Parents and caregivers of children with any sort of additional support needs (neurodivergent, differently-abled or with disabilities) at school are no strangers to IEP meetings (IEP- Individualized Education Plan). You may find yourself wondering what you need to know about preparing for an IEP meeting and how to work with your child’s school team in an effective, professional, and positive manner and make the most of IEP meetings.
Maybe you’re new to this with a Kindergarten student, a diagnosis for an older child, or perhaps your child is attending a new school. Even for experienced parents, some years may feel harder than others when working with the team that’s supporting your child.
In my years of working as a classroom teacher, educational assistant, behaviour consultant, and district resource teacher, I’ve been to many IEP meetings. Here’s a short roundup of some reflections on how to work well with school teams and keep things moving forward in a collaborative manner with the IEP team.
Consider this the inside scoop from a teacher’s perspective on how to make IEP meetings successful and collaborative.
Disclaimer: I’m Canadian. We have very different legislation and laws around special education in Canada than in the US. Please ensure you’re prepared with information specific to your region, no matter where you live.
3 things To Keep in Mind While Preparing for An IEP Meeting
1. Assume the best of the school team
School staff are doing their best with the resources they have. Try to start out assuming the best of the IEP team, your child’s teacher, and other school personnel. Going in with an adversarial approach may result in you not being invited back or being sidelined from collaboration.
I’m not saying all school teams will do this in response, but setting a positive tone from your first email or phone call can set you up for future success.
Assume they want to work collaboratively with you, and that they’re competent professionals who have the best interests of the child in mind.
2. Understand your role in the child’s IEP meeting
Ensure you have a good understanding of your child’s rights and your role and responsibilities as a parent in the IEP process. This will be different from region to region, so make sure you have a basic understanding of this ahead of time.
This is not intended to start you off on an adversarial note, but rather to manage expectations of the IEP process so you aren’t frustrated or disappointed.
What bearing does last year’s IEP have on the current IEP?
Do I have to sign the IEP or not?
Do they have to include my suggestions/requests?
Can I request specific goals?
Do I have to or should I reveal all outside assessments and progress reports from outside services?
3. The IEP is considered a ‘living’ document
An IEP is intended to be updated throughout the school year. Specific practices and timelines on this will vary greatly from school district to school district, but the intention of an IEP is for students to meet goals and then have new goals put into place.
An IEP is not intended to be filed away and never looked at again until June (although, this happens). If you’re concerned that the initial goals are too easy for your child, but the school has assessed them at the right level for the suggested goals, remember there should be the opportunity for adjusting goals later in the year as early goals are met.
Preparing for an IEP meeting
Have a basic understanding of education rights, laws, and legislation in your area
Part of preparing for an IEP meeting is being aware of your rights as a parent and most importantly, those of your child. It’s unlikely you’ll have to bust these out during an IEP meeting, but it can be helpful to know some specifics about IEPs, likely legislated by law in your area, so you can engage in effective advocacy for your child:
By what date does the IEP need to be completed?
Who will get to have input on the IEP?
Where is the IEP stored, how is it shared and with whom?
Is the IEP a legal document in my area? For example, an IEP is a legally binding document in the US but not in necessarily in Canada
Can and how is the child involved in the IEP process?
What role does a parent play in choosing IEP goals?
What rights does a student have to access additional support services in the school?
This information can be found through your local state department of education, provincial ministry of education, or local inclusion nonprofit. For example, in British Columbia, Inclusion BC has a lot of information about IEPs and the rights of the family and individual.
Have a list of ‘very important’ and ‘would-be-nice’ items in mind
Showing up at the meeting prepared with some goal ideas that are important to you and your child can make the process efficient. Sometimes these have been submitted to the school already.
Considering the public school environment, go into the meeting with realistic goals for your child BUT work with the team to hold a high standard of learning for your child. When preparing for an IEP meeting, it’s important to consider what is reasonable within the constraints of the school’s resources, while also prioritizing your child’s needs and rights.
