I have been in more IEP meetings than I can count.
If you do not know what I’m talking about, then consider yourself lucky.
IEP (which is short for “Individualized Educational Plan”) meetings take place between the parents, teachers, administration, and any specialists that need to be involved when a child qualifies for special services through the school system.
I’ve been on all sides of the table. I’ve been a classroom teacher, a gifted specialist with a caseload of about 90 students, and I’m also the mom of five. Three of our children have special needs. My oldest son qualified for his first IEP when he was only 2 years old.
So, in one form or another, I’ve spent the last sixteen years sitting in these meetings.
Every time another one comes up my husband, without fail, asks me to take the lead because it is just too overwhelming for some people without a background in education. (He is an involved dad and has been to the IEP meetings as well, but he feels intimidated and worries he will miss something important.) If you are new to the process, maybe you can relate to how Eddie feels. That’s why we are here. Today I want to share my Top 5 Tips for Parents at IEP meetings.
- Have realistic expectations. The teachers and administrators are only human, and they are working within the constraints of the laws they have to follow. This can be frustrating for everyone involved and sometimes leads to emotions running high. It can be hard to separate your feelings and maintain a professional air when your child’s well-being is on the table, but you will get further if you are able to stick to the facts at hand. Do not insult the teachers personally. They really do want your child to succeed. If you are able to phrase your concerns to be child-centered and give reasons based on facts it will help the meeting go smoothly. State your concern, and then a fact, not an opinion, to back it up. Say things like, “My concern is that Susie struggles with the abstract concepts in math (concern), and right now she is able to use the hands-on manipulatives in class, but not on the tests (fact). I don’t feel like the assessments are giving us an accurate representation of what she knows.” That will help the school understand your position and give them actionable things to do moving forward. It will get you much further than accusatory statements like, “Ms. Smith only has two years of experience and my kid is failing because she isn’t a good teacher.” Even if you do feel that way, the IEP meeting is a time to set goals and make a plan for how to best help your child. When the adults spend the time insulting each other and not addressing the goals and solutions, it doesn’t do anything to help the student.
- Be organized and come prepared. I recommend using a digital file storage like Dropbox and keeping electronic copies of all of your child’s test results, forms, and IEP’s. It is easy to label and organize electronic files in a way that makes sense to you, and you will have them available wherever you go, even beyond IEP meetings, like at the doctor’s office or therapy appointments. You could also use paper copies in a binder, but it will get very cumbersome as your child gets older and there is more and more paperwork to manage. Once, due to human error, we realized that my son had been mislabeled in the computer and the Supervisor of Special Education for our school district didn’t believe me at the meeting when I said our son had a certain diagnosis because that did not match the information in any of her files. I was able to go home and locate the test results and diagnosis and email it to the school, but if you have an app like Dropbox on your phone you may be able to even pull the paperwork up in the meeting to save everyone the time and frustration in those situations.
- Know your rights. In the U.S. children have certain rights granted by federal law, but each state (and even the different counties and school districts within the state) interprets those laws differently and has unique policies of their own. At the beginning of every meeting, you should receive a document called “Procedural Safeguards” that outlines what to do if you feel that those rights have been violated. You also do have the right to call other people into the meeting and bring an advocate with you, but you will need to tell the school in advance. I have acted like an advocate for friends who wanted someone with more experience in their IEP meeting, and as a teacher I have had parents bring advocates or even attorneys into IEP meetings. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can ask someone with more experience to go with you or reach out to a special education advocate. Having someone in your corner can help alleviate your worries, and advocates understand how to speak the language on both sides and help mediate concerns.
- Bring a notebook, a pen, a water bottle, and a snack. And wear something that looks professional, but is also comfortable. You are probably going to need to bring your I.D. as well to sign in at the school office. I also recommend that you eat a granola bar in the car before you go in. You want to be as comfortable as possible and able to concentrate. The meeting may take quite a while. You do not want to be distracted by an uncomfortable waistband, sore feet in pinching shoes, or a rumbling tummy, but I do recommend that you dress in business casual clothing. A sweater and khakis is perfectly fine. Just remember, the school employees will be dressed in professional work attire, and you may feel intimidated and less likely to speak up if you are wearing something like stained sweatpants that makes you feel embarrassed if you find yourself walking into a conference room full of people wearing suits and dresses. Do not be afraid to take notes or ask questions. A lot is being said, and you want to remember it later. You will also have to sign a few documents and having your own pen readily available can just help the meeting go more smoothly. (But don’t worry if you forget, there is nothing wrong with speaking up and asking for a few sheets of paper and a pen as the meeting starts so you can take notes.)
- Sit down the night before and spend some time reviewing the paperwork and what you want to say. The school sent home paperwork in advance of the meeting. It is important to review it. (Also, make sure you always sign and return the meeting invitation by its due date!) You want to go into the meeting fully prepared, and this also gives you time to gather any other important information. You might want to gather some copies of graded schoolwork, write a list of your concerns, and just gather your thoughts. It may feel silly, but it can help to do a practice run with a friend, or even in the mirror, so you feel more comfortable speaking up in the meeting.
After your meeting, it’s a good idea to send an email to the school employees who were present summarizing your understanding of what happened. Just a paragraph or two saying thank you for attending my child’s IEP meeting, just so we are on the same page, here is what I believe I heard today. That way if there was any confusion or misunderstanding, it can be cleared up right away, you have a chance to ask any questions you forgot in the moment, and you also have a record of your communication.
You can even print or save this blogpost and put it in your files to refer back to later. If you have any other tips for fellow parents attending IEP meetings, please leave them in the comments, and I would love to connect with you on my Facebook page!