IEP Meeting: 5 Rules for Success

By Pamela Wright


As a key member of your child’s IEP team, your primary role is to negotiate for the services and supports that will ensure her success • Following these guidelines will help you to prepare for the most common challenges parents face at IEP meetings

Do you have a clear sense of your role in an IEP meeting? Do you have questions about what you should say? Not say? If you are like many parents, you don’t realize that you have an essential role in developing your child’s IEP. It’s time to give this idea a closer look.

First, you are the expert on your child. You spend hours every week in your child’s company. You observe your child in hundreds of different situations. You notice small but significant changes in your child’s behavior and emotions that others will likely overlook. Teachers, therapists, and aides only observe your child in the school setting so they have a more limited perspective.

Second, you negotiate with your child’s team for special education services and supports. In this process, you represent your child’s interests. You are her voice.

You say, “I don’t know how to negotiate.” But you have more experience as a negotiator than you realize. You negotiate with co-workers about work schedules and with your employer about your salary. You bargain with family members about housework and money. When you buy a car or house, you negotiate with salespeople.

When you negotiate with the school, you have an advantage: you can prepare.

5 Rules for Successful IEP Meetings

There are five rules for successful IEP meetings. Keep these in mind as you prepare for IEP meetings, especially during the pandemic.

Rule #1: Know what you want. When you attend an IEP meeting, you need to share your observations, difficulties, and requests in clear, simple language. If the meeting’s purpose is to consider compensatory or recovery services due to pandemic-related disruptions, use facts, not feelings. Be prepared to answer these questions:

  • What do you want?
  • What action do you want the school to take?
  • What facts support your request?

Rule #2. Do not blame or criticize. When you negotiate, you are dealing with people. Stick to the facts. Don’t blame or criticize. Although you don’t intend to criticize, some team members may get defensive and disagree, which can take various forms:

  • Denial: team members insist that the problem you reported is not a problem, despite evidence that it is.
  • Minimizing: they acknowledge the problem but insist it is not what it seems.
  • Blaming: they deny responsibility and claim that the problem belongs to someone or something else.
  • Diversion: they change the subject to avoid a topic that they view as threatening.
  • Hostility: they get angry, hostile, or irritable when you bring up a problem, incident, or event.
  • Procrastinating: they say they will take action on an issue tomorrow or later.

Stay calm, and counter with facts to ensure that the meeting does not devolve into a finger-pointing or yelling match.

Rule #3. Understand the school district’s position. When you negotiate, you need to know what motivates the people on the other side of the table. You need to be able to answer these questions:

  • What are their perceptions? How does the school see the problem? How does the school perceive parents? How do the staff view parents of children with disabilities? How do school staff view you? Do school staff perceive you as demanding? Do they think you a complainer? Do they believe you are passive and uninvolved?
  • What are their interests? What does the school want? What is important to the school district?
  • What are their fears? What is the school afraid will happen if they give you what you want? Will this mean they failed? Will school personnel have to admit that they were wrong? Will people have to do things they don’t want to do? If the district gives you what you want, are they afraid the floodgates will open? Does the school fear losing power? Do they fear losing face?

Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers to better understand the district’s position.

Rule #4. Seek win-win solutions. When the team develops a win-win solution, team members will be committed to its success. By understanding perceptions, interests and fears, you’ll find it easier to devise solutions that meet your needs and the needs of the district. Make a list of possible solutions to resolve the problem. During the meeting, let the team know you’ve given serious thought to solutions. If the school ignores or belittles your ideas, you can document this in your after-meeting follow-up letter.

Rule #5. Protect the parent-school relationship. Are you prepared to remove your child from the public school forever? No? View your relationship with the school as a marriage without the possibility of divorce. When you make this shift in your thinking, you will be able to focus on the essential issues.

When parents and schools negotiate, their personal relationships often get entangled with problems. You need to separate your relationships with people from the problems. If you view people as the problem, you are setting yourself up to feel angry, bitter, and mistrustful.

When you negotiate, you have two goals: solving the problems and protecting relationships. Why? Because you will negotiate again!

This article is adapted with permission from the Wrightslaw Website. The author, Pamela Wright, is a psychotherapist who works with children and families. She and husband Pete Wright are co-founders of Wrightslaw, the leading resource for special education law and advocacy; they are also co-founders and faculty at the William & Mary Law Institute of Special Education Advocacy (ISEA).

Related Smart Kids Topics