I first published this back in 2013 (under a different title), but I think it’s worth a re-run (with some updates). While the advice here applies to any IEP, it’s probably most effective for IEP meetings that follow an initial IEP.
Recently, my husband and I went through a long IEP (that’s “individualized education plan”) process for our daughter. You’d think that, having done this a few times now, we would know what we were doing when it came to the IEP, right? Well, for reasons like stress, fear, worry, ignorance (but not the willful kind) and avoidance, it took us a (long) while before the light bulb in the attic finally flipped on. It also took the advice of some wonderful, giving souls who walked in our shoes once, too. And, I promised each one of those wonderful souls we would pay their good deeds forward. So, here it is: Things You Should Know (and DO) Before Your Student’s IEP Meeting.
Parents and caregivers find the IEP process daunting for many reasons, but two big ones stand out for me. The first is that the IEP process is psuedo-legal. Many legal rules prescribe what can and cannot be done to create, implement and change a student’s IEP, and it’s essential that you learn and follow these rules. Make sure the school district provides you with the required IEP procedural safeguards for parents, then read it! But, don’t rely solely on district resources. Consult other reliable, parent or student-focused resources as well. I recommend the series of IEP advocacy books written by Pam and Peter Wright. A student has certain rights, parents/caregivers have certain rights and school districts have certain rights. Every IEP team member also has obligations. Make it your business to know what those are.
Second, the IEP process involves making decisions about a student’s educational needs. If your student is newly diagnosed with a condition necessitating special education or learning accommodations, you may still be orienting yourself emotionally and intellectually. When IEP team members start talking about “generalizing” skills to the “mainstream” curriculum, using “reinforcers” to motivate performance, the “common core standards,” or providing a “slant board” for writing to assess “visual acuity,” this new, important-sounding vocabulary may reinforce feelings of inadequacy AND give the speakers an aura of trustworthy expertise. Don’t let this one-two punch take you down for the count or lull you into a false sense of reliance. There are many, many reliable resources out there — resources that don’t require a degree in cognitive psychology to read — that can help you become conversant in the vocabulary of special education and be an effective advocate for your child. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions of other IEP team members. Sometimes, the use of jargon is a habit and done not to confuse or mislead you but with the presumption everyone knows what the speaker means.
Ideally, a student’s IEP should be the product of a collaborative effort by the IEP team members. Team work means collaboration; collaboration means supporting one another and seeking everyone’s contribution. Too often though, a school team member hands the parent/caregiver team members the proposed IEP – already drafted and right before (or even at) the meeting. That doesn’t launch the IEP meeting on a collaborative note. I’m sure there are times when this is done deliberately; my experience, though, is that a lack of resources (read: only 24 hours in a day and too many IEP meeting clustered together) is the predominant cause of late-delivered IEP drafts.
To avoid feeling sandbagged, be proactive and plan ahead. During the benchmark periods in your student’s IEP year, make sure to follow up with his/her teacher to request data and assessment for that period. This will do two things: it helps you ensure satisfactory progress toward the goal (or identifies a need for adjustments to a goal), and it prevents you from having to interpret trends in an entire year’s worth of data when it comes time for the next IEP cycle. Also, tell your student’s classroom teacher that you want to help draft the proposed IEP, and set a meeting date to do that a couple of weeks before the IEP meeting. Come to this collaboration meeting prepared with a list of the things you think your student is doing well and things you’d like to see him/her work on based on your observations, input from your student’s outside medical/therapeutic team, and the data you’ve collected from school over the year.
When you roll up your sleeves to get to work, don’t forget to open your mind to the real chance that you and your student’s school team members have divergent experiences with your student. You and school staff members each see your student in different environments for a good deal of time most days, so it is expected that your student may respond differently in each environment given variances in stimuli and expectations. For example, Helene is far more likely to share a coveted object willingly when she is anywhere but home; at home, sharing is NOT caring according to her. So, if I come to the IEP drafting table, seeking a goal to improve social communication around sharing, the school team members are likely to assert that such a goal isn’t necessary, and it’s likely their data will support that. Conversely, Helene frequently engages me, her father and her brother in decent communication exchanges, asking to play a game, asking for help with something, or maybe even telling about her day. However, this rarely happens at school. The school team members always push for a communication goal for Helene, and to understand why, it is critical that we listen to and hear their input regarding observations of Helene during the school day.
