Special Education Article
IEP self-advocacy; it's all in the preparation.
Attending an IEP meeting can seem like a daunting task, especially if you're feeling resistance or disagreeing with an aspect of the program or services. Self-advocacy involves preparation, placing a focus on clarifying your concerns, asking questions, and finding solutions. This article examines preparing for an individualized education program (“IEP”) meeting, what you should bring, how to advocate, defining success, and things you should do at the close of a meeting.
How should you prepare for an IEP meeting? There’s a universal way. Refresh your memory and clearly identify your objective(s). The nature of an IEP meeting depends on why it was called. An IEP meeting is an ongoing evaluation that has three components: receiving and providing information and making decisions. As a self-advocate you need to prepare for these three things. You must have a working knowledge of how your child’s disability effects performance in the educational environment, assessments, and the program and services, past and present.
Preparation starts with reviewing your child’s educational records and identifying your current concerns. A record review is important because the entire IEP team is relying on those records. You should be prepared to point the team in the direction of useful information, explain how the records are lacking, or why they’ve misinterpreted something. You should make a list of your current concerns to ensure they are discussed. Try and categorize your list. For instance, you may have four concerns related to a specific assessment or behavioral support plan. You’re preparing to ensure the categories are discussed, the specific concerns, and the reasons you are concerned.
What should you bring to an IEP meeting? Perhaps the three most important things are a digital tape recorder, records or other important information, and another person. You have the right to, and should, record IEP meetings provided you give 24 hours notice. Organized records that you can refer to are important if there’s a disagreement or the IEP team is unfamiliar with something that might impact on the IEP team’s decision(s). You also have a right to bring another person to an IEP meeting. It’s not uncommon that a meeting will include four individuals for the school and one parent. Having a knowledgeable and supportive person on your side will help make the team feel more balanced.
Self-advocating starts with setting the right tone. Keep things cordial and maintain your position. You’re there to receive and provide information that will lead to addressing your concerns about your child’s educational program and services. You are part of the IEP team and the school generally needs your consent before taking steps and making changes. Advocating starts with maintaining your position in a calm manner and keeping an eye on a meaningful exchange of information and ensuring your concerns are addressed.
It’s common that the IEP team will have an agenda for the meeting that you weren’t involved in creating. Make it known that you have concerns and be willing to let their agenda drive the conversation. However, let them know how much time you believe you will need to address your concerns if they aren’t covered within the agenda. An agenda is usually the way the school attempts to ensure that the required discussions at the IEP meeting are covered. However, an agenda shouldn’t have the effect of removing your participation. You are the most knowledgeable member of the IEP team when it comes to your child and your participation is required.
Communication is the most important aspect of self-advocating at an IEP meeting. Sometimes what you hear about your child or something another team member says is “surprising.” Overlook the emotional surprise and focus on communicating. If you don’t understand something ask for an explanation. If something makes sense but you’d like to know more ask for clarification. Ask why an individual or the team is, or is not, recommending something. If you don’t agree with why, ask for a justification. Justify your position with records or your unique knowledge of, and experience with, your child. Ask for alternatives and options. Don’t forget to articulate what you want for your child.
Success is having your concerns heard, hearing how the team members view your child’s progress, and the information obtained from asking questions. A successful IEP is one that takes into account everything discussed and creates goals that address your child’s unique needs and provides the necessary accommodation, modifications, special education, and related services. Differentiating between a successful IEP meeting and the IEP itself is important. The IEP is a document that is subject to reevaluation and can change. The IEP meeting is a record of the team members concerns and opinions that has an impact on future changes to the IEP itself.
Once the IEP meeting concludes the IEP team is going to want you to consent to the IEP or further assessment(s). You can take time to think. There is no requirement that you sign any document right there and then. You can consent to portions of the IEP you want to see implemented and think about other portions of the program or services. You have choices. In the meantime, make sure you document the full name and position of all those who attended the meetings. Ask for final signed copies of all the documentation created or relied on during the IEP meeting (see organizing your educational records). Finally, make a list of any unresolved concerns or follow up that you or the team has.
The IEP is a continually evolving document and IEP meetings are central to its development. The idea of IEP self-advocacy is to empower you and place an emphasis on your role in the special education process. The law recognizes your role by establishing procedural protections to help ensure parental participation. You are your child’s best and most knowledgeable advocate.