Two of my children have individual education programs, also known as an IEP, which means I’ve sat in plenty of team meetings. Anyone who has been to one knows it feels a lot being on a game show—invigorating, nerve-racking, and overwhelming. You can’t help but have big feelings, because your child’s educational experience is at stake. A child who has a solid IEP can go from failing at school—academically, socially, mentally, and even physically—to thriving.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and examine why you’re at this point with your child and what you can anticipate. Students who are struggling in a school setting may qualify for an IEP. The first step is to ask your child’s teacher and principal for a meeting. The educational team, which includes the parent, makes a determination as to whether or not an evaluation of the student is in order.
If the team determines a child should be evaluated (a.k.a. digger deeper into their academic, behavioral, physical, and emotional status), then the evaluation is conducted, usually by multiple educational professionals, over a period of time. Fair warning: This can take a while. Once all the evaluations, questionnaires, and observations are complete, the team reconvenes to determine whether or not the child qualifies for an IEP. (Some meetings are reviews and preparation for a redetermination of eligibility, should the student already have an IEP.)
If they do, the team then writes goals for the child’s education, as well as outlines any services they qualify for, whether or not they need special education, and accommodations that allow the student to access their education. Examples of accommodations would be preferential seating (such as at the front and center of the classroom) and testing in a quiet environment. A student with certain needs may have weekly minutes with a social worker or an occupational, speech, or physical therapist.
Before you step into the eligibility meeting, there are things you can do to prepare yourself and help create the best possible outcome for your child. We talked to Karrie Potter, an information specialist with Family Matters Parent Training and Information Center in Illinois, to find out exactly what parents need to do before their child’s next IEP meeting. This IEP meeting checklist will help ensure that your kid’s school year is a success.
1. Know your state’s procedural safeguards.
You can’t play a game well if you don’t know the rules. Every state school board has the public school’s “procedural safeguards” available, and all parents should be provided these by a school district staff member before the meeting is held. Understanding your rights and responsibilities as a parent—and as an equal educational team member—is crucial to a successful meeting. You can respectfully bring up any violations, should an issue arise. Examples include confidentiality concerns, the right to access your child’s educational records, and what to do if you disagree with the team majority’s decisions.
Potter recommends that you reach out to your own state’s parent training and information center to ask for resources as you prepare. The staff can help you increase your understanding of the special education system and the IEP process, including your role in the meeting, she says.
2. Review the current plan.
Potter stresses that as parents, we are equal members of the IEP team. This means that each team member holds the same weight during the IEP process. You need to know and understand your child’s current plan, if there is one, inside and out. Imagine you’re going in for a job interview. You need to look the part, sound the part, and have done your due diligence.
Prior to the meeting, go through the plan, especially any existing services, goals, and accommodations. What’s working and what’s not? If your child is old enough and able, ask for their input. What do they have in place that they no longer need? What should be added? Also, glance over any progress reports and your child’s current grades prior to the meeting.
3. Ask for feedback from your child’s educators.
A few weeks before the meeting, be sure to touch base with your child’s current educators and support staff, which may include therapists, the school nurse, and the social worker. Ask how your child is doing, as well as what is and isn’t working in their current plan. If your child doesn’t have a current plan, ask what they want you to consider placing in the plan should your child qualify. Taking a “we” approach is important. Personally, I make sure to communicate with my kids’ educators and therapists year-round, knowing that the IEP is a fluid document that can be changed at any time, as needed.
Potter says you can also reach out to any other professionals who may contribute to your child’s school plan, offering suggestions and weighing in on decisions. This includes your child’s pediatrician (and others on their medical team), mental health counselors, and speech, physical, developmental, or occupational therapists.
4. Prepare a list of questions and concerns.
In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to remember what you want to share. Take well-organized notes with you. Potter also encourages us to consider sharing our concerns with individuals in advance of the meeting to make sure there is adequate time to discuss all concerns at the meeting.
Give everyone time to prepare answers to your questions and concerns instead of blindsiding them in the team setting. One approach is to ask, “I’m curious about…” or “I noticed…” instead of making assumptions.
For example, one question I’ve asked is, “I’m wondering if we should add an accommodation of reducing my child’s nightly homework, given that Mrs. Smith has remarked that my son often leaves the second half of the work incomplete. I’ve noticed he’s overwhelmed by too many math problems and gets frustrated.” Be sure to work to get the whole story—from the educator and your child—keeping in mind there’s always more than one side to any situation.
5. Review the plan.
If the child is deemed eligible for an IEP because they qualify under one of the thirteen disability categories and their disability is affecting their access to an appropriate education (called “adverse effect”), you should understand the document. It’s perfectly okay, Potter says, to “ask to review the IEP at the end of the meeting to make sure the team has an understanding of any and all changes.”
Parents should leave the meeting—or shortly after—with a copy of the IEP, and then take time to go over it. The document can be long and detailed. It’s a good idea, Potter says, to have someone review the document with you if needed. A specialist like her can review documents and provide suggestions, though they cannot offer legal advice. Don’t be afraid to ask questions after the meeting and to continue to communicate with your child’s educators.
Potter, who is a parent of a child who received special education and related services via an IEP, encourages parents to speak up and stay involved. Parents of those who may qualify for or have an IEP really know their child best, she says. They’re the “constant in their child’s life and have such valuable information to share with the other members of the IEP team.” In essence, we shouldn’t undervalue ourselves and our input. Our observations and feedback matter and can make a difference in how the IEP is written.
Though IEP meetings can be incredibly stressful, it’s essential to attend as prepared and positive as possible. “When parents and school staff communicate well and work together while keeping the student as the focus of the meeting, amazing things happen,” she says.