If you meet me, you’d probably say I’m a nice person. I’m friendly, inquisitive, and passionate. However, when it comes to my child’s IEP meetings, I do not play. Any parent who has been in one of these meetings, working to create or revise their child’s individualized education program, knows that you can’t cluelessly, nicely roll into the meeting. No way. Instead, you put on your invisible boxing gloves and show up with your game face on.
Before you get bent out of shape and send me an email, the need to show up as fiercely as possible has nothing to do with loving and respecting teachers. I am friends with many, many educators, cheer on my children’s educators, and I worked in higher education—as a teacher–for nine years. Dissing teachers should never be part of the IEP process. In fact, the teacher can be your child’s biggest ally. However, they aren’t the only player or rule book in the game—not even close.
That said, I’m not headed into an IEP meeting to make friends. I walk into each meeting with my binder of parental rights and responsibilities–a document issued by the state board of education. It is prominently displayed like a celebrity shows of their new designer handbag. I might as well put a siren on my binder, because it is that glaringly obvious. Hoisting around my binder conveys a powerful message. I know my rights and my child’s rights, and I’m not afraid to use them.
I also take a clipboard. Yes, I look like a 1980s PE teacher in that regard. (No whistle though. I draw the line at a whistle.) I write everything down, because this is one of the best ways to stay organized and advocate for my child. I keep all of these notes, because I never know when you will need them. There’s no way I can remember everything we talked about, so note-taking comes in very handy.
No parent going into an IEP meeting should show up in their gym clothes. Look at this as a business meeting—one that has a year-long impact on your child’s education—because that’s exactly what it is. Dress the part, because you are reppin’ your child and their future. Yes, it’s that serious. I’m not saying I go out and buy an evening gown, but do I show up dressed the part? Absolutely.
To be a parent in an IEP meeting, you have to become an expert in educational law. If you don’t know your rights and responsibilities, what the school can offer, your kids’ diagnoses, who can do what (when and how), you may very well be in trouble. This means, you have to prepare for the meeting. This isn’t a casual event. You have to show up with your list of questions, concerns, and hopes. I’m not talking about cramming for the exam the night before, like many of us did when we were students. You have to be in it to win it, prepared days, if not weeks, in advance.
IEP meetings can be incredibly stressful, because everyone knows the child’s success is at stake. I have to squeeze in my Epsom salt baths, breathing techniques, playlist-blasting, and mantra-repeating as much as I can before the meeting so I can be as composed as possible during the meeting. Yes, it sounds like I’m preparing for childbirth—but truly, an IEP meeting is its own labor of love.
I’ve participated in well over a dozen meetings since becoming a mom. Initially, I was rather passive, mostly because I was clueless. I felt like I was merely there to absorb my child’s challenges and progress, not be an equal participant. Sure, I asked questions and had some paperwork with me, but I had no idea what I was doing. At the end, we’d all sign in the new IEP, dismiss, and go on our merry ways.
This isn’t me anymore. After going through a tedious two year battle for one of my kids—which resulted in us finally getting an educational attorney—I learned so much. First, I needed to know my kids’ current information inside and out: report cards, testing scores, evaluations. I learned to save every single communication from school staff. Second, I’ve learned how to organize this information. I have never been good with numbers, charts, or graphs, but soon enough I was creating my own, tracking data to find trends that gave me more information on my child and their needs.
I also learned to speak up, firmly, and confidently. I no longer have an issue interrupting if someone speaks disrespectfully or shares inaccurate information, stereotypes, or a snide comment. I don’t play around, either. I will frankly say, “That’s not true” and wait for that person to correct themselves. As freely as I speak what’s up, I also offer compliments and gratitude for the hard work some of the educational team members have poured into helping my child. I give credit where credit is due.
It’s so important not to “play nice” when the purpose of the meeting is to help the child. The goal isn’t to be a parent who is favorable and passive. The goal is to create a plan that sets your child up to succeed. If I’m not firm and committed, my child won’t get the plan they are entitled to under disability and education laws.
Attending these meetings takes practice and some serious self-grace. With preparation, time commitment, and keeping your eyes on the prize (your child’s education), you too can become “that mom” in the IEP meeting—the one who doesn’t give up on her kid.