IEP meetings can take an emotional toll on parents. Here I share some of the strategies I have learned over the years that have made the IEP meeting process a more positive experience.
I have a confession to make. The first few IEP meetings for my autistic son took an emotional toll on me.
And you know what? I am completely comfortable sharing that.
During my early experiences navigating the IEP process, I was overwhelmed. At certain points I found myself holding back tears and dabbing my eyes with tissues. I am not the type to cry easily, but it was difficult to keep my emotions in check.
It’s different now though. Last spring I attended my seventh IEP meeting, and these days I consider myself more of a seasoned veteran to the IEP process. You don’t get a gold star for keeping it together during an IEP meeting, but you can walk away feeling positive and even empowered when it’s over.
Based on my experiences, here are some tips on how to participate in an IEP meeting that results in a positive experience.
What is an IEP?
Individual Education Programs – or IEPs – are written statements of educational programs that are designed to meet the needs of children who are eligible for special education services. IEP documentation is tailored to the individual child’s needs and serves two purposes:
- • To set reasonable learning goals for a child
• To state the services the school district will provide for the child.
IEPs contain information required by the Individual’s with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including:
- • The child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, such as how the child is
currently doing in school and how the child’s disability affects progress within the general
- • Annual goals for the child, including functional and academic goals, and how the school will measure progress
towards these goals.
- • Special education services to be provided to the child.
- • How much of the school day the child will be educated separately from nondisabled children.
- • Whether or not the child will participate in extracurricular or other nonacademic activities such as lunch or clubs. • How (or if) the child will participate in state and district-wide assessments.
School staff are required to hold an IEP meeting every year to evaluate a student’s progress. During the meeting, the child’s parent is invited to discuss and heko develop the IEP for the following year. By law, parents and guardians are members of the IEP team. They are equal team memvers to the school staff members who are involved in the process.
You may not be an expert on special education, but you are an expert on your child. The more active you are in the IEP process, the more likely it is that your child will receive the education he or she needs and deserves.
What Happens During an IEP Meeting
IEP meetings have no set procedure; however, meetings have to cover certain bases, including:
- • Present Level of Performance (PLOP).
- • Annual goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound [SMART]) goals.
• Supports and services required to meet those goals.
[When ever I see the PLOP acronym, I giggle. It sounds like object just landed in the toilet. And if you want to giggle, I won’t judge you.]
The team shares their ideas and suggestions, which focus on mapping the child’s needs with the goals and services in the IEP. Changes to the IEP are made, if necessary, and agreed upon by everyone. Everyone who is satisfied with the draft signs the document.
For some people, the IEPs meeting can be intimidating – especially the first one. I spent a number of Steven’s early years defending him and his autistic behaviors. Defending him from other people who wondered why he didn’t interact with other children. Defending him when he didn’t talk. had meltdowns, or when sensory issues restricted his activities. This is not uncommon. Most parents I know will fiercely advocate for their children. But it’s kind of hard to be ‘fierce’ when the topic of conversation during the meeting turns to all of the child’s shortcomings. Or when the team points out all of the ways the child has lost skills or regressed. Or all of the ways the child is not measuring up to their peers.
It’s tough for any parent to hear.
Queue the Tears in 3… 2… and 1
For many parents, especially moms, hearing about their child’s shortcomings in an official capacity is all too real. So real – that their emotions get the best of them. And these emotions can bubble to the surface for several reasons:
- • The child has not made as much progress as everyone hoped, and the gap is widening.
• The parents are worried about their child’s future.
• Parents want to help but don’t feel knowledgeable enough to change things.
• And, what I consider the biggest reason: The parents are sad because, once again, they are reminded of their
child’s losses. And for parents with a child who struggles – academically, socially, or physically – it is the loss of
the dream of how things were supposed to be.
Tips for Having a Positive IEP Meeting Experience
This may sound insensitive, but it’s honest:
“You’re crying right now, and that is so helpful. We are going to make sure that your child receives all the support he needs to have a successful school year.” – No One, Ever
The truth is that parents can’t effectively advocate for their child during an IEP meeting if they let emotions get the best of them. Based on my experience, here is a list of ways that parents can empower themselves during IEP meetings and give themselves the greatest chance for a postive outcome.
Treat the IEP meeting as if it was a problem-solving business meeting.
You are at the meeting for one reason: to make sure your child gets your needs are met. Don’t take what anyone says personally. The purpose of a problem-solving meeting is to find a resolution—or at least determine the steps to a resolution—for someone who’s facing a challenge. There are three steps to a problem-solving business meeting: analyze a siutation and its causes, assess what direction to take, and create a plan of action to resolve the problem. Everything else is just noise. And I say this knowing that all of this is easier said than done. You may need to change your mindset to make this happen, and that takes time.
Prepare before the meeting.
The school will provide draft IEPs and other written materials prior to the meeting. Take the time to read the materials beforehand so that you are not blindsided during the meeting. Draft questions and a list of recommendations for the team that are based on your observations. Also, help your child to actively participate in the process as much as possible.
During the meeting, clearly communicate your family’s goals and concerns to the team members. Set priorities and keep the focus on the child. Provide feedback – not just about lack of progress towards goals – but also, celebrate the wins. The school staff wants to hear success stories, because everyone wants to be on a winning team.
Listen with an open mind.
Go into the meeting with the idea that the school staff is there for your child and that it’s not them against you. Listen to and be open to receiving other team member’s input. The strength of a team lies in the different perpectives that each member brings.
Be likeable and establish a relationship with your school staff.
This is the one component that applies to every single parent, no matter the circumstances. The first time that you meet the school staff, try to establish productive and meaningful relationships with them. Have normal adult conversations with them about normal adult stuff to create a bond. At the end of the day, school staff are more willing to accomodate people they like and respect as opposed to someone they don’t. It’s just human nature. Parent’s voices are stronger when they have a positive relationship with the school staff who interacts with their child.
The Bottom Line
The secret to having a positive IEP meeting experience is to treat the meeting as if it is a collaboration, not a confrontation. These tips can help ensure the short-term well-being long-term growth of your child within the educational system.