By Jenn Choi
Whether you’re new to the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process or you’re starting a brand new school year, the IEP can feel like a daunting document that can confuse and overwhelm many parents of kids with special learning needs. With a quick overview and a few guiding steps, you can minimize headaches and be prepared to create a great individualized program for your child.
What is an IEP and how is it developed?
In the 2019-20 school year, the IEP provided services to close to 15% of public school students in the U.S. whose disabilities affect their potential to make appropriate progress at school.
Each student’s program is created individually by an IEP team, and a team meeting is then held in which a concrete plan is devised for the student to make meaningful advancements to prepare for independent living, further education and future employment. At the end of the meeting, the IEP is made, and it becomes a legal document in which your child’s school is tasked to carry out its mandates.
What is the parent’s role in an IEP?
As the parent of a child with an IEP, you play a pivotal role and are a critical member of the IEP team. Ultimately, a school representative makes the final decisions on behalf of the district as to which services and accommodations are granted, but parents are guaranteed the right to “meaningfully participate.” Meaningful participation means that your thoughts and any documents you bring must be considered.
“[Parents] really are the experts on their child,” says Rachel Fish, assistant professor of Special Education at New York University, explaining the importance of parent participation in the IEP meeting. “They see other facets of their child that people at school don’t see. They see their child succeeding at other things at home. They see the things that are hard at home. They know their kid in a very different context.”
That said, you actually have a right to have your opinion heard on every sentence of the IEP document. The best way to ensure that your thoughts and ideas are considered with respect is to prepare. Here are five tips for preparing for a successful IEP meeting and school year.
5-step IEP meeting checklist for parents
1. Request all the reports in advance of your IEP meeting
Before an IEP meeting, team members including the parents should be given all the reports at least several days prior to the meeting. The minimum number of days may vary depending on where you live, but no one should be forced to read a report the day before a meeting.
To ensure you have time to fully read your reports before the IEP meeting:
- Make a request in writing, asking to be provided with all your child’s reports in advance of the IEP meeting.
- If you are presented with a report without the sufficient time you need to process it, request another meeting date, citing that you are unable to meaningfully participate without having read the information in advance.
2. Read the IEP and reports thoroughly
As IEP meetings are often very stressful, the IEP document itself can be a reminder of a very hard day ahead. It’s no wonder that parents don’t always want to read the IEP and evaluations. But read it, you must.
“Reading about your child is overwhelming and sometimes confusing,” says Maggie Moroff, senior Special Education policy coordinator at Advocates For Children, a New York City based advocacy organization for students who need special education.
What’s also not helpful, according to Moroff? These evaluations can make for some dense reading.
“[Evaluations are] not written for parents; they’re written for professionals,” adds Moroff. Regardless, she advises parents to read them thoroughly and come to the meeting stating any concerns, disagreements and questions you have about the reports you’ve read.
On top of reading your child’s reports, go over your child’s Management Needs section in the IEP. This is a list created by the team to tell teachers how to make accommodations so that your child can access the classroom lessons and make appropriate progress doing their classwork or homework.
Management needs may include accommodations like:
- Providing seating near the teacher.
- Breaking down assignments.
- Getting your child a digital book instead of a paper one.
If your child doesn’t have an IEP yet, draft a list of strategies that have been working or may work for your child. If your child had an IEP the year prior, gather information before the IEP meeting by asking your child how they received accommodations and looking at work they brought home. You may find that items need to be added or removed from the list.
It’s perfectly OK to ask questions and weigh in on this information. You need to know these details so you can be a “meaningful participant” of the IEP team.
3. Gather your own supportive materials
Bring anything you feel will help fellow IEP team members learn about the student. You may have a report from your child’s therapists or a private evaluator.
That said, anyone who works with your child can be asked to write a letter or report about their work with your child. These may include tutors, after-school teachers and even caregivers, etc. These letters can also include recommendations to the IEP team by suggesting strategies that work for them and services that may help your child reach their goals.
