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Topic Of the Month

April 2024

ESP - Educational Surrogate Parent Training

Family Matters Provides Training for the Illinois State Board of Education’s Educational Surrogate Parent Program.

Educational Surrogate Parents (ESPs) are educational advocates for children who may be eligible for or are receiving special education services and do not have a legal guardian that can make decisions at their individualized educational program (IEP) meetings. 

ESPs also advocate for children who are considered youths in care of the Department of Children and Family Services, are living in a residential facility, or are unaccompanied homeless youths.

ESPs help ensure the students have access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

An Educational Surrogate Parent is an individual who has been appointed to represent the educational interests of a child with disabilities when:

·         No parent (as defined under 34 CFR 300.30) can be identified;

·         The child is a youth in care; or

·         The child is an unaccompanied homeless youth.

Do you want to learn more about becoming an ESP? Check out these resources:


March 2024

Advocating Effectively at an IEP Meeting:

When you are the parent or caregiver of a student who has disabilities and is eligible for special education and related services, you become a member of the IEP Team. As a parent or a caregiver, you are an equal member of the IEP Team. The special education process can be overwhelming at times. There is a new language to learn. Other team members who are more familiar with the process may use words or acronyms you are unfamiliar with or do not yet understand. It may feel that you will never understand the process, but do not worry; some steps will help you become more familiar with this process.

·         As previously mentioned you are an equal member of the IEP Team. As a parent or caregiver, you know your child/student best. You have valuable knowledge to share with other members of the IEP Team about your child.

·         Do not be afraid to ask questions. When you do not understand a word or phrase or do not understand something about the special education process ask. The more you ask for clarification, the more you will learn.

·         Learn where you can access training and resources to help you build your knowledge and advocacy skills. You can ask other IEP team members for resources. You can even reach out to your Parent Center for help.

Check out this webinar, “Advocating Effectively at an IEP Meeting”.


February 2024

Digital Storytelling

Digital Storytelling offers powerful and flexible tools to connect with your educational team, rally community opportunities, and build shared understanding around special education, disability, and community. Digital storytelling can be an excellent tool for students to utilize in IEP preparation, to share their perspectives and experiences, and to highlight their goals and learning interests.

Several formats can support you as you begin to consider the best way to share your story. You can utilize an online program like Canva, which will allow you to use graphics, voiceovers, video clips, and journaling to share your perspectives. Canva requires some practice to master, but it is an effective tool that can be used for a wide variety of digital storytelling options. Explore Canva at:

Some families have utilized podcasts to share their experiences. Like Canva, podcasting involves a bit of a learning curve. We encourage you to check out some basic podcast apps, such as Studio for Podcast, Podcast Maker, and Podcastle. Looking for a simple option? You can use your phone to record a video that can be shared with the team.

If you would like to increase your knowledge regarding digital storytelling check out the following resources:

Advocacy through Digital Storytelling: A New Tool to Share your Story

Family Matters, Self-Advocacy Blog


January 2024

Student Participation in IEP Meetings

Student engagement in the IEP process sometimes presents a challenge. Students are an equal member of the IEP team. Student presence during IEP meetings is important. When students are involved in the IEP process and attend their IEP meetings, they build advocacy skills and have a better understanding of their disability and how it impacts their life. They also develop a better understanding of their strengths as well as their areas of need and what supports, services, and accommodations help them to be more successful.

If you would like to learn more about involving students in IEP meetings check out these resources:

Encouraging Student Participation in IEP Meetings from INCLUDENYC.ORG.

30 Minute Message: Student Led IEP's, From the Perspective of a Former Student

Student Led IEPs


December 2023

Behavior Contracts

What is a behavior contract?

A behavior contract is a written agreement between a student, teacher, and parent/guardian. The behavior contract outlines specific behavioral expectations for a given setting or activity. It holds the student and teacher accountable for changing their behavior.

Who would benefit from a behavior contract?

Some students exhibit challenging behaviors that continue even though they are taking part in a schoolwide intervention (Tier 1). An example of a schoolwide intervention would be a hallway bell to signify the need to go to class or a reward system like earning your way to a pizza party.

Behavior contracts are appropriate for elementary, middle, and high school students with and without disabilities. It is a way to provide a Tier 2 Intervention to students who are struggling with their behaviors in school.

