Mastering IEPs with Catherine Whitcher

Good things in life podcast episode 112 thumbnail Mastering IEPs with Catherine Whitcher
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The entire purpose of an individualized education plan (IEP) is to prepare your child for three things: education, employment, and independent living. So how can you work with the school system to make sure your child’s IEP is serving all three of those goals? Catherine Whitcher knows how to get it done and she joined me for this episode to talk about the strategies she teaches parents and education officials to help make sure the IEP is serving every one of a child’s needs. And parent input is a critical component of making that happen.

Catherine has been building IEPs for the real world for over 20 years. With experience as a special education teacher and a special needs sibling, Catherine knows the importance of helping a child reach their potential both inside and outside of the classroom. She is the founder of the Master IEP Coach Mentorship + Network, the host of the Special Education Inner Circle Podcast, and currently leads Master IEP Coaches across the United States in creating collaborative and effective IEP meetings. 

Catherine’s IEP creation methods have helped thousands of parents and schools work together to prepare students for further education, employment, and independent living. She teaches parents how to educate themselves on their rights as a member of the IEP team, how to assume ownership of those rights (hint: document everything!), and how to shift the conversation away from “wants” and toward “needs.” Ensuring your child’s best interests are truly reflected in their IEP is possible, no matter what region you’re in; it all starts with getting organized. Listen now for more insight about just how important and valuable your voice already is—you just have to learn how to use it!

Speaker 1 (00:03):

Welcome to the Good Things in Life podcast, committed to bringing world-class ideas, conversations, voices, and thought leaders to parents and educators. So kids with intellectual disabilities will have the support they need to build positive inclusive lives at the heart of community. Here’s your host sister, mom, researcher, writer, speaker, and perpetually curious, Genia Stephen.

Genia (00:39):

Catherine Whitcher. Thanks so much for joining me today. I’m super excited that you’re here.

Catherine (00:43):

Well, I’m really excited to be here. I can not wait to connect with your audience and help everyone bring their IEP’s to the next level.

Genia (00:52):

Yeah, well, and you know, as a parent myself, um, bringing our IEP, so the next level is one of the leavers, one of the significant leavers that we can use in order to improve our child’s education. So it’s a super important topic. And one that I know parents really care a lot about. So I’m grateful for your time because you of course are kind of the IEP gal. This is what you do. I wonder if you could tell people a little bit about yourself.

Catherine (01:18):

I’d love to. So I’m in the special needs community. Um, first as a special needs sibling, my brother has down syndrome. So I’ve been in the community my entire life. I always tell parents, I know what it looks like behind the scenes on the good, bad, ugly days. I became a special education teacher after watching my family navigate the special education system. I just thought I would, you know, change the entire world from the inside of my classroom. Excellent. Yeah. Got a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, five teaching certificates. I was all in like, I was like ready to put on the Cape and go, and then I realized what it’s like to be a teacher in the classroom and not have the tools that you need or the resources that you need to see the red tape behind the scenes that I never saw as a family member. Right. So what happened is I was teaching by day and I was coaching parents by night and then schools started to see what I was doing. And they were like, Hey, can you come in and, and help us out too. Like, there’s something collaborative going on here that we can’t figure out how you’re doing this. And I said, absolutely. So I left the classroom. And for the last 20 years I’ve been working for parents, teachers, admins, therapists, I’m building IEP’s for the real world that works.

Genia (02:29):

Awesome. And one of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you today was because you teach people about parent impact statements and how a parent impact statement can influence an IEP. And I know parents all over the place, it’s one of their biggest frustrations is that IEP season comes around and they get something in the mail or sent home from school. It’s their child’s IEP. It’s been written from somebody by somebody who may or may not know their, their student and it’s failed to complete, and they’re just expected to sign it and they can give feedback, but their feedback may or may not be incorporated into changes in the IEP. And, um, you know, one of the things I love about the idea of an impact statement is that it predates, that process, which is so frustrating for parents.

