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What It's Like to Be on the Other Side of the IEP Table

In my 13 years as a special education teacher, I have sat at the IEP table more times than I can remember or count. Before each meeting, I walk in confident that I have prepared parts of the IEP, to be further developed in the meeting, that reflect the student’s ability and need with their best interest always in mind. I am calm, cool and collected most times; a stark contrast to how I entered the first IEP meeting for my son, shaking, sweating and feeling scatterbrained.

The teacher side of the IEP table and the parent side of the IEP table feel very different. The emotional connection to that IEP that comes with sitting on the parent side is something those on the teacher side will never be able to understand. The professional connection to that IEP that comes with sitting on the teacher side is something those on the parent side will never be able to understand. Unless, of course, you wear shoes like mine that have been on both sides of the table.

As a teacher, I have added content to IEPs, or recommended removal of content from IEPs, that I knew parents may disagree with but that I felt was most appropriate for the child and/or followed my professional oath. As a parent, I have asked my son’s IEP team to add content to the IEP, or remove content from the IEP, that I knew they may disagree with but that I felt was best for my child and/or followed my parenting oath. The professional versus personal interests between staff and parents often hang in the balance during IEP meetings.

As an educator who has sat on the other side of the IEP table, fellow educators, I can tell you: IEP meetings are often met with feelings of dread from parents. I recently asked a group of parents of disabled children to give me the word or phrase that comes to their mind when they hear the words “IEP Meeting” and below are just some:

  • Don’t cry
  • Fight
  • Struggle
  • Anxiety
  • Horrors
  • Firing Squad
  • Losing Battle
  • Exhausting
  • Scary
  • Overwhelming
  • Nerve-wracking
  • Lack of empathy
  • Unwillingness to work as a team
  • Wine
  • Lawyers
  • Dread
  • Predetermined
  • Contentious

Whoa! As an educator, I never knew that the parent(s) sitting on the other side of the IEP table could have such negative feelings, that I was unintentionally a part of making them feel that way. Until, that is, I felt all of these myself. While some parents have had past experiences shape these feelings, many of us felt these in an innate way, even if the district and staff had given us no reason to feel that way. I don’t know one IEP team member who would want the parents on the IEP team to feel that way, but the reality is, parents do. So, I went ahead and asked what can be done differently.

What can school districts do to relieve such negative feelings parents have surrounding the IEP meeting? The answers were varied, some much easier to implement than others. Having the draft IEP displayed for all to see is certainly doable, as well as using simpler terms and explaining more complex topics such as evaluation terminology and acronyms. Inviting other important professionals such as paraprofessionals shouldn’t be too hard, nor should being sure to start the meeting by sharing student positives.

Ensuring there are no “surprises” at the meeting is something we should strive for, as well as being sure parents are very aware of their rights. A common theme was that parents want to truly feel valued as part of the team. They want us to talk with them, not at them. They want us to listen to what they have to say and be open to making changes.

Calling the parent by their proper name such as Mrs., Mr., Ms., etc. also can make parents feel more valued than being referred to as Mom or Dad. Changing the environment so that parents arrive first as professionals slowly trickle in, as opposed to parents walking into a room already complete with many professionals can ease tensions. While we can’t control special education funding, something that was often mentioned, we can be sure that all sidetalk is eliminated to ensure full clarity. Oh, chocolate was also mentioned… a lot!

As a parent who has sat on the other side of the IEP table, fellow parents, I can tell you: we as school professionals have often poured an incredible amount of time, energy and love into that draft IEP prior to the meeting. We have combed through all of our data, we have envisioned the future, we have done our best at identifying exactly what our student needs to have the most access to the curriculum and all school-related activities. We have likely already advocated for your child in many ways during the creation of the draft. We have hunted down other staff to ensure we had the full story of your child. We have gone home weighing out pros and cons of different programs, accommodations, and placements for your child in our heads while we cook dinner for our own families. We have struggled with wanting what is best for your child, knowing that we may only be able to give what is appropriate due to areas of concern that are not easily changed such as funding, budgets, staffing, district size, scheduling etc.

As IEP season approaches this school year, I hope all who read this take a minute to truly consider what the person on the other side of the table is experiencing — not only in that meeting, but what they have experienced leading up to that meeting and what experiences they will face after the meeting has long concluded. Educators, remember that to the parents, this meeting isn’t just about a student, it is about a child who is their whole world. Parents, remember that to the educators, this is a legal document that has strict guidance and allowances.

Let’s work to bring more unity into the meeting and create a safe place where all involved can express themselves openly and honestly. Let’s all join at the middle of the table, where the child’s interest lies, to develop an IEP that will facilitate and encourage our students and children to soar beyond our professional and personal expectations. Most importantly, no matter which side of the IEP table you are sitting on, feel free to bring some chocolate!

Getty image by Artisteer.

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