Behavior contracts typically include three components:

1.       Behavior:

 What is the desired behavior? Is the behavior observable and measurable?

2.       Reward:

What reinforcement will the student receive for reaching the desired behavior goal? Is the reward something the student is willing to work for?

3.       Recording Sheet:

A recording sheet serves as a method for recording performance that can be shared with the student and guardian to monitor progress.

How can a behavior contract help your child?

a)      It can improve communication between home and school.

b)      It can make behavior expectations crystal clear.

c)       It can motivate your child to self-regulate,

d)      It can make kids more accountable for their actions.

e)      It can provide valuable feedback for your child.

f)        It can be used (and adjusted) over time.

If you believe a behavior contract could help support your student in an educational setting reach out to Family Matters to discuss your options. 

Resources were obtained from and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.


November 2023

Progress Monitoring

Students attend school to learn and progress. When a student has an IEP, parents or caregivers often ask, “How will I know if my child is making progress?” The answers to that question can be found in various data from different sources. Data is collected in many different ways and many different settings. Data can be collected at school in the general education setting or the special education setting. It may also be collected outside of the school setting, in the home environment, on the playground, or in other school-based activities. Parents and caregivers can review different data types to determine if the student is progressing. Examples of different forms of data may include but are not limited to:

·         The results of a student’s most recent evaluation

·         Measurable annual goals

·         Progress reports

·         Annual IEP review

·         Classroom teacher information

·         Districtwide assessments

·         Statewide assessments

·         Independent evaluation

·         Observing skills at home and in the community

If a parent or caregiver is concerned about a lack of student progress, an IEP meeting can be requested to discuss and make necessary revisions to the student’s IEP. Note that it can be important to ensure that the IEP reflects how and when data will be collected, who will have access to the data, and who is responsible for the data collection.


How schools monitor student progress:

Setting annual IEP goals: What you need to know:


October 2023

Bullying and Youth with Disabilities and Special Health Needs

Children with disabilities are at an increased risk of being bullied, and some children with disabilities may bully others as well. Bullying is unwanted, repeated behavior that involves one person having more power than the other. Bullying can be done in many ways;

·         Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things and can include teasing, name-calling, and threatening;

·         Physical bullying is hurting another person’s body or belongings and can include hitting, tripping, kicking, spitting, pushing, or taking and breaking someone’s things;

·         Social bullying is hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. It can include spreading rumors, leaving someone out on purpose, demanding money or property, or scaring or threatening someone;

·         Cyberbullying is bullying that happens via things like cell phones, computers, or the Internet. It can include “sending, posting, or sharing harmful, untrue, or mean content about someone else.

How Do I Know if My Child is Being Bullied or Harassed?

Pay attention to the child and any changes in their behavior, mood, or appearance, such as:

·         Changes in eating and sleeping;

·         Worsening grades and performance in school;

·         Avoiding school, skipping school, being late to school, or expressing dislike of school;

·         Injuries such as cuts, bruises, or torn clothing; and/or

·         Depression, anxiety, loneliness, or low self-esteem.

Many goals, accommodations, and services can be put into a child’s IEP to address bullying. Here are some examples of IEP goals and interventions that can address issues with bullying:


·         Building social skills. A student can learn about appropriate social interaction and learn strategies to identify bullying behavior.

·         Developing positive relationships. Students who can develop positive relationships and friendships are more likely to have increased self-confidence and may be more socially resilient to bullying attempts. 

·         Developing self-advocacy skills. Children can learn appropriate responses to bullying. This includes how and when to tell adults, the process for reporting behaviors that make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and the ability to say “Stop” or walk away from stressful situations.

·         Supervision or separation from bullies. The IEP can plan for the student to be watched or shadowed by school staff or separated from bullies. For example, hallways or the back of the bus might be places where bullying is more likely to occur, and targeting those environments in a daily plan may be useful. However, be careful that these measures do not “punish” the child being bullied. They should not place them in an overly restrictive environment or remove opportunities for positive peer interaction.

·         Counseling or other supportive services. This can be counseling or informal check-ins with a teacher, guidance counselor, or principal who the student can turn to when they are being bullied. For families who wish to seek support outside of the school system, a community counselor or therapist may be a good starting place.

