Our guest this week is Catherine Whitchter of Milwaukee, WI a mother two daughters, one of whom has Epilepsy. Catherine is also one the country’s most well-respected experts on IEPs or Individual Education Plans. She is also a podcast host and has created the Master IEP Coach program. We’ll learn about her career as a Special Education teacher, growing up with a younger brother with Down syndrome and hear some sage advice on how to create win-win strategies to help your child succeed. That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
Website – https://catherinewhitcher.mykajabi.com
Email – email@example.com
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherinewhitcher/
Special Education Inner Circle Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/special-education-inner-circle/id1484686234
Tom Couch: Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at horizontherapeutics.com.
Catherine Whitcher: And this is kind of exciting. We get to share a story of hope, a story of success and a story of possibilities. So I feel like that that’s a big piece of what I share when I talk about my daughter. It’s like, yes, we came from this dark place, but again, our journey was our journey. And so many times in the special needs world, somebody who has a specific diagnosis looks to other families and assumes that’s going to be their path. And it’s not necessarily going to be that way.
Tom Couch: That’s our guest this week, Catherine Whitcher. Catherine has two daughters, one of whom, Johanna, has epilepsy. Catherine’s also one of the country’s most well-respected experts on IEP’s or individual education plans. We’ll hear what drives Catherine, and hear some sage advice on how to make a plan for your child.
That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Say hello now to host David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad.
Tom Couch: Now let’s listen to this informative discussion between Catherine Whitcher and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I am thrilled to be talking today with Catherine Whitcher of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a mother of two, and one of the country’s most well-respected experts in the world of IEP’s or individual education plans. Catherine, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Dad to Dad Podcast.
Catherine Whitcher: Thank you for inviting me. I’m excited to be here.
David Hirsch: You’re the proud mother of two teenage girls, Juliana, and Johanna, who has recovered from severe epilepsy. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Catherine Whitcher: So I grew up in the south side suburbs of Chicago. I lived in Illinois most of my life. I lived in Florida for a little bit, but then ended up heading back here to the Midwest. So I’m officially a Chicago, Illinois, a little bit of Wisconsin now. I’m learning to go from Chicago Bears to Green Bay Packers. It’s a little hard.
David Hirsch: Well, if that’s the hardest thing you do, then life’s pretty good. Did you have any siblings growing up?
Catherine Whitcher: I do have one brother. He is two years younger than me. He has Down syndrome. He has played a huge part of my life.
David Hirsch: We’ll come back to that. But I’m sort of curious to know, what does your dad do for a living?
Catherine Whitcher: So my dad worked for Chicago Finished Metals, which means he worked in the factory, and he worked his way up from being on the floor into administration and safety compliance. And it was awesome to just see him build his career in that industry.
David Hirsch: Fabulous. And I’m sort of curious to know, how would you characterize your relationship with your dad?
Catherine Whitcher: He was my person. He was my confidant and he was my encourager.
David Hirsch: And when you think about your relationship with your dad, were there any takeaways, favorite stories, something he always said or did, or something he did as a parent, that you’ve tried to incorporate into your own parenting?
Catherine Whitcher: Yeah. My dad was a really good listener, and he asked really good questions. So he would always want to know the ‘why’ behind what was being done, which definitely played a piece into what I do now. But he also was not one to follow the crowd. If he wanted to sit on the sidelines, then he would, and if he wanted to get involved, he would.
So I think this ability to walk away from drama, which we’ll get into with what I do for work and all that. There’s a lot of drama that happens just in a lot of different places, and just having that discernment of when to get involved and when it’s okay to walk away—that’s really important.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thanks for sharing. I’m thinking about other father influencers, and I’m wondering what, if any, role your grandfathers played.
Catherine Whitcher: So my grandfathers were, I want to say kind of stereotypical for that generation. Almost not getting too close. But definitely I knew that they cared and they loved me. They would talk to me.
My mom’s dad was definitely more hands on, so he wanted to take me to the local diner, to go have dinner and kind of show off, like, “Hey, my granddaughter’s here.” My dad’s dad was very reserved and news focused, which means that he wanted to say like, “Hey, did you hear what’s happening today?” And kind of talk about current events.
David Hirsch: Excellent. Well, the good news is you had two grandfathers, and they both played a role in your life. Not everybody is so lucky, that they actually know their grandparents straight up, as opposed to just hearing stories or seeing pictures and having a vague understanding about who they were.
Were there any other male influencers while you were growing up?
