4 Confusing IEP terms for Parents (+2 Toxic Words I wish you’d stop using!)

toxic IEP words woman with her fingers on her temples frustrated

There are some words in the IEP process that seem to create more chaos than cooperation. And darnit parents, there are just some words that are toxic to the collaborative environment and I wish you’d stop using them. Read on….

Let me ask you, is your child’s education appropriate?

What?!?! Unless you’re a special needs parent, no doubt you think I’m nuts. What a dumb question. Right? I mean, I guess it’s appropriate, he’s progressing at grade level, seems to be in line with his peers. I guess that’s how regular parents would process this question.

But me? I know my son’s education is appropriate. How do I know? Well, once a year, we sit down as a team and decide what is appropriate for him.

adjective: appropriate
1. suitable or proper in the circumstances.

Yes, I have been told that my son’s education is appropriate, and I agreed. So there you go.

See how maddening this is? Look at the definition of appropriate. How in the world could a room full of people come to an agreement on what is appropriate? But you know what? In 1982, in a famous Supreme Court case called Rowley, we were all told that all children are entitled to a “free and appropriate education.” And parents and schools have been fighting over that word ever since. (For the record, I am quite pleased with my son’s IEP and placement!)

As if we didn’t already have enough struggles to deal with, our life is full of gray areas. And those gray areas of language have been handed to us by lawmakers. So even when it feels like you might have the law on your side, chances are it’s a gray area. Welcome to another area of special needs parenting.

toxic IEP words


4 Phrases that Create more Chaos than Cooperation in IEPs

Appropriate: Ok, I won’t beat this one to death. But this is for all the non-special needs parents who often say to me, “well, wait, but doesn’t the school have to….” No, they don’t. The public schools have to provide them with an appropriate education. That’s it. So if you want something for your child, you not only have to prove that it is appropriate, you have to prove that what the school is currently doing is not appropriate. And that’s why it can be so hard to settle–to agree upon what is appropriate. There have been numerous federal cases that addressed various circumstances of FAPE, but FAPE is what it always comes back to, and trying to agree upon a word that’s in a gray area. The school is not required to give our child the “best” of anything, even though we all want what is best for our kids. They only have to provide something that is appropriate, and that offers “meaningful benefit,” which is next on the list.

Read also: Endrew, FAPE, Supreme Court-what does it mean for our kids? +7 other SCOTUS Special Ed Cases

Meaningful Benefit: Think it’s hard to come to agreement on what is appropriate? Well try meaningful benefit. This also came out of the Supreme Court, and I suppose it’s to help us define appropriate. See, an education is appropriate if it provides meaningful benefit for the child. Well, there you go, clear as mud, right? Some federal district courts have further defined meaningful benefit as the child receiving any benefit. How’s that for setting the bar low? Not only does your child need more education and different services to access their education, the courts may tell you that if they receive even minimal benefit, the school has done its job. If your child has a reading disability, and the school  has her in a special reading class, but her reading ability has not improved. If the school can show that any of her areas have improved, such as her writing skills or her social skills improved as a result of this class, that is some benefit. And that’s OK in some federal districts. (Read SCOTUS decision on Endrew above for updates on this.)

Readily Achievable: This one isn’t from IDEA and special ed, it’s actually from ADA. You know, that law that was passed 25+ years ago in order to make places more accessible to those with disabilities. If you think ADA just fixed everything, wrong! If a building was built before ADA was enacted, they only have to make changes if those changes are “readily achievable.” And you guessed it, there is no definition of what constitutes what is readily achievable. So if your favorite ice cream store is inaccessible to your child’s wheelchair, sure you can complain. But the building owner can claim that making it accessible to you is not “readily achievable.” Just ask anyone who has tried to visit Historic Boston–most inaccessible city I’ve ever been in, because changes are not “readily achievable.” In other words, handicapped people are too much work and too expensive for us to be concerned about.

Consider: Imagine this, you’re trying to prove to your school what is an appropriate program for your child. So, you think to get more information on your side, you have an outside evaluator evaluate your child. You love the report–you think it really characterizes your child’s deficits and gives you some great suggestions to go with moving forward. You can’t wait to show it to your school. Guess what? The school, by law, only has to “consider” that information. Consider. Hmmm. So they can read it, hand it back to you and say, “Yeah, ok, we considered it. But no, we cannot do that.” Consider.

Toxic Words that I wish IEP Parents would stop Using

Every time I see these in the Facebook group, I cringe. And eye roll.

I find these words to be so loaded with emotion rather than substance. As an advocate, I find that these words change how you view things.

Please remember Hanlon’s Razor.

hanlon's razor

The words–Legal/Illegal and Violation.

“That’s illegal!” “They VIOLATED my IEP!” “Is it even legal for the teacher to…” (and so often I find the word even before the word legal)

Here’s the thing. IDEA is an administrative/procedural law. That’s it. In its simplest form, yes, if a teacher is not following the IEP, that’s illegal. Or a violation. They have broken a law. You are a little bit correct. Actually IDEA is an administrative statute. In the legal world, the words legal and illegal refer to criminal laws. No one breaks any criminal laws when they are not following an IEP.

So what are you going to do? A citizen’s arrest? Call the police and ask them to write a ticket? Sue them? Well, good luck with any of those choices.

The IEP process sucks. It absolutely is stacked against parents.

But, it’s all we have. It’s the system we have to use, so let’s use it. Learn how to use it to your child’s advantage as best you can. And using the words illegal and violation just don’t help.

Use instead: They are not following the IEP. The team is doing things that differ from what is written in IDEA/state regs.

Focus on what is or isn’t happening for the child, per IDEA and what they need.

To me, as an advocate, I find that when a client’s mindset is on what is legal/illegal or what is a violation, they are focused on revenge or some type of punishment for the violator. And not on getting the child what they need. It also often makes things more dramatic and emotional than they need to be. I don’t need any more drama or emotion in my life, I have plenty.

When you shift your thinking, you are able to take a more collaborative approach and get the issue resolved.

… A more empathetic view where we see each person as a complex human being dealing with their own issues, not just a side character in our story.~Matthew Cook

Think of this scenario:

Parent says: Is it even legal for them to make my child eat lunch by himself? That’s what they are doing! Isn’t that a violation of his IEP?

What if the parent said instead: My child has XYZ behavioral needs and XYZ feeding needs. What are some strategies or accommodations that I can suggest to the IEP team so that he can still eat with his peers/friends? Because right now their only solution has been to make him eat by himself.

Do you feel the difference in that?

If you confront the teacher with: “I think what you did yesterday was illegal,” how do you think that will be met? After having read/heard that, do you think that the teacher is focused on solving the lunch issue, or focused on themselves and trying not to lose their job?

Most things are done out of indifference, not malice. Teachers are overworked. Teams have huge case loads because our schools are underfunded. I’m not giving them a pass on providing what your child needs and following the IEP. But it is very rare to find a school staff member who is truly out to get you. The most likely answer is not that they are making your child eat by himself because they hate him and you. It’s because they are overworked, stressed, understaffed and reactionary rather than proactive.

Help them be proactive rather than adding another reaction to the story.

hanlon's razor

This post was originally written in 2016 but was updated to add information and fix links.

No, ABC, that’s not how special education works. {I’m not speechless about Speechless.}


It’s all about FAPE.





And this might help....