·         Parent counseling and training. Parent counseling may help parents understand their child's needs and help them gain skills to support the child’s IEP. It is key that consistent student support strategies are utilized between the home and school environment. 

·         Educating school staff and/or peers. School staff can be educated about the school’s bullying policy and procedures, can learn how to identify at-risk youth, and can become familiar with school and community resources that can assist in bullying prevention. In an IEP, parents can request that school staff receive training specific to bullying intervention.

Sometimes, students with disabilities do not know that they are being bullied or harassed. Parents need to observe and talk with their children and ask them about their relationships with other students. Some children may not understand that being bullied or harassed is harmful. Provide frequent opportunities to talk about healthy friendships and relationships and help students become familiar with behaviors that can be harmful.

Stop provides some helpful tips when trying to overcome bullying issues for students with disabilities.

1.       Engage students in developing high-interest activities in which everyone has a role to play in designing, executing, or participating in the activity.

2.       Provide general up-front information to peers about the kinds of support children with special needs require and have adults facilitate peer support.

3.       Creating a buddy system for children with special needs.

4.       Involving students in adaptive strategies in the classroom so that they participate in assisting and understanding the needs of others.

5.       Conduct team-based learning activities and rotate student groupings.

6.       Implementing social-emotional learning activities.

7.       Reward positive, helpful, inclusive behavior.

Reference: Home - Family Resource Center., Bullying Prevention | Austin ISD.



September  2023

ISBE Playtime Guidance & Resources

 In February of 2022, ISBE released Play Time Guidance and Resources. Illinois Play Time Requirements in Elementary Schools states:

The state of Illinois enacted Public Act 102-0357 in support of playtime in Illinois schools. This Public Act became effective on August 13, 2021, and requires that all public schools provide daily time for supervised, unstructured, child-directed play for all students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Other known terms for playtime are recess, informal physical activity, free-play recess, unstructured free-play recess, and undirected play. The Illinois State Board of Education developed this guidance to support the implementation of Public Act 102-0357. This guidance includes frequently asked questions related to the Public Act and resources for implementing best practices for playtime.

To view this guidance in its entirety, visit:


August  2023

Student Records 

It is August, and a new school year is approaching. Summer is the perfect time to organize your child's educational records and plan for the upcoming school year. From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide is a great resource that focuses on advocacy skills but also touches on ways to organize your child's educational records. This book is available for checkout in the Family Matters' Lending Library.


Here are 5 Tips on Organizing Your Child's Records in a Three-Ring Binder from


July 2023

Accommodations and Modifications

Many people may think accommodations and modifications are the same thing, but there is a difference between the two. It is important to understand the difference between accommodations and modifications when navigating the special education process and putting individualized supports in place for students. An accommodation does not alter what the test or assignment measures. A modification adjusts the expectations for an assignment or a test. It permits a change in what a test or assignment measures.


Check out the following resources to learn more about accommodations and modifications:

The difference between accommodations and modifications:


June 2023

Special Education Language and Acronyms 

When you enter the world of special education or disability, the language may be foreign to you. Many times, professionals abbreviate terms or use acronyms. As a parent or caregiver who is new to the special education process, you may not understand the language or acronyms used, and you may wonder if you will ever learn the language. It is important always to ask questions when you are unsure what a term or phrase means. Asking questions helps you learn the language and process. The ISBE Parent Guide is one helpful tool for learning more about the special education process in Illinois. This guide can be found here: You can also ask school staff or IEP team members for clarification. Contacting your state Parent Center is another way to learn and grow. Family Matters has an updated acronyms guide. You can contact our office at 866-436-7842 to request a copy. Also, check out the following recordings to help you learn a common language and acronyms used in the special education process.


May 2023

Summer Learning

The end of another school year is approaching. As a parent or caregiver, you may wonder how to continue to work on IEP goals and continue your child’s learning over the summer break. You may consider reviewing your child’s IEP to see how you can incorporate working on these goals throughout the summer. Speaking with IEP team members may also prove helpful. Many resources are available to help you continue your child’s learning over the summer.


Summer Learning- How to Help Your Child Keep Skills Strong:

How to Work on Your Child's IEP Goals Over the Summer: