During the 2019-2020 school year, there were 7.3 million students aged 3 to 21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). That makes up a significant portion of students in the public school system. With each student comes an IEP, which means a lot of paperwork, legalities, educational jargon, and long meetings that parents must understand and go through.
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written plan that is developed at least once a year for children who have special needs. The teacher, and whoever else meets with the student for related services, writes the IEP together based on updated data and progress, which can be over a variety of behavioral, functional, and academic needs. Parents and even the student can hold a part in writing the IEP as well. The purpose of meeting for an annual IEP is to determine where the student is at and where the team would like them to progress. Goals and objectives are written and special education service hours are put in place to meet individual needs. No one IEP is similar to another––hence the term individualized.
Due to the importance of the document, parents must prepare appropriately for the meeting and arm themselves with knowledge. In this case, knowledge is power. It is beneficial to fully understand what the team is discussing and what it all means for your child.
Parents heading into their child’s first IEP meeting may need tips to make it a successful one.
1. Make Use of Relationships
Three main types of relationships can be particularly helpful for parents going into their child’s first IEP meeting.
Parents can attempt to form a relationship with someone who will be in the meeting. This can be the child’s teacher, but it can also be another team member, such as the school principal or psychologist. Essentially, this will be someone the parent has had home/school communication with for a while. Building a rapport with the people who are writing and leading the IEP can help it run more smoothly and bring less tension to the table (because sometimes there is a little bit!).
Additionally, parents can consider bringing along a relative or friend who can provide support and another perspective. Legally, parents can bring whoever they want to an IEP meeting for support, but there are two stipulations:
- The person invited has no legal say in any decision-making during the IEP.
- If the person is a hired advocate or an attorney, the parent must inform the school ahead of time in case they need county representation.
Lastly, parents can bring an educational advocate to the table. In these circumstances, the school may want to invite someone from the county or someone higher up in admin to be present at the meeting. An educational advocate is someone who can be hired to help bring education, guidance, and support before, during, and after the IEP.
And of course, parents are more than willing to bring an attorney to their child’s IEP meeting. This is not a typical case but more for when the parents aren’t feeling heard or believe that their child is being denied some form of educational right under IDEA.
Overall, it is best to keep communication between the parent and school and for parents to give the school a heads up if they will be bringing a guest to the meeting.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, there are several ways to prepare for the meeting. Parents going into a first IEP meeting should understand their children’s rights and get copies of any relevant paperwork, such as evaluations and the draft IEP, to read ahead of time. Having a second eye (someone in education or with knowledge of an IEP) to look over the draft can be helpful.
Speaking of rights, parents have rights as well, and a copy of Your Rights as Parents should be provided either before the IEP date or at the IEP.
Parents may want to get reports from tutors or other professionals, such as SLPs and OTs, who work with their child. This will ensure that the parent does not go blindly into the IEP and that they already have an understanding of their child’s present levels.
Lastly, they should write down any questions, concerns, or points they want to make during the meeting. By doing so, they have more free space in their mind to focus on what’s being said in the IEP instead of trying to remember what they want to say.
The internet is always such a helpful place! Parents can easily Google IEP preparation checklists that are created just for them by the people who frequently survive IEPs.
One can never be too prepared.
A parent is an equal partner in an IEP meeting. However, while parents should not hesitate to press professionals on any point they disagree with or do not understand, they should also focus on outcomes. In other words, they are likely to get more out of a meeting in which they talk about goals they want the child to achieve instead of focusing on specific methods. Of course, if the professionals suggest a course of action that is not supported by research or to which the parent has other objections, it is appropriate to find out more.
Another way parents can view the idea of focusing is to truly focus on what is best for their child. They might not like a certain teacher or don’t agree with some of the statements said about their child, but at the end of the day, everyone on the team needs to come together and focus on helping the child make progress.
4. Ask Questions
While respecting the expertise of professionals, parents at their first IEP meeting should not be afraid to ask questions. This might be questions about their own rights or the child’s rights, or they might be about the IEP itself. Parents should also not feel intimidated if they do not understand some of the terminology used by professionals and should ask for explanations if necessary. Finally, parents should remember that they do not have to agree to anything at the meeting. Most experts advise taking the IEP home for review before signing it.
Some common questions that parents can ask before or during an IEP meeting are:
- May I have a copy of my child’s most recent IEP document to follow along as we talk in the meeting?
- How does everyone at the meeting know or work with my child?
- Could you tell me about my child’s day so I can understand what it looks like?
- How will my child be assessed according to grade level?
- What does that accommodation/ instructional intervention look like in the classroom?
- How will we let my child know about any program changes?
- Who’s the person to contact if I want to call another meeting?
To reiterate, parents have the right to ask as many questions as they need to.
5. Follow Up
On reviewing the IEP after the meeting, some parents may decide they are unhappy with some elements of it. They should put these concerns in writing and contact the school. This could be something that the parent missed in the meeting or something that they considered for a bit and changed their mind on. The worst-case scenario is that the school can do an IEP amendment if the team agrees with any changes that need to occur after the IEP is finalized.
After the IEP meeting, parents should discuss the IEP with their child, as long as they can comprehend. Even some younger children, some children with developmental disabilities, and some nonverbal children can grasp a few simple explanations as to upcoming changes, goals, and things to focus on at school.
If the child has a therapist, psychologist, or applied behavior analyst and it might benefit them to have a copy of the IEP, parents should provide the appropriate professionals with it. It can be highly beneficial to allow outside professionals to understand what is going on during the school day.
The entire IEP process can feel stressful and overwhelming for parents, but they should keep in mind that they have the final say at all times. They can also meet with the child’s teacher or schedule additional IEP meetings to address concerns throughout the school year.
Tips for Parents Heading into their Child’s First IEP Meeting: Conclusion
IEP meetings can be confusing and difficult to get through. Parents who are fully prepared, who have someone who can support them and possibly attend, who understand their rights as well as their child, and who can feel empowered, are ready to go head-on into the IEP meeting.
Remember that parents play a huge and important role in the IEP process!
With the tips above, parents heading into an IEP meeting for the first time can feel confident that they can be strong advocates for their children.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated December 2021