Care About the WHOLE IEP, Not Just the Services Part
For the first two years Helene was in special education, my husband and I worried only about the part of her IEP that listed where she would be placed and what type of services or accommodations she would receive (e.g., self-contained classroom, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc.) – the FAPE part. (That’s free, appropriate public education. Welcome to the land of alphabet soup …)
The “Present Levels of Educational Performance” (or some such variation) and actual goals/objectives section of the IEP barely registered with us. We figured that as long as Helene had the services she needed, we’d leave the implementation to the professionals, who probably knew better than we how to actually execute the plan. This year, though, we knew our meeting wasn’t going to be about Helene’s services, because those weren’t going to change.
When we finally really read the goals in her IEP, imagine our horror as we realized we had it all WRONG. The entire IEP is important, but arguably the most critical piece is the assessment of your student’s present levels of academic and functional performance (PLOP), because that assessment determines the goals, and the goals (and, more specifically, the benchmarks for progress toward goals) determine the services.
With that wake-up call and the profoundly important support of my fellow IEP-meeting warriors, here’s my best advice for tackling the PLOP and goals portion of the IEP:
- Read and scrutinize the Present Levels of Educational / Functional Performance (PLOP) section. Identify each skill described (good or bad) in the PLOP, and write it on a separate line of notebook paper or type it into a line on a spreadsheet. (When we did Helene’s list, we typed progress in green and not-so-much progress or regressions in red to help visualize where we were.) Analyze the list to determine whether it paints an accurate picture of where you believe your student’s educational performance is. (Trust me, you are absolutely qualified to do this.) If something is missing, add it. If you disagree with parts, highlight those for discussion. If your student is old enough and capable / interested, get his/her feedback, too, and incorporate it. Again, the PLOP is the most critical part of the IEP. If the entire IEP team is not in agreement on the PLOP, DO NOT move forward. Keep working until the whole team green-lights this section.
To help us, I created this worksheet using guidance from various sources, to help tackle the massive project that is reviewing and revising a draft IEP: IEP Workbook (Excel document).
- Read the Goals and Cross-Check against PLOP, SMART, Strangers and Dead Men.
- PLOP – Review the list of abilities and limitations the team agreed on in the PLOP. Then draft or double-check that there is a goal in your student’s IEP to address each area of need. If the abilities your student demonstrates are improving but still not at grade level, ensure there is a new goal that challenges your student to reach a little higher. If your student is missing an important functional skill, ensure there is a goal to address it. There must be a goal to address EVERY area of need. For some students, that may mean 2 goals. For others, that means 32 goals. There is NO rule regarding how many goals an IEP requires except that the goals must address every area of need. Do not allow school staff to convince you that more goals mean more work. First, that’s not really even a relevant consideration. But, more importantly, it is very often the case that your student will work on multiple goals simultaneously and that data collection for those goals can, therefore, also be simultaneous. In other words, not really more work at all.
- SMART, Strangers and Dead Men. First, goals should be SMART. Yes, they should be smart (as in a good idea), but what I really am describing here is a short-hand reference to the standards against which goals should be measured: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-limited. A sound goal meets each of these criteria. The chart below explains what each of the SMART criteria means, and you can use to analyze proposed IEP goals (or the goals you offer to the IEP team as alternative goals).
- The chart above also explains the Stranger Test, the Dead Man’s Test, the Relation Back Test and the Educational Progress Tests. Any of these will help you determine whether a proposed goal is written clearly enough for ANYONE to follow it. (Except the dead guy. If the dead guy can meet the goal, the goal isn’t really a goal at all.) Don’t underestimate the importance of writing goals so that anyone can pick up the IEP at any time and execute it. Turnover for para-professional staff in special education classrooms is high, and unexpected events happen. Last year, Helene’s classroom teacher was in a terrible auto accident that kept her out for a month. Be sure that the substitute (or substitutes) can read and immediately understand how to implement your student’s IEP. A month is a very long time when your student’s been around for only 48 of them. (For a great primer on how to write meaningful, clear, SMART IEP goals, I recommend Barbara D. Bateman and Cynthia M. Herr’s book, Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives.)
