Ah, the age-old question (literally).
I’ll give you my answer up front: Do not wait until age 16 to invite your child to attend their own IEP meetings.
We’re not raising children — we’re raising future adults. We need to prepare students to advocate for themselves one day. Just like we can’t suddenly expect a student to tie their shoes or use the bus without weeks, months, or sometimes years of training, we need to give our students as many opportunities as possible to see us, their parents and teachers, model good advocacy and teach them how to self-advocate.
By attending IEP meetings:
1. Students will learn the language.
This means sharing with students the name of their diagnosis; the symptoms or expressions of their disability; the names of the accommodations, tools, or supports they need; and the vocabulary that’s used to describe these things.
If we want and expect our children to be able to manage their own case at some point, these are the words they will need to be able to use. Expose them early and often. But won’t my child feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if they hears us talking about their deficits or areas of weakness? This leads us to our next point…
2. Students will see their needs as normal, rather than viewing deficits as shameful.
You know what happens, as humans, when we realize that certain topics are approached with whispers and secrecy? We start to believe that there’s something embarrassing about the topic. This is what we unintentionally teach kids when we don’t invite them into the conversation.
By opening up a dialogue, we communicate instead that having needs is a normal part of life. That asking for help is something that EVERYONE does. That having things that we’re good at and things that we’re not so good at is a typical part of the human experience. Shielding our kids from these realities does not help them — it makes it seem like their autism, or their dyslexia, or their depression is something they should be ashamed of or “can’t handle.” This isn’t true, and it will prevent them from being able to live authentically and successfully in the future.
3. Students will get comfortable sharing about their needs and preferences.
Once our students know what their needs are and have the language to talk about them, attending IEP meetings gives them the opportunity to practice expressing those needs. Advocacy, or standing up for what you need or what is important to you, works like a muscle. It can be painful at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Do we really want the first time our children ask for what they need to be at a job with a stressed-out boss? Of course not! Start early, and do it often.
4. Students will provide ideas that we may not think about.
Have you heard the phrase “Nothing about us without us”? We don’t like the idea of someone talking about us without our input, and neither do our kids. By having students attend their own meetings, they learn that their voice matters. We often worry about our kids being taken advantage of, and a great way to prevent that is by teaching them, through our actions, that they have a say and that their ideas and boundaries are worthy of respect.
In addition, our children know better than anyone what helps them. Perhaps your child has an idea of how they can participate meaningfully in a certain class or manage their anxiety in a crowded lunch room. By inviting students into the meeting, we show them that they can and need to be part of solving the problem. In addition, the solution will likely be easier to implement with student buy-in from the start.
So what age am I thinking? The earlier, the better. Even a kindergartner can join for 10 minutes to share (verbally, with pictures, pointing on a choice board, etc.) about their preferences and what helps them at school. Prepare by talking in advance about what an IEP meeting is, how it can help them, and what they may want to share. You may want to assist them with writing down their thoughts and questions. Build up stamina and increase from there as the years go by. I can promise that you will not regret it.