The annual IEP meeting seems to be one of the most stressful things that a parent of a child with a disability goes through. There’s so much information out there that we feel we have to know (or we feel that we don’t know). Laws, acronyms, evaluations, goals, it’s all very overwhelming. Personally, I find that the more prepared I am and the more I communicate with the team throughout the year, the less stressful the meeting is because there are no surprises. It’s my hope that by sharing some of the things that you can do to prepare, it will take away some of the anxiety for you.
I remember when I first start attending IEP meetings for my son, almost a decade ago. I’d read through the evaluation report or draft copy the night before, not really understanding most of it, and think “the school is the experts so I wonder what they’ll give us. They’ll know what’s best.” We’d go through the meeting section by section and they’d tell me what the goals, services, placement, etc. were going to be. When they’d ask me about my concerns for the parental concerns section, I’d give them 1-3 sentences about things that maybe they could work on over the coming year.
Fortunately we’ve had pretty good teams over the years and his services were adequate. However, I found when I became an informed, active participant of the team, he thrived. I don’t think it’s because I have superhero powers, but because I see him more hours of the day than anyone else. I am the expert on my child. I am also the liaison with his other private service providers outside of school and once we started coordinating goals from the IEP with goals at home and at private therapies, we gave him consistency and much more practice.
So what can you do to prepare for your IEP meetings? The biggest thing you can do is recognize yourself as an important member of the team. Ashley Barlow, who has a great podcast about Special Education Advocacy, mentions in one of her episodes that the word “parent” appears over 400 times in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Which obviously means that we were meant to have an active role in the team. As I mentioned before, you are the absolute expert on your child, school only borrows them for several hours a day.
To be an active participant, there is a minimum level of research and education that you must do. Ask your caseworker if there is a draft IEP and if there is ask for a copy of it, along with any other information the team is using to make decisions at the meeting. This could be evaluation reports, data collection, etc. If the rest of the team has access to the information, you should have access too. Also, write a well thought out parental concerns letter a few weeks prior to the meeting and submit it to the team ahead of time. (I’m developing an entire blog post on this one that I will share shortly). Read the procedural safeguards. You know that big packet of information that you are given every year? Have you read it? When you say you don’t know your rights, this is literally your rights and everyone has access to them. Here is a link to Michigan’s procedural safeguards. Every state has its own. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Procedural_Safeguards_Notice_550307_7.pdf Finally, remember that collaboration with the team is the best way to try to ensure that your child has what they need to access the curriculum and make progress. Communicate with your team throughout the year and not just around annual IEP meeting time. Good communication and collaboration should take any surprises out of the meeting and make it a more tolerable, less stressful experience for all.
I’d love to hear if there are other things you do to prepare for the meetings. Please post your comments below.