I've been a parent for a little over 8 years. And I have spent 5 of those years attending IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. Currently I have two children who are educated under the guidance of an IEP, my son for his speech and Autism diagnosis, and my daughter for her speech delay and articulation difficulties. In that time, I have learned the ins and outs of what to expect at these meetings, including the topics discussed and those who might be in attendance. These meetings can be a bit overwhelming because you are in attendance with school professionals who seemingly have been doing their jobs for some time and can come across as experts. But the truth is that you, the parent, are a vital part of this meeting because YOU are part of the IEP team. It is your voice that advocates for your child and and it you who knows your child and his or her needs best. And the best way you can be an effective advocate during these meetings is preparation!
Find out what kind of meeting this is. Not all IEP meetings are alike. Some are initial meetings in which the child might have just gotten a diagnosis, or a child is moving from early intervention program having had an IFSP (to be discussed in a later post). Either way, this meeting will probably be the longest and will have happened after testing, evaluations, and observations are done with the child. Others are reviews which occur every year following the initial IEP in which the team will review how the child is meeting his or her goals and will set up new goals or revise existing goals to meet the child's current level of progress. Other meetings are amendments, which typically happen if it is determined that a child doesn't quite need certain goals anymore, or have met their goals. These can also occur if a child moves from one state to another and a new IEP has to be created according to that state's specific educational standards. Knowing what kind of meeting to expect will help you better prepare for it, and will determine how to effectively plan for the rest of your day.
Actively communicate with your child's teacher. This is a no brainer really, but you'd be suprised at how many parents have antiquated attitudes toward their child's education. It is vital to be an involved parent in your child's educational experience. This is not to say you should be volunteering once a week, every week. I know many parents have to work. But a weekly email correspondence is the least you can do to stay up to date with how your child is performing while in school. Having this information will allow you to ask the necessary questions and provide the necessary input when it comes to creating and/or revising educational goals for your child.
Know the law. This is the part that takes a little more time on your part. As parents, it is our responsibility to advocate for our children's rights in the classroom and to ensure that their needs are being met. Part of this involves knowing what federal and state law mandates when it comes to accommodating special needs in the classroom. It is unfortunate, but there are way too many instances when the school district's budget may not make it possible for the school to meet the goals once created for a student with special needs, even though it is mandated by law. When parents come to an IEP meeting armed with knowledge of what the law mandates their child should be getting in a public school setting (see IDEA), they are better equipped to spot when the school may not be doing what they are supposed to do. It also sets a good foundation for being able to understand some of the language that is placed in the IEP.
Reach out to an advocate. It can be overwhelming attending these meetings and it is beneficial to have someone in your corner who can only only help you prepare but also attend these meetings with you. Once you have been given notice about when your child's IEP meeting is scheduled for, reach out to an advocate or a lawyer who you'd want at your side. Advocates can include your child's therapist or counselor outside of the school environment. In the military, family members who have been diagnosed with medical conditions or special needs are eligible for the Exceptional Family Member Program, which includes advocates who will attend IEP meetings with you. An advocate will remind you of the rights you have as a parent and will work with you to ensure that you have all the tools you need to be successful at this meeting.
Review your child's current IEP. A lot can happen in a year, especially with your child. Reading over the goals and benchmarks set in the current IEP can help you determine whether or not those goals have been met or if they need revision, before you step foot in the meeting room. It also gives you a starting point for writing down any questions you might have for the team. If your child does not have a current IEP, review any documentation pertaining to the concerns you have that led to the IEP process.
Review any medical or other professional documentation you have. This is very helpful, especially in the intial IEP meeting. If a child has an IEP, more than likely they are receiving services outside of the school setting. Reviewing this paperwork from other professionals who are working with your child allows you to see and make comparisons between how your child is performing in school and how they are doing away from the school setting. Medical paperwork might highlight an observation crucial to the development of new goals or the revision of existing ones.
Create an IEP binder. This is purely for organization's sake but having all necessary paperwork (ie existing IEPs, medical documentation, applicable assessments and evaluations, report cards etc) can be very helpful in remembering all you want to address during the meeting. Remember you are a part of the IEP team and you have a voice. But as parents we often have a bigillion things going on in our heads at any given time. Organizing all necessary components for the IEP meeting in one go-to book will be helpful to ensure you are ready for whatever the meeting throws at you.
Have some of your own goals in mind for your child. Alot can happen in a year as your child grows and changes. And sometimes we see those changes as they occur. It is important and necessary to have realistic expectations of your child and what goals you'd like for your child to work on while at school. Don't be afraid to create a small list of goals that you think will help your child reach his or her very best potential.
Find out who all will be in attendance. IEP meetings are attended by the team put together by the school's administration. These individuals all have a role in helping your child achieve his or her very best, despite some limitations brought about by certain learning differences. Often, these meeting are attended by someone in the administration, whether it's the principal or vice principal, a medical professional-usually the school nurse, the school counselor, school psychologist, and/or the school's social worker, the child's teacher, and special education professional from whom the child will be receiving his or her services.
Get a good night's rest and look your best. Things often go well when we are ready for them. Getting a good night's rest is vital to ensuring you have the energy to be at your very best throughout the meeting. You will remember everything you need to bring and most likely won't forget any questions you need to ask. You also more likely to be on time for the meeting. Furthermore, don't forget to put some thought into your wardrobe choice for the day of the meeting. I'm not saying you need to wear your best interviewing suit, but keep in mind that you are representing your child and you want to be taken seriously by the professionals in the room. When you dress for success, you tend to feel more successful. And that does wonders for your confidence, of which you will need every bit.
This is by no means an all inclusive list, but merely what I have perceived to be the most beneficial for me when preparing for IEP meetings. This coming Thursday, I am scheduled to attend two amendment meetings at a new school in a new state for two children with two different learning differences. It is my goal to be the best advocate for them I can be and to leave those engagements confident that my children are going to succeed because they are being given the services and necessary accommodations to ensure that success.