Catherine (03:26):

Absolutely. So in every IEP, across all states. So there’s going to be a lot of listeners that say, this, isn’t how my state works. This isn’t how my district works. This isn’t how my team works. Just know that I’ve been doing this for a long time nationwide. And I promise you that this process works. It hits a little sticky with some teams, but the process is possible. So just listen with an open mind, as I share a little bit about what the difference is, uh, the box that’s on the IEP, that just the parent educational concerns and what a parent input statement would be, um, when you bring it to the table in a different way. So the first thing for everybody to know is that the entire purpose of an IEP is to prepare your child for further education, employment, and independent living. Most parents and teams focus on that first part of the purpose and findings of idea law, which I’m not a lawyer.

Catherine (04:21):

I’m just telling you where to look. So purpose and findings of ideal levels say it’s to provide a free and appropriate public education. Absolutely. But then it continues on to say, to meet a child’s unique needs and to prepare them for further education, employment, independent living. And that’s where I love to focus because that’s what we can come together and get some agreement on what needs to happen appropriate very gray, but preparing a child for the future, really put some context into like, why are we doing that? And, and that leads into this parent input statement. So most of the time by with was in a room with all of you right now, I would say bust out the IEP, open it up and go look for that section that says something like Terrant, educational concerns or parent vision statement is that’s what it’s called in some states, but there’s a parent section.

Catherine (05:12):

Most of the time, that session you’re going to be discomplete dumbfounded about what’s in there. It’s going to say something like parent is concerned about child left jacket on bus, or a parent is concerned that child is not, you know, eating all of their peanut butter and jelly sandwich and will not really get into the core of what the parent concerns are. But here’s my favorite one. And you tell me, um, when it says parent has no concerns at this time, have you ever met a parent who has a child with an IEP who has no concerns,

Genia (05:44):

Right? Or any parents.

Catherine (05:46):

Any parents. IEP or not IEP, what parents is not some concerns that could be put there. So the first thing we got to know is like this place exists and what I’m doing is I’m going to help level this up. So when you get that meeting notice that says, um, you know, Hey, your meeting’s going to be in in 10 days. Can you attend on this day? And this time when you hit respond, don’t just say, yes, say yes, I will be there. And please see attached parent input or the meeting. And inside of that parent input statement that you’re going to submit as an attached letter, not an email as an attached letter to that email, it’s going to have your top three to five concerns written in a very dispatchable way I’m concerned and would like to see the data that, that has been collected in the area of reading.

Catherine (06:39):

Like that’s not emotional. That’s not saying anybody didn’t do their job was just saying, I’m concerned. I’d like to see the data, you know, please bring the data to the meeting, um, or provide it ahead of time is another strategy. So you’re gonna, you know, I’m, uh, I would like to discuss inclusion opportunities throughout the entire school day, not just in gym music and you know, art too. So you’re going to have these concerns. And then you’re going to end that with your parent vision, which is typically, you know, anywhere from three to maybe six sentences, about what you see for your child, when it comes to the future, that further education, employment, and independent living. And I want you to include things like now, get ready, write this down is, um, the areas of communication, relationships, social, emotional behaviors, your, um, academic behavioral, all those things that you worry about as a parent, you don’t have to put them into an IEP goal format.

Catherine (07:40):

So you’re going to be saying things like, um, together, uh, we need to be working towards, and we’ll just say, Johnny, Johnny, having meaningful relationships in the community, holding employment that can help provide stability and a purpose in his day, uh, to have communication skills, to express his wants and needs and eliminate, um, negative. So you see where I’m like, these are broad statements and it’s absolutely amazing to give this to the team because now the team’s like, all right, I had his entire IEP goal bank to choose from, but if mom and dad are focused in this section, in these areas that helps narrow down where we’re going to focus.

Genia (08:27):

Okay. So I just want to push back on one thing you said. Yeah, absolutely. So you said when you get that letter that says, are you going to attend, but parents often don’t get that letter. So in some, in some regions, if there is a separate placement meeting, an IEP meeting, the placement meeting is one that is required to have to offer parents attendance, but many families that I know if that’s not the case, or if the placement decision has already been made, they literally get the IEP sent home from school. When you’re thinking

Catherine (09:04):

About a true IEP, like in the United States, it’s okay. So legally they need to have a meeting notice in there and I’m going to encourage them. If they’re not getting their meeting, they need to go look up the policy on their state website to see it because every state is a bit different. Um, as in, we have federal law that has what, what the guidelines are and a state then can further define those guidelines. So you’re going to want to go to your state guidelines and see what the process is and what is expected. So, um, when it comes to a meeting notice 100%, you should be getting lunch. And I actually encourage those who I work with inside of the master. I could coach mentorship or inside of the inner circle. I’m encouraging all the time, but if you’re getting, uh, an IEP that’s pre-written, um, and you weren’t involved in that, and there was, there is no meeting that’s happening that has happened.

