If a child is struggling academically, socially, emotionally, having behavioral problems or difficulty communicating, parents have the right to make a referral for special education. A child must be found eligible for special education using the special education process. If a child is found eligible for special education services, a team (including school personnel and the child’s parent[s]) will hold several meetings to design an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a written educational plan that describes the special education and related services the child will receive to meet his/her unique needs.
By Leslie Williamson
You have just received written notice that your child’s next Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting will be held in two weeks. You still have some anxiety about attending these meetings and would like to be as prepared as possible. The more you are able to understand and feel comfortable with your role as a parent advocate, the better. What steps might you take in order to feel that you are ready for your responsibilities as an IEP team member?
First of all, regular communication and the exchange of information between school and home are crucial for establishing good working relationships. The best IEP meetings are a collaborative effort amongst all team members. You know your child better than anyone and thus can offer a valuable perspective about your child that is critical to the development of his/her IEP.
Despite everyone’s best intentions, it can be intimidating to sit around a table with a group of professionals – some of whom you may never have met. It is helpful to build a positive relationship with at least one person on the IEP team who is familiar with your concerns and perspective. Hopefully, you will feel more comfortable expressing yourself knowing that someone else is aware of your point of view.
As a parent, it’s important to appreciate the reality that schools often have limited resources – whether regarding the budget, personnel, training and/or time. In addition, not only do teachers have many students to teach, but several of those other students are likely on IEP’s as well. Keep in mind that although schools are required to develop appropriate education programs for children found eligible for special education services, they are not required to put the very best program in place.
In order for your role as a team member to be meaningful, prepare for the meeting. To begin with, make sure you know the purpose and format of the meeting and who will attend. Request that the school provide you — in advance of the meeting date — a draft IEP and copies of any reports to be discussed. With this information, you will have a better sense of your child’s progress and will not have to quickly skim and interpret important documents.
Next, take some time before the meeting to consider whether you have any specific information you would like to share; there are particular questions you want answered; or there are certain points you would like to make. Take written notes and take them with you to the meeting to be sure to cover everything you intended to communicate.
By the same token, any written comments from your child’s physician or copies of outside evaluations/reports should be provided by you to all other team members prior to the meeting. This will allow everyone to review and take the additional input into account and maximize the meeting’s productivity.
You may also want to share (email or written) in advance your viewpoint of your child’s current status. It gives the other team members a chance to compare what they are seeing in the classroom with what you are seeing at home.
It can be beneficial to bring another person to the meeting as moral support and to help you feel more at ease. Plus, he or she will be there afterwards to help you “debrief.”
Finally, if you are feeling rushed as the meeting ends and uncertain about signing the IEP, you may choose to take the draft copy home and review it the next day. This allows you to review the document without the pressure of the meeting’s time constraints. However, you also must be sure to return the document (whether you choose to sign it or not) within the designated time-frame.
To make sure you have easy, accessible reference to paperwork related to the IEP:
• Keep one binder with all school meeting notices, team member emails, progress reports, test results, etc.
• Keep another separate binder of your child’s school work.
Listed below is a variety of national, state and local resources that can provide additional information regarding your role as an IEP team member and an advocate for your child. While the IEP process can be challenging (and emotional) at times, being as prepared as possible can make all the difference for parents. A little advance preparation can go a long way in making you feel as if your voice has been heard and are a valued member of your child’s IEP team.
New Hampshire Department of Education
Main Number: (603) 271-3494
Special Education: (603) 271-3741
Vermont Agency of Education
Vermont Parent Training & Information (PTI)
Toll free in VT: (800) 800-4005
Special Needs Support Center
CHaD Family Center
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center