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Parent: IEP Meetings 101

What is an IEP and does my child need one?


First a few definitions.

An IEP is an Individualized Education Program. An IEP is something that schools do for students who have a defined disability and need extra support. There are basically 13 listed disabilities that federal law says should be addressed with an IEP. These are things like speech delay, visual impairment, dyslexia, autism, etc… This includes “gifted” students as well, although this depends on the state in which you live.

 A 504 Plan is like an IEP but covers things in addition to the 13 listed disabilities. A 504 plan is for students who need some specialized instruction. This could be students who need support in order to successfully complete the assignments and participate in class AND it could be a student who needs extra challenge to make the classroom more engaging and rigorous.

 Again, these vary from state to state so if you’re getting advice from your friends on Facebook make sure they live in the state that you do. There are also a number of resources for you to learn more. The basic idea is that students have access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in this country. A 504 plan or written IEP helps to make sure this is true for all kids.

I think my child might need an IEP. What do I do now?

If you suspect your child may have a learning disability or may need some extra support, the first thing to do is to write the teacher an email or a letter. Date it. Make it official and formal. If this is the second or third time you’ve sent the email, cc an administrator and the special education teacher.

This may seem excessive but the reality is teachers are pulled in many different directions and putting something in writing signals that your request should be moved to the top of the (never-ending) pile.

The teacher will then start something called a Response to Intervention or RTI. Basically in this phase the teacher (or team of teachers) watches your student more closely to determine if there may be a need for more support. They gather data (like test scores), try some new strategies (like more focused, small group instruction as opposed to independent work) and see if that helps your student be more successful. This phase could last 6 weeks or so. But be in touch with the teacher and see if there is some strategies and data you could gather at home.

If the RTI shows that more action is warranted, the teacher (or someone on staff) will then perform an official “assessment," that is, they will use a test or checklist to determine if there is indeed a learning disability (or a speech impediment or if your child is “gifted," etc.) or a need for an IEP. They should ask you for some input as well. Now--this is important: You should get the results of the assessment. The problem is, the results are likely to be written in dense “teacher-ese” and may be difficult to understand. Don’t be ashamed to ask someone from the school to explain them to you. No need to be embarrassed! This is your child we’re talking about here and just because the assessment includes unknown acronyms and jargon, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to understand it.

If the assessment shows your child does not need an IEP or a 504, you should meet with the teacher and ask what other strategies might be helpful for your student. Or you can ask for a third party evaluation. Or you can wait and see.  The important thing is to not give up on advocating for child AND to continue to work with the school.

But let’s say the school found that yes, your child needs an IEP or a 504 plan. They will schedule a meeting. If it’s a 504 plan, the meeting with likely be with you and the teacher and perhaps another support person. You will work together to come up with a 504 plan.

 An IEP meeting, however, has a larger IEP team. The team will be you, the child’s classroom teacher(s), a school counselor or administrator, the special education teacher, and then other support people like a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, psychologist, etc.

What do I do before the IEP meeting?

The first thing you should do is ask to see the written IEP plan BEFORE the meeting so you have some time to look at it and think through your questions. Remember the initial IEP plan is a draft and the final decisions will be made as a team at the meeting. You are part of that decision making team.

Like the assessment results, the IEP plan will be difficult to read. Once again, ask for someone to act as your translator or guide through the document. You wouldn’t jump on a plane and fly to a foreign country without a dictionary. That’s basically what you’re doing when you try to go it alone. Ask the school for help.

While reading over the IEP plan, remember that teaching a child and parenting a child are two different tasks. So what works for you at home may or may not work in a classroom and vice versa. Look for specifics--something you and the school can really measure. That way you’ll know how well the plan is being followed and if progress is being made.

 What do I do during the IEP meeting?

Whether it’s the IEP or 504 plan meeting, you want to follow these steps:

  • Be punctual. You’ve been to a school before. You know there is always something going on and teachers and staff are busy people who have many children in their charge. Show you appreciate their time by being on time.

  • Be positive. Rest assured, no teacher or therapist goes into education because they hate children and want to see them fail. If you can project the attitude of “I know we all want to help my child, let’s figure out how to do it”  (heck, you can even say it aloud!) you will have a more successful meeting. Even if you’ve had sour meetings in the past, try to check your emotional baggage at the door and come prepared to collaborate.

  • Be prepared.

    • Bring as much information as you can. This may include medical records or other therapists’ reports. The more information the IEP team has, the better decisions they can make and if you have outside information, bring it. 

    • Bring a list of questions. This is a not a time to be shy. If you are unclear about something, keep asking. I like to treat it like a doctor visit. I listen to what the doctor says and then I say, “So, let me repeat that back in my own words to see if I understood. You’re saying___________. Is that right?”

      And the very last questions should be:

      • How will we track the success of the accommodations?

      • When will we meet again to evaluate these accommodations?

  • Be polite and relentless. You are an important part of the IEP team. So, of course, you want to be a team player. Speak kindly. Work together. Seek to understand. Concede on some points. But you also have to do what’s best for your child. So be like a tree--able to bend and grow but strong and rooted in what you know is best for your child.  

What do I after the meeting is over?

  • Remember, the IEP meeting is not the end of the conversation. It’s the beginning. If you think of questions or concerns when you get home, don’t hesitate to contact someone on the team. Heck, call the team together again, if you need to. In many states you have about a week before the plan is implemented so if, as it sinks in, some potential concerns arise, speak up.

  • Keep your end of the IEP plan. Help your child complete their homework, get to school on time, and be the best student they can be.

  • Write your own records on what you see at home. You have a valuable window into how your child is responding--be it to homework or how they feel emotionally at the end of the school day. Write it down.

  • In many IEP’s there is a section for parent training--use it. If possible, make observations in the classroom to see what the accommodations look like. If this isn’t possible, ask the teacher to model, specifically, what he or she is going to do in the classroom. Attend any parent education classes the school offers. As much as you can, be an active member of the PTA. The more you know about what is happening in the classroom and the school, the better you can work with the school.

Start here: Send a text or email to your child's teacher if you think your child may need an IEP or 504 plan. 

Challenge yourself: Send this article to a friend that you think would find it helpful.

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