Monday, January 10, 2011

Five Tips for IEP Preparation

Today I attended my first triennial Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting. It was not for our daughter, but for a friend of ours. I was glad to go because our first triennial will happen sometime in the next few months here (it's complicated) and I wanted to see what it was like. In today's meeting the answer was: LONG, crowded, and more to come. In this case eleven people were in the meeting room and five were conferenced in by phone. Six people had some kind of report to read and there were quite a few goals to review and revise. I'm still on a big learning curve when it comes to IEP meetings, but there are some things that I think are generally helpful no matter what sort of meeting you're heading into...

Don't go alone. Let's face it - it's intimidating sitting in a room with a bunch of experts often using professional lingo that you may or may not understand, trying to listen to what they are saying, writing things down so you can remember what was said later, thinking about how to respond, keeping emotions in check, etc. Bring a friend, a fellow special needs parent, or another family member. Even if the other person just takes notes it will let you focus more on the other roles you must play during the meeting. This is the role I filled for our friend, taking eight pages of notes.

Remember you are part of the team. This cuts two ways. First, it means that you should try at all times to maintain a professional demeanor. There may be times when this is extremely difficult, which I can say from personal experience. As a parent your emotions will be running strong, but it's really important to keep your cool. Second, don't discount the importance of your role. The other members of the team may know more about speech, occupational therapy, psychology, education or behavior theory, but you know more about your child. You know that they like the color yellow for everything or that they really hate it when the seams on their socks get under their toes. You know how their day at school affects the rest of their day, and you know how to get them to do stuff. You know what works and what doesn't, and THIS is the key to truly individualizing an education plan. There are a lot of general practices that work most of the time for some kids, but you know the little tweaks that will make it work for your kid. Without your input the experts can be left experimenting, and this can waste precious time.

Ask for reports ahead of time. Particularly if there has been a recent assessment, but even for simple progress reports, it is good to look written reports over before you're at the meeting. Remember you will be busy listening, thinking, responding, and staying calm. The last thing you want to be doing is reading through a report laced with jargon, graphs, and test scores in the midst of all this activity. We have generally found that even requesting reports ahead of time you may not get them until the day before, but it's still worth it to read through the reports. Mark things you agree with, things you disagree with, questions you have, and action items that you can draw out of the report.

Go in with clear expectations. I call these my bare minimums. I go into the meeting knowing what I want to come out with. Careful here - you may not get it! It's still good to go in with a list of what you want to see happen. You may decide during the meeting that what the school is offering is equivalent, sufficient, better, or unacceptable, but if you go in without knowing what you want then you won't know how to respond at all.

Give yourself time to reflect. I know I always need a few hours (or days, even) after an IEP meeting to process my emotions, consider what was offered or suggested, and formulate my response. We do not sign approval on the IEP plan until after this processing time is over. You are required to sign that you were present at the meeting, but you don't have to approve the IEP until you are ready to do so. This can sometimes mean a second meeting, but sometimes (as in today's meeting) that has to happen anyway. Often you can just meet your child's case manager (the school staff member who coordinates IEP actions) to sign the paperwork if that is all that is needed. Also be aware that you, as a member of the IEP team, have the right to call another meeting at any time, so even after you sign an IEP if you have concerns that something isn't working for your child you can revisit the plan and work together to address your concerns.

Finally, I wanted to note again that for parents of faith an IEP meeting often has a spiritual component. One of my early posts here addressed those concerns. You can view that post here.

What's your favorite IEP tip?


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