12 Easy Steps to Creating the Most Comprehensive IEP
It’s that time of year. Your daughter comes home from school and flings her backpack at you. “Teacher says to tell you there’s a paper in there for you.” Instantly your palms start sweating, your heart starts pounding, and you feel like you want to throw up. You know what’s inside without even looking. It’s the Notice of Annual Case Conference (aka Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meeting).
IEP meetings are often extremely stressful, particularly if you disagree with your child’s school about what educational services are best for supporting your child’s learning. You hate going because you feel intimidated, outnumbered, unheard, inferior—all those things that instantly make your stomach clench up in knots at the very thought of attending. You’ve developed a routine for the week before an IEP meeting which goes something like this: You ignore it until it grows so close that you can’t.
You fluctuate between thinking “I should say this” or “I am going to get them to do that” and “They don’t listen to me” or “They’re going to do what they want anyway, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” You know you should do something to prepare so maybe you skim over the old IEP the night before the meeting—if you can find it. And then you go to bed for a sleepless night. Truly, you’d rather be doing anything else but going to that IEP meeting.
These meetings can’t be avoided. Students with disabilities have rights. Parents of the students with disabilities have rights. However, along with those rights come responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is actively participating in the special education process. That means attending those IEP meetings you dread so much.
At a minimum, an IEP must be reviewed at least once annually—hence that Notice of Annual Case Conference. The best way to ease the anxiety you feel so you can get through the meeting with your dignity intact is to be as prepared as you can be in advance. Arguably, preparing for your child’s IEP meeting can be a chore, especially if you are struggling to understand the process and the forms, let alone the rights and responsibilities that go along with having an IEP for your child. You don’t know what the school should be doing so you don’t know what to ask for. They often will not volunteer the information. Educating yourself and preparing in advance is critical.
Below are some tips to help you prepare for an IEP meeting:
1. Good preparation takes time. Create and regularly maintain an all-inclusive Home File for each child who has an IEP (or a 504 Plan as this will work for that as well). For suggestions about how to create and organize a Home File, see Ways You Can Use the IEP to Create the Best School Emergency Plan located in Issue 79 of Autism Parenting Magazine.
2. Review the Notice of Case Conference you received. Review the list of invited attendees to ensure that the required parties will be in attendance. If you notice that someone is missing whom you believe needs to be invited, contact your child’s Teacher of Record via email as soon as possible and ask her to issue an invitation to that person. Acknowledge that you will be attending by sending it back with your signature or by emailing your child’s Teacher of Record. Keep a copy for yourself and insert it into the IEP/504 Home File Binder.
3. Prepare your recording equipment if you intend to record the meeting. Practice what you will say when you notify the school of your intentions. Familiarize yourself with your state’s rules for taping conversations.
4. Invite your parent advocate, friend, or family member to come along as support. Explain your concerns to them and your desired outcomes for the meeting ahead of time. Tell them what you need from them. Ask them to take notes so that you can focus on the discussion. Agree upon a signal or method of communication to use if you need to take a break or need to clarify something. Notify the school of how many people will be attending with you so that they can ensure enough seating in a large enough room to accommodate the entire committee.
5. Make a list of all your questions, concerns, and wishes to use as talking points.
6. Do your research thoroughly. For each concern or wish on your list, find something that will support your position and take that with you. For example, if you feel that the school is violating the law, get a copy of the statute and highlight the parts you feel are in violation. If you intend to ask for a service that you feel your child needs, bring written research-based evidence to support your request. Make a notation beside each item on your list that refers to the piece of supporting documentation so that you are less likely to get confused or distracted. Cross-reference your point on the supporting documentation.
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7. Obtain a blank copy of the IEP form that your child’s school uses (available from your child’s Teacher of Record or sometimes the state Department of Education will have the forms on their website for download).
8. With your child’s most recent IEP at hand, go through each section of the IEP one by one and write in your concerns, thoughts, praises, etc. Use sticky notes and flags to cross-reference your concerns. Remember that IEP meetings are part of the special education process. The forms are written the way they are because they are aligned with federal and state requirements. Some items must be discussed before others. Making your notes in this way helps you to stay on track with your talking points. Take your notes with you to the IEP meeting and follow the form as the committee is going through the process. Bring up your points when the discussion reaches that section of the IEP. Find someone knowledgeable about the IEP process to do a role play with. Practice what you will say to support your concerns or requests.
9. Make copies of all your supporting documents to share with the school at the IEP meeting. Be sure that you have enough copies for everyone who is invited to attend. If you need help with making copies, ask the school for assistance early enough so that you will not have to take time away from the meeting for school personnel to go and make copies.
10. Have a basic understanding of your rights and responsibilities. Read over your Parent Rights (Procedural Safeguards). Attend training or watch a webinar. Contact your local Parent Training and Information Center for assistance if you need help with understanding your rights or the process. Do not skip this step. It is probably the most important one of all.
11. Practice what you will say if asked to sign the IEP before leaving the meeting (it is advisable to take the proposed draft of the IEP home with you to think about any changes that might need to be made or add any omitted items).
12. Gather all your materials and pack them into a tote bag. Be sure to include paper, ink pens, sticky notes/tabs, highlighters, the IEP/504 Home File. and any other documents you might need. Put the bag in your car the night before the meeting so that you won’t forget to take it.
These preparation tips won’t solve all the issues. It will go a long way toward making you feel more comfortable and self-confident about defending your position or requests. Above all, try not to get discouraged if things don’t go the way you’d hoped. You can call a case conference at any time during the year, and there is no limit to the number of times an IEP can be revised. Good luck!
Sandy Fields, BS, is a parent of a child with severe disabilities, and assisting families has been a lifelong passion. She has worked as a professional special education advocate for a federally funded parent training and information center for over 18 years and was a parent support volunteer for several years prior. She has served on several boards of directors for disability organizations, on state committees, as a local long-term care ombudsman, has founded a parent information group, and has helped to establish a recreational horseback riding program in her local area. Sandy has broad knowledge of special education rules and disability regulations as well as a wide variety of general parenting, autism, and other disability-related resources. She holds a BS in psychology from Indiana University and regularly engages in ongoing professional development activities to better support parents of children with all types of disabilities.
This article was featured in Issue 82 – Finding Peace This Season