Catherine Whitcher: No, those were kind of my core people. And you know, my dad passed early from a cancer journey. He passed at 59, so I was in my thirties. He was my big influence, and thank goodness for that, because the lessons he taught me were strong, and they have definitely carried through.
David Hirsch: Well, what a great testimony to your dad. So from an educational standpoint, my recollection was you took a BS in special ed from Northern Illinois University, and you have a Master’s in education with special ed from University of Illinois, Chicago.
And my recollection was also that you taught in the classrooms by day, and you were coaching parents at night. That was sort of the beginning of your career. And I’m wondering, what is it that caused you to leave the classroom and sort of put yourself in the direction that you’ve been going?
Catherine Whitcher: I couldn’t serve children the way that I wanted to serve them while taking a paycheck from the district. It caused me immense stress. It was this shadow, or a dark cloud, every day, knowing…like my brother went to school in the system having Down syndrome, and I was like, I wouldn’t want my brother to have this lack of resources.
I understood the struggle that was happening, and I thought, I’m going to do something. I’m going to figure out some way to support both parents and teachers. I wasn’t sure how, but I thought, “There’s turnover in special education. Most special education teachers do not make it five years.” I did not make it five years in the classroom. I left, but I didn’t leave because of burnout or because of the field in general. I left because I knew my role was supposed to be different.
David Hirsch: Thanks for articulating that. Because I think if the turnover is less than five years for most, I’m going to guess that others take a different career path altogether. But you weren’t interested in changing your career path, but maybe repositioning yourself. That’s what I heard you say in the process, and I’m thankful for that.
So you’ve recently remarried, and your two daughters are with your former husband. My recollection was that he left decade or so ago and wasn’t very responsible in the process. And I’m wondering if you would share with our listeners what your experience was.
Catherine Whitcher: Sure. So I was married for 11 years, and at the time of our divorce, my daughters were around five and six. He just kind of took off. He started a new family and moved across the country and really never looked back.
One of the most important things that I decided was going to be my focus is that I was going to lean into raising my daughters and giving them a home and a family. Even if it was just going to be the three of us, that I was going to do that. And I was not going to pursue my ex-husband to be responsible just for his responsibilities to take care of those things. I wasn’t going to pursue that. Because I knew it was going to lead to a lot of energy being exhausted away from my daughters, and they needed me most.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I admire you for that. Single moms mean a lot to me. I may have mentioned in a prior conversation that my mom was one of those single moms. She raised me and my younger brother from my age, six, coincidentally, and his age, five, as a Chicago public school teacher.
So a lot of the work that I’ve done the last 24 years advocating for father involvement isn’t really saying, “Oh, we need to look out for dads too.” It’s empathy and sympathy for women that find themselves in that same situation. Most women did not sign up to be single moms. It’s very challenging, and I think we could do better as a society and as men, if they just really understood or appreciated what this looks like on the other side. I’d like to think that there’d be greater level of engagement.
Catherine Whitcher: It was a struggle. Definitely. And I’m grateful that some people don’t know what this feels like and the journey that it took, but I’ll tell you, there are blessings and silver linings. There’s a time and a place where I will and have been exerting my energy and my focus to make sure that their dad does take responsibility for who he is in their lives. He may not be active in their lives, physically, emotionally, socially, any of those, but he does have a responsibility to acknowledge their existence and to have a financial responsibility.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I’m hoping that now that you’ve got a little bit more time or bandwidth as the girls get older, that that will happen without too much drama or trauma. Time will tell.
So let’s talk about special needs, first on a personal level. Prior to Johanna’s diagnosis, you had a lot of exposure to special needs growing up with your brother, like you made reference to, and through your educational experience and work. Did that make learning of the epilepsy diagnosis any easier?
Catherine Whitcher: No. Like my instinct was just to say no. No, I think what it did is that, the day that my daughter dropped into a status seizure…so for everybody, a status seizure is what you kind of picture if you see a seizure on TV. We’re talking on the floor, convulsing, blue at the mouth. At the time, Johanna was three, Julianne was four. She says, “Mom, come look at Sissy.” And I went downstairs and Johanna was in her seizure. So I think having the background I had, I didn’t freak out in a way of like, “What is this?”
No, I knew immediately what it was. I went into crisis mode. I knew what to do, because I was trained as a special educator. I had students who had epilepsy. So I think my instincts kicked in for what to do mechanically, but I wouldn’t say that it was any easier emotionally. In fact, I would say it actually made it a bit harder, because I knew the inner workings of a family who has a child with epilepsy. I’ve written the IEPs, I’ve written the health plans. I knew what medication, what things look like.
