An IEP, or an Individualized Education Plan (or Program), is a plan or program that is created for your child to set school-related goals, usually for the next 12 months. The IEP outlines adaptations or modifications that your child needs to learn successfully, and states any therapy or related services that are needed to help support his/her education. As a child gets older, goals may also be related to independent living and vocational skills development for life after high school. IEPs are meant to be individualized, meaning they are tailored to each child’s particular educational needs, and they are usually informed by an initial evaluation (and a re-evaluation every 3 years) to determine the need for special education and any related therapy or other educational services. Parents can petition, or the school can request the parent’s permission, for an evaluation to determine if a child needs special education. Parents can also bring in evaluation reports privately completed or request the school district pay for an independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) should the district’s evaluation be unsatisfactory.
IEP meetings are often held once per year, although parents can call for a meeting for concerns about their children’s IEP at any time. IEPs are written as a collaboration between special education teachers, regular education teachers, school or district administration, parents, and applicable therapists/support staff. While I am nowhere close to an expert on IEPs, I am sharing a few tips I have gained over the years that may be helpful to you as well.
1. Pray before and during the meeting. A few years ago, I started praying before IEP meetings and I have found this helps to set a peaceful tone in my heart. My favorite pre-meeting prayer comes at the end of Chapter 3 from the book, Praying for your Special Needs Child, by David and Mercedes McBride Rizzo. Saying a quick silent prayer such as “Jesus, I trust in you” or “Come Holy Spirit” can be helpful for those moments during meeting which are anxiety-provoking.
2. Know your rights and be prepared to advocate. As a parent, you are an expert on your child, and you bring that important perspective to the meeting. For some, it may feel uncomfortable to dissent from the educational team. If you feel you need help with rights or advocacy training, every state has at least one Parent Center which can provide this assistance for children up to age 26 (https://www.parentcenterhub.org/find-your-center/). Also, parents can bring additional outside personnel, such as an advocate or outpatient therapist, to the IEP meeting to better help voice their children’s strengths and needs. In addition, do not be afraid to call for another meeting during the school year to make changes if things are not working out successfully.
3. Foster collaboration between school and home. Consider strategies, technology, or routines that you are implementing at home or with outpatient therapies that you want to be continued in the school environment. This could include assistive technology, consistent behavioral strategies, wording for speech articulation cues, to name a few. These will be important to inform the team and include, when appropriate, in the IEP. If communication between you and the team isn’t where you want it to be, create and bring a sheet you want the team to fill out with the information about your child’s day/week that you want to know. Consider if you want to collaborate with any therapy goals between school and home and if you want a regular check-in with the therapists beyond the quarterly IEP progress reports. Be prepared to offer training to the educational team beyond the meeting on technology/strategies to help with carryover between environments. Keep the educational and therapy team up to date on skills your child has mastered at home that are relevant to the school day.
4. List out your priorities. Write down your (or if your child participates in the meeting, have him/her write down his/her) top priorities ahead of the meeting. Think about all the resources/accommodations (or changes to them) your child might need to succeed, including transportation needs to/from school and field trips, testing accommodations, seating in the lunchroom/classroom, increased time to get to classes or leaving early to avoid crowds in hallways, visual schedules, adaptive equipment/technology, sensory needs/sensitivities, medications, and dietary needs. As your child gets into upper middle and high school, having conversations with your child prior to the meeting about hopes and dreams for the future can help steer the IEP in a direction that is meaningful for planning post-high school.
5. Consider goal discussions prior to the meeting. Last year, I ended up discussing goals with my son’s PT, OT, and special education teacher ahead of the meeting. We had conversations around what goals they were considering, and it allowed me to give my perspective in a meaningful conversation prior to the meeting. This took the “in the moment” pressure off during the meeting from both sides and facilitated better goal collaboration.
6. Focus on progress. While I know the discussion around my son’s performance on various tests and annual goals are necessary, I can get wrapped up in the emotions that surround comparing his performance to same-age peers (or even siblings). I found my first few IEPs especially hard to sit through without tearing up. Taking the approach of trying to focus on how much my son has gained has helped. Amid day-to -day routines, it can often be hard to see progress, but IEPs offer the opportunity to look at the context of how far your child has truly come in a year’s time. Sometimes these areas of progress are more functional than educational but still so significant. For instance, my son may not have gained much in terms of math progress last year (and he i significantly below his neurotypical peers), but my son can now use the bathroom independently at school. This is a huge step to be celebrated. Using the IEPs as an opportunity to have a celebration with your child of everything he/she has accomplished can turn them into a special event.
Above all, give yourself and the education team grace in this process. I am constantly learning each year how to be a better team member and advocate for my child, and I would love to hear the tips that have worked for you too! Be sure to share in the comments below.
Anne Jones is a Catholic wife and mom of five, one of whom has a rare genetic condition. While she hails from the Badger State, she currently loves living in the South (minus the snakes!). She enjoys learning more about the Catholic Faith, volunteering, reading, and attempting to grow things in her garden. She is grateful for the opportunity to connect with and learn from other Catholic families with children with special needs.