“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ―Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe has a point. Do you really want to be figuring out what your thoughts are when all eyes are on you at the IEP meeting? That’s when I tend to say, “Sure…I guess,” even if I don’t mean it. Proper preparation will provide a game plan and give you the confidence you need to make sure your voice is heard. It is much easier to meet your goal (whether chopping a tree or having a productive IEP meeting) if you get your tools in order beforehand.
Consider this your pre-IEP meeting checklist:
Ask for a draft copy of the IEP in advance of the meeting.
IEPs are dense legal documents. A quick scan while five professionals are talking at once is not enough to ensure your child is being supported appropriately. Get a copy, bring it home, and mark it up. Compare it to last year’s IEP: Are the goals building on one another, or has your child had the same goal with minor changes for the last several years? If that is the case, does the new IEP reflect different strategies, supports, or interventions to make sure that your child can make real progress toward those goals? Go in knowing that document as well as the person who wrote it.
Type up your parent concerns.
You know that spot in the document for you to share your thoughts? It is typically on page two. Make sure it really captures what you want to say. By typing your concerns, you can ensure that they’re included verbatim in the IEP and that you don’t sugarcoat your true feelings (or forget something important!) when the time comes to discuss. This is important because if something you are concerned about (say, reading fluency) is not addressed in the IEP through a specific goal, you can go back and reference your concerns later as a point of leverage for including a strategy or a goal around that area for next time.
Make a list of priorities.
Think of this as your agenda for the meeting. Know which battles you need to fight and which ideas fall into the “this would be nice but is not crucial” category. Realize that your priorities may differ from the school team (who tends to view things through an academic lens first and foremost). Is it really important to you that your child has stronger social/emotional goals? Make that priority known and discuss how much better your child will perform in school if, for example, they had better impulse control. I have found that if you ask for more than you typically expect, you just may end up with what you need.
Organize your paperwork.
Papers on papers on papers! Sometimes I look at these binders filled with information and jargon and I wonder if I accidentally woke up in a small, disorganized library instead of my home office. You never know what you might need to pull out in an IEP meeting, and having your ducks in a row (or your papers in a binder) will help you access information without wasting time (because no one needs an IEP meeting to last any longer than they already do). Remember that the current IEP team may not know what you know, especially about what has previously been successful, unsuccessful, implemented or tried at another school. Which leads to my next point…
Bring examples and documentation.
Fighting for a certain goal, accommodation, or placement setting? Bring anything you have that supports that outcome. Doctor or therapist’s notes, homework or schoolwork examples, evaluations, audio or video clips, and even data that you have collected yourself at home are fair game to bring to meetings. Remember, the IEP team only gets to see your child in one context — at school (or for some, a single classroom environment). Providing evidence can help create a more balanced, nuanced picture of your child’s academic needs, and evidence always gets results more readily than anecdotes.
Invite people to join.
While IEP meetings can be packed already with just the school team, if there is a member of your “home team” who knows your child well, invite them to come along and provide their insight. This can include an outside therapist, board certified behavior analyst, or counselor, for example. Additionally, you may want to consider inviting a representative who can provide advice about your child’s next steps, such as a counselor from vocational rehabilitation (which provides job training and job placement services) or an admissions counselor from a local inclusive college program. Other options, if you need outside support, include an educational advocate or a special education attorney. Make sure you inform the school of any visitors who may be attending; some schools may want to prepare differently (or reserve a bigger room).
Come with questions, and something to jot down more throughout.
Think of this as a business meeting, and the IEP team is trying to sell you a product — an educational program crafted specifically for your child. Use your Ws: Why was something chosen over something else? Where will this intervention take place? What assistive-technology option would be least restrictive? This shows that you’re invested and want to be a collaborative part of the process. It also shows that you take the process seriously and are not going to smile and nod if something doesn’t sit well with you. Plus, you will learn new things as you add to your IEP arsenal for future meetings. A win-win!
The IEP process can be a bear, but it can be made more bearable (see what I did there?) by preparing ahead of time for a productive, collaborative meeting.