At this point we were just working on survival, which was very difficult for her. It was a very intense season, but I think knowing those things actually made it harder for me to say, “This is our journey, and our journey is going to be just that. I don’t know what the future holds for us with this.” So there was a lot of almost convincing myself, that it wasn’t just the knowledge that I had.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing. I’m wondering, was there some meaningful advice that you might have gotten early on or through the process that helped you put this all in perspective?
Catherine Whitcher: I think it actually came from a chiropractor. Traditional medicine could not give us any answers. We lived in the hospital for 30 days, and I always say it’s her story to tell, so I tell an outline of it. We lived in the hospital for 30 days. She went code blue several times. We had years of figuring out what’s going on. But I had a chiropractor tell me that seizures are the way of a body resetting themselves, and if we can help the body heal, then we can help the body not respond with seizures.
And by no means was he promising a cure, or a hundred percent it’s going to go away. But she was in such a devastating spot that he said, “What can we do to support her?” And he was the one who didn’t want to just find a surface level fix, but he wanted to help find a root cause.
Which ultimately, as we said, she has recovered from epilepsy. We are going on—I’m doing the math in my head—like about 12 years seizure free, 11 years prescription free. And had he not given me the hope and the tools, we would not be where we’re at today.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well that is remarkable, and I wasn’t aware of chiropractors playing a role as it relates to addressing those that have epilepsy or those that are experiencing seizures. So thank you for the enlightenment.
What impact has Johanna’s situation had on her older sister, or the rest of your family for that matter?
Catherine Whitcher: Well, first of all, we all go see a chiropractor on a regular basis, so we’re good there. We’re all healthy with our immune systems. We all eat better, because she has to have an organic diet, for the most part, so we all eat better. So I’m telling you guys the positives, right? I also will say that we definitely have a much more heightened sense of awareness. I think just in general with sickness and wellness and compassion and empathy
And it’s a totally different world than my brother who has Down syndrome. Down Syndrome is a visible disability, and there are some stereotypes out there. I mean, it’s visible. So we deal with different things. Where epilepsy is invisible, for the most part. So we have dealt with things in a much different way, where we needed some accommodations in the community, or we have to like sneak the organic food into a concert, because we know we can’t eat there.
So we’ve done a lot of different things with her type of disability or medical needs when she was having that. You know, we’re kind of beyond that now. So I would say right now, and this is kind of exciting, we get to share a story of hope and a story of success, and a story of possibilities.
So I feel like that’s a big piece of what I share when I talk about my daughter. It’s like, yes, we came from this dark place, but again, our journey was our journey. And so many times in the special needs world, somebody who has a specific diagnosis looks to other families and assumes that’s going to be their path. And it’s not necessarily going to be that way.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well thanks for emphasizing that. And I loved the way you phrased that about your story about including hope, success, and the possibilities, because I think that there’s a dark place that all parents go to when there’s a challenge that one or more of their kids is having.
It leads to some negative thinking and maybe close-mindedness, and it’s just not healthy. And I think that stories like yours offer, like you said, some hope and bring a little light to the situation, which I think is what we all need to help us get through the more challenging aspects of our lives. So thanks for sharing.
I am sort of curious to know what organizations may have played an important role, beyond the chiropractor.
Catherine Whitcher: So that’s the interesting part. Because we did not know what was going on with her, I actually avoided all epilepsy organizations. That was my way of saying, “You know what? I’m not ready to go there yet.” So instead of going into epilepsy research and epilepsy support groups, I went to health and wellness and recovery from nervous system, immune system, those type of just communities.
I connected where I wanted to go, instead of going where I didn’t know if we belonged there yet. And again, with my background, by no means am I saying that I wouldn’t have ended up there, in using the support and the research and the knowledge and all of that.
I wasn’t against it. I wasn’t ready for it. And I knew it was our right place, like our right place to focus, was going to be on figuring out this root cause. And quite honestly, that non-traditional route is not where the more traditional groups typically go.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well thanks for pointing that out. That’s really a important part of your story too. So, I’m curious to know what role spirituality has played in your journey.
Catherine Whitcher: Faith is big, so I am a firm believer that God healed my daughter. It was a miracle, and doctors will say the same thing. Our traditional science based, you know, point A to point B, will say, “We have no idea how her body recovered from where it was supposed to be.” The prediction was not good for her at all. She was not supposed to survive.
