IEP Meeting Dos and Don’ts
My first IEP meeting did not go well. Well, wait. Kevin has been receiving services since he was 6 months old, so I had IFSP meetings and then preschool meetings. The whole time period, honestly, is foggy. But I definitely remember that my first meeting with my school district did not go well.
And, I was already training to be a Special Education Advocate, so I did know more than the average newbie parent. But never mind about me. Let’s talk about you.
Your first IEP meeting is coming up. Maybe you’ve heard horror stories from other parents and maybe you have no idea what to expect. You may have received bad IEP advice or maybe it’s good. How do you know?
10 Beginner IEP Meeting Tips
- Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. I’m putting this one first because the idea permeates all the other points. Many times when I am meeting with parents either 1:1 or in a workshop setting, I indicate to them that they need to speak up, they need to push back, ask for more or different. I can tell by looks on faces that this makes many people uncomfortable. I get that–you don’t want to make waves. You don’t want to ask a team member to not leave a meeting or call them out on something you know isn’t true. But you have to. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will? Unless you have hired an advocate, this task falls on you. Whether it be asking for more meeting time, a different meeting time, or much needed evals and services–you have to speak up. If your parental concerns are not on the IEP, speak up. If team members are coming and going and the meeting looks like a game of musical chairs, speak up. For the most part, I have found that once parents stand their ground a bit on these items, you don’t have to do it as often. Practice it, rehearse it in your head, in the car, in the mirror. Rehearse it if you need to, but just do it.
- Channel Michael Corleone. Either one of these works, but you have to be able to control your emotions. Look around the IEP table. Except for the parents, everyone else is there as a part of their normal work day. For them, this is a job. For you, it’s your child. HUGE difference. They are not going to feel the same way about your child as you do. It’s just not going to happen. Accept it and move on. For them, this is a part of their job. And for you, for 2-3 hours, you need to channel Michael Corleone and face this meeting for what it is–it’s a business meeting. Do whatever you need to do to get through this business meeting without getting emotional. (I’m not suggesting you off any of your family members or team members though!)
- Find your coffee cup. The coffee cup idea is a tip that I learned at one of my UN Foundation pieces of training, only they called it a wine glass. Alcohol is frowned upon in public schools, so I’ll use a coffee cup. Your coffee cup is your go-to item to think about or talk about. If you find yourself getting emotional, you’re getting ready to cry or lose it, look at your coffee cup and regroup. This is a highly emotional time for parents. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t get it. To have a group of people discussing your child and all of their shortcomings, to be reminded once again of how they are not keeping up with their typical peers. Cry beforehand, cry afterward, rehearse it in your head, have a plan.
- Book enough time for the IEP meeting. Recently I have seen several invitations go out to parents that indicated on the invitation that the district was only allotting 45-60 minutes for the meeting. Is that enough time for you? What is your average meeting time? If, for the past 5+ years it’s always been about 2 hours, why would you agree to 45 minutes? Look for this on your invitation, and if you need more time, speak up. “I can make that time and date, however, I see you have noted that the team only has 45 minutes to meet. I think it may take longer than that, so please let me know if this time still works or if we need to pick another time when the team can meet for about 2 hours. That is about how long our meetings have been in the past. Thanks.” Chances are you will only have to do this one time and it will send the needed message. This goes for you and your spouse. I’m sorry that you are probably taking time off of work to do this. It sucks, really. Take a half day, do what you need to do. Don’t try to squeeze it into a 1-hour lunch slot when you know that’s not enough time. If your employer does not give you time off, ask for unpaid FMLA time. Or find a relative to be your child’s educational Power of Attorney. Taking advantage of a parent’s employment situation is one way that some districts can strong-arm parents.
- Be prepared for the IEP meeting. Don’t agree to the meeting time if it is in under ten days and you can’t prepare in that amount of time. Ask for a different time. Don’t go in unprepared. Make sure you have done as much as you can including submitting your parental concerns. Use our parent worksheet and meet with your spouse/child’s parent ahead of time and get on the same page. Don’t want to meet with your ex-spouse and their new girlfriend? Sorry, this isn’t about you. If the district senses a rift between parents, they may exploit it, I’ve seen it done. Have your notes ready, have a list of SDIs ready. This is a big deal. Treats it as such. Don’t overbook yourself with commitments during your “IEP month.” You will need time to research, prepare, read and write–both before and after the meeting.
- Dress well and don’t take donuts to the IEP meeting. Remember, you are an equal member of the IEP team. Act and dress the part. If you don’t have an advocate, you have to step out of Mom role for a few hours, and into advocate role. This is a business meeting! Doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly, but this is about business. Chances are your child’s team will be in dress/work clothes because they are working. So should you. Dressing in sweats, ponytail and no makeup changes the playing field–one of those unspoken/unwritten things. Does that make sense? Bringing food or gifts changes the relationship dynamic–they are not bringing you gifts, are they? There is a time for thanking the team and gift-giving, it’s not at the IEP meeting.
- Sleep, Eat and Don’t take Siblings to IEP meeting. Do what you need to do so that you are well rested, well fed and well hydrated before you go to the meeting. You may be sitting for more than 2 hours, so be prepared. Bring a bottle of water if necessary. Bathroom before you go. Get a good night’s sleep. And do whatever it takes so that you do not have to take siblings along. I know sometimes it can’t be avoided–but I’ve seen you, Moms. It is impossible to focus all of your attention on your child with IEP when you have a sibling walking around saying “I’m bored” or a toddler crawling around under the table. Call in favors from friends and relatives to watch them.
- Don’t sign anything that day except the IEP attendance sheet. Contrary to what some school personnel will tell you, you don’t have to sign anything at the meeting. You have ten days to read it, digest it, add your parent letter of attachment. Especially if you just received the Evaluation Reports and IEP either the day before or at the meeting, why in the world would you sign it? A few hours is not enough time to digest the dozens of pages they are giving you. Step out of your comfort zone and say “No thank you, I’ll take this home and get it back to you within my 10 days.”
- Know your rights and go with your gut. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. When it just doesn’t feel right to you, push back. If you feel you’re being bullied, know your rights and ask for help. Use your ten days, read your procedural safeguards and seek help from a disability agency. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. We can’t do this alone.
- It’s just one meeting. No matter what happens today, this is just one meeting in a long series of meetings, emails, phone calls, and discussions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a first IEP that was just awesome. It takes time. It’s a process and a slow one at that. What’s important is that for today, you did the best you could with what you know, and you will always be learning and getting better.
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