At the end of the school year, I call it IEP Season. I notice an upsurge in social media requests and pleas for information. I also seem to get more blog readers, emails and inquiries. So I’m cheating a bit today and re-sharing some thoughts I have about making IEP meetings successful. I hope they help.
Before I share my tips, I am going to direct you to a piece by my friend, writer and mom Maureen Rich. “My Son Belongs in Your Classroom” is a great piece and includes some great links to resources, research and beyond. Read it and share it with your team, administration and district leadership! That is a good segue into my first tip for successful IEP meetings.
Be prepared for IEP meetings. Regardless of the age of your child, this is critical. There are several points to this thought. For us a first step to preparation before we ever attended an IEP meeting when she was three, was to learn our parental rights, learn about special education law and the state rules and regulations. I have heard people say “I don’t want a fight so I don’t need to know the law.” I wholeheartedly disagree. Knowing the laws and your rights will help you to avoid fights. It will help you to know what you can and cannot ask for. It will help you to be reasonable. Being reasonable deserves a blog to itself. A person at Rachel’s IEP meeting told us that one of the things she most respected about us was that we did understand the law and it helped us to advocate for Rachel and what was appropriate and best for her. I usually know when they tell me something if it is legal or not. If I don’t know, I know how to find the information. For example, I was once told at an IEP meeting that Rachel could not have OT during Art because it was against their regulations to pull her during “specials.” I said I would like to see that policy in writing and I was sure that was not correct because this is an INDIVIDUAL plan and whatever the team decides is appropriate. I told them that I could call someone right then to check if they would like. They said no need to make any calls. They went along with us on it. No written policy could be produced because there was no policy in writing. Rachel’s speech therapist, who was young and this was her first job, told me that she had been telling parents for four years that she couldn’t see kids during specials because she had been told it was against the law. Now, she knew better. Key words here – INDIVIDUAL and team decision.
Another part of preparation is reviewing materials. The first thing to review is your child’s work and if needed take examples. Everyone differs on what they want but I want to see a draft of the IEP goals and all evaluations before I get to the meeting. I really like a few days to review. I do not like surprises in general and I sure don’t like to be surprised at an IEP meeting. This has helped us to have smooth meetings as it applies to developing objectives, goals and benchmarks. Some people prefer not to have a draft of the IEP goals and to work together to develop those. That is a personal decision. The key on this is to have a team that works together to develop the goals and objectives. You should not feel like the draft is the way it will be and that it has been developed by the school with no input from you. I don’t recall this ever being an issues for us, but I do know others who have had a battle with this. I get my red pen out and mark what we need to re-visit and what we need to address. They are usually very receptive. One resource teacher did tell me that those red marks intimidated her. I told her it was a totally visual thing for me. Just need to be able to see the marks so I don’t miss anything. I did change to blue for her. She deserves accommodations too! I am emphatic that I see evaluations prior to a meeting. That has helped us but know your rights and what works best for your child and with your team.
To treat or not to treat. This is a hot button issue for many people and I’ve changed approaches through the years. There are adamant supporters and adamant objectors. In the beginning I did not take treats to meetings. Part of the reason was because I wanted to be sure that there was no confusion that we were there to develop a plan for Rachel. We weren’t there to make friends. While I want them to respect me, I have a lot of friends and would not choose an IEP as my social recruitment venue. We can always use more friends but that is really secondary. As we have developed relationships with our educators, I do take treats. They look forward to the treats and I like to make them. I usually leave a few in the office, too. I do believe we are respected and we have made a lot of friends along they way, but trust me when I say that there is no confusion that this is business. You can be polite and respectful at a business meeting, too.
Next, I encourage you to try to focus on the positive. When I say focus on positive, I’m really talking about your child. Surprisingly, I have been known to take over the meetings. I take my own agenda with my list of things that need accomplished. A mentor told me not to allow people to camp on the things your child couldn’t do. Great advice. Focus on what your child can do. These are the things Rachel is good at so how can we adapt or modify this to make it work for her? I know it can be very difficult to do this but try! Yes, I know all the things my child can’t do but she can do these things so let’s talk about that. As you may imagine, I am wordy so “less is better” is hard for me. I encourage you to try to stick to this “less is better” mantra though – especially when it goes to the challenges for your child or evaluations. Do not get sucked into what your child cannot do. If my child could do the same things as everyone else the same way as everyone else, we wouldn’t need an IEP. You might do a short video clip of your child or have your child come in and say a word or two. There are a lot of avenues for the team to get to know your child. Of course, as they get older they are invited to meetings. Rachel now does a little PowerPoint Presentation at most of her meetings.
Educate the team on your child. I always take a letter (hard copy just in case) to the annual IEP and to anything related to a transition to a new situation. It is often just a version of the letter I send to her teachers at the beginning of each year. The one I took this week had these sub-headings:
- Intro with demographics/thanks
- Describing Rachel
- Our goals for Rachel
- Specifics on Rachel. These are things like the practical way her iPad is utilized.
- What Rachel enjoys
- Additional information including our contact information.
Even though all of this should be in the IEP, we have found this to be helpful. You can also list things you would like them to read or watch like Just Like You – Down Syndrome.
Goals and Dreams. Starting with Rachel’s very first IEP meeting at the age of three, we have started every meeting discussing our hopes and dreams for Rachel. Over time these have become her hopes and dreams. They’ve changed a little but you always have to be thinking ahead and how what you are doing will impact that. We want her to get a diploma. What do we need to do now to make sure we can get that diploma? A friend I know took the video of Rion being accepted to Clemson to open her daughter’s kindergarten meeting. Believe it or not, we have educators and administrators who don’t know that students with intellectual disabilities have college opportunities now. I thought it was a very clever idea to show “this is what we want our daughter to do. And no we are not hallucinating and we are not in denial.” College is a possibility!
Ending and Follow-up. At the end of the meeting, you do not have to sign the IEP. If you want to review it you can but you do need to sign it within 10 days or let them know there is an issue. I try to always say thank you to the people involved. Then, I try to follow-up with a thank you email and a review of anything that needed followed up on. Then, I make sure when we start with a new group that I send them that letter again and touch base with the case manager (resource teacher in our situation) on the items that were to be followed up on. Follow up is certainly key. While I wish we lived in the happily ever after and everything in the IEP magically happened, my experience has been that you need to do a lot of follow-up.
I always leave meetings emotionally exhausted but I almost always leave feeling we have done our best for Rachel. That’s my definition of success.