And there are a lot of ugly words that go around, that I actually just don’t bring into the conversation, because my faith is strong, in that our path and our relationship with God was strengthened through this. And if it was meant to go another way, it would’ve gone that other way.
I can remember praying when she was going through the trauma, where I said “God, tell me what I’m supposed to be praying for. Am I praying for you to give my daughter back to me the way she was? Or are we going down this other path? Are you taking her to you?”
I mean, it was a very, very severe situation. So I think I had a foundation of Christianity before, and it was strengthened through this. Because I wouldn’t have survived no matter what the outcome was, if I didn’t believe there was something greater happening at that time.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing. Very powerful. So let’s talk about the world of special needs, IEP specifically, beyond your own personal experience, and we’ll talk about it from a professional perspective. What is the Master IEP Coach program?
Catherine Whitcher: So the Master IEP Coach program came about because people kept on asking. I say people: special education, parents, teachers, admins, therapists. So anybody at the IEP table, they come up to me and say, “Can you teach me to do what you do?” And I said no for a very long time. I’m like, I don’t know how to package this up.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I get on stage, I teach things that people are not willing to say. I just say it. I’m one for calling out truths in special education of what’s happening. Because the only way to solve a problem is to acknowledge that it’s there. So we will talk about these creative solutions and everything and say, “Teach me, teach me how to do this.” And I said, “No, I don’t know. I can’t do it.”
And finally, thank goodness to technology and just teaching myself how to build an online course and really lead a group virtually through something, the Master IEP Coach mentorship came to be. And I said, “Now is the time. Now is the time to teach people to do what I do,” because I want to see that ripple effect in special education of that hope and possibility and success.
That’s an underlying theme throughout everything that I’m creating and doing and going forward in, because I have seen miracles happen. And that includes a miracle, from Johanna’s recovery to a miracle of the IEP. That’s a hot mess. And all of a sudden now the child’s succeeding. They’re all wins.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So can we call the mentor program a train the trainer program?
Catherine Whitcher: Yes, it’s very similar to what we might think of as a train the trainer program, where I’m absolutely teaching people, not just the IEP strategies, but the business strategies of how to get out into their community. That might mean working one-on-one with parents. That might mean collaborating with groups. I’m going to kind of bring this full circle here for a minute. One of the Master IEP Coaches that I have that’s very, very active works for the Epilepsy Foundation, in Iowa I believe.
So he works for the Epilepsy Foundation, and he’s supporting families who have children with epilepsy through the IEP process. And that’s such an awesome feeling to have somebody come through the mentorship and then be able to pass that knowledge on, especially in communities that I’ve been connected to in the past.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I love the fact that you’re able to take the knowledge that you’ve developed over decades and decades and leverage it. Because there’s only so much you can do as one person, as far as reaching the intended audience. And the fact that you’re empowering others through the training, the mentor training, means that you’re going to have more foot soldiers in the IEP battle, if you will.
Maybe battle’s not the right word. To empower individuals to do what you’ve been doing, which is to try to eliminate some of the confrontation that exists in the process, or potential confrontation that exists in the process.
And I’m wondering if you can go into a little bit more detail about what’s involved to go through the mentorship program, or what’s the path somebody might follow?
Catherine Whitcher: Sure. So the Master IEP Coach mentorship, again, is the only training program that I know of that welcomes everybody at the IEP table. Which means it doesn’t matter—parent, teacher, admin, therapist. We don’t talk about sides of the table. We talk about building an IEP that supports a child to be prepared for further education, employment, and independent living.
So the way that the Master IEP Coach program works is it’s built for the busiest people I know, which are the people that I’ve just mentioned. So you can sign up to become a Master IEP Coach and start working through all the materials self-paced. So it’s a great option to just kind of start digging in.
Then a few times a year, we all go live together. Meaning I’m doing a full-on IEP conference that’s included. So it’s like you bought the course, you’re coming in, you’re learning it, and you know that in January and June, you are going to get full on guidance on how to be a Master IEP Coach in real time.
We also have a couple of live events that happen around the country, so it’s not just an online program, and we go in person also. Now a master IEP Coach who takes this program goes through the four different modules. They’re watching all the videos and doing all of the actions that it takes to get established as a Master IEP Coach.
