Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) parents of children with LD and ADHD have a right to participate in their child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) planning meetings. Approaching an IEP meeting as you would a business meeting will increase your influence at the table, enabling you to be a more effective advocate for your child.
- Learn the lingo
At a business meeting, you cannot make a meaningful contribution if you do not understand what is being discussed. That’s true for an IEP meeting as well.
Special education acronyms and jargon often make it challenging to understand the basics. Consider a meeting where evaluation results are being discussed: WISC, WIAT, CTOPP, PLS, GORT, TOWL, BASC, BRIEF…standard scores, scaled scores, standard deviations, etc.
Don’t let the lingo sideline you. Come to the meeting with a basic understanding of the assessment tools being discussed and their terminology. Being familiar with the key elements will enable you to actively participate in discussing what to do with the results, which is what matters most for your child.
- Set an agenda
Just as an agenda provides structure to a business meeting, it also serves to keep the IEP meeting on track. Without it, participants waste time and overlook important items.
Consider, for example, what often happens in the annual review meeting, which is generally scheduled for one hour. The first 45 minutes are spent reviewing evaluations; the present levels of performance pages are skipped entirely (big mistake: they set the stage for the rest of the IEP), so that you can fly through the goals and objectives, give a quick wave to the accommodations and modifications page, and finally talk about services as everyone is packing up.
Using the agenda will slow down the pace, and ensure that all components are addressed thoroughly. In this example, the agenda might be as simple as this:
- Review evaluations and discuss progress
- Present levels of educational performance
- Goals and objectives
- Accommodations and modifications
- Services for next year
Assuming that you do not want to rush through, if you find yourself finishing the first item with only 15 minutes to spare, do not rush through the rest of the agenda. Instead, acknowledge that you understand another meeting is immediately following yours, and suggest setting a date to reconvene to discuss the remaining items.
- Keep an open mind
A common mistake in business is to be so focused on what you want to accomplish in a meeting that you do not actively listen to your colleagues.
Understandably, parents often have this type of tunnel vision at IEP meetings, as they are emotionally invested in the outcome. That said, consider shifting where you put your energy: rather than concentrating on how to achieve your goal, focus on your end game.
If your child has a reading disability, the IEP team might agree that improvement in decoding skills is required. You, however, might have a particular reading program in mind, and have specific thoughts on how it should be delivered. If the school offers another solution to the problem, be open to it. Listen, consider, and research. You might find that they are offering a viable way to address the challenge at hand.
There is no denying that the IEP process sometimes seems stacked against parents attempting to advocate for their child with learning challenges. But by taking steps to insert yourself fully into the process, rather than letting the process control you, you can be an active and powerful member of your child’s IEP team.
- Ask the school to provide you with copies of the evaluations at least five school days prior to the meeting. Schedule informal chats with the evaluators in advance of the IEP meeting to get clarification on the terms used, and anything you don’t understand.
- Send your suggested agenda items to the school in advance of the meeting, and ask your child’s team for their additions. It’s helpful to use the structure of the IEP document itself to establish your agenda items.
- If presented with alternatives that you are unsure of, let the team know you value their suggestions, but will need time to look into them further. Do your homework before consenting to team proposals that you are skeptical of or don’t know about.
Ann McCarthy is a former special education advocate.