How to make the most of your child’s IEP meeting
By Svetlana Hruda, MS
Special education services can be one of the best things to happen for your child, but the procedures, processes, and alphabet soup of special education can be overwhelming. Just getting your child into the system often involves months of evaluations, mountains of paperwork, and multiple meetings.
Once your child is placed in Special Ed, you will receive a progress report every nine weeks, followed by an annual review of your child’s individualized education plan (IEP) and a re-evaluation every three years. Each meeting involves signed letters of invitation and each action involves prior written notice (PWN) forms. While all of this is designed to provide the best possible free appropriate public education (FAPE) for your child in his or her least restrictive environment (LRE), it can also be intimidating and stressful. In addition to managing school for your child with a disability, you likely have lots of other responsibilities on your plate. The intent of this article is to make the IEP meeting a more palatable part of that dish.
If you are new to special education, welcome. When your child begins services, her case manager will create the first IEP based on evaluations done during the assessment process and with input from teachers. The IEP contains demographic data, review and reevaluation dates, present levels of performance in relevant categories, evaluation data, goals, benchmarks, objectives, service minutes, various accommodations and modifications, transition from high school plans, and extended school year (ESY) services. In addition, the IEP may also contain behavior intervention plan (BIP), health services plan, and ESY plan. (These may be attached as separate documents but are still considered part of the IEP.)
This is a hefty document. Your child’s case manager is effectively writing a research paper on your child every year. She may have up to 25 IEPs to write in addition to teaching, managing para-educators, serving on teams and committees, evaluating students, addressing scheduling needs, advocating for students, and doing the myriad tasks required by her administrators. Your child’s case manager has a lot of responsibilities on her plate as well. While teachers need to be held accountable for doing their best for each student, you, the parent, are your child’s best advocate.
Ask. Ask. Ask.
If this is your first IEP meeting, bring paper and pen and write your questions down as they arise. Educators and case workers may throw out many unfamiliar terms that are second nature to them. Ask for clarification; ask for definitions. Among the things that you may be wondering about:
• All those abbreviations
• Exceptionality and its meaning
• Parental rights (officially called “Procedural Safeguards)
• Conflict resolution procedure (due process)
• Full continuum of services
• What services are available and why were certain services chosen for this child
• How eligibility is determined and maintained
• Progress notes, annual reviews, and three year reevaluation
The IEP Team
Whether you are new to Special Ed or not, always come to the IEP meeting prepared. Plan your approach to assertively address your concerns. If your child will attend the meeting, work with them on how best to participate. Practice and role play. If this is an annual review (as opposed to an initial IEP meeting), bring last year’s IEP and most recent progress report with topics you wish to cover noted (highlighted, starred). If the case manager is exceptionally on the ball and got you a copy of the draft IEP prior to the meeting, bring that, similarly reviewed and noted by you. Let the principal know you expect all invitees to be there or communicate their relevant information to your satisfaction. Also, feel free to remind the principal that you know they or their designees are primarily responsible for assuring attendance of necessary parties.
The IEP team truly is a team. It will benefit your child to develop a positive relationship with the school part of the team. Regarding the IEP meeting, avoid blindsiding these people. Communicate frequently with them regarding concerns as well as things you wish to celebrate. You can invite or bring whomever you wish to the meeting, but it’s courteous to inform the IEP team (typically via the case manager) of whom you have asked to attend.
The whole team, particularly the case manager, has put a lot of work into setting up this meeting and completing the necessary documents. Arrive on the designated date and arrive promptly. If you need to cancel, please inform the team in a timely a fashion. Minimize cancellations to emergencies only. Do not look at your watch. If you have a time constraint, notify the team before the meeting.
Focus of the meeting
The IEP meeting is about your child. This is not the time or place to discuss your past school traumas, your struggles in school, or your medical/mental health needs. While some of this information may help the team to better serve your child, remember what the primary focus of the meeting is.
If you and your family would benefit from more global assistance, contact the school social worker or school/family liaison. You can also seek out advocacy groups through organizations such as the Council for Exceptional Children or your local disability rights’ group. Your states’ special education department (likely a subsection of the department of education) and social services department will also have contact information for this sort of assistance.
Finally, follow-through with anything you agreed to do at the meeting. It is much easier for harried, over-worked, under-paid school staff to meet your child’s needs if they feel you are as invested as they are in your child’s school progress. They will likely go above and beyond what they need to do if they believe you are supporting their efforts.
Procedural Safeguards and Conflict Resolution
Some of the most frequently asked questions stem from Procedural Safeguards and Conflict Resolution procedures. While you should be familiar with all of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or P.L. 94-142), the “Procedural Safeguards” document, about 20 pages long is to be reviewed and given to you every time you attend a special education services meeting. It is to be provided in your primary language. You can ask that someone at the meeting review the whole document in detail with you. By the end of elementary school, you will be able to wallpaper a room in your home with sheets from this document.
Usually the case manager will give you the highlights of the Procedural Safeguards, although you have the right to have a copy of every document in your child’s IEP file. Here are some of your rights:
• The school district has to provide written notice of significant changes to the student’s services and you have the right to refuse those changes;
• You have the right to know who has access to your child’ file;
• You have the right to utilize a conflict resolution procedure if you do not feel the school district is providing the services your child needs to access a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
I encourage parents to go to their state’s special education department website to read the procedural safeguards in advance, then request a meeting with the appropriate special education person in your district. It might be a process coordinator, school psychologist, or director who can answer questions or meet with you to review the safeguards in detail. State governments also often provide staff who can answer questions. For parents who have been in the special education system for several years, it’s still a good idea to review procedural safeguards in detail every few years. Changes do occur and it is good to keep up to date on your rights and responsibilities.
Conflict resolution is a stepped process. It begins with parents and the school service team trying to resolve the issue, and then using a mediator. Then, if that doesn’t work, resolution takes place through the court system. It is a long, tedious, expensive, and frustrating. The question you have to ask yourself is whether your child’s education and future is worth the effort. The school district is banking on you answering, “No,” to that question.
If you truly feel your child is not getting their needs met at school despite your best efforts, I encourage you to start this process. In the “Procedural Safeguards” document and on each state’s department of education website, there is information on whom to contact to begin exploring conflict resolution. A special education consultant or advocate can help you be certain that your concerns are well grounded. If you have valid concerns, do what you need to do to get your child their FAPE.
You are your child’s best and most powerful advocate. Be prepared; know the law and your rights. Be ready to support the good things but hold the IEP team, school, and district accountable for providing the services delineated in your child’s IEP. Doing so goes a long way toward achieving a positive, useful experience that benefits your child.