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10 Ways to Engage (Not Enrage!) Parents at an IEP Meeting

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Pass this on to your IEP team (anonymously if you must)!

You are a special education teacher that’s been reading, writing, and editing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs — or ILPs in some regions). Or perhaps you are a regular ed teacher familiarizing yourself with an incoming student’s IEP. Either way, this process is a huge challenge!

Now imagine you are your student’s parent or guardian. They may be experiencing many things. Perhaps:

  • Fear of new staff not understanding their child’s needs
  • Lack of familiarity with the process
  • Stress over the vast amount of paperwork and planning they are unfamiliar with
  • Concern over their child’s physical and emotional safety
  • Practical concerns about missing work for so many meetings
  • Sadness or anxiety — even PTSD — about their child’s challenges and how professionals have treated them in the past.
  • There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other specific issues the parents across the desk from you may be experiencing.

As an educator, you should be prepared to accept that certain parents and guardians may not understand the amount of work you’ve invested in developing and supporting these plans. Whether or not a parent or guardian recognizes your efforts, you must facilitate relationships and help create success during these sometimes complex and stressful sessions. Here are some quick (but not always easy!) things you can do to facilitate the process and build trust and successful relationships across an IEP team.

1. Start with the positive stuff. Don’t forget to focus on the positive aspects of the student’s academic, developmental, and social goals even if they are not in the IEP. Sometimes just noting a student’s best attributes or anecdotes to a parent can ease tensions. Parents want to know you see the good stuff they see in their children. Start with some positive stories about the student’s work or activities to set a friendly tone for the meeting.

2. Share names and roles often. Use staff names and roles more than once. Parents can be overwhelmed at the number of people — and changing staff — and often forget who is responsible for what. (I’ve been in meetings with as many as a dozen people around the table. It can be daunting.)

3. Empathy. Put yourself in the parents’ position. If parents look like “deer in the headlights,” react appropriately. If they are angry (or furious) try to understand why they feel that way instead of throwing jargon or regulations in their face and escalating the frustration. The parents may just be scared or overwhelmed. If you sense this, take a mindful moment to imagine the student is your child or sibling. Then acknowledge the stressful issue from their point of view. Try to de-escalate by explaining the issue in a different way, asking an open-ended question, or deferring the issue until another time. Prevail.

4. Be present and listen. It sounds basic, but try not to do something else in the meeting (like looking at your smartphone) even if it isn’t “your turn” to speak. Focusing on the meeting at hand shows the parents that you are giving them and their child your full attention.

5. Take notes. Have a reliable note taker, or someone recording the meeting with a digital audio recorder. With digital audio recording, follow the rules for your legal jurisdiction and make sure the team knows recordings are being made and will be shared with the team, securely, right after the meeting.

6. Embrace advocates. If the parents bring an advocate, don’t automatically assume this means contention (especially if administration policies require you to have a school lawyer there if the parent has an advocate). Look at advocates for what they mean to the parents or guardians. Remember, a table of professionals who know the rules well are joining parents who may not understand the people or processes well. They brought someone in to help remind them, and everyone, of their child’s rights. This is an act of love and advocacy, not an arrow criticizing your ethics.

7. Define jargon. Be careful about using acronyms or educational jargon that is unfamiliar and even intimidating to parents. It can really derail an IEP meeting. Even veteran parental advocates can get flustered if a lot of jargon is being thrown around. Provide a definition of terms if there are acronyms or terminology that are absolutely critical to this particular student’s success.

8. Be personable. You are a pro. These meetings are hard. You have a lot of them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t engage, be empathetic, be funny and care.

9. Water, tissues and breaks. Make sure there is water and tissues at the table. Collaborate with the team and ensure ahead of time that you schedule in breaks if you suspect the meeting will last more than an hour or 90 minutes. And take breaks if the parents or student needs them.

10. Talk to both parents if possible. Fathers often don’t attend as many IEP meetings as mothers. When a dad is present, don’t ignore him with your language, eye contact or body language. Speak with and listen to all of the parents/guardians present.

IEP meetings can be stressful. They can be a pain. They can be long. But they are important and as an educational professional, you can create successful, collaborative teams with some up-front effort that will pay off.

As a parent of a student with disabilities, I thank you for your hard work.

The day he wrote this blog post, Gary attended one of many meetings with members of his son’s IEP team, which is in the process of planning for his age 21 transition one year from now. Gary is the author of the book Dads of Disability.

Getty photo by Gregory Lee.

Originally published: September 4, 2019
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