You may also look at email communications from school staff, as well as samples of your child’s schoolwork. The questions you should be asking yourself when reviewing all these reports and documents are:
- Is there a pattern of underperformance or competence that suggests changes should be made to my child’s management needs and services?
- Does my child’s performance and work sample demonstrate that my child is making appropriate progress in meeting their goals?
- Is my child’s work demonstrating mastery of grade level standards?
- What are some of the strategies that are working and not working for my child?
All of these documents, work samples and letters can be submitted to be discussed at the IEP meeting. If the other members of the team refuse to consider them, then they are hampering your right to meaningfully participate as a member of the IEP team. If this happens and results in an undesirable IEP, do not hesitate to escalate to higher authorities in your school district and file for a mediation or due process complaint.
4. Prepare for the IEP meeting day
It’s important to come to your IEP meeting prepared. Your preparation will demonstrate your depth of knowledge of your child and the IEP process, leading the way for more meaningful participation from you as a member of the IEP Team.
Here’s what you should bring:
- Bring a list of your concerns, as well as a list of any management needs and IEP goals and even what type of services you believe your child needs.
- Bring suggestions that are supported by evidence found in the reports and documents.
- Make copies of your lists and share them with every member of the IEP team, if you wish. It’s best to give it to them in advance to give everyone a chance to read it.
“Parents have a unique window into who their child is as a person,” Professor Fish says, adding that moms and dads have a unique understanding of what their child’s interests are, what’s going to motivate them and ultimately what’s really going to help them feel comfortable at school.
Heather Dailey, a parent of a student with a disability and a member of New York City’s Citywide Council on Special Education agrees that parents know their kids best. “Don’t be afraid to ask for things even if you are not sure it’s something that exists,” she advises. In Dailey’s case, because she knows her child uses fidgets and adaptive seating throughout the school day, she suggested that her child have those services as testing accommodations to which the other team members agreed immediately.
Another important way to come prepared for the IEP meeting is to ask a trusted friend to attend with you. Of course, you can be logical and objective, but unlike everyone else at the table, the child in question is your child.
“It’s OK to bring somebody else to support you,” says Moroff, who also leads the ARISE coalition, an umbrella organization of advocates and agencies that support families with disabilities in New York City, home to the largest school district in the country. “Because the whole meeting is emotional, right?”
Bringing a friend, says Moroff, can provide moral support and help you review what happened at the meeting afterward. They can also take notes for you and remind you about points you may have forgotten to mention.
5. After the IEP meeting
Immediately following meeting:
Type up any notes you or your friend took during the meeting and share the key decisions with the rest of the team before the IEP is finalized. This way, the agreements made will be clear to all.
After you receive the finalized IEP:
Read the entire document, cover to cover. If anything is wrong, you must move to correct it immediately. When it comes to IEPs, your silence is your agreement.
Throughout the school year:
Use the IEP as an instruction manual.
- Talk with your child’s teachers about how management needs will be provided.
- Ask for work samples and other documentation to see how your child is making progress on their goals.
- Hold regular non-IEP meetings with your school administration whenever you see that the IEP management needs and services are not being provided.
- Whenever your child shows signs of struggle, document that activity as well as strategies that worked to support your child.
“It is good to review [the IEP] to make sure that they are on track,” says Dailey. “Don’t be afraid to reopen the IEP if you find that something is missing.”
To be sure, this work can be time consuming at first. However, if you make it part of a regular routine, advocating for your child can and will get easier. As you get ready for the next IEP meeting, you will be glad you took the time to prepare. Your fellow IEP team members will undoubtedly notice your skills and dedication to your child’s learning, and your meeting will be that much more productive.
Jenn Choi is a writer and special education advocate based in New York City. Together with her colleagues at Special Support Services, LLC, she works on behalf of parents to secure the educational rights of their children with disabilities. As a parent of two children with disabilities, Jenn found it necessary to study evidence-based methods that supported children’s development. As a result, she has published in outlets such as Forbes and Quartz on topics such as educational toys, assistive and instructional technology and special education advocacy. She is a board member of TECA and the founder of 2eNYC, two organizations dedicated to serving the needs of twice exceptional children who are gifted and have special needs.