If they’re like, “Yes, I’m in for this and I want continued training on the end,” so kinda like the back end behind the scenes. Once you have taken the course, you can join the Master IEP Coach network, and those are true Master IEP Coaches that are in the trenches every day, and I’m coaching every month live.
So really you get to choose: do you just want all the information because you may use it someday? Do you want to just implement it by yourself and figure that out? Or do you want that community surrounding you and that ongoing live interaction, where you can ask questions, get access to experts in that?
So it fits any type of lifestyle, and how you want to use it, because I’m all about that. We all have different roles in special education, and we can support each other in all of those.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thanks for sharing. So one of the things I love about the work you’re doing, first of all is your website. There’s a lot of free information there. One of the ones that I love was the “Twelve Questions Everyone Forgets to Ask,” which people have to snap that up. If you’re certainly a parent and you’re frustrated in the IEP process.
And you have a very provocative podcast known as the “Special Education Inner Circle Podcast,” and I’ve listened to quite a few episodes. Sometimes you’re talking, sometimes you’re interviewing people, and I’m wondering, where did the inspiration come from to be a podcast host, and where are you taking that?
Catherine Whitcher: So I wanted a podcast for the longest time, and I’ll be honest with you, I tried for like a year to do the whole…like sit down, record an episode, and make sure that I was doing it kinda like the professional podcasters out there. And I studied it. I love to learn, just new things. And it took me a year to figure out, no, I’m not going to do it that way.
Because going live on social media, having conversations, speaking the truth, really dropping nuggets of action steps or knowledge in ten minutes or less, that’s just who I am. And so that’s where the podcast came from. It was just like, you know what? I’m just going to go and speak like I have been speaking for twenty years.
And sometimes I’m talking with other people. I said, you know what? I will never say that I know everything in special education. That would be foolish. But I do know where to find people who know a lot of things beyond my own knowledge. So I’m connected in a way where I can bring unique guests in, and I love that.
But I also want to bring the traditional, in my sense traditional, what I’ve been teaching for twenty years. Really where the Special Education Inner Circle podcast is going is to continue to give the information out there, so people know that there are options, that special education does not need to be the way it is right now. Change is possible, and we don’t need the law to make big changes. So we can do that.
I also have Special Education Inner Circle membership, which is behind the scenes. So if you are ever listening to the podcast, and you’re like, “Okay, I don’t want to be a Master IEP Coach. Like that’s a lot. I got a lot going on, but I love the podcast and I want to talk to the guests and I want to dig in. And I actually would love to pick the brain of some Master IEP Coaches,” because you want help yourself. So I’ve set that up. So that’s the beginning of the conversation, and it’s also an opportunity to continue that.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I love it. And you have over a hundred episodes now. And I’m wondering if somebody were to cherry pick one or two episodes just to give them sort of a flavor or taste for what it is that you’re doing, are there particular episodes that come to mind?
Catherine Whitcher: So, the very first episode…I mean, you’re a podcaster. You know the first episodes are never our best episodes. Like we’re just getting ready to figure it all out. Right? So it’s like embarrassing to say it, but I will tell you the first episode, I mean, it has the most listens, and I still get the most comments, because it’s just, “Facts or Feelings?” Like how are you making a difference, facts or feelings?
Welcome to the Special Education Inner Circle podcast. I’m your host, Catherine Whitcher. No matter your role on the IEP team, parents, teachers, and therapists, you are all welcome here. Together we can tackle the tough topics in special education and find the solutions and strategies we all need to prepare children for further education, employment, and independent living. Today we’re going to talk about facts or feelings. How are…..
So that’s a really important one, that just kind of sets the foundation. I did a recent interview with a dad, Jamil, who was our first dad on the podcast, that was showing the importance of him showing up to his child’s IEP meeting and what the difference is, because he didn’t show up all the time, and then he did show up. So just showing that transformation.
And then the other pieces I love, you know, sometimes I bring on my Master IEP Coaches, and I’m kind of coaching them through, because they’re practicing in the real world. It’s like a little internship there, but you get some great information while I’m coaching them.
Then I’m going to encourage you that if you have a specific kind of question, like, “Oh, I wonder about assessments,” or, “Oh, I wonder about speech therapy,” or, “Oh, I wonder about behavior”—those are kinda the hot topics—most likely you’re going to find a podcast episode that speaks directly on that, so you can get some insight and next steps on those hot specific hot topics.
