How to Prepare for IEP Meetings

Individualized Education Program meetings, or IEP meetings, are a requirement under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). IDEA requires the disabled child's school representatives to hold meetings with the child's parent(s) to discuss the child's changing needs and develop an educational plan reflecting the child's needs and goals. These IEPs must contain details of your child's specialized educational accommodations, including things like extra time on tests, oral administration of exams and assignments, a seat in the front row of the class, an accompanied special education teacher, or anything within the school district's ability that will better aid your child's education.

Some parents grow anxious and stressed before their IEP meeting. Parents can be intimidated by school administrators and experts in this field. Additionally, especially in a struggling economy, many parents face limited resources for necesary accommodations. For instance, parents may face teacher shortages, insufficient funds, or inadequate education programs.

Don't let this get you down. Even in a school district with limited funds, you have viable options. And remember, you have a voice and final say in your child's educational needs. Follow these tips to help you prepare for and feel more confident going into your child's annual IEP meetings.

Know Your Rights and Options

 1. Familiarize yourself with your child's legal rights to special education

IDEA requires your school district to provide you with information about special education laws, regulations, and policies. Oftentimes, schools organize this material in a parents' rights booklet. Be sure to request one and read over it carefully well in advance of the IEP meeting. As you study these laws and protections, remember that as the parent you are an equal decision maker when it comes to your child's needs. As your child's teachers and aides gauge your child's performance at school, you are the only one who gets to see your child at home and in other settings. Therefore, yours is an essential voice at the meeting.

 2. Talk to other parents and parent organizations

Many parents form alliances and organizations to discuss issues and support each other. Check with your school to see if your district has such a group. If not, consider starting one. Also, ask your local learning disabilities association and your state's parent training and information centers about other support they may offer. These avenues of additional support can give you some great ideas and learning tools, and can help build your confidence about IEP meetings.

 3. Determine your options

Collect information about different learning programs in your area that may be helpful to your child. You can ask your child's teachers and school administrators or check with your local learning disabilities association for information on such programs. Before the IEP meeting, visit several of these programs to get an idea of what they're all about. Take notes and organize them for the IEP meeting.

Be Prepared and Get Organized

 1. Obtain a copy of the school's IEP form

Reading through this before the IEP meeting will enable you to become familiar with what you will be filling out at the IEP meeting. IEP forms typically ask you to fill in

  • Class versus programs: Decide which is best for child--a classroom environment for your child all or part of the day, a specialized program set aside just for learning disabled students, or a specialized school for your child's specific disability.
  • Goals and objectives: List goals such as linguistic, social, vocational, cognitive, self-growth, independence, and general academic goals you have for your child. Think broadly from math and reading skills to building healthy relationships to successful independent living. Consider what steps it will take for your child to accomplish these goals.
  • Related services: Consider what supplemental supportive services will help your child succeed in a traditional classroom or will help your child reap the benefits of special education. Again, think broadly in terms of your child's complete day--one-on-one aide in the classroom, language therapy, transportation to and from school, etc.
  • Transition services: List any support programs that help children transition into vocational settings and advanced placements. Typically, this is offered to children 16 years of age or older, but check with your state's laws. It may be offered as early as 14.
  • Additional educational elements: This includes any other elements that will help your child succeed, like certain teaching methods or curricula.

