Effective IEP Meetings: Advice from a Parent
Written by: Laura Hutton
That autumn afternoon ten years ago is indelibly etched in my memory. I had left my job as a special educator early to attend my son Noah’s individualized education program (IEP) meeting. Two weeks earlier I had received an invitation to the meeting; the invitation stated that Noah was going to be dismissed from speech and language services. Usually my husband attended Noah’s IEP meetings, but I wanted to make sure that Noah wasn’t dismissed from services unless he really no longer needed therapy. Since, in my job, I sat in on IEP meetings every week, I thought that I could do this more effectively than my husband.
At the meeting, I sat in the assistant principal’s tiny office, squeezed between professionals who had already read the results of Noah’s testing. I had yet to see those papers. The solemn professionals introduced themselves; only one of them had met my son. Finally, the speech therapist showed me Noah’s test results. I was surprised to see that she had only administered one test. The test did not assess my son’s difficulties. Despite this, the speech therapist claimed that these test results showed that Noah no longer needed services. I waited in vain for someone to mention whether or not he had mastered the skills, which were on his IEP. Numbly, I sat by as the speech therapist slid the paperwork across the table for me to sign. I looked at it as though through a fog. I felt detached from my body as I watched my hand silently sign the dismissal from services. I’m still not sure why I signed those papers.
By the time I arrived at home, I was furious with myself. I had sat by as Noah’s school failed miserably to meet the requirements of IDEA, the law governing special education. Despite my training as a special educator, I had failed to advocate for my son. Since then I have learned a lot from other parents, parent advocates, lawyers, and even a few fellow teachers. I have used their advice to develop guidelines, which have helped me become a more effective advocate at my children’s IEP meetings. Throughout the remainder of this article, I’d like to share those ideas with you.
It’s wise to start preparing for each IEP meeting several weeks in advance. When an annual review is approaching, contact your child’s case manager. Ask what recommendations are likely to be made at the meeting. Request copies of paperwork including draft IEPs, test results, and other reports, which will be reviewed during the meeting. This will give you a general idea of the school’s plans.
IEPs are supposed to be joint ventures. Decide what you would like to see happen at the meeting. Make a list of your desires, then prioritize them. Schools are required to develop appropriate educational programs for children with disabilities. They are not required to implement the best program possible. This makes it likely that you will need to compromise on one or more points. I have learned that prioritizing what I want makes it more likely that at least my most urgent requests will be implemented.
Two years ago, my daughter Dreama started kindergarten with an IEP for several hours of special education a week, all of which were to be delivered in the regular education classroom. September passed and Dreama appeared to have adjusted well to her new school. Her special educator scheduled an IEP meeting for later that fall to reduce Dreama’s hours of service. As the meeting approached, Dreama’s behavior changed. She began throwing materials, pushing peers, and running out of the classroom. Clearly a reduction in hours of service was not going to be the outcome of her IEP meeting.
Now I had a dilemma. I believed that Dreama’s behavior was the result of her inability to keep up with the regular education curriculum. I wanted Dreama to receive more special education individualized to meet her needs. However, I also wanted her to remain with her peers. It was time to prioritize. I decided that increasing her hours of service was more important to me than keeping her in a fully inclusive placement. I contacted her special educator prior to the meeting. Explaining my reasoning, I told her that I planned to request that Dreama’s hours of service be increased to somewhere between 15 and 20 hours a week. At the same time, I explained that I understood that staffing limitations may make it difficult for this many service hours to be provided in the regular education classroom. While I re-emphasized my preference for the regular classroom, I told Dreama’s special educator that I would be happy to let the school decide the most appropriate place to provide Dreama’s service hours. The school increased Dreama’s hours of service with only a minimal amount of time spent outside of her kindergarten class.
In addition to particular requests, I often find that I have other questions and topics of discussion I want raised during the meeting. It’s helpful to make a list of everything you want discussed during the meeting. Write down all the questions you want to ask. Review your list with a friend or family member who knows your child well. Often when you discuss your list with someone else, you will discover one or two important points you forgot to write down. Once you get to the IEP meeting, check off each item on your list as it is discussed. Lastly, make sure that the meeting minutes include the key points from each of these discussions and any decisions made.
During Noah’s IEP meeting, I fell into the role of a passive observer. This role did not allow me to effectively advocate for my son. However, advocating is not synonymous with arguing. When IEP meetings become battles, children rarely benefit. Instead, try to develop a feeling of positive collaboration. In order to more effectively participate in the meeting, you should request that the school provide you with a draft IEP and copies of any reports that will be discussed. The school would also appreciate being made aware of the requests you will be making and any reports you plan to share. This allows appropriate preparations for the meeting, including the inclusion of all necessary school personnel.
Try to establish a collegial atmosphere from the start of the meeting. To assist with this, you might even bring refreshments. When the meeting starts, you may also want to thank everyone for the hard work they have done on behalf of your child. Even if you do not agree with what the school staff has done, you can recognize the time and effort they have spent. Teachers who are working hard to meet your child’s needs will appreciate the recognition. Teachers who are doing less may be spurred to new efforts by your comments. (Yes, this has actually happened.)
During the meeting, make sure the focus stays on what is appropriate for your child. Statements like, “I know that we all want what is best for Dreama,” can go a long way towards taking the focus off your individual views and putting it back on developing an appropriate plan. Some parents I know bring pictures of their children to the meeting and use these to return the focus of the meeting to their child.
If the time comes when you need to bring in an advocate or lawyer, you would do well to continue this spirit of collaboration. As a special educator, I have had to sit by as decisions were made with which I did not agree. I have heard principals complain that they have been told by their supervisors to deny what they believe are reasonable parent requests. It is important not to “blame the messenger” when your request is denied. A more productive approach is to assume that the faculty at your child’s school wants what is best for your child. A parent who very successfully advocated for her child gave me this advice: Go to the principal, or teacher, and explain that you know he/she wants what is best for your child, and you are going to obtain legal assistance to help achieve it.
If topics arise during the meeting for which you are not prepared, or if the rest of the IEP team refuses to agree to your requests, do not feel pressured to agree to anything at this point. Ask to take the paperwork home and think about it. Be honest. However, remember that the school needs to act on the IEP meeting in a timely manner. Return the paperwork promptly. If you decide not to sign it, include a statement explaining why you didn’t sign, an explanation of what you would like to see instead, and a request for another IEP meeting to discuss the topic further.
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