David Hirsch: Okay, so if I can paraphrase episode number one, “Facts or Feelings?” and I can relate to that. When you first get started, you really have no idea what you’re getting into. I recently was speaking to podcast guest number one. We’re still good friends, and he’s still actively involved in the Network, and I refer to him as the guinea pig. The guinea pig. Not one of the guinea pigs—the guinea pig. So thanks for being authentic about that.
And then, you know, we will have to ID the episode where you interviewed a dad, so make it easy as possible for our dads to tap in. But I think you’re right, people are in different places as it relates to their interest or understanding or frustration with the IEP process. And somebody could scroll through the episodes and find a topic that’s nearer and dearer to their heart, if that’s the way they want to do it. Not everybody is going to start at number one and binge listen all the way to the very current one.
So I’d like to talk about advice, and I know that this could be a very long conversation, but we’re going to try to limit it as best we can. What advice can you share with parents, and specifically dads, about helping raise a child with disability, and in particular with regard to the IEP process?
Catherine Whitcher: So my biggest piece of advice when it comes to a parent, and specifically dads, when it comes to the IEP process, is that you have to show up and ask questions. All the time. That’s why the biggest freebie that I have out there for everyone is, “Twelve questions that you have to ask.” And these are the important pieces, the questions that you have. It’s because you know your child best.
So you’re going to have questions for the professionals on how things relate directly to your child, and I need you to ask those. I need you to get involved in every step of the way, and you can do that in a positive and collaborative way, and in a way that’s much different than what’s kind of portrayed out there in the IEP world. It doesn’t have to be as combative, stressful, or negative as most people think.
David Hirsch: That’s a relief. So I know that you talked about dads needing to know their purpose. What do you mean by that?
Catherine Whitcher: I want dads specifically to understand what their role is at the IEP table, beyond just either being a body in the room, like, “I’m showing up for show.” Because that happens. Remember, I’ve been doing this for twenty years. So dad’s, I’m telling you, I get it. I’ve seen all different roles.
I’ve also seen the opposite side. It’s kind of either dad just shows up because dad’s been told to show up, or dad shows up to be the muscle at the meeting, to kind of give the dirty looks and to say, “This is what needs to happen for my child,” and kind of bully a little bit. And it shouldn’t be either of those.
There are times when our emotions get the best of us. Like I can acknowledge that. It’s important for dads to know—and anybody who listens to the podcast or, I don’t know, goes anywhere where I’m at—I’m always saying the entire purpose of an IEP is to prepare your child for further education, employment, independent living.
I didn’t make that up. That’s in IDEA law. It’s in the purpose and findings of the law. I’m not a lawyer, but I’d love to show you where to look in those. So in the purpose of findings of IDEA law—further education, employment, and independent living—if you think about that from a father perspective, this can actually be an exciting tool.
And a great meeting is where you get to help your child build independence and stay focused on those three areas. It’s not just about the lunchroom or recess or what the reading rule is, it’s about the big picture of helping your child be who they are and as independent as possible.
David Hirsch: Thank you for sharing. So you also talk about parent input statements, and the importance of outlining goals in advance of a meeting. Could you talk to that?
Catherine Whitcher: Absolutely. So there’s a section on the IEP that is typically labeled “Parent Educational Concerns.” And I’ll tell you, if you bust open the IEP right now and you go find that section, it’s going to say things like, “Mom is concerned because Johnny keeps leaving his coat on the bus.” Or it’s going to say that you’re concerned about grades, or it’s going to say you’re concerned about the lunch room.
And those are not the true educational concerns. Those are bits and pieces that are happening in the here and now, and they are clues to what needs to be happening to prepare a child for this big future that we’re talking about.
So a parent, and this is for mom and dad, or even on your own separately, can be setting up this IEP team for success by submitting Parent Input Statements ahead of time and focusing on those categories that I talk about for their education, employment, independent living. And as an educator, I want to know, “What do mom and dad see when it comes to social, emotional, communication, community access, employment, leisure activities? What do they see?”
Because as a teacher, if I know a child has a reading deficit, I have probably 99 goals I could choose from to try and address this reading deficit. But if I know specifically what the parents are working towards when it comes to different areas of communication, or what the struggle is at home, or independence, I might shape—and I should, I should shape that reading goal to fit the bigger picture of what’s needed outside of my classroom. I can address things in the classroom academically, absolutely. But it needs to apply to the bigger picture.
David Hirsch: Got it. So you also have a philosophy about things to do before the meeting, during the meeting, after the meeting. Why is that important?
