content as other students, with support in all subjects. Her reading is strong enough now that she’s reading novels, and socially, she has expanded her circle of friends outside of her special education peers. Today, she only needs a little help in reading, and she knows to ask for her IEP accommodations and modifications. At a recent back to school night, her mother served as a leader for other Spanish-speaking mothers who needed to connect with special education teachers.

What can teachers do to ensure that the IEP process goes as well as it does for the 8th grade student described above? Here are three important recommendations for teachers committed to serving culturally and linguistically diverse students and families within the realm of special education:

1. Know the process for yourself. Before you can help students and families to feel informed, you need to be well informed for yourself. The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides an outstanding resource guide for parents that presents that facts about special education processes in a straightforward manner. I reference this guide often, and it is also available in Spanish and Portuguese.

2. Meet before the meeting. For parents new to the special education process, I have found it extremely helpful to find a mutually agreed upon time to meet with them or at least to talk on the phone informally prior to the formal and often anxiety provoking actual meeting. At this pre-meeting, you might show the family the location of the meeting, explain who will be at the meeting and what information they will present, and remind families that it is their right to bring anyone they may wish (i.e. family members, family friends) to the official meeting. If you do not speak the family’s home language, seek out someone in your school who does. If this is nearly impossible, don’t be afraid to use Google Translate. While this program can be imperfect, keep in mind that something that provides families with a chance at understanding is better than nothing. Google Translate works best if you simplify the English you are inputting into short sentences and common vocabulary, as opposed to more complex sentences with technical vocabulary. It is also important to collaborate with your meeting facilitator to ensure that an interpreter has been requested for the meeting.

3. Bring the student into the meeting…from K to 12. Placing students at the center of the IEP meeting allows everyone to focus on the child who will be served by having an education plan, and it will help the family to feel more relaxed. Students can prepare a brief bilingual presentation about themselves for the introduction to the meeting. For primary and lower elementary students, they may share drawings about their hobbies, interests, and dreams for the future. Upper elementary and middle school students can add information about their academic strengths and needs as well as their plans for high school and higher education.

Although these suggestions take time and collaboration to put in place, they result in the student, family, and teacher having a strong partnership, with support that propels the child towards academic success. An informed, understanding, and advocacy-oriented educator at the table can be the difference between a meaningless IEP meeting and one that creates a program that truly benefits a child.

Jennifer Dines, NBCT

Jennifer Dines is the Director of English Language Learners at the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School, a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools. Jennifer is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of English as a New Language. She is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lesley University, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. In addition to blogging for The Standard, Jennifer currently maintains her personal blog as well as a newer collaborative blog focused on writing across the curriculum: Follow her on twitter @literacychange.