This can be a tough balance to strike. Be prepared with an idea of what are the most important goals for your child and you as a parent.
You might consider ranking them or assigning ‘very important’ and ‘nice-to-have’ to each. This allows you to stay focused on what’s really important if it isn’t possible to have all of your wishes captured in the IEP.
Another consideration, for if placement is being discussed, is whether you want to advocate for your child to be in an inclusive general education setting or access special education services, or a combination of the two. Ideally, you have been made aware of the options ahead of the meeting.
If your child is moving from elementary to high school the placement options may change, so you should be prepared to discuss these options if you have the opportunity. Placement options may also affect what goals or other related services your child accesses, so it’s important to know what is available and what your child and your family value for them.
You may consider making a meeting checklist of things that you want to cover. This ensures nothing is missed. Asking the school team to create an agenda ahead of time, if one has not already been created, can also be helpful in guiding the discussion.
Be clear with the school team on your child’s involvement as a member of the IEP team
Ideally, children, and especially adolescents, are involved in the creation of their IEP. Having goals that are meaningful to the child is important. That being said, sometimes there are adult conversations that aren’t appropriate for a child to participate in.
Speak with the school team about how your child can be involved in the process. If they aren’t participating in the actual meeting, how will they be included?
Can a teacher or educational assistant do some activities with them to determine what they value so goals can be shaped around the child’s interests and goals? Can they participate in part of the meeting?
Consider with the school how your child can best be part of the IEP process. When preparing for an IEP meeting with your child, my recommendation is to be as transparent as possible and focus on this being a self-advocacy opportunity.
Including your child in this process can be as simple as giving closed choices with picture symbols to choose self-regualtion options, using cloze sentences to help them describe their strengths or stretches or having them use their AAC device to describe their preferred activities. Other children may be able to self-advocate for the supports they need. Take is as a learning opportunity for your child to better understand their own needs and how to advocate for them if this is not aready a skill of theirs.
Preparing for An IEP Meeting: What to Expect
The purpose of the IEP is to specify the measurable goals for a student’s education, as well as how and when a student with any sort of additional learning support needs will have those additional supports provided to them. IEPs may be written for students with diagnosed intellectual, physical, or learning disabilities. However, not all students with a diagnosis may need an IEP, and some students without a formal diagnosis will need an IEP.
An IEP is written when a student requires grade-level curriculum goals to be modified in any way (more or less challenging) and/or requires additional support to meet their learning goals. Additional support may mean they need various accommodations for learning, additional services, or educational assistant support. The IEP outlines their individualized education program.
Sometimes the formal IEP meeting will follow a period of some informal consultation with the family, school personnel, and outside consulting staff that work with the child. A draft IEP may already have been written before the IEP meeting occurs. The IEP meeting may simply be an opportunity to review what has been written by a classroom or special education teacher.
Ideally, a member of the IEP team will provide an agenda to you ahead of the IEP meeting. What goes on in an IEP meeting will differ based on many factors such as your school, school district, and state/province. However, there are some aspects that will be pretty common across situations.
There will likely be a review of your child’s strengths as well as your child’s needs. There may be a short summary of any relevant reports from outside professionals or school-based service providers. Highlights and relevant information from previous report cards or IEPS may be brought up.
IEP team members, including family members, will likely have the chance to voice their view of the child’s strengths and needs, including input on goals.
If there are private evaluations in the student’s file relevant to goal setting or learning supports, these may also be discussed. Please check your local laws around the disclosure of privately-completed assessments if you have concerns about this.
The finalized IEP will have a baseline or present level of student ability in each goal area that has been assessed by the teacher. This may also be discussed in the IEP meeting.
This is to ensure everyone on the IEP team has an understanding of student performance at school, and possibly to discuss why there are discrepancies in reported baseline across settings like home, school, and other environments (if this is the case).
After this, the IEP goals and support needs will be discussed. This may be a time to advocate for goals being changed, ask for more or less support, or ask for changes to accommodations and modifications that have been laid out.
