8 Tips for Parents Preparing for Their Child's Next IEP Meeting
Having worked in the counseling field for more than 20 years and as a certified life coach who now runs her own life coaching business, I have more than one tool at my disposal to call on when I’m feeling overwhelmed, stuck or confused. Yet despite this personal development arsenal, I have been knocked off balance more than once by my son’s yearly individualized education program (IEP) meeting.
It is not that the IEP meeting attendees are difficult people. No. My son, who has Fragile X syndrome and autism, is surrounded by professionals who generally want the best for him and are supporting him to be all he can be. Yet despite their good intentions and the positive thinking tools in my toolbox, the IEP can be an emotionally draining experience.
Take for instance my son’s kindergarten IEP session.
Having just moved to a different part of town, we were unfamiliar with the school and neighbourhood. I had forwarded information about my son to the new principal the previous spring, but the special needs coordinator never received it. This resulted in a hastily arranged introduction meeting with the teacher right before school started, followed by an overwhelming kindergarten orientation.
Later that fall when the IEP was held, I wasn’t even sure where to start as there were numerous issues to address and everyone was still “feeling each other out,” so to speak. Even though the teachers were kind and always started the meeting highlighting my son’s strengths, having outsiders comment on the areas that were more challenging to my son was always hard for me, particularly in those early years. I recall more than one IEP where I went home and cried over a hot cup of tea after.
Thankfully things have improved and my son is now in grade five. With each year that passes, I have learned more about how best to approach the IEP sessions for maximum effectiveness and how to maintain my emotional equilibrium on IEP day.
1. Throughout the year…
Keep in mind that you want to be in constant contact with your child’s school. You don’t want to leave everything to one IEP meeting, as that will overload all involved. Throughout the school year, keep the previous IEP objectives close to you, someplace like the kitchen or a home office where you can easily locate them for review. This way the goals for your child are at the forefront of your mind. This allows you to capture regularly any new thoughts or ideas that you would like to discuss immediately with the school (if appropriate) or at the next IEP. When my son was young, I kept a diary and noted particular triggers and behaviours and then shared any relevant information with the school.
When the IEP meeting date rolls around, you can review your ongoing list and see what items you have already addressed, determine what you want to bring to the table and discard items that are no longer relevant. That way you are not wracking your brain at the last minute to recall particular events and issues that can lead to those items being missed during the meeting and time wasted.
2. The night before the IEP…
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to review the notes from the previous IEP session and to think about what you want to discuss. Write it all down. Be organized and have an intention for what you want to get out of the meeting. Do you have specific goals in mind for your child? What goal is the top priority? Is the goal realistic? Make sure all objectives are listed on your sheet, and then during the meeting, you can check them off as you go.
3. Get clear on your child’s strengths.
Consider your child’s strengths and write them out ahead of time. At the IEPs I have attended, the disability coordinator usually starts out listing my sons’s strengths. This sets a positive tone for the meeting. If the meeting coordinator doesn’t bring up your child’s strengths, you could always ask those in attendance to share what they think your child’s strengths are. In an educational setting, it is often easy to lose focus on what our children can do and instead focus on what they can’t, and we don’t want that!
4. Bring new faculty up to speed.
If you are working with new faculty (teachers, support aides, administrators) and you are unsure of their knowledge of your child, share your knowledge with them! As parents we have unique insight into the behaviour of our children and can offer important information which, when shared, sets up everyone involved for success. The more information you can provide, the better. In my experience, the teachers and support staff really appreciate this.
5. Clarify responsibilities.
Make sure you are clear on what everyone’s role in the IEP is. For instance, who is responsible for your child reaching a specific goal? Is it the aide, the teacher, the student, the parents? Generally it is a common responsibility, and the goal is worked on both at school and at home.
6. Address issues from the ground up.
As noted, being in constant communication with your child’s school or teacher is the most effective approach, but if you have an issue that has not yet been addressed, be sure to bring it up at the IEP. Address your comments and concerns to those at the table — the people who are working directly with your child. Don’t start at the top with the principal or superintendent, as this put others into a defensive mode. When issues are brought up at the IEP table, it sets the stage for teamwork and success. However, if you have brought issues up at the IEP previously and they have not been addressed, or your concerns are being ignored, the next step would be escalation and contacting the higher-ups.
7. Bring a wing man or wing woman.
For some parents, the IEP meeting can be an anxiety-producing event. If you feel like you could use some support, bring someone along — a partner, a professional who works with your child or an advocate (and I do recommend asking the school first if it is an outside professional you want to invite).
8. Make sure you are pouring from a full cup.
If you find the IEP meetings draining (as I once did), take steps to make the IEP day as easy for yourself as possible. Clear your slate if you can and focus on taking good care of yourself before and after the session. This not the day to over-schedule! Leave the big grocery shopping, the dentist appointment, the errand running or a meeting with a difficult client at work for another day.
Get organized the night before so all your reports, previous IEP, pen and paper are ready to go. Get a good night’s sleep. Post-IEP treat yourself to a coffee in a cafe or a hot cup of tea at home and allow yourself some reflective time to think about what transpired. If you can swing it, have leftovers for dinner that night or order takeout. Watching a funny movie and a long soak in the tub can do wonders as well.
You know the old saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup”? Well, by seeing that your needs are met (and not just around IEP day but all year round), you help make sure the needs of your child and the needs of the entire family will be met as well.
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