As a special education teacher and the mother of a child with special needs, I’ve literally been on both sides of the table at more than my share of IEP meetings. This annual meeting is where parents, teachers and staff meet to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a student with special needs.
While I’ve been lucky enough to have had positive experiences at nearly all of the meetings I’ve attended as both a parent and a teacher, I know that IEP time is often stressful. In online support groups, it’s not uncommon for parents to post things like, “It’s IEP time, and I feel like I’m going to battle.” Other parents have debated whether bringing donuts or coffee will help their students get more help.
While I would never turn down a donut, I’d suggest both teachers and parents try these tips first for a better IEP.
Missy Willert, a special education teacher in the Kent School District, tries to really get to know her students well before the IEP meeting.
First, during a school's open house, she asks parents to complete a questionnaire. She also sends home a draft copy of the IEP for parents to review at least a week prior to the meeting.
"This way there are no surprises at the meeting," she says. "[Parents] have plenty of time to ask questions in a format that is not intimidating." As for school personnel, she adds: "Be sure to discuss positive growth, traits and fun facts that demonstrate that you know the child."
If you have an IEP scheduled for your child and you haven’t seen a draft of the IEP, Willert suggests you ask for one. She also suggests sending in a letter describing your child and your concerns at the beginning of the year.
If I have a particular concern that I want to address at my son’s meeting, I give his case manager advance notice. For example, if I want to add accommodations for my son to use during a particular test, I'll be sure to note that in advance of our IEP meeting.
Prepare for success
If you’re headed to your child’s IEP meeting, make sure to arrive on time and come ready with any specifics you want to address.
Sheryl*, whose daughter attends Seattle Public Schools, suggests making a list of what you want to discuss and bringing that list along. If you think you may be overwhelmed, you may also want to bring along a friend or an advocate (this is typically a person with special training or knowledge who can help you plan for your child’s IEP meeting and guide you through the process).
Melissa*, whose 6-year-old son has multiple disabilities and is also intellectually gifted, says that she spent some time researching accommodations that had helped children with issues similar to her son’s before her first meeting with the school. She felt it helped not to have to think of ideas on the spot.
Understand the process and speak the language
The IEP process can be overwhelming, particularly if you're new to it. Read up on the process and learn the terminology.
Several local groups offer workshops on IEPs for families and/or can connect parents with advocates, if they need one. A couple local resources: Exceptional Families Network and PAVE. Also check out Wrightslaw. Understanding the legal timelines and terms can help you advocate for your child more effectively.
For example, if your child has an IEP for reading but you think she also needs help with math, you will need to request that she be evaluated in this area before those goals are added to the IEP. Understanding the steps will help everyone feel less frustrated.
Accentuate the positive
Christina Branson is a special education teacher in her 19th year working with students with mild to severe disabilities. She says there is always something positive to say about every student and advocates a team approach.
“The needs of the student should always be the focus.” Branson says.
Missy Willert of Kent School District agrees, adding that she makes sure others attending the meeting understand that the focus is on developing a plan for growth and student success. The focus is not to complain about what the student, parent or teacher is doing or not doing.
As a parent, I try to keep an open mind and I try to remember that my child's teachers have a perspective on him than I do.
"I think it's important to go into an IEP meeting with a positive outlook and also viewing teachers, counselors, principals, whomever as part of Team Child," says Willert. "Ask for their opinions. Take their advice seriously. Advocate for your child but also recognize that they have a lot of experience to offer."
Remember that creating the IEP is a team process, and you are your child’s first teacher. Don’t be shy about speaking up if you think your child needs different goals, or if you disagree with something that has been suggested for your child.
Traci Burg’s son had an IEP in the Puyallup School District from preschool through age 15. She says, “Attend every IEP meeting and speak your mind. You have a say as to what goes in the IEP and it is important to advocate for what your child needs!”
The IEP is a legal document, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. Willert says she tells her families, “If something isn’t working it can be amended. It is all about creating a document that will support your child at school with their learning and growth.”
If you’re the parent of a child with special needs, remember that the IEP is an important document, but at the end of the day it's only paper.
Stay involved after the meeting with the people working with your child and ask what you can do at home to support his learning.
Teachers should take regular data on your child’s progress and report to you at scheduled intervals. You may want to consider keeping your own data as well.
Consider also saving copies of your correspondence with the school, and don’t be hesitant about saying something if you think that the IEP isn’t being followed or have other concerns about your child’s progress at school.
*Last name removed per source's request.