2. Become an expert in your child's educational performance and needs

  • Observe your child's classroom(s): Schedule an appointment with your child's teacher(s) to observe your child in class and take notes. Seeing your child in more than one subject is helpful, since different subject matters and environmental stimuli can affect your child's performance in different ways.
  • Review your child's records: Schools maintain cumulative information on all of their students in a confidential file. It is important for you to review your child's file periodically to help you assess your child's performance and better contribute to IEP meetings.
  • Ask your child: Go straight to the source. Ask your child what is working in school and what she or he would like to be better. Around adolescence, ask your child about career interests, vocational programs, post-high school education, and where she or he wants to live as an adult. Also, ask your child if she or he would like to attend the IEP meetings. Some children feel intimidated by this, and if your child doesn't want to attend, don't push. However, the child's input at the meetings can be helpful. Even if the child does not contribute much to the meeting, sometimes just being there to understand what is going on can help the child benefit from her or his own accommodations.
  • Compose a list of your child's strengths and weaknesses: Think in terms of your child's full day including hobbies and extracurricular activities, behavior at home, social relationships, and any other hardships or strengths you notice. You should also include your child's interests, preferences and environmental stimuli as these will all help contribute to a successful IEP. Jot down any concerns you have with your child's current evaluations and reports and be sure to ask how your child is doing in regards to her or his grade level.
  • Reflect on the goals listed in the current IEP: Ask yourself which goals are the most important to you. Which ones will help your child prepare for post-school life? Compose a list of questions about how well your child is achieving these goals and which ones your child is struggling with. Consider whether to keep the goals, delete them, or tweak them a bit.
  • List some of your own goals that you would like to see your child achieve: Be specific. Think about behaviors you'd like to see improved; transitions into next steps or grade levels; the amount of time your child will spend in special education settings; if your goals are appropriate for your child's grade level and academic setting; any technological assistance you want your child to receive; and any possible need for after-school and/or summer tutoring.
  • Decide how often you need progress reports: Your child's school is required to give you a progress report each time a report card is issued. Teachers are typically pretty good about keeping in contact and may send notes home or call more frequently. If you don't feel like you are being adequately informed, think about what is necessary to fix this. How often do you think is appropriate to receive progress reports?

3. Develop your child's ideal IEP

After all of this careful preparation, you are ready to put together your own ideal IEP for your child. IDEA does require that the parents compose the IEP with the school district. However, it is a great idea, and is even appreciated, for you to put together a blueprint before the IEP meetings. This will help you learn all about your child's educational life and show the school district that your child really does need the educational assistance you are asking for.

 4. Gather information and material that supports your ideal IEP

Organize copies of recent evaluations, reports, and medical records; samples of your child's work, showing strengths and weaknesses; and copies of evaluations and letters from any community or extracurricular activities.

 5. Ask who from the school district will be attending the IEP meeting

These meetings usually consist of one or more of your child's traditional classroom teachers, special education teachers, and the school administrator responsible for special education (often times the school counselor). Pay close attention to the approach of your child's classroom teacher representative. This person sees your child's academic performance the most out of everyone and so is an essential part of the team. As such, the teacher can either be your best friend or worst enemy in regards to IEP meetings, since the teacher is usually the most convincing member of the IEP team.

 6. Invite others to attend the IEP meetings on your child's behalf

Consider inviting your child's doctor, psychologist, independent tutors and evaluators, or even personnel from programs you want your child to participate in. If you really want someone there who can't make it, see if he or she would be willing to write a written statement. Then read this statement at the IEP meeting.

 7. Come up with questions you want to ask at the meeting

As you prepare for the IEP meeting keep a piece of paper handy. Any time you have a question, jot it down. Then add to it any other questions you may have included while writing your IEP blueprint or filling out the IEP form. Have this list of questions handy during the IEP meeting and ask anything that doesn't get answered.

 8. Organize all of your materials

Organization will make your life a lot easier. If you go into the meeting with a nice, neat, clearly labeled binder or file, you will feel more confident and will be able to move from topic to topic with ease. Organize it in a way that makes sense to you and that will be easy for you to quickly flip to sections you want.

Going to the meeting

 1. Introductions

Politely ask that everyone, including any of your guests, introduces themselves and states their roles at the IEP meeting. Jot this down for your records and date it. If you'd like to tape the meeting, be sure to tell everyone there you are going to and record yourself doing this.

 2. Follow your organized plan

Go through your binder as you have organized it, asking all applicable questions as they arise.

 3. Stay positive

Try not to come across as hostile. Stay positive and polite, but don't be afraid to be assertive. Remember to thank the participants. You don't have to agree on the IEP plan the team composes right away. Take a copy home with you and let everyone know that you will need to review it before you make your final decisions.

 4. Reschedule if necessary

You can always reschedule the meeting. If the team is not making progress, or if you just need some extra time to reflect on the recommended IEP, request that another meeting be rescheduled, and when scheduling the next meeting, give yourself enough time to reflect.

Remember that you have control over the quality of your child's education. IEP meetings are nothing to fear or be intimidated by. Be prepared and take the initiative at your child's IEP meetings and you should see results that both you and your child will benefit from.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.

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