And in no particular order, aside from how my brain decides to spit them out, here are some tips (and resources) for parents heading into IEP meetings.
Learn IEP speak. When I worked for the federal government, people called all the acronyms that were thrown around “alphabet soup.” Special Education has its own alphabet soup. To be able to keep up at the meeting and know what the school folks are talking about, it’s very important that you have at least the basics down. You’re going to hear, no doubt about it, the local school district referred to as an LEA, and the chair of the meeting will be the LEA representative who works for the EC (exceptional children’s) division. In North Carolina you’ll hear forms being referred to as DEC4 or DEC5. You will hear people talk about FAPE and LRE and IDEA. You may have SLPs talking to OTs about RtI. Your child may be found eligible under AU or OHI. To get you started, here are a few good links: Education Acronyms from NC Department of Public Instruction, here’s one from the Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers that lists acronyms along with brief description of the law that you can print out and bring along with you to your meeting. BUT not everything conveniently comes in neat 3 to 4 letter packages. For a broader list of terminology used in special education, I suggest checking out this glossary at LDonline.org.
Know both your child’s rights and your own. Under the law both parents of a child with disabilities and the child with a disability are given certain rights and protections. The educational rights of students with disabilities and their parents are spelled out in IDEA 2004, NCLB, FERPA and Section 504. Trying to read the actual statues and regulations can be a bit overwhelming (I know, I’ve read a lot of them!) so I”d suggest reading summaries, such as this one from the Duke Children’s Law Clinic to get started.
Understand the IEP process. evaluation, eligibility, IEP development, placement, progress, etc. A good place to start would be with The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities’ Short-and-Sweet IEP overview. For those of you who like flow charts, check out this Overview for Parents on the Special Education Process.
Audio record everything. I read this somewhere before my first IEP meeting. I already had a small digital audio recorder from a previous project, so I figured that there would be no harm in taping the meeting. Who knew it would be key evidence in our due process case. When the school’s attorney tried to point to the meeting minutes as an accurate account of what went on at every meeting our attorney simply stated that we have recordings of those meetings and that the most accurate account would be the audio. At the hearing, when the school’s attorney claimed that the district’s staff was forthcoming with information and answered our questions, we simply played the audio of the meeting where I asked the same question 10 times and the only answer we got was “it’s all in here, in the IEP.” But there are other reasons for audio recording beside the fact that you may eventually need them for a hearing. They are a useful learning tool — I like to go over and listen to what happened in the meetings a day or two later. I learn a lot from how I asked questions and how I responded to questions asked of me. The recording also allows me to go back and see what I may have missed, review what requests were made, questions were asked, and whether or not I need to follow-up on anything.
bring a copy of your districts/states IEP forms with you. If you live in NC go here and review all of the forms. Print out a copy of the main IEP form (in NC, it’s the DEC 4 IEP) and bring it with you. The reason I make this suggestion is because during one of our initial meetings where we were developing Owen’s IEP the chair of the meeting had a set of forms and was using them to structure the meeting and ask questions, etc. We did not have these forms and were not offered a copy. At one point I was so lost with regards to where we were in the process — goals, placement, and present level of performance — that I had to stop and ask her to go over the steps. Eventually she came down to my end of the table and showed me where we were on the forms and that helped a bit, but having the forms from the beginning would have been better. There is a reason that the forms are set up the way they are — they will help keep you all on track.
Dress professionally. I go into IEP meetings as if they are business meetings and therefore I dress as if I was going to a business meeting. I’m not saying that you have to wear a suit. But I also wouldn’t recommend running straight from the gym to a meeting. Presentation and impressions are important – you want to be taken seriously and you want others around that table to listen to what you have to say.
Bring with you all evaluations, reports, letters of support or anything that you think you may need. Even if you have already presented the LEA with private evaluations, progress reports, doctor’s notes, bring them with you to each meeting. Things often have a way of not making it into files. That way if you need to refer to a particular document you’ll have a copy and can offer it to the others to review if they’d like.
Smile. While at times IEP meetings can seem more painful than a root canal, it is important to remain calm, cool and collected. I’ve cried and have even raised my voice at one meeting but I’ve learned. People are always telling me to smile more and I never listen. But I’m asking you to listen to me on this one and I also offer up the following reasons why: smiling relieves stress, lowers your blood pressure, releases endorphins and serotonin into your bloodstream, and helps you to stay positive.
If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation. It’s amazing how we tend to forget to do this as adults. When my 7-year-old doesn’t understand something she has no problems speaking up and asking for someone to explain it to her. I like to remind myself that there are no stupid questions, especially when it comes to understanding the IEP process. In order to be a meaningful participant in the development of your child’s IEP and to make informed decisions, it is imperative that you understand both the information and processes by which decisions are being made. So don’t be shy.
You can stop the meeting at any time and ask to schedule another meeting. Rome wasn’t built in a day nor was Owen’s latest IEP. You may not be able to get through everything you need to in one meeting without rushing through and that’s OKAY. There is no law that says that you have to write an entire IEP in one meeting and you shouldn’t feel that way or be made to feel that way.
…to be continued