Assume the best
When preparing for an IEP meeting, I think this point can’t be overstated. An IEP meeting can be a potentially stressful situation where emotions can run high so starting off with a positive lens can start you off on the right foot.
Going into a meeting with the assumption that the other people around the table genuinely have the child’s best interest in mind really goes a long way.
Yes, hard things may have happened in the past. Relationships may be strained. But going in with a positive attitude and trying to see past issues as water under the bridge can start you off on the right foot.
I don’t mean to say that you need to forget about hard things that have happened in the past, but trying to start a new school year and new IEP off by giving the benefit of the doubt to the school team can pave the way for positive collaboration for the upcoming school year.
Set a shared vision at the outset
When you have the chance to speak at the outset of the meeting, gently bring the focus to the shared goal of the child’s best interest. If you’re already holding this assumption, and you clearly state it at the beginning, you’ll be more likely to reach common goals.
It also sets a positive tone at the beginning and can be disarming if there are already some tense emotions in the room.
If things get tense, set the tone
One of my favourite behavioral reads is Amelia Bowler’s book, The Parent’s Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder. A huge takeaway for any parent or educator is that you need to be the one to regulate your emotions to model for your child, or, in this case, other adults.
I’m pretty confident that if you’re the one who’s able to stay calm and regulated, despite some tense conversation, you will be able to set the tone. I get it, this is MUCH easier said than done. It might mean some deep breaths or a quick trip to the bathroom for a breather.
Maintain a posture of humility
Whether you’re a parent, outside professional, educator, or school staff, strive to maintain a posture of humility throughout the meeting. This allows things to move forward in a collaborative manner. It creates an environment in which everyone is able to bring ideas and perspectives to the table without having them shot down.
Be firm and assertive yet kind
Since you’ve already got your list of priority goals for the IEP, you can stay focused on the really important aspects that you want to advocate for.
Be prepared to have to be assertive for some goals and supports that you’d like to see for your child captured in the IEP. It’s possible to be humble, kind, firm, and assertive all at the same time.
This approach will really help with getting onside with the school team and creating a collaborative relationship.
Be prepared to compromise
Unfortunately, there are constraints in schools like human and physical resources. Listen to the school team’s challenges and invite creative solutions to problems.
If you are able to compromise on some aspects of goals or supports, then they will be more likely to work with you on the areas that are most important to you.
Having an understanding of their human and physical resource constraints can help you discern what is reasonable to put in the IEP and what is not.
Ensure there are action items with follow-up dates
Make sure that there is a record of any action items that came out of the meeting and that there is a specific person assigned to each item. I’m a fan of having specific names assigned rather than a team or entity like ‘school team’ or ‘family.’
This allows for greater accountability and makes it more likely things will get done in a timely manner! At the end of the meeting, set a date for a follow-up meeting if needed or ask when the IEP will be finalized and then reviewed later in the term.
What to do after the IEP meeting
Thank the team
As mentioned previously, teachers have really hard jobs. A quick thank you email can go a really long way to building good rapport and setting a positive tone moving forward.
Follow up on action items
Ensure anything you were assigned to complete after the meeting is done before checking in with the school to remind them about any outstanding action items.
Review the IEP
As goals are met, the IEP should be updated. There are often times during the year in which an IEP will be reviewed, although sometimes this is only required at the end of the school year.
However, if you notice your child is achieving goals and you want to know what else is being worked on at school, you can request an IEP review.
Again, this is a very general recommendation. Each region will have different procedures and policies around IEP reviews.
The Bottom Line on Preparing for an IEP Meeting
Working with a school team to consult on your child’s IEP can be an experience that is really positive, really challenging, or anything in between. These pointers are written from the perspective of a teacher and behaviour analyst who loves working with parents.
These thoughts are from reflecting on my experience in many IEP meetings and wanting families to feel empowered and optimistic about collaborating with the school team, yet also prepared to assertively advocate for their child if needed.
What has your experience been with IEP meetings? Drop us a comment in the box about tips you may have from your own experience.