- Determine Services based on the Goals. Once the team agrees on the goals, the services and accommodations nearly select themselves. Still, there may be accommodations or interventions your student needs beyond what is specifically identified in a goal. When looking at the goals, ask yourself what accommodation would make it more likely your student will accomplish this goal. For us, this was one of the more difficult aspects of the IEP, because we didn’t really know what was available. Call on every resource you have: your pediatrician, your outside therapists, your Regional Center case manager, other parents, social service agencies in your area, the Internet (cautiously), the bookstore or library. Think about the types of assistance you provide to your student at home and how that might also work in the classroom environment. I found two books especially helpful: School Success for Kids with Autism by Dr. Andrew L. Egel, Dr. Katherine C. Holman and Dr. Christine H. Barthold and Understanding Motor Skills in Children with Dyspraxia, ADHD, Autism & Other Learning Disabilities by Lisa A. Kurtz. (P.S. If you’re in the bookstore, check the children’s book section for books such as these. Last place I would’ve looked …)
Don’t Be Afraid
Unfortunately, the IEP process is designed more to be antagonistic than to be collaborative. But, it is truly meant to be a project for the entire IEP team. YOU can help make that happen.
- Make nice. Make a point to learn something about your student’s teacher or other IEP team members, and let your actions show him/her you remember it. Did he mention a summer trip to India? Pick up a paperback travel guide and give it as a “just because” gift. Did she mention orange as her favorite color? Have your student make a special project and frame it in orange-painted popsicle sticks. You get the idea. Send a message that says, I value you as a person and teammate. Preferably, do this before the IEP meeting so that the “just because” part is genuine and not an obvious bribe. ;-)
- Communicate early and often.
- Get to know school; let school get to know you. Nothing is harder than getting through an IEP meeting with a room full of strangers who have a LOT of opinions about YOUR student. IEP meetings are often ripe for emotional anxiety, adoption of defensive postures and passive-aggressive behaviors. Don’t let this happen. Collect email addresses, telephone numbers and office hours information for all the members of your student’s IEP team – then USE THEM. If your student has a communication folder (s/he should!), read the notes that come home and RESPOND to them, even if it’s just to say “thank you.” Reach out to team members for advice outside the IEP context. For a while, Helene was “chipmunking” her food in her cheeks – for HOURS. I wrote her OT a note asking for her thoughts on how we might help Helene through this, because I was constantly terrified she would choke on whatever was in her mouth. The OT was thrilled that I sought out her help, she was quick to respond to me, and she had some great advice. In the process, I sent her the important message: I value the experience you bring to this team.
- Help school get to know your student. One piece of fantastic advice sent my way by an experienced special needs mom was to create a resume for Helene. This fabulous template was designed by my awesome friend over at She’s Always Write: SNS Resume (Word doc).
- Assert yourself, but stay reasonable. Collaboration means there are not “sides” in an IEP meeting. As soon as you start to view the IEP meeting as a win/lose or us-versus-them proposition, it doesn’t matter how you score the meeting results – your student loses. Without collaboration, your student doesn’t benefit from the group’s collective wisdom on how to create the best environment for access to educational and functional skills. My husband and I went into Helene’s last IEP meeting in agreement that we would demand and get a one-to-one aide for her, because we believed she needed one. Ultimately, though, we left without the 1:1 aide. Although we made a case for why we believed the aide was necessary, after two hours of discussion, the school team members’ observations convinced us that an aide might actually make Helene’s situation worse. If we hadn’t been willing to listen, we may have pushed hard for something and “won” it only to gain something that really wouldn’t benefit Helene in the long run.
