How to Speak IEP

By Lara Damashek


An IEP meeting can be combative or congenial, depending on how you frame your requests • Understanding that you and the school district have differing self-interests will help you choose your words carefully to ensure that you get the support your child needs

At a parent-teacher conference, you hope to hear about your child’s progress and the strides she is making. You may even share your insights about her strengths with the hope that she is being appreciated for all of her positive attributes.

But don’t expect that conversation at your child’s IEP meeting—In fact, prepare yourself for a completely different conversation that focuses on weaknesses, challenges, and deficits. Why? Because that’s in your child’s best interest: To qualify for special education services, there must be clear indications that your child is not making progress and that there are specific needs and deficits that warrant specialized instruction.

Appropriate vs Best

Under the IDEA, Federal law dictates that school districts must provide a free and appropriate education (FAPE). The question of what is “appropriate” is complicated, and is the issue around which most special education litigation revolves. But for the purposes of your child’s IEP meeting, think of “appropriate” as less than “the best”—the level of support that will allow your child to make at least some (not legally well-defined) progress, which is all the school is required to provide.

Being savvy about how you frame your requests will serve your child well

Parents that demand the best may come across as entitled and unrealistic about public school constraints. School personnel might be quick to reject your request, explaining that while it would be nice for your child to maximize her potential, she does not need the support you are asking for, and therefore, they are not required to provide it (and pay for it). As my former boss used to say while preparing parents for the IEP meeting, “You may want the Cadillac, but you are only entitled to a Chevy.”

Do NOT say: “I want the best for my child in school. She should be getting 1:1 instruction with the highest quality instructional program.”

Do say: “It is essential that my child receives 1:1 instruction to make meaningful educational progress; she needs this support to address her specific learning issues.”

Likewise, when advocating for a particular program, be careful not to couch your request in language that implies you are asking the school district to give you more than is required under IDEA. Stress what your child needs, rather than what you think would be optimal:

Do say: “The appropriate program is one where my child receives _____ as she needs that in order to make any progress in school. It is, therefore, crucial (or imperative, essential, necessary) that my child receive ___”

Appropriate vs LRE

If you are asking for support that is provided in a separate learning environment (not the mainstream classroom), you might hear, “We are required to provide a setting that is consistent with the least restrictive environment (LRE) along with an explanation such as, “Luke is a smart boy, and he should really be with typical peers.”

Your response should include the reminder that, while they may be bound by the federal LRE requirement, they must also consider the second prong of the LRE analysis: In simple terms, a school district must provide the LRE, but the LRE must also be appropriate for that child’s needs. If your child cannot learn to read in a mainstream setting, even though she would benefit from having social interactions with typical peers, it is NOT the appropriate program.

Do say: It is my understanding the LRE must also be appropriate for my child’s identified special education needs. Yes, she is social but she has plenty of chances to interact with typical peers outside of school. In school, she needs to learn to read.

Be a Team Player

Finally, you want to come across as a parent who is fully cooperative in an effort to provide for your child. Even if you are up against a combative team, bite your tongue and do not say anything that exacerbates the situation. Instead, maintain an open mind, and be willing to look at the programs the district has to offer. Even if you challenge the IEP team’s proposals later, it’s in your child’s interest to remain congenial and cooperative, and show a genuine willingness to work with the school district.

Do NOT say: “I know you don’t have what Luke needs in your school. I am certain that only a specialized private school can provide for my child.”

 Do say: “I would love to look at the programs that the public school has to offer before I make any decisions about exploring private options.”  

Do say: “I look forward to working with the district to provide for my child’s needs; I will share all clinical information relevant to understanding my child’s educational needs.”

Lara Damashek is a parent advocate and the founder of Early Insight Advocacy. She has experience as a teacher, special education attorney, and parent of a child with an IEP.

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