Catherine (09:57):

That there’s going to be some pushback on that. And if you’re getting a notice of like, Hey, your meetings happening in two days, that’s not going to work either. And you say, uh, you reply back, thank you very much for the meeting notice. I’m unable to attend in order to become an equal IEP team member, please provide a 10 business days of notice prior to the meeting. And you, you put back your expectation of in order to be an equal IEP team member, please provide this amount. Now, if they are going to say, you know, we can’t provide you that, I’ll be quite honest. You’re not going to get that push back. Once you put in writing in order to be an IEP team member, because nobody wants to put into writing, no, we’re not going to acknowledge that you need to be an equal IEP team, but that’s not gonna happen. So you’re eliminating that excuse. And you’re putting an ex an expectation on the team of what you need to be an equal IEP member.

Genia (10:52):

Yeah. I love that. And I love that you said, look up the rules because once you know the rules, it becomes so, so much easier to be proactive. And you’re not just waiting in limbo for the school to do, you know, to follow the process, to do the right thing. And to be perfectly honest, I have had those notices sent home in my school, in my child’s school backpack. And then weeks later I find it crumbled and, you know, soaked in orange juice or something like that. Like, you know, but knowing when the IEP season comes and, and knowing, um, that you ought to be receiving this, that it’s time means that you don’t always have to wait either, right? You can be proactive around sending in this statement. Now I have a question about schools where the relationship between the parents and the school is not great. They don’t share the same vision for the child. In those situations, how does this input statement, how effective is this input statement and what advice do you have for parents who are not, not, um, receiving a really positive response to their submission?

Catherine (12:05):

Sure. So that, that happens a lot. We have a lot of broken trust, we have a lot of burn bridge, we have a lot of relationships that need to be repaired. So the first thing that I want to say is if you’ve had the negative experience in the past, and you’re working with a new team, please try to start fresh, which I know can be really hard to do that emotionally. Now, if you’re stuck in a negative kind of communication cycle and things are not looking like the vibe in your district is just not very welcoming to input in that way. So in that situation, you have to get really good at a couple of key phrases. So, number one, when you write out this letter, you actually have that letter at Jordan meeting, and you’re using that yourself as your agenda. That’s your checkpoints where you’re like, okay, was my concern talked about, was this, you know, vision, um, taken into consideration and you’re using that as a checkpoint.

Catherine (12:54):

So you want to stay on topic in the negative communication situations. We tend to get off topic a lot. So number one, just remember, we’re not going to fix everything, but let’s stay on topic. You have prioritized do, put it out there in writing. Here you go. Now let’s just say we get to something where the parent vision statement is that the child is going to be able to have a functional reading skill in the community to obtain employment and navigate their community. Okay. And then I mentioned that well, okay. One of our concerns is that we’re not sure that they’re making reading progress and we’re asking for data and the team’s just like, well, we hear you. But we think whatever’s working is working. And parent then has said, well, but I’ve requested the data. I’d like to see the data. You know, I put it in a parent request here and you’re referring back to the letter.

Catherine  (13:37):

You gave them ample notice. So this way it’s not a, oh, we didn’t know you wanted that. We didn’t, we didn’t hear you now. It was in writing. So they’re like, well, we don’t really have that data at that time. At this time, you know, the data that you’re looking for, and then you need to be prepared with that IEP that said for the last 12 months, they were supposed to be collecting data on a certain goal. Let’s just say it’s sight words. Okay. That, that are there, functional sight words that you’ve agreed upon, they’d be working up. And you’re like, okay, but we’ve been working on this goal. And it says that you’re going to have a checklist or a work portfolio or something that, that, that goes along with this. And just, you know, parents, like it’s written by every goal, what type of data will be collected.

