With so many children struggling in school around this time of year, parents are as well. Some strategies to help you navigate IEP meetings follow.
IEP meetings are jargon-filled, often time-limited gatherings, frequently with unknown or unfamiliar people discussing lengthy and complex documents and issues about someone you know best...your child. It's no wonder the anticipatory stress of a meeting is frequently met by confusion and exhaustion afterward.
If your child requires or is receiving special education services and supports in school, these meetings are a necessity. Yet there are things you're doing that are making the process and experience more difficult for yourselves.
1. IEP Meeting = Business
An IEP meeting isn't a parent-teacher conference. Think staff meeting or monthly board of directors meeting where preparation is key.
Walking into the room without an agenda, file or laptop...with a disorganized pile of documents...in shorts and sneakers...with wet hair after leaving a golf outing (yes, it happened) - all undermine your effectiveness.
How you enter the room and present yourself speaks volumes about your competence and confidence. Dress the part. Read and mark-up the draft documents and be sure you request drafts before meetings, noting that if they aren't provided, clearly explain that a follow-up meeting may well be scheduled once you have had an opportunity to thoroughly review the material and develop your questions and insights.
Prepare your introduction and yes...you should start the meeting. Practice what you want to say if speaking increases your nervousness. Be pleasant, yet direct. Take notes. Let the team know that you mean business.
2. Stop Talking
Nerves run high before and during IEP meetings. Not understanding what's being discussed or proposed, feeling like an outsider, and the rushed nature of these meetings are common experiences. Plus, sometimes you're discussing your child with people you may not like or want involved in your child's school plan.
Yet here you are...stuck in a room, sitting around a table, and being expected to agree (not a requirement), sign (nope), and leave, not to be seen again for another year (don't think so). So what are you to do?
Nerves tend to create endless talking, yet this is the worst thing you can do in an IEP meeting. Why? You say things you didn't mean to say (nor should say). You react and respond to issues that require thought. You comment on things that may be raised in an effort to change the topic or even target your parenting.
You need to stop talking and listen. Thoughtfully and carefully listen. Listen for information, not just wait to reply. Listen for facts, data, details, explanations, and yes...attitude. By listening, clarity will result.
3. Learn To Ask Questions
You likely have "the list" of things you want for your child. Additional speech therapy. A particular social skills curriculum. More accommodations. Every list is different, yet the problem is this -- unless you're asking the right questions in the right way first, jumping straight to "your list" is like leaving for vacation with no clue where you're going.
Your questions need to help you access the information you need related to your list. Your questions should be open-ended, requiring members of your team to provide data, specifics, information, and explanations. And to support their contentions.
A few examples of the types of questions you want to be asking...
"How do you plan to address my child's reading issues this year?" You already know that she's reading well below grade level and you may already know which reading program may be needed. However, you need the school team to commit and tell you their plan (and yes, they may need to give it a try) before raising what you want. One exception...if regression has occurred.
"What's going to be done about lunch and recess?" You already know that this is where your son's behavioral issues occur, so ask for their plan and the specifics before stating, for example, that you want a 1:1 aide. And if an aide is warranted, ask about the person's credentials and specifically about their role in supporting your child.
"Help us understand how our son's issues with working memory are going to be addressed." You already know from testing and data that your child has significant needs in this area, impacting his entire school day, so ask what they're recommending before you list the accommodations or direct instruction you believe are needed. And this needs to be addressed across all environments and settings as well.
IEP meetings are business meetings and approaching them this way will up your game.
Listen carefully to what's being said, and make sure your notes reflect what's been discussed, agreed to, tabled, or dismissed.
Ask questions that provide you with details and data.
Follow-up with a written recap of what was discussed, agreed to, tabled, or requires additional evaluations and/or discussions.
Remember...you're an equal member of your child's team with the ability to make decisions based upon what you believe meets your child's individual needs. The only way to ensure you have the relevant information you need is through preparation, practice, negotiation, and asking the right questions.