- Don’t judge based on a first (or even second) encounter.
- You may not realize how often a teacher encounters a parent/caregiver who is very angry about and embarrassed by his/her student’s need for accommodation. I hear often from teachers that they would give ANYTHING for parents as involved as we are in Helene’s education … or event parents that would just return forms and voicemails. So, if a teacher seems callous or cavalier in her initial approach to you, that likely does not come from resentment toward your child or special education in general but from old war wounds inflicted by prior bad experiences with parents.
- Similarly, remember that teachers are people with all the frailties and quirks being human gives us. While some teachers are really open and relaxed around kids, they may not feel that so much around adults. Give him/her the benefit of the doubt until you get to know one another. Also, pick your spots. Don’t spring involved questions or start what should be a confidential conversation with your student’s teacher while she’s trying to corral the kids onto busses and can’t give you her undivided or personal attention. And don’t sandbag – as soon as you feel like something merits discussion, discuss it. Don’t hold on to “little” things until you have so many you just unload. Give team members a chance to address your concerns before you assign fault. By the same token, be prepared to swallow just a little pride when it comes to your student. Nobody is perfect. (Except my kid. She’s totally perfect. *ahem*)
- Bring a comfort object and a support person. You thought comfort objects were only for our kiddos? Nope. When I go to my daughter’s IEP meetings, I bring coffee in a mug my older son made for me many years ago. It helps me visualize how the IEP meeting would go if we held it around my dining room table instead of around a U-shaped table outfitted with chairs about 10 sizes too small for grown people. That mindset helps me feel less like arguing and a lot more like listening — after all, that’s what I do at my dining room table over coffee. You may also bring anyone you’d like to an IEP meeting to act as a support person or an advocate for you. I highly recommend this. Even if your IEP meetings go smoothly, a trusted friend can take detailed notes for you during the meeting so you can give the team members your full attention. And, even if your student can’t really participate, bring him/her to the meeting. At one recent meeting, I brought Helene due to lack of child care, but having her in the room kept us on our best behavior, because her presence constantly reminded us we had the same ultimate goal: her success!
- Listen to your instincts. There are a lot of experts in the room during an IEP meeting, and that includes YOU. YOU are an expert about your child. So, if you’ve tried everything you can to set the tone for a successful, collaborative meeting but the process breaks down (or never really gets off the ground), call a time-out. Take a 15-minute break or a 15-day break. You DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN an IEP with which you do not agree, and you can leave the meeting at any time. It took FOUR separate meetings before Helene’s IEP team finally reached consensus on her goals, and there was definitely some butthurt along the way. In the end, though, I believe Helene’s classroom teacher, her speech therapist, her occupational therapist, and the principal shared our feeling of an enormous sense of accomplishment. We all feel invested in her success now, and we will all feel a lot less defensive if her next round of assessments don’t show as much progress as we’d like. It’s called buy-in, and its value cannot be underestimated. If you can’t get buy-in from where things sit at the moment, take a break, come back with a fresh perspective and try again.
I’m sure there are other things I’m not mentioning that I should. So, here’s a list of other blogs you might want to visit for more on the IEP process:
IEP Season, at Anybody Want a Peanut?
Ways to make your next IEP awesome!, at Mostly True Stuff (when you need a little comic relief from IEP season … and you will)
Pretty much anything ever written over at snagglebox.
IEP without Tears, at Pancakes Gone Awry
One Inch Closer, at Both Hands and a Flashlight
The M-word, at Autism and Oughtisms (the m-word being “mainstreaming”)
Dear School District: My Son is Not Just Another Brick in the Wall, at The Connor Chronicles
Flashback Friday, at This Side of Typical (lots and lots of fun new vocabulary!)
What are IEPs made of?, at Maternal Instincts
Above all, keep your head up. Just as every student is unique, so too are IEP meetings. Take every story of failure or success with a grain of salt. You will learn to cull from them the cautious optimism that will get you through each IEP season. And, if all else fails, I have a great recipe for Chocolate Whiskey Cake with Salted Caramel Buttercream.