Catherine Whitcher: Because an IEP meeting is just a blip in our special education journey. It’s one meeting that is a really a paperwork shuffle. And a lot of people just went, “No, it’s like the meeting, the annual meeting where my child’s entire future depends on it.” It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why there’s conflict, because there’s high stress and high anxiety over getting this meeting exactly right.
But if we’re doing things well before the meeting, and we’re sharing drafts of what may be recommended, if we’re having the conversations, then that meeting no longer becomes a dumping ground for complaints and information, but it becomes a collaboration and more like a mastermind type meeting of bringing the experts together.
And then if we have an accountability plan afterwards, then we’re not having the anger build up, like, “What’s going on, and who’s doing what, and did they follow through?” Because that’s a very traditional thought process in special education, of everybody promised something and then nothing was delivered. But if we follow through with an accountability plan, things aren’t going to go perfect, but we don’t let stress build up long term.
David Hirsch: Yeah. What a great point is that if everything depended on that meeting, you could see where the conflict would arise. But if there’s a level of communication that’s taking place in advance, during, after, then it’s just part of the process. Which is I think the way it was designed to be, as opposed to the battleground that I think IEP meetings are often portrayed.
So I know that one of the common complaints that parents hear is, “We don’t do that here.” And I’m wondering, how do you react, or what is your advice, when that red flag goes up?
Catherine Whitcher: So one of the great things that you can say when you hear, “We don’t do that here”…so let’s give a specific example, one that happens all the time in special education. That’s where a parent requests a one-on-one aide for their child. “My child needs a one-on-one aide. I know they do.” And the immediate response is, “We don’t do that here.”
And number one, the way the parent asks for that aide is not how I recommend, because it sets you up for, “We don’t do that here.” I want to set you up differently. But sometimes you’re going to ask a question in a way that’s going to get, “We don’t do that here.”
And there are a couple of ways to say that. “Have you never done it before?” And so just ask a question like, “So you’re saying we don’t do that here because it’s never been requested? You’ve just never done it before?” Like, “What do you mean by, ‘We don’t do that here?’” Question that statement, “We don’t do that here.”
“No, our district just won’t allow it.” “Oh, okay. Do you have a policy? Can I see the policy?” Again, I’m not telling them they’re wrong. I’m not saying like, “Oh yes you do do it here.” Because a lot of times that’s where that conversation wants to go. It’s like, “Well, you’re going to do it now.” I mean, there’s a little sass that comes like this instinct.
And I’m like, “I’m not going to argue with you. You don’t do it here. Have you ever done it before?” “No.” “Okay. Has it ever been requested before?” “I don’t know. We can’t share that information.” “Okay. So what does that mean? You don’t do that here?” “Well, our district said so.” “Okay, can you show me the policy?” “Well, we don’t have a policy. That’s just how it is.” “Okay. Can you please write that down?”
And that stops the meeting right there. “Well, we don’t actually like want to…” “Again, I’m not throwing anybody under the bus. I’m just saying if you’re going to say no to something, and you’ve never done it before, or you’re not going to tell us if you’ve done it before, and there’s no policy that you can show us, which means that it’s your opinion that it can’t be done, I just want that in writing.” Because we all know if it was not in writing, it didn’t happen.
That’s all. Now for all the parents, they just went, “Great. Now I know what to do next time. But I already asked, and I can’t get that one-on-one aide for my child.” So you have to, as a parent, be ready with data. And you’ll be amazed if you do the prep work with your team, guess what? Your team probably wants your child to have more support. But they’re being told by their district that they can’t afford it, or the staffing’s not there. Now, they should never say that in an IEP meeting, but behind the scenes, we all know that’s what’s happening.
So I want you to say like, “My child’s data shows that they’re not on task during large group activities. So….,” and then you can talk about how an aide during large group activities, or an aide during unstructured activities, or maybe an aide when they go into general education classrooms that don’t have a special education teacher, that additional support is needed in order for the child to access their education.
I very rarely will ever ask for a child to have a one-on-one aide the entire day, because what that means is that when the child is going to speech therapy with a speech therapist one-on-one that they need to have an aide with them. For some students that might be true. But for the majority, that’s not why we’re asking for an aide.
So really knowing what you’re asking for and having the data ready and not asking for general asks is super important. But “We don’t do that here” is never something that should not be pursued. You should always pursue when you hear that.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well it’s brilliant. Thank you for sharing and the thought, I don’t what game show it was, but you get to make one phone call, like a lifeline phone call, and I’m thinking if that took place in the world of IEPs, your phone number should be on speed dial.
