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Do you attend IFSP (Individualized Family Service Plan) or IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings for your child? Parents attend these meetings to plan for children if they have a learning disability, speech or language impairment, other health impairment (OHI), autism, intellectual disability, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, or orthopedic impairment.

This article details some specific ways to bring positivity and intention to IEP meetings.

While many parents feel okay, content, or even thrilled with the way these meetings go, others find them incredibly stressful. They may feel confused, angry, or upset about the way they unfold.

Some parents feel school personnel use so many acronyms that they lose track of what they are talking about – LRE, BIP, RTI, FBA, PBIS, etc. Others feel personnel focus on the negatives — hounding on their child’s limitations instead of leveraging their strengths.

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An IEP is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives any type of special education service must have an IEP (which is updated regularly).

You can find a complete and helpful guide to parents’ rights by searching for “parents educational rights” by state.

However, this article is not about the formal rights given to parents by state and federal laws – it is about finessing the system, advocating with creativity, and preserving positivity along the way.

1. Meet with Providers 1:1 Before or After the IEP Meeting

In a room of 10 people on a time crunch, it can be hard to ask questions, get a word in, or truly understand testing findings or available services at your school. One-on-one meetings (especially in person) are often more effective for getting questions answered or discussing topics in-depth. You may approach the Special Education Director or Coordinator, School Social Worker, Teacher, Speech Therapist, Occupational or Physical Therapist, Nurse, or Principal (or some combination of these) for a one-on-one meeting.

“I know we have my son/daughter’s IEP meeting coming up. I have some questions that are more appropriate for a smaller meeting, would you mind meeting with me one-on-one? It shouldn’t take too long.” 

Meeting with individual providers strengthens your relationship, gives you a chance to get the “insider scoop” on situations and services, and likely gives you a natural advocate who can help voice your concerns and preferences in the IEP meeting.

If the IEP meeting feels rushed, you could also ask to meet with certain providers by setting up a follow-up meeting after the IEP.

2. Thank Individual Providers and Point Out Specific Things They Do Well

Publicly thanking teachers, social workers, or other providers with specific examples of how they helped your child increases the likelihood that they will do even more positive things. If you also thank them via email, paper card, or by sending a recognition note to their boss (the principal), they will be quite prone to think of other creative ways to further help your child. Public thank-yous at the start or during an IEP meeting also nurture a spirit of collaboration and help curb negativity.

3. Write Down Your Own Top 2 or 3 Priorities for the Meeting

Writing down your own priorities makes it more likely you’ll feel content after the meeting. Priorities might include: “Increase speech minutes from 30 to 60 per week, get at-home resources for practicing math facts, and match my child up with an older buddy who can help him at recess.” Since there may be no formal time for parents to give input (except for the end at which time participants are practically running out of the room), ask if the meeting facilitator would mind if you mentioned your priorities when the meeting first starts.

4. Explain What You Are Doing at Home

Explain to providers the things that you are doing at home to help, including any positive activities or practices that seem to work well for your child.

  • “I’m getting John tutoring once a week to help with his math.”
  • “He loves these cool Spider-Man flashcards we made at home to help with his sight words.”
  • “I made him a visual reminder of his morning routine and now he gets himself ready independently. Could you give him a visual routine for art class too?”

5. Note Your Child’s Strengths and Ask the School to Build On Them

Use positive language to describe your child to providers – share specific strengths and gently ask if the school can build upon them.

  • “I see that my son really uses the number line and that helps him a lot. Could he use one at school?”
  • “My daughter enjoys listening to books on tape. Is there any way she could benefit from a strategy like that here too?”
  • “He loves making cards for people at home. Could you incorporate that into his writing assignments?”
  • “She really likes reading to other people. Is there any way she could read to someone else in the school, like the librarian or a younger child?”

6. Ask for Support from the School Social Worker

In most states, a school social worker completes a social developmental study which outlines how a child’s health, family, social, behavioral, academic, and other environmental backgrounds affect his or her current situation. Ask the school social worker for his or her help to keep the meeting positive and to advocate for your wishes.

7. Bring a Partner, Support Person, Advocate, or Lawyer to the IEP meeting

It can be very helpful to bring someone with you to an IEP meeting. This person can help you make sense of all that’s being said quickly, remember information, and provide emotional support. If the school district is being very unresponsive to your needs or requests, you may consider bringing an educational advocate or an educational attorney with you. Here is a great resource for searching for one by state: http://advocatesforspecialeducation.com .

8. Center Yourself

Before you walk into the IEP meeting, do some slow breathing, close your eyes, and set a simple intention about how you want things to go.

9. Add-On Pieces

Some important pieces that are often forgotten in an IEP include: positive supports for lunch and recess, a plan for when your child has a substitute teacher, ideas to help your child socially (not just academically), supports or accommodations for transitions (such as getting from one class to another in under 6 minutes), and a positive behavior system (that catches your child being “good” or builds off his or her strengths).

10. Take Care of Yourself

An IEP meeting might be the first time you become aware of your child’s learning disability, diagnosis, speech delay, or other special need. Even though there may be great ways to help and support your child, it is natural to grieve after learning of something like this. Give yourself time to grieve and process emotions by talking to someone, meeting with a counselor, spending time in nature, exercising or doing yoga, getting a decent amount of sleep, or journaling.

Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD is the author of the Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (2017). She is a counselor for individuals and couples in Chicago's western suburbs. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter, read her Joyful Parenting blog, or sign up for email updates and ideas about bringing joy to relationships.