When I first thought about the content of this article, I thought, well, this will be easy, I will just tell parents what I have found to be the key steps to take at IEP meetings. After all, I just wrote a book that shows the reader, through real life examples, how to lead a truly collaborative IEP meeting. Then I began thinking about what parents might think are “the” most important tips to give other parents and how close to agreement we might all be.
What follows is a list of parents’ top tips that I gathered from over 140 replies to a query that I posted on line. Believe it or, not, they came down to seven tips and were overwhelmingly “the” most often cited. I will add my own points, but, why not, I’m writing the article—and we now have 10.
Take Caution With What You Read Online. There is a great deal of bad advice posted on the internet so be thoughtful about what you read. Often, you will find sites that begin a sentence citing the law verbatim, but then add opinion. The problem is that the statement reads as if the entire sentence is the actual law. Some will even cite the statute and have you believe the whole statement is law. Always, I repeat, always check every reference made against the federal or state laws to make certain that what is said is accurate. The last thing a parent needs to do at an IEP meeting is to present what is thought to be a law and be told they are incorrect. It is unfair to parents to post partially accurate statements, especially when they fully intend on repeating them at their child’s IEP meeting— only to find that it is wrong. Then they’re left wondering who to believe—the internet or the school!
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. It is certainly of great benefit to know all of the laws, but they are extensive. Regardless, anything you can do to learn about them is to your advantage. All laws use legal language and if you are having difficulty understanding something, contact your state’s Parent Information Center—they have staff and training to assist you. Do have a copy of any evaluation reports that will be reviewed at the meeting—the last thing you want is to attempt to read an educational report while it is being presented and listen and try to understand what is being said and actively participate in the discussion—all at the same time. If the school elects not to share it with you prior to the meeting, collect your copy at the meeting and state that you will better be able to discuss the report(s) after you have had a chance to read it, then, suggest and secure another date for the meeting and thank them for their understanding.
Although not required by law, you may ask for a copy of the draft IEP prior to the IEP meeting. It is reasonable to ask for these items a week before the meeting and giving you an opportunity to, you guessed it, be prepared. Lastly, make a list of topics/issues you want addressed. We can all tend to get lost in meetings, focusing on the topics raised and easily forget the points we want to make, so make a list of topics you want covered and check them off as they are addressed. If not all are touched on during the meeting—usually due to time issues—request to have the meeting continued. This is perfectly within your rights and not an usual request. Time is something that many of us have little control over, but make the next meeting at a mutually agreeable time and avoid very early or very late meetings so that the relationship with staff remains amicable.
Ask Questions. School staff don’t expect you to know everything in the laws, or be fluent in educational jargon (remember, every field has its own technical terms) but it is your responsibility to ask for clarification. Let me say this in another way—it is your duty to ask questions if you do not understand something. And if something sounds odd to you, ask to have a copy of the policy so that you can review it. The policy may exist, it may not be in writing (therefore does not exist) or not exist. In any case, you will know only if you ask. The only way to be informed is to inform yourself, before, during and after the meeting. Did I mention that it was your responsibility to ask questions?
Remember Your Manners. Your focus must be on your child’s needs—those that are supported by data and not wants. Emotions only lead to more emotions and if you feel them coming quickly from the back of your head, suggest the team take a break. Or, request to use the rest room. Do what you need to let those emotions fade, so that you can return to the focus of your child’s needs. Do say thank you—and mean it. You might even consider bringing in treats—even if staff are not hungry, the offer will go a long way toward building good relationships. You must listen, even when you are talking, and watch team participants’ body language to keep you aware of how they are reacting to yours and other’s comments. Again, ask questions—with thought. Stop (even stop talking in your head) and really listen to what is being said. You cannot be thinking about what else you are going to say and listen to what is being said. Make your statements questions—they are less intimating. For example, instead of saying “Show me proof that…” say “Could you show me some examples of what you are saying, so that I can better understand?”
