The IEP team meeting is the engine of special education. Given the important role the IEP team meeting plays in the special education process, it is critical that members of the IEP team work together competently, collaboratively, and calmly.
In my practice, I have listened to countless hours of IEP audio recordings for parents while reviewing their potential legal claims. Let me tell you, I've heard a little bit of everything. I've listened as IEP teams worked collaboratively to develop the very best IEP they could. Unfortunately, I've also listened to IEP teams collapse into arguments and petty fights as egos are bruised and tempers flare. I'm always saddened to hear IEP meetings fall apart because there's a child's future at stake. And it pains me when the adults in the room cannot find a way to resolve their disagreements amicably and get back to the real work of trying to help improve the child's individualized education program.
Below are 10 tips parents can take to improve their IEP meetings:
1. Ensure That All Necessary Participants Will Attend the Meeting
Prior to the IEP meeting, the school district will provide you with a Notice of IEP Meeting ("Notice"). This Notice will provide the proposed date and time of the meeting and will also list who will attend for the school district. The school district will want to you to sign and return the Notice to them.
Carefully review the Notice and ensure that everyone you would like to attend the IEP meeting is listed as an attendee.
Only certain IEP team members are required to attend IEP members. These members include:
1) at least one parent;
2) a local education agency ("LEA") representative;
3) a general education teacher (if applicable);
4) a special education teacher; and
5) someone who can interpret the instructional implications of assessment reports.
Notably, the attendance of providers of related services (e.g., speech and language) is discretionary. This means that if you want to discuss, for example, your child's speech and language services at the IEP meeting, you should confirm that a speech pathologist is listed as an attendee on the Notice. If a speech pathologist isn't listed, you should request that he or she attend. Such a request could be written directly on the Notice or sent to the school district (e.g., the child's teacher or case manager) via a letter or email.
2. Appropriately Prepare For the Meeting
Preparation is key to an effective IEP meeting. Better prepared parents can more aptly participate in the meeting and advocate for their child.
Appropriate preparation will vary depending on the purpose and context of the meeting. Preparation for a manifestation determination will differ greatly from the preparation required for an IEP that's convened to review an assessment report. For a manifestation determination, parents may want to read discipline and suspension reports, consult with their child's outside providers (e.g., private psychologist), etc. For a review of an assessment report, parents will definitely want to read the report before the meeting, jot down questions and concerns, etc.
Because the purpose of the meeting will guide what preparation is needed, parents would do well to ask themselves two questions to determine what steps they should take in preparing:
1. What do I know that I know? (The concept this question is based upon is sometimes referred to as "known knowns"). Ensure that your known knowns are accurate and that they are not built on faulty presumptions, premises, or conclusions. For example, if you think you understand how your child's reading goal progress will be measured, be sure that you are accurate. You can do this by explaining to the school staff how you're interpreting the goal and ask for confirmation from them whether you're right.
The following point probably doesn't need to be stated, but I will discuss it just in case. You clearly don't need to confirm the accuracy of every piece of information you consider to be a "known known." Doing so would be a colossal waste of time. Instead, seek confirmation on points that if you're wrong about them, it will impede your understanding of your child's IEP and adversely affect your ability to advocate for your child in the future. Going back to the earlier example of a reading goal: if you don't understand how the goal will be measured, it would be difficult for you to advocate for your child if a disagreement arises between you and the school district regarding whether the goal progress was appropriately measured.
2. What do I know that I don't know? (The concept this question is based upon is sometimes referred to as "known unknowns"). If you know you don't know something that seems important to better understand your child's IEP, get the information you need. You can get the information in a variety of ways. You can do an online search. You can ask the IEP team. You can consult with a special education attorney. Once you get the information you need, you have now converted your "known unknown" into a "known known." Remember, however, to confirm that your newly obtained information is accurate, as best you can.
Asking and answering the above two questions can provide a framework for your preparation. Remember, preparation doesn't mean you need to know everything before the meeting. An important part of appropriate preparation is knowing what you don't know so you're prepared to ask smart questions at the meeting and add to your knowledge base.
3. Have a Clear Goal In Mind
"Failing to plan is planning to fail," a quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
In my years of experience helping parents work to resolve their concerns with their child's special education program, I've seen the full gamut of parents and their varying approaches to their child's education. Some parents know exactly what they want their child's school district to provide (e.g., a specific reading program for dyslexia); other parents simply want their child to learn but have no idea how to get there. You might fit with one of these two examples or somewhere in between.