Catherine (14:14):

So you go back and reference this, like, I’m teaching you the exact process. If you were to give me the IEP, I’m telling you exactly what, what we’d be looking at. So you said, okay, well, you’re supposed to have it. Like, we don’t have this. Uh, we don’t have it at this meeting. Okay. But it exists. Yeah. I’d have to gather it. Okay. So you just need a couple of days to gather it. So, um, it’s Wednesday. So we can expect by Monday by Monday, we can have a copy of this. Um, yeah, I think we can have that done by Monday. Okay. Well, could we please write that down into the meeting notes that on Monday, all data for this goal will be provided in your, oh, well, we don’t want to commit to that. We don’t want to write that down. Okay. Well then can you write down that you’re not ready to commit to providing the data that I requested?

Catherine (14:56):

Do you say, like, I just keep on going on the right. Write it down. If they say yes, write it down. If they say no, and if I pause the meeting now, I’m like, I’m just asking for documentation of what’s going on with reading. You said that you got the letter, but you didn’t bring the data to the meeting and you need till Monday, I’m just asking to document that. And if you’re not willing to document that I’m asking for you to document that you’re not willing to. Yeah. Now here’s the thing. There’s going to be some times that we’re going to get to the place where that still doesn’t get documented. But guess what? Now that you’ve had the conversation, you put it in writing, you had the conversation, you try to collaborate. You tried to make it work. Now you get to write a meeting recap letter afterwards and say, you get to document it.

Catherine (15:39):

You’ll get to document it afterwards. You’re going to be able to say like, just need I’m documenting. I would like this, but in my child’s file, we attempted to get the data that the data was not presented. We asked for this. It was, uh, you know, but now you put in writing. So, so it’s all about it being in writing. And if you notice, and I know I, I’m not talking about my child here so I can keep my emotions low, but that’s what you have to do as a parent. Like, we’re just talking about data. I’m not talking about the child made progress or didn’t make progress. I’m just asking for the data. And sometimes you have to say that right at the meeting. And again, that it all starts with that parent empathy. And I’m saying like, especially in the tough conversations, it’s like, I know we can’t solve everything, but here’s my things that we need to talk about. And it really helps, uh, keep our focus so we can stay on task during the tough conversations, get everything documented, and then start to move forward.

Speaker 1 (16:33):

We’d like to take a short break to tell you about an exciting resource, the school and inclusion, evaluation guide it’s free and offers 14 questions. Every parent of a child with disabilities should ask, especially when thinking about school placement, use this free guide to help you navigate those conversations and give you the confidence to know your child is in good hands. You can find this free guide at

Genia (17:11):

That’s really helpful. That’s really helpful. And the we’ve talked on my podcast a lot in the past about managing emotions and, you know, the, the trying to stay objective, but also having, um, giving yourself permission just to tell people, this is how this feels right now. And often that is a diffusing kind of approach in those, in those moments. Um, this is how this feels right now. And ultimately if necessary, excuse me, I need a minute. Absolutely.

Catherine (17:45):

A pause can be powerful. And that’s what a pause can be powerful. I’m going to actually give your listeners another, um, when, when it, when it comes to emotions in that way, a lot of times what, um, fuels a very emotional response is when the team says, mom, I know you want this, but we can’t provide it. And they say that word want over and over like, like we know you want this, we know you want that. We all want what’s best. And there there’s a lot of that. And it just fuels this fire inside because at permission, let me just give everyone permission to say that you can absolutely say when you’re, when you’re feeling kind of, um, uh, pushed down by that statement. You can say, listen, I don’t want to be at this table. I never wanted in IEP, but this is why we’re here my child, because this is what he needs you as a team chose to have this profession and be at this table.

Catherine (18:43):

Me as a parent, I didn’t ask for this, but I’m here and I’m showing up and I’d like to continue the conversation and just go. And there’s a shock factor in that. And again, that’s what sharing with the teachers and the team, like putting them back into perspective of this is not like we all sit around and dream as parents of like, what’s the biggest thing I want at the IEP table, because this is my dream to be here. Remember, I’m a special needs sibling. I saw the struggles, I’ve seen the tears. I’ve heard the yelling. I know all of that stuff. We didn’t want to go through that. It’s part of our journey because my brother has down syndrome. It’s just a fact for us. It’s not something that we might, yes. I get to, you know, go to an IEP table.