Bring Someone (your spouse, friend or relative) with you to take notes and to listen along with you if you are at all uncomfortable with the IEP process. Much will be going on and that person can take notes for you. Be certain to introduce whomever you bring as someone to help you with all that is being said. Be prepared for different reactions to different people you bring with you. IEP meeting atmospheres change when an advocate is brought along and moreso if you are bring an attorney. If you’re bringing someone, letting the school know in advance—it will be appreciated. If you elect to bring an attorney, know that the school will also bring theirs.
Get Everything in Writing. In the world of special education laws, if it is not in writing it will be presumed to not exist. Services need to be in the IEP, goals need to be written as discussed, where services are to be provided needs to be included in the IEP and more. If you have a phone conversation with school staff, summarize it in writing and send it to the person with whom you spoke, giving them a chance to clarify, if necessary. Do not rely on memory—yours or the school’s. Memories fade and are recalled inaccurately. Record IEP meetings if you feel it necessary. It is allowable. Keep all records. The IEP may only be active for a year, but record keeping over the years is essential—think IRS and tax returns.
Don’t sign anything until you have had a chance to process the IEP meeting and can look at the IEP and other documents with a fresh viewpoint. You are not required by law to sign the IEP at the end of the meeting. You have the right to review it prior to signing. Read everything to make certain nothing is missing and that is makes sense. Be certain that the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance are current and that each is stated in behavioral and measurable terms. Be just as certain that the goals, objectives and/or benchmarks are stated in behavioral and measurable terms. It is necessary to have them written in this format, so that progress reports are sent home in the same manner and you can readily monitor change in your child’s educational progress. If there is a behavioral plan, make sure that it is understandable, that the behaviors that were observed necessitating the plan are addressed in that plan, that measures of progress can easily be determined and reported to you. Lastly, just to double check yourself, ask a friend to read it and ask if it makes sense to them. Except for some educational terminology, the second reader should be able to understand what the IEP says and means.
Lastly, you should know that IDEA allows you to agree to parts of the IEP and not others. Signing the document that indicates you attended the meeting does not also mean that you have agreed to the IEP. There should be a separate signature to indicate your agreement. If you disagree to portions of the IEP, make those notations on the IEP and later in a written letter to the school to ensure that it is documented. Many schools have computerized systems and will print out the paperwork to sign, but you want to ensure that there is record of what parts of the IEP you do/do not agree. Make those notations on the IEP and initial each. Your wording should be business-like without emotion.
Then in a separate email/letter explain which parts of the IEP you are in, and not in, agreement with so that there are no questions later. Request to have it included in your child’s records and attached to the IEP, so that staff will have easy access to it and be aware of what is and is not to be implemented.
Consider Your Approach. Don’t take the approach that you are going to negotiate programming and services for your child. If you do, you’re really setting yourself up to give up some services for the gain of others. To the point: Which of your child’s services are you willing to give up for another? If they are needed, they are needed. Similarly, do not ask for more than you want just to settle for what you really had in mind. If it is needed, it is needed. If the PLAAFPs (present level of academic achievement and functional performance) are correctly written and the goals directly related to those, then the services and settings for services should reflect those needs. Think of it this way: What if the school says yes to your first demand just to get you out the door and your child does not need those services? Would your child really benefit?
Do Not Demand Services You Want. Be certain they are needed. There’s a difference and if you don’t have a rationale, based on PLAAFPs, accept that you may, in fact, just want something when it is not needed. I am reminded of a parent whose story is in my book telling me that he thought, early on in the IEP process, he should get every service available. Years later he realized he should only have insisted on services that his son needed. He admitted that he had caused a disservice to his son by insisting on the unnecessary time devoted to services not needed.
Do not threaten to do something (get an advocate, an attorney, go to the Supreme Court) unless you are willing to do that. Think twice—make that four times—before you threaten anything. Be absolutely certain that you are going to follow through. Making harsh, threatening statements will create more non-friends than endearing ones and with the people you are asking to teach your child. Ask to stop the meeting and reconvene after a short break or in a week or two. Give yourself time to think about what your child needs—and not what you want.
Published in Autism File Magazine Aug-Sept 2014 Issue 57