If you're a parent who knows exactly what you want to accomplish, creating a clear goal (or goals) before the IEP meeting will be an easy step. But if you're a parent who wants your child to learn but don't know how to get there, this step will require some real work.
Give serious thought to what you would like to accomplish at the IEP meeting. Sometimes this will be easy. If, for example, you think your child needs occupational therapy services ("OT") in school, your goal at the meeting might be to discuss your concerns about your child's OT needs and request that the school district conduct an OT assessment. Other times, what you want to accomplish may be less defined.
In situations where it's more difficult to label exactly what you want to accomplish, try to focus on specificity and what can be measured.
So how do you specify what you can't readily labeled? Seems like an oxymoron, huh? No quite. Let me explain.
Example: Timothy is a fifth-grader who is having behavioral issues in class. He leaves class without permission (i.e., elopement), sometimes for up to 20 minutes at a time. He's non-compliant. He avoids math assignments and will only work on his assignments for 2 minutes and then wander around the room. An IEP meeting has been called to address his behaviors.
In this situation, parents may be inclined to come into the meeting and say something like: "We want to get Timothy's behaviors under control so he can get a good education." While this certainly is the ultimate goal for both the parents and the school district, this statement doesn't help to move things forward in a concrete way. Instead, a better approach might be for the parents, who spent time thinking about what they want to accomplish at the meeting, to come into the meeting with two goals in mind: (1) get a better understanding about their child's behaviors (e.g., how often is it happening, how much educational time he's lost, etc.) and (2) focus on getting specific solutions put in place for the elopement, non-compliance, and inability to do math for longer than two minutes.
Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant, educator and author, said, "what gets measured gets managed." Parents should seek solutions that are measurable whenever possible.
After doing the hard work of thinking in specific terms about what you would like to accomplish at the IEP meeting, you might want to take the next step and think about measurable solutions. Keeping with the example of Timothy, our fictional fifth-grader who is struggling with behavioral issues, parents there might want see what specific solutions are available and if these solutions can be measured. For example, parents might want to ask for a time-on-task goal for math that requires Timothy to do his math for 5 consecutive minutes before he stops or elopes. Once he meets that goal, the IEP team may increase the time to 10 minutes, then later to 15 minutes, and so on until Timothy is able to keep pace with his peers.
4. Set Realistic Expectations
Parents should set realistic expectations regarding both inputs and outcomes. By inputs, I mean the goals (or suggestions) parents have in mind heading into the meeting (i.e., what they want to accomplish at the meeting). By outcomes, I mean how the school district responds to parents' suggestions.
Over the years, I've had several clients sit down with me in my office and tell me how the school district is ignoring their input. After discussing parents' concerns a bit, I soon realize that they are asking for 20-30, sometimes more, changes to their child's IEP. Such voluminous requests can be overwhelming for IEP teams, especially school district staff. Remember, school districts have a legal obligation to develop a reasonably-calculated IEP. School staff is rarely going to accept parents' suggested changes to a child's IEP without serious deliberation. It's very hard to seriously deliberate regarding 20, 30, 40 proposed IEP changes at one time at a single IEP meeting.
You can set realistic expectations by prioritizing your inputs. Think about 2-3 things that will have the biggest positive impact on your child's education. For example, you don't want to waste time discussing (maybe even arguing about) whether a specific present level of performance contains every conceivable data point when you also want to see about getting your child mental health services for his anxiety. Keep the big picture in mind. Take care of the big things first. Once the big things are done, you can move on to your other less pressing concerns.
As I mentioned above, school districts have a legal obligation to do what's reasonable when it comes to a child's IEP. What's reasonable in a particular situation may require the school district to gather more information before making a definitive decision. To determine if the school district is acting reasonably, conduct a brief thought experiment and put yourself in the school district's shoes. If you were in their shoes, could you see yourself taking a similar action or declining to take an action as they have? Keep in mind, however, that just because you think it's reasonable, this alone doesn't make it legally reasonable. But asking yourself the question allows you to view the situation from a different perspective, which can be helpful. And if you're unsure if the school district is acting reasonably in a particular situation, you can always consult with a special education attorney.
5. Audio Record the IEP Meeting
In California, parents can audio record their child's IEP meetings. Video recording is not allowed. Parents who wish to audio record should give the school district written notice at least 24 hours before the meeting. Typically, the school district will also record the meeting if a child's parents record it.
