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 individualized education plan (IEP) meetings. This annual meeting is convened with parents, teachers and staff to facilitate the process of developing an individualized plan 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 comments like “It’s IEP time, and I feel like I’m going into battle.” Other parents have debated whether bringing doughnuts or coffee will help their students receive more help.
While I would never turn down a doughnut, I’d suggest that both teachers and parents try these tips first for a better IEP meeting.
Missy Willert, a special education teacher in the Kent School District, tries to really get to know her students well in advance of 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 explains. “[Parents] have plenty of time to ask questions in a format that is not intimidating.” For school personnel, she advises: “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 plan, Willert suggests you ask for one. She also recommends that at the beginning of the year you send a letter to the teacher describing your child and outlining your concerns.
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 heading to your child’s IEP meeting, be 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 to help guide the conversation. If you worry you might become 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 young son has multiple disabilities and is also intellectually gifted, says that before her first meeting with the school, she spent some time researching accommodations that had helped children with issues similar to her son’s. She felt that such research helped not to have to think of ideas on the spot.
Understand the process and learn 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. Two such local resources include: Exceptional Families Network and PAVE (Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment). Wrightslaw provides information that helps parents to better understand the legal timelines and terms that can assist them in advocating for their 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 has been a special education teacher for two decades, 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,” says Branson.
Willert 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 should not be on complaining about what the student, parent or teacher is doing or not doing.
As a parent, I try to keep an open mind and to remember that my child’s teachers have a different 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 collaborative process, and you are your child’s first teacher. Don’t be shy about speaking up if you think your child should have different goals, or if you disagree with something that has been suggested.
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 in 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. After the meeting, stay involved with the people working with your kid and ask what you can do at home to support his learning.
Teachers should gather data on your child’s progress on a regular basis and report to you at scheduled intervals. You may want to consider keeping your own data as well.
Save copies of your correspondence with the school, and don’t hesitate to say something if you think that the IEP isn’t being followed or have other concerns about your child’s progress at school.
This article was originally published in September 2018, and updated in September 2019. *Last names withheld by request.