Educate yourself on special education law and your child’s rights. There are many workshops held by community agencies and disability groups designed to help parents understand the educational system and how to navigate it. There are also a lot of great websites that can provide general as well as specific information.
As the parent you are the expert on your child but you may not have the professional experience to feel comfortable with educational and therapeutic issues. Enlist the support of professionals you feel comfortable with so that you can obtain a working knowledge of the areas being addressed as your child’s needs.
Know your child’s strengths and challenges. Often times a parent will see/not see the same thing an educator does in the school setting. Before going to an IEP meeting be sure that you are clear on what your child’s current levels are. You can use a developmental scale, review samples of work, observe and/or request input from any private providers who may be working with your child.
Share topics you want discussed at your child’s IEP with your case manager prior to the meeting. List these as agenda items that you would like included, and note that you want to make sure that there will be enough time in the meeting to address your concerns. Also let them know that you want to make sure that all the necessary team members will be present to discuss and make decisions on these issues.
When signing off on the IEP notification, be sure that all district team members that you believe should be there are indicated. Include the name and role of other team members you may be bringing as well.
Ask in writing to receive a copy of the progress toward goals, drafted goals and objectives, as well as any assessment reports or other documents that will be shared at the meeting ahead of time. While there is no specific timeline defining when the receipt of these documents must be provided, California records laws state that existing pupil records should be provided within five business days of request. Equal participation for parent is also a part of IDEA protections. A parent cannot be an effective member of the IEP team if they are given documents to review at the meeting. Often times these documents will solicit emotional responses that parents need to walk through before they can participate and make informed decisions. They also may be unfamiliar with the document format, terminology and content. Having a chance to review and reach out for clarification if needed prior to the meeting will allow a parent to be more of an equal member of the team when making important decisions on their child’s educational program.
Distribute a “brag sheet” to all members of your child’s IEP team prior to the meeting. Contained within the brag sheet is a brief description of the family vision for the child – what do you see for him/her as an adult? You also want to describe who your child is outside of the educational environment – what sports/activities do they participate in? Include what you see as the child’s gifts and strengths, as well as what areas you see as current challenges that you would like to team to consider working on in the coming year. Be sure to include pictures that tell your story! Bring extra copies to the IEP meeting in case not all members received one prior or did not bring their copy with them.
Consider bringing a note-taker to the meeting to document statements, ideas, and concepts shared that may not have make it into the District’s notes page. These can be typed up after and provided to the team. When meetings are tape recorded they tend to change the dynamic and tone of the meeting as everyone at the table, yourself included, will be more guarded. Although, if you have a legitimate reason for needing to record, be sure to make this request in writing at minimum 24 hours in advance of the meeting and to maintain a sense of collaboration let them know why this is something necessary – e.g. your spouse is unable to attend and would like to review, you have a learning disability. There may also be a time when the team is not “healthy” that may require you to record the meeting, but hopefully these instances will be rare.
Dress the part – appropriate mom/dad attire is great at most meetings. The key for you is comfort – meetings can be long.
Arrive early so that you allow yourself enough time to park and feel settled before the meeting begins. If you are invited into the room prior to all team members being present, try to position yourself and group so that you do not feel intimidated – consider sitting across the table and/or intermingle so that the room feels more inclusive and less us versus them.
Bring refreshments – team members are often running from one meeting to another or coming straight from class or therapy sessions. As with all personal relationships in cultures throughout the world, sharing food and drink adds a personal touch. Bottled water, cookies or other snack food works well.
Chat with the other members of the team before and after the meetings. Share stories of your child’s activities and relationships out of schools. Being personable helps build relationships within the team – for you as well as for your child.
Focus on your child. Bring pictures and spread them around the table or bring a large photo of your child and strategically place it in the center of focus to help remind team members whom this meeting is all about. Do not allow any team member to refer to your child with labels – make sure they use your child’s name, not their diagnosis.
Stay on track – try not to let your emotions or stress get in the way. If you feel like you are overwhelmed, ask to take a break and walk around, make a phone call, do whatever it takes to bring you back to center. Emotions are a natural part of the IEP process, but learning to respond instead of react will make the meeting more effective. Give yourself the time and opportunity to filter feelings so that you can respond appropriately. If this cannot be accomplished at the time, ask for a continuation of the meeting and provide calendar options for regrouping.
