First, let’s get some context. Successful IEP aren’t flowers that spring up from nowhere. Instead they bloom in the fertile soil of a culture of understanding and respect in the larger school culture. So consider tending to your school culture, as you think about how best to get those IEP meetings on track. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Invite a special education teacher or a parent (if they feel comfortable) to talk about common disabilities at your next professional development meeting. Many classroom teachers simply have no idea what it is like to live with a disability or parent a child with a disability. A first hand account will help them build some empathy and understanding and ultimately help them teach students with disabilities more effectively.
In your school you probably have a host of non-teaching staff. Unless they have worked with them directly, most parents (and many teachers) don’t really know what services they provide. So invite the speech and language pathologist, for example, to speak to your parent groups or at back-to-school night (or at a professional development meeting) and give specific examples of the ways they support students. This will help parents know what services are available and to whom to turn if they have a question or concern.
Invite parents to tour special education classroom and discuss what kinds of supports are available for kids, both within and outside the mainstream classroom. If appropriate, you could invite parents to see some supports in action. Being able to envision some of the supports will help them form a clearer opinion on what supports may work for their particular child.
Talk to the students about what to expect from a child with a disability. For example, my young child has a classmate with Down Syndrome. This classmate also happens to be very friendly and likes a good hug when you say hello. My son was reluctant to give him a hug and when I asked why he explained that he was afraid of “catching” Down Syndrome. I was grateful that I could correct this misunderstanding. But I also thought that the teacher missed an opportunity to explain to the class a little more about what Down Syndrome is and what it is not. Age appropriate information helps kids be empathetic, patient, and prepared to be friends with their classmates.
OK, so keeping the broader culture in mind, there are also a number of specific things you can do to help an IEP meeting run more smoothly, right now, today.
For some specific strategies we turned to Catherine Whitcher. Catherine Whitcher is a passionate advocate for families with special needs. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in special education and worked as certified teacher. For over 20 years she has been working directly with families and schools to help create meaningful and effective IEP’s. Ms. Whitcher often leads full trainings for teachers and staff on successful IEP meetings, but she agreed to distill a few key actionable items thats schools can do before, during and after IEP meetings to help them be successful.
Encourage the special education teacher to contact the parent directly to explain that he or she is working on the IEP and wants to get some initial ideas about what the parent’s educational goals are for their child. This can also be a good time to talk to parents about the difference between educational goals and the larger goals they have for their child.
Send the drafted paperwork home well ahead of the IEP meeting with a note that very clearly says: This is a draft and not a final decision. We look forward to your ideas! This is very important but will work best if you do it in conjunction with the next bullet point.
Invite the parent to discuss the paperwork with another teacher or aid BEFORE the IEP meeting. The point of the meeting is to understand and navigate the dense “teacher-ese” and legal language of the typical IEP. This will help parents feel prepared to effectively participate in the actual IEP meeting.
As Ms. Whitcher says, “Everyone comes with a report to the IEP meeting. The teacher has a report, the SLP has a report. The parent could have a report but often doesn’t know that there is a section for parent input and hasn’t filled it out or doesn’t know how to fill it out.” Voicing concerns on the fly and reacting to information quickly is difficult, especially if a parent is unfamiliar with special education strategies. Then parents become frustrated and ultimately feel unheard. Helping parents be prepared for the IEP meeting will lead to more productive meetings.
Another bonus of having the parent fully understand the written IEP before the meeting is they may be able to discuss some of the strategies with their child (depending on the child, of course). Then they can be a better represent the student’s perspective.
Open the meeting by assuming and articulating best intention. Take the time to tell the parents you appreciate their attendance and look forward to working with them. Do the same with each member of the team. This is time well spent.
Make the meeting strength-based first. This means teachers, administrators, staff and parents should first note the child’s areas of strength and think about how to leverage these.
But Ms. Whitcher warns be sure to make it about real strengths. Think less Joaquin has such a sweet smile and more Joaquin seems to be eager to engage with his peers and I wonder if a homework buddy might be an effective support. As Ms. Whitcher explains, parents need to feel like the “the team really gets my child” before they can trust the team to make decisions for the benefit of the child.
Your team may need some training on what positive language is and how best to avoid jargon when talking to parents.
In every IEP there are bound to be disagreements. If things get tense during the meeting, Ms. Whitcher says the best thing to do is to take a break. This could be a 5-minute break or a week long break. Taking a break slows the momentum and stops disagreement from turning into roadblocks.
Ms. Whitcher also suggests that the team talk in smaller groups outside of the meeting. If the teacher and parent are having a disagreement, they may try to talk it over just the two of them before bringing it to the larger meeting. Sometimes just shifting the dynamic or size of the group allows disagreements to dissolve.
According to Ms. Whitcher, much of the problems that develop after an IEP meeting is arise from a misunderstanding over next steps. So be sure everyone is clear about what is supposed to happen after the meeting is over. Discuss specifics such as:
What is the on-going communication going to look like?
How will we track the success of these accommodations?
What supporting data goes home? When?
When will we meet again to evaluate and revisit these supports?
Now, look at that list above. There are a number of terms that are subjective. What is “on-going” to you may be “sporadic” to me. So be sure the everyone on the team agrees on the definition of things like “on-going”, “success”, and “supporting data.”
Remind parents that the IEP plan is a dynamic and evolving document. If they have a question or concern after the meeting is over, make sure they know to whom to reach out.
Many IEP’s have a section for parent training. So help your parents become more educated about what is like to educate a student with special needs. It IS very different than parenting that child. If possible, invite parents to do an observation to see what the specific supports look like in the classroom. Once again, much of the problems that arise in IEP meetings come from a lack of understanding. The more parents can understand what is specifically happening the classroom, and the more teachers can understand what the parents hope for their child, the more effective the IEP meeting will be.