This post is the first in a 3-part series covering IEP meetings. Series installments will focus on: (1) meeting preparation, (2) the meeting itself, and, finally, (3) follow-through after the annual IEP. The following tips are not just for annual IEP meetings – they can also be helpful for Section 504 meetings, evaluation/reevaluation reviews, IEP update meetings, and other school-based meetings.
IEP meetings can bring up a variety of emotions – your meeting might be a standard annual meeting with no issues involved, but you may be coming to the meeting with concerns, unease, or feeling in the dark about what’s happening. I have always found that preparation is the key to making sure you accomplish what you set out to do in an IEP meeting. Good preparation can help calm tense emotions and focus team members on the task at hand. Here are 7 tips to help you focus your preparation --
Know who is going to attend. The law outlines who is required at a student’s IEP meeting. In addition to mandatory meeting participants, parents and schools can invite other people who have relevant information about the student or special education programming. For example, the student’s mental health providers can attend if there are ongoing behavioral or emotional needs impacting school. A service provider from the Intermediate Unit (IU) or an outside agency working with the school may also need to attend. The IEP invite form lists meeting participants, so make sure you review the invite issued by the school closely. Communicate early and often so there are no surprises – either in the form of someone absent or someone arriving unexpectedly.
Will the student attend? A student is a member of their own IEP team. Participation is helpful for both the student and the team, if done in a way that is sensitive to the student’s age and abilities. During the IEP year when a student turns 14, the IEP team starts planning for transition to post-school life. Student participation becomes especially appropriate at this point. If the team is discussing a topic where student input is critical (for example - safety planning, return to school, motivational incentives), then the student should be encouraged to attend. Alternatively, a therapist, parent, or trusted school professional can collect student input and communicate it to the rest of the team.
Never underestimate the usefulness of a draft IEP. Before heading to the IEP meeting, ask for a draft of any documents that will be reviewed. Take a look at the drafts in advance so that you’re well prepared to speak about any concerns or input. If the draft was only received a few hours before the meeting, schools should bear that in mind and not rush decision-making.
Know what topics will be discussed. We all know unexpected topics can come up at IEP meetings, but, when possible, team members should share topics they would like to discuss in advance.
Consider in-person and virtual meeting options. Post-COVID there are more options for participating in an IEP meeting. Now, parties must consider the benefits and downsides of in-person and virtual meetings. Virtual meetings make it easier for off-site professionals involved with the student to participate; however, some issues are so complex that an in-person meeting is the only way to have a productive meeting. Hybrid meetings – where some participants are virtual and some are in person – can be a happy medium. Above all, it’s important to make sure the parent is comfortable with the format of the meeting and can meaningfully participate.
Make sure enough time is reserved for the meeting. There is always a lot to cover at an annual IEP meeting. The law requires that the team annually review all areas of the IEP, and also requires “meaningful parental participation,” which means the annual meeting is not simply a presentation of the IEP. There has to be space for a back and forth discussion, questions, and suggested changes to the IEP. Which is all to say, if you get an invite for a 30 minute meeting when there are concerns and lengthy documents to review, request more time up front!
Get ready to take great notes. Arrive at the meeting with your trusty notebook in hand. Consider designating another person to take notes if it’s not your strong suit or you want to focus on the discussion. Also, transcription apps and recording may be an option in certain circumstances, particularly if a participant has a documented disability that requires recording so that they can fully participate. If you need accommodations, you’ll want to tell the school as early as possible so they can be prepared.