Most school districts in San Diego County write detailed meeting notes at every IEP meeting. San Diego Unified School District ("SDUSD") is one notable exception. Instead of meeting notes, staff at SDUSD typically write sparse notes in a section of their IEP called "Team Action Notes." The space is limited so staff cannot write much. What I often see in San Diego Unified's IEPs is bullet-pointed notes in the Team Action Notes.
I always advise my clients to audio record every IEP meeting, especially if their child receives special education services at San Diego Unified. While most school district write meeting notes that can sometimes fill 2-3 pages, it is impossible for staff to document every thing that was discussed at a particular meeting. Often times, very important things are left out of the meeting notes. Also the content of the meeting notes (which is written by school staff member) are often colored in a way benefits the school district.
I've found that clients sometimes recoil at my suggestion that they record IEP meetings. After probing a bit, they usually tell me something along the lines of they feel uncomfortable recording meetings because they perceive it as aggressive, a way to tramp school staff into saying something wrong. That's not at all why parents should record the meeting. Quite simply, parents should record IEP meetings because they are hit with a ton of information at these meetings (much of it is unfamiliar or otherwise confusing). IEP meetings can last 2-3 hours and it not possible for mere mortals to remember who said what and why. Recording IEP meetings gives parents the opportunity to review at their discretion and leisure everything that was discussed at the meeting so they can better understand their child's IEP.
6. Make Sure Your Parental Concerns Are Documented (Correctly)
Few things in my professional life bother me more than reading these words in an IEP: "Parent concerns were reviewed and discussed." Unfortunately, I see this phrase with increasing regularity. I don't know if the people who write this phrase, or something similarly ambiguous and utterly meaningless, do it on purpose or not. But whether it's intentional or not, it tells the reader of the IEP absolutely nothing about what the concerns were, what was discussed, and what was the result of the discussion.
Parents have a lot to contend with during an IEP meeting. Many different things are competing for their attention at any given moment. A parent might be listening to school district assessor discuss her assessment report while also trying to read the report, while also trying to sign the IEP attendance sign-in sheet. It's enough to make anyone's head spin. With all that happens during an IEP meeting, it's difficult for parents to also keep track of what's being written in the meeting notes while the meeting is happening (even if the meeting notes happens to be projected onto a screen for everyone to see during the meeting).
What can you do about it?
1) Make sure the meeting notes are read aloud before the end of the meeting. Most school district staff will allow time at the end of the meeting so they can read the meeting notes and make changes if necessary. If your school's IEP team doesn't do this, ask them to do so.
2) Listen carefully to what is being read. If you hear "Parent concerns were reviewed and discussed" or something equally amorphous, ask the IEP team to write, with specificity, what the concerns were, what was discussed, and what was the result of the discussion (e.g., the team agreed to add 30 minutes per week of speech and language services).
7. Avoid the "Us vs. Them" Mentality
Nothing derails an IEP team faster than an "us vs. them" mentality. The IEP process is intended to be a collaborative process. Unfortunately, the ideal doesn't always work out. But parents should steer clear of the "us vs. them" mentality at all costs. I've seen it time and again. Once parents or certain powerful district members of the IEP team develop an "us vs. them" mentality, little gets accomplished through the IEP process and the child typically suffers as a consequence.
Once the "us vs. them" mentality sets in, people get entrenched in their viewpoints and positions. They become less willing to listen to the opinions of others.
Obviously parents cannot control how school staff think. So focus on controlling what you can control: your thoughts, language, tone of voice, and demeanor. Avoid accusatory language both in tone and word choice. It's possible to disagree without being disagreeable.
8. Take the Lead
Parents should strive to take an active role in the IEP process; don't just be a spectator. You are an expert on your child. Nobody knows your child better than you.
9. Educate Yourself on Your Rights and Procedural Safeguards
At every IEP meeting, the school district should provide parents with a copy of their procedural safeguards. This is a comprehensive list of your rights under federal and state special education law. In my practice, I've found that many parents have not read their procedural safeguards. Please don't be that parent. Read your procedural safeguards. If you don't understand any part of your procedural safeguards, ask the school staff to explain it at your next IEP meeting.
10. Review the IEP Document Shortly After the IEP Meeting
A good practice is to review the IEP document shortly after the meeting. The meeting will be fresh in your mind and you can compare the document to what was discussed and agreed upon at the meeting. If the IEP document doesn't contain what you think it should based on what transpired at the meeting, you should seek clarification from the school staff, in writing. Hopefully, you've also recorded the IEP meeting (see #5 above) so you can listen to the recording and compare what was agreed upon with what's in the IEP.
Finally, put your IEP into a three-ringed binder.