Be honest and open – do not play the “gotcha game.” If you have documents that you feel provide a different picture of your child’s challenges and/or successes provide these to the team, ideally ahead of the meeting. If you have had your child privately assessed you will want to make sure you let all parties know which assessment(s) are being/have been completed as certain standardized assessments will invalidate subsequent ones.
Do not carry baggage from years of frustration into your meeting. Keep your current meetings focused on current issues. Try to adopt a fresh and positive attitude with your team – do not rehash the past.
Refer to your child’s IEP team personally – Team X (student name). Try to create an inclusive instead of the us versus them mentality. Avoid aggressive tones or body language. If a team members says something that you disagree with or do not like, share that you are unclear and/or see the issue differently and request that the statement be put into the notes so that you will be able to address and clarify the issue at a later date.
Be your child’s best advocate – you are the one who knows your child best. Trust that you have valuable insight into who your child is and what their needs are. You are key in building an educational program that includes supports and services that your child will respond to. If it has no meaning to the child, the best program on paper will not work in practice.
If a team member uses jargon and/or acronyms that you are unfamiliar with, ask them to clarify what they mean.
Try to keep your expectations realistic. Know what your child’s limitations are, as well as what services and supports are provided for within the law. Remember that services are determined by the child’s needs, not the disability. At the same time, do not allow a team to dummy down and/or maintain low expectations for your child’s growth.
Don’t feel rushed – effective IEPs can take multiple meetings to complete. Don’t allow anyone to shut you down or cut you off. It is important for your input to be heard and for you to be clear on the recommendations provided. If you cannot complete the process with fidelity in one meeting, be prepared to provide dates for follow-up meetings.
DO NOT SIGN THE IEP right after the meeting, no matter how wonderful it may seem at the time. ALWAYS take a copy with you for review. The only signature requirement is for you to sign that you attended. Once you have made sure that all information is correct and that there are no errors and/or areas that require clarification, then you can sign off. Know that you can sign off in part. When you are comfortable you can sign off on items that you do agree with so that those particular services can be started while other areas that may be of concern can continue to be reviewed. These areas will be noted as exceptions.
Before leaving, be sure to thank the team for their time at minimum. Ps and Qs can go a long way in building relationships.
Send a copy of your parent meeting notes, asking for clarification if necessary. Be sure that these notes are included along with the IEP.
Accept your role and responsibilities. Do not wait for the case manager or other team members to reach out if you see an issue that needs to be addressed, or if you know that there is a timeline coming up, such as an IEP meeting. Ask for a meeting if you need one. Ask for necessary documents if you did not receive them. Do not let a whole year go without updates on progress and/or resolving outstanding issues.
Make sure that your communications are documented. Email communications are now an acceptable means of sharing information. Establish the expected turnaround for response within your team. If you do have a verbal conversation with a team member that covers issues and/or information that you feel should be documented, send a follow-up email to the person you talked with summarizing your discussion and asking that they confirm your understanding.
Establish a home/school communication tool that works for you as well as the teacher. This can be written into the accommodations, although the format needs to be agreed upon by both teacher and you and may change year to year. You can create a communication system with your child’s designated instructional service providers as well. Ask if the provider would be open to responding to a monthly email from parent requesting input on areas being worked on in therapy that parent may be able to support and generalize at home.
Get involved in your child’s school through the PTA, school site committee, or district Community Advisory Committee. Volunteer in your child’s classroom, attend special events, be a visible and active part of your child’s school community. Your community can be your strongest ally, as well as a source of information and support.
Be your child’s biggest cheerleader. Keep in touch with team members between IEP meetings. Share pictures and stories of your child’s successes whenever possible.
Provide information about your child’s specific disability and how it impacts them. Do not assume that educators are familiar with your child’s needs based on their limited knowledge of a diagnosis. Connect them to professional organizations that may have resources and updates that they may find helpful.
Know that your child’s IEP is not set in stone for life. You can rescind a signature on any portion, at any time. You can call another IEP to discuss any concerns that may have arisen. A meeting must be held within 30 days of a parent’s formal request.