Catherine Whitcher: Well, it’s funny, because with the way that the world has gone with Zoom meetings…and there’s a lot of Zoom meetings that are happening. It doesn’t matter if we’re listening to this, you know, nine months, twelve months, whatever from now, Zoom meetings are going to be a thing. Like we’re not going backwards there, or at least we shouldn’t be.
So if your district says that you can’t do Zoom meetings, that’s another thing that you need to pursue, because it can be done. So, yeah, it’s one of those things where you can be on a Zoom meeting and you might hire a Master IEP Coach to be next to you. All Master IEP Coaches are independent. They’re not my employees, they’re just doing their thing.
But you can hire them and they’re on Zoom meetings. And you know, you’re texting, we all have done this, right? Like you’re texting somebody else who’s on the screen with you. It’s like, “Did you hear what they said? What do I say next?” And they’re getting those prompts back, like, “Ask them to show you the policy. Ask them to write it down.”
David Hirsch: I love it. Thank you for sharing. You also talk about the importance of leadership in conflict resolution, and I’m wondering if you could address that.
Catherine Whitcher: Sure. So, one of the biggest gaps that I see in special education is that a special education teacher….now, mind you, I have two degrees in special education. At the time, the way they broke up certificates for teaching, it was five different teaching certificates. And I was put into the classroom, and I had to figure things out.
It’s like being on an island. I walked in, and I had a room with some desks and some chairs. I had a teacher desk, and I had a bright green milk crate filled up with IEPs, and it was kind of like, good luck, have fun. No curriculum, no books, no support, no nothing. And I was just like, okay. And I’ll tell you, that’s where a lot of my strategy came from.
Being a special needs sibling, I watched my mom advocate, which means that I figured out, “Hmm, if I can make these parents happy in this classroom, I’m going to be okay as a teacher.”
So I still do my job. I can’t cater to every need on every parent’s wish list, right? You can’t make all of it happen. But I thought, “If I can get the parent perspective, and then work with the school for what’s needed, I could collaborate and make my classroom a win-win situation.”
And that’s the same that I’m bringing right now, not being in the classroom, as I’m looking for, “What resources do we have? What expertise do we have? And what do we need to do to prioritize the child’s big picture in this short term, in this classroom?” And make that happen.
So there’s no leadership training in education. And some people just went, “Oh yes there is. I’m an administrator and I had that one class.” No, when I’m talking leadership training, like I have self invested in so much leadership and conflict resolution training because that’s something that is taught in the business world. That’s something that’s taught in the legal world. That’s something that’s taught outside.
But as a teacher, I walked in with no resources, and I was expected to be a leader. Nobody taught me how. So I had to figure that piece out. And if I can help—and that’s a big part of this Master IEP Coach mentorship—if I can help you become a leader, then you can have long-term results instead of short-term wins.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Catherine Whitcher: No, I just want to encourage our families, especially our dads, that you absolutely not only have a voice, but again, you have that purpose in helping to design your child’s education. You don’t have to know how to write the goals exactly. You don’t have to know the curriculum. You don’t even have to know exactly what you have to be asking for in detail.
But you do need to be able to share with the team what your priorities are as a family, as a parent, because every family is so different. Every child’s path is so different, and educators do not know the inner workings of your family. But if you share it with them, and you collaborate with them, they can design a program that not only supports a child at school, but supports them for a lifetime.
David Hirsch: That’s wonderful. If somebody wants to learn more about your Master IEP Coaching programs, your Special Education or Circle podcast, or to contact you, what’s the best way to do that?
Catherine Whitcher: So everything is over at catherinewhitcher.com. So you can hop over to the website. You can find me on social media at Catherine Whitcher everywhere. If you’re jumping straight to like, “Just show me the Master IEP Coach stuff. I need to know exactly that,” then head over to masteriepcoach.com.
David Hirsch: Excellent. We’ll be sure to include that in the show notes. Let’s also give a special shout out to Effie Parks of the “Once Upon a Gene” podcast for helping connect us.
Catherine Whitcher: Absolutely.
David Hirsch: Catherine, thank you for your time and many insights. As a reminder, Catherine is just one of the individuals who’s part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org. Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did.
As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support.
Catherine, thanks again.
Catherine Whitcher: Thank you.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad. Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story, or know of a compelling story, please send an email to david@21stcentury dads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch. Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at horizontherapeutics.com.