Genia (19:31):

Hm. I think the, the more infuriating implications are, or around, um, unreasonable expectations, you know, like I know that you want, you know, your child to have access to the curriculum, but realistically, how much are they going to benefit? Do you really expect that they’re going to, you know, learn to read that stuff? Makes me just like completely, completely blow my top. And I, I to have a sister with a disability. So I’ve also been in this world my whole life. And what shocks me, Catherine, is how similar the conversations are now as they were 40 years ago. Um, and, and how dysfunctional IEP, the IEP process still is. You know, I’ve see a lot of IEPs from around North America, both in Canada and the United States. And the IEPs are almost universally there, there are some exceptions, but they are almost universally. Um, so deficits focused that it’s almost impossible to, as a parent, or as an educator to then translate that into sort of a strengths based approach to education. And I wonder if you have any thoughts on that, like the, the teacher, the resource teacher, the parent is not able to magically redesign the IEP form. Often times there’s just drop-downs and ticks like that. It’s it’s as non individualized as, as it can be in some ways. And it just really leads to a deficit deficit, deficit focus. Um, so given that so many of us are, um, advocating within that context. Any thoughts on how to make that more  strengths-based?

Catherine (21:29):

Absolutely. So one of, one of the biggest things you need to do is that first step that we talked about is that parent input statement. You have to bring your child into the document and your family, because what your family wants, is different than what another family wants. So when we say things like everything is deficit based, um, and we’re always looking for the weaknesses, we’re always looking for the things that the child is struggling with the most to put into the IEP, and we’re forgetting the other stuff, because the paperwork’s not set up to look for that 100% true. Teachers are also not set up to look for that. I, I mentioned I have two degrees and five teaching certificates. I wasn’t told to look for a child’s strengths. The reason that I looked for strengths as a teacher is because I treated my students.

Catherine (22:14):

Like I would want a teacher to treat my brother. What, what things does he love and where is he going to succeed without a huge struggle? Like, well, how can I set them up for success? How can I help this child become a leader in the classroom or in the school? Uh, not just as a,as a not as a pity party. Oh, look, he’s cute. No, because nothing strike. Where can I find his strengths and showcase what he can do versus what he can’t do in so many different ways, not just in the IEP, but in that whole school community. I want to be able to showcase a child’s strengths. So that parent input statement is a really big part of that. Now, when we talk about something, I’m going to take your exact example of that curriculum. And let’s just say that it’s, I’m going to stick with reading.

Catherine (22:58):

We’ve been a chat here about reading. So we’ll say reading enough, how much is this child actually going to get out of this reading curriculum? Well, number one, who’s trained to modify it or adjust it. Okay. So, so let’s first make sure that we’re making that we have the highly trained people in there, um, that can help with this process of modifying things. Number two, being in reading class is not always about learning what the other kids are learning exactly in the same way. At the same time, there are other benefits, uh, that can be happening within that reading time. The other thing is I, I love inclusion. I love all of those things. I also wanna say that I love a highly trained, special education teacher that can do some direct instruction at some times throughout the day. And that can look like an inclusive setting that can look at like, you know, there’s a lot of students that end up in small groups for different reasons.

Catherine (23:55):

You can integrate that small group session into a typical classroom, where a child who let’s say has down syndrome could be receiving some direct instruction by a specialized teacher, by an inclusion specialist. That’s in that classroom. At that time, there’s a lot of different ways to do that. Um, the other thing is to remember that, you know, there’s a lot of fluff in our typical curriculum. Our, our school system as a whole is pretty broken right now in general. So yeah, so we look at like, no, you don’t quite honestly, I don’t want my child, who’s on an IEP to learn everything that the other kids are learning because you know what they’re being taught to a standardized test, but I don’t really care if my child scores very well on them. So like perfect, perfect. You look, I would be saying, I agree with you, my child does not need to learn everything that’s going to be presented in every lesson. So let’s work together and figure out what would be best.

Genia (24:48):

Yeah. Yeah. Excellent. Well, Catherine, when people are, let’s talk about goals a little bit. Let’s talk about how to help, how parents can help. Maybe it’s by the way they request it. Maybe it’s just how they understand them or, you know, but, or advocate for them. Curriculum-based IEP goals for students who have previously had a lot of functional goals on their IEP. Like how do we move from functional goals to curriculum based goals?


