Navigating IEP Meetings

When my son first entered our school system in preschool, I was inundated with a new set of acronyms and the like to know, including a term that I had never heard before: IEP. Over the last few years, our experience with our son’s IEPs and the accompanying meetings have been mostly positive, but, over time, I discovered other parents were not having the same luck. This month, because many children with special needs qualify for IEPs, I want to talk about IEPs and offer some tips to help ensure successful IEP meetings.

What Is an IEP Exactly?

For school-age children with special needs, both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require that school systems provide children who need them the necessary accommodations for getting an education at any level. Students can receive those accommodations under two different types of plans: IEPs (Individual Education Plans) or 504s, which cover students who don’t qualify for an IEP but still need some sort of accommodation.

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Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are intended for that child and that child alone. Whereas a 504 plan only guarantees that a student will have access to accommodations, an IEP also records goals for that child and tracks progress toward those goals. They should demonstrate to parents not only what specifically the school system plans to provide in terms of therapies and classroom accommodations, but also how they will update parents on the child’s progress.

Because IEPs are individual, each child’s IEP, even if the child shares a similar issue with another child, will not look like another’s because each child is treated uniquely. The IEP will give the frequency of the therapies and the goals for each therapy along with anticipated dates for reaching stated milestones.

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Some Tips for Next Time

As each school year ends, you and your child’s teachers will get together and review your child’s IEP and discuss what has been accomplished as well as what the next school year will look like. This is your chance to advocate for your child, but also to listen to what those who spend day in and day out at school with your child have to say about their progress.

Because such meetings can be intimidating and stressful for you as a parent, here are some tips for your next one:

Get as much information as possible in advance.
If your child recently went through an assessment, make sure you have those results before you discuss any IEP. My son’s teacher usually sends me a draft of the IEP prior to each meeting so my husband and I can review it.

Prioritize your desires.
Remember that you are just as much of an expert as your child’s teachers and counselors. Their expertise might be in educating a child with special needs, but your expertise is your child. The goal of any IEP to make sure that your child is receiving an education that gives him/her the tools for succeeding in the future. You can provide expertise on your child so that the IEP meets the needs of everyone involved.


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Make a list of everything you want discussed.
Bring a list of questions and concerns with you and don’t leave without having them addressed.

Help set a collaborative tone for the meeting.
Make sure you are familiar and comfortable with at least one person who will be there. Your notice for the meeting will include the people who will be present so, if you’re not familiar with all of them, feel free to inquire about each person beforehand.

Don’t let anyone rush you through the meeting.
You have the right to record the meeting if you want, especially if you have concerns.

Request assessments, not services.
Those assessments are the precursor to receiving the services your child may need. If you don’t agree with the results, you can have those done by an outside professional and the school system may be required to pay for that second assessment.


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Make sure goals are quantifiable and assessable.
Do not agree to anything or sign anything unless you are sure it is the right decision for your child. Don’t feel compelled to sign the IEP if you feel you need more information or if it needs modifications.

All of this might seem intimidating, but IEPs are fairly straightforward: they are meant to be another tool for you, your child, and the educators who will be helping you both through these years in the classroom. You will find that teachers and aides often care a great deal for your child and want to do everything they can to help both of you. Trust that this process, which may seem overwhelming at first, can become a symbiotic experience where you can learn more about your child while teaching others about him/her as you all craft the plan for their future.

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