3 Ways Parents Hurt Themselves In IEP Meetings
Parents dread IEP meetings. And for good reason. They're jargon-filled, time-constrained gatherings with unknown or unfamiliar people discussing lengthy and complex documents about someone the parents know best. Their child. Is it any wonder the anticipatory stress of a meeting is met by confusion and exhaustion afterward?
For parents whose children require special education services and supports in school, these meetings are a necessity. Some parents have one meeting a year (wrong strategy) while others have several (right strategy). And there are things parents are doing -- intentionally or otherwise -- that are making the entire process harder for themselves.
1. IEP Meeting = Business
An IEP meeting is not a parent-teacher conference and it's not a meeting you run into sans preparation. It needs to be approached like you're walking into a staff meeting or a monthly board of directors meeting. Remember, you're discussing important issues that require a commitment of resources and time (yours and theirs).
Sauntering into the room in shorts and sneakers (one mother arrived in tennis clothes)...with wet hair after leaving a golf outing (yes, I was there)...or without a file, laptop or similar materials is demonstrating plenty. Lack of interest. Lack of understanding. Lack of self-respect. And lack of preparation.
How you enter an IEP meeting and present yourself conveys plenty about your competence and confidence. Dress the part. Read and mark-up the draft documents. Have an agenda for you to follow. Take notes. If you wouldn't attend a meeting at work unprepared, the same applies to an IEP meeting.
2. Stop Talking
Nerves run high for parents in IEP meetings for a number of reasons. Lack of understanding about what's being discussed and feeling like an "outsider" are common experiences. Plus, let's be honest...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 on stress overload, and being expected to agree (not a requirement), sign (nope), and leave, not to be seen again for another year (don't think so).
Wrong on several fronts with the most important being this ... you need to grab hold of your nerves and stop talking. People who are nervous tend to have their mouths running at full-tilt, 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 raise issues that should not be discussed. You argue points that have already been agreed to. Your job is to listen. Really, truly, thoughtfully, carefully listen. Listen for information, not to wait to reply. This is how you learn what is being said (and not said) and from there, you can make decisions.
Which brings me to #3...
3. Learn To Ask Questions
One of the things I hear over and over from parents is their list of things "they want" for their child. You have your list and prepare to enter the meeting to rattle off everything from it. It could be more reading instruction or speech therapy. It could be a different classroom or a particular social skills curriculum. Every child is different so every list is different too.
The problem is this -- unless you are asking the right questions in the right way first, jumping straight to "your list" is like heading out for vacation with no clue where you're going. Learning how to ask questions that drive toward the information you need and is likely directly related to the items on your list is one of the key missing skills.
You want your questions (some may be more statement-based) to be open-ended, requiring members of your team to provide you with information, explanations, and details. A few examples...
"How do you plan to address my child's reading issues this year?" You already know from the data that she is reading well below grade level and you may know which reading program may be needed (perhaps you have an independent therapist involved), however you need the school team to tell you their plan (and yes, they may need to give it a try -- short-term, which you make clear) *before* asking for additional reading instruction (probably on your list).
"What's going to be done about lunch and recess?" You already know that this is where your son's behavioral issues typically emerge every day, so you ask them for their plan and the specifics including how it will be implemented *before* stating that a 1:1 aide is needed (another item likely on your list).
"Help us understand how our son's issues with his working memory will be supported." You already know from testing and data that your child is extremely low in this area and that it impacts the entire school day, so you ask them what they are recommending *before* you state what accommodations and programs/direct instruction you believe are needed (probably on your list too).
You want and need the school team to commit to details...their plans, their approach, their interventions, how data will be collected including when, where, and by whom, and all other details. This happens by asking the right questions and listening.
IEP meetings can cause even the toughest, most experienced professional parents to crumble and for good reason. It's personal (your child) and it hits your softest place (your heart). Yet approaching your meetings from a business vs. personal perspective, listening to what's being said, and asking the tough questions will help you to walk into these meetings as an organizer vs. a participant. Might seem like a minor thing, but it's a critical shift in thinking and outcome.