I don’t consider them two separate things. So the way that I talk about is I talk about functional academic goals. So like for example, there are some kids I’m just gonna be, I’m just gonna be extremely blunt. Um, in that there are some kids that 100% need to learn how to brush their teeth at school because it’s not happening at home. It’s not, this is a skill that causes extreme meltdowns. The child’s going to have poor hygiene and that’s going to cause more infections. And more than like I’ve worked in several districts as a teacher where like, this was a very appropriate thing that needed to happen for further education, employment, independent living. Let’s just face it. There are certain hygiene things we need to get a job to be in the community and there’s things that need to be supported. So there, there is absolutely an opportunity that needs to be there for some students for that.

Catherine (26:17):

Now I can tell you straight out that my mom and I can remember that there are things that you remember as a sibling, like statements, right? But you’re just like, oh, oh, that just shifted my perspective for the rest of my life. My mom said, my son brushes his teeth at home. We don’t have any problems. He’s not coming to school to learn how to brush his teeth are the other second graders or whatever it was, right. Are they brushing their teeth after lunch because they’re not. And so he doesn’t need to spend his time doing that. Now this kind of conversation, as you know, is going to put some people on fire. I’m just stating a fact. I’m seeing it back to my experience as a teacher, my experience as a sibling, I have seen it on all different sides, uh, of, of what is needed for a child to be prepared for further education, employment, independent living.

Catherine (27:06):

So what I’m looking at is what is a functional academics skill or a functional daily living skill that needs to be put into the IEP to prepare a child for further education, employment, independent living. What I think most teams from my experience from working in districts, when they hear a parent say, I want a curriculum based goal. They’re thinking about something that is, um, when I say not realistic, I don’t mean that a child can’t learning. They’re thinking like, well, why, why are we focusing on this? Like, it doesn’t make any sense. And I’m like, right. So we need to make it make sense, meaning that we’re going to work on, um, wh questions let’s make sure that they make sense. And, you know, maybe we’re going to pair that up with, um, with where the child is at developmentally in a way of the curriculum that they’re taking in.

Catherine (27:56):

Right. And so we’re not looking at a sixth grader and necessarily answering, um, sixth grade critical thinking interpretation questions on a, you know, a piece from, uh, you know, the 1800’s that they read it. You know, we’re not talking about setting up a bowl like that. Does that goal prepare a child for further education employment, independent living? Probably not. Okay. But can we look at appropriate curriculum that’s age appropriate that’s with their peers back in fit and be modified or accommodated to, to make sure that we are looking at a higher level of thinking and critical thinking in wh questions in that? Absolutely we can. So we have to get creative in, in what we’re looking for. I want it to be functional as in, I want a child to understand what is, uh, what, who, uh, when, uh, how those are important questions to answer.

Catherine (28:49):

We can pair those up with some of the academics that are happening and this way it becomes more than just learning maybe about community helpers, right? So I’m going to kind of, I’m going to bounce there. So give a little bit more of a context. A lot of times we say, you know, reading or social studies is all in special education is only going to be about community helpers. We’re only going to learn wh questions when we talk about doctors or policemen or, um, teachers, you know, our community helpers in that way, where we can take that next level. No, let’s talk about reading, maybe on a preferred topic, we talked about bringing in a child. So let’s bring in some preferred topics, let’s bring in some higher level thinking in that way of taking in some literature and some way in doing that. So, you know, you can kind of see this as a big discussion where there’s a lot of ideas that we can pull together.

Catherine (29:42):

One of the biggest ones that you want to get through the, um, the, the barrier that seems to come between like, Hey, there’s a, a functional skill and there’s an academic skill. Put those two words together and say, Hey, I wanna look at some functional academic skills to make sure that we’re meeting a child’s needs. And I never want to dismiss a family who a hundred percent needs help with the brushing of the teeth or the hygiene or the things because the quality of life needs to be there both in and out of school and the family needs help. And then we don’t want to dismiss the family that says, you know, Hey, we don’t need this, we got this. So let’s make sure that we’re working on some other skills outside of that,

Genia (30:23):

Right? Yeah. We, my sister is a grade six teacher and her position on like personal hygiene stuff is that, um, frankly, regardless of what’s happening at home, most grade sixers need just a little bit of help, uh, in the personal hygiene department. So, you know, she’s incorporating that into sort of morning routine kinds of things for all the students anyway, because, um, even if they technically know how they don’t do a very good job of it. So there’s always that recognition that, uh, for a lot of these functional skills, um, kids in general, um, probably are going to benefit. And when I’m looking at IEPs, I’m often, um, and functional goals, I’m often thinking that usually the reason that functional goal is important is because it’s in service of, um, I can’t remember the three in terms of either.

Catherine (31:13):

Education, employment, independent living, right?

Genia (31:15):

So basically, you know, you’re not going to do particularly well with that kind of high end goal, if your personal hygiene is poor. And so it’s really more around an accommodation that needs to be worked into the day in order to be able to successfully achieve the higher angles. And when we tear and, and create a hierarchy of understanding about why we’re doing things, um, we often move away from becoming hyper-focused on the traditionally, you know, called functional life skills goals. Because if they look at functional life skill goal is, is the, uh, top of the hierarchy there. The wh questions never get on the table at all. Right. But if that life skill goal is in service of the wh questions, then they both happen.

Catherine (32:07):

Absolutely. And that’s why bridging that mindset can be tough on some of those IEP teams that, that you were talking about, where it’s like parent input, doesn’t always have the weights that maybe it should. So learning to combine those words as a parent and say, what’s that I’m looking for some functional academics. I, you know, we, we need to, we can’t always get the team to take everything out that has been in there, but sometimes it’s easier to add some other things and when we use some different kind of academic language, we’re going to start speaking their jargon, then they’re like, oh, okay. So you’re not saying that we teach the child, this, what you’re saying is we want to add something else here. Yes. And then eventually, then maybe that next meeting, which doesn’t have to be a year from then, but maybe that next meeting, it’s like, you know what, since we’re doing so well over here, I don’t feel like we need to take data on brushing teeth anymore. So yeah. So let’s put that into a support and make sure like an accommodation supportive learning environments. Let’s put, we don’t need data on that anymore. We’ve gotten through the meltdowns. He’s no longer biting the person who is trying to say, Hey, let’s, you know, kind of thing. Like, like we’re, we’re getting there. We don’t need data. So let’s put it over here. Right. Let’s focus over here on these other areas that we definitely need data on. Right.

Genia (33:22):

Yeah. Excellent. Catherine, do you have any sort of parting words for parents around IEPs, any nuggets of advice or things that you really hope people walk away from this podcast episode?

Catherine (33:37):

Yes. I want to encourage all parents that every IEP meeting is just one meeting. Your entire future of your family, of your child. It’s not typically dependent on one meeting at, you know, right there in that moment. And that’s what we feel as a family. We’re like, oh my gosh, I have to get everything right in this one meeting, otherwise everything goes wrong. And really it’s about prioritizing. What do you mean for your child and for your family at this moment, from the school, from where you’re at, because what you need a year from now or six months from now might be totally different. So you do the best that you can in the place that you are with the resources that you have. We can always work on more resources. That’s another topic for another day. We do the best that we can. We do the best that we can in this moment, because five years from now, that’s what I want you to feel confident in. Maybe you would have changed the decision. If you look back and say, oh, I wish I would’ve known, but you know what? You did the best that you could with the information that you had with the resources that you had with where you were at with what was happening. That’s what you need to be confident in. So be confident that you can make really great decisions and those decisions can be changed if necessary.

Genia (34:58):

That’s great. Thank you so much, Catherine. If people want to learn more, where can they find you?

Catherine (35:05):

Uh, you can hop on over to So, uh, that’s where you’re gonna find everything about the special education in our circle. That’s a great resource for expert access, uh, for all different areas of special education. If you’re a parent teacher, admin therapist, if you sit at an IEP table, you are welcome inside of the special education in our circle. I also a few times a year, I run what’s called the Master IEP Coach Mentorship, which means that if you want to learn all things IMTS or yourself, and you want to become the expert who helps others, that’s becoming a master coach. The information for all of that is over at Or if you’d just put Catherine Whitcher into Instagram or Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, you’ll find me there too.

Genia (35:47):

Catherine. Thank you so so much. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and really appreciate your expert insights.

Catherine (35:54):

I thank you for having me. This was awesome.

Speaker 1 (36:02):

Thank you so much for joining Genia on the podcast. We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. See you next time.

Thanks for Listening!

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Special thanks to Catherine Whitcher for joining me this week. Until next time!

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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.