This is a post that I’ve long been wanting to write. As a former special education coordinator and school SLP (oh, did I mention I’m retired now? :), I’ve held and attended some awesome as well as some cringe-worthy-I-want-to-slide-under-the-table IEP meetings.
We have all been there, haven’t we? …in IEP meetings that go south, in those IEP meetings that make you wish you had an invisibility cloak, but hopefully we’ve also been in IEP meetings that feel joyful- like some kind of IEP magic happened. Believe it or not, it’s the little things that create those magical ones.
WHY is it so important to build parents’ trust? I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before here on the blog, but TRUST is the foundation of a productive parent-teacher or parent-SLP relationship. Also, it’s that moment when parents LOSE trust that marks the beginning of the END of that productive relationship. Personally, I believe that complaints, grievances and lawsuits all stem from a loss of trust.
Today, let’s learn how to make every IEP meeting amazing, shall we?
Simple but crucial!! There are a few reasons for this. First of all, unless you (the person heading up the meeting) made the parents their own copy of the IEP, sitting next to them and letting them SEE the document is very important! They’re going to be expected to sign it, and would you want to sign something you never actually laid your eyes on? I wouldn’t, which is why I make it a point to give everyone their own copy stamped draft. Then I collect the draft copies afterward. That’s not necessary, but being near the parent and letting them fully inspect the IEP shows transparency and helps the parents feel more included. Plus, it communicates that you’re in this together! I’ve been in meetings where the whole team is on one side of a huge table and the parent is on the other (insert facepalm here), and that sure would make me, as a parent, feel “ganged up on.” Seating arrangements matter!
Introductions are non-negotiable! As the person running the meeting, introduce yourself, and then ask everyone around the table to do the same and to explain their role/relationship and reason for being at the meeting to show that they have a vested interest in the child being discussed. If you think the parents know everyone, offer a simple, “I believe everyone knows each other in attendance, is that right?” For those of you who are parents, can you imagine showing up to a meeting about your own child and the meeting starting without you knowing everyone in the room, why they’re there, and what they have to do with your child? I’d be like, “Umm, hold up, but who are you and how are you in my baby’s world?” It’s just rude not to make introductions, and skipping them starts the meeting off on a very awkward foot. Also, call parents by their names “Mrs. Jones” or “Mr. Johnson.” Not doing so feels like you didn’t bother to learn their names.
As special educators we all know the reason we called the meeting. Most of the time it’s the child’s annual update (and we know we’re required by law to reconvene annually), it’s for the purpose of making changes or sharing new information, or it’s the child’s very first IEP to initiate services (which warrants an even more thorough explanation including what the heck an IEP even is!). We get so wrapped up in our sped world and routines that we can sometimes take for granted that parents know why they’re here. Please don’t forget they don’t live in sped world; they may not be frank enough to say it, but they probably don’t know exactly why you’ve asked them to come to the meeting. It only takes a second to state the purpose for everyone to be clear. Then remind all team members that the IEP is a legally binding document and inform the parents of their rights. It’s helpful to mention that the team will consider all input from every member of the team. Again, transparency is key to building trust.
This is simple respect. If any team members need to leave the meeting at a certain time (which is not ideal but is often reality), just say it up front. Keep in mind that the parent could refuse to continue the meeting without the entire team so it’s best to bring that up early rather than later so that the parents don’t feel blindsided. Also, they can ask the departing person any questions they may have before the person leaves. Best practice would be to get the parents’ written consent for this, but consult your district’s policies.
The whole reason a student is having an IEP meeting stems from difficulty; the student has a disability of some kind. Whether it be in speech/language, cognition, reading, math, writing, behavior, social interaction, etc., there is going to be a lot of talk about what the child is struggling with. It’s so important that we start with positive statements. The team should talk about what a joy the child is to teach, how hard he works, how seeing her each morning starts one’s day off right, or brag about the child’s good attendance, great smile, or helpful nature. Chat about what the student excels at (art, music, high fives or handing out papers to the class), how the student is well liked or how he gets along well with others. Do you realize that what many parents of children with disabilities want more than anything is to know their child has friends? It’s true. Many would be grateful to leave the meeting at least being reassured of that. Most places, only one teacher is required at the meeting, but all in attendance should plan to say something positive, no matter how deep they need to dig. I get it, we don’t all adore every student, but words of affirmation are powerful and get the meeting off to a feel good start. Make it happen!
I know there are dates to be filled in, boxes to check and notes to make on the IEP document, but when the parents are speaking, STOP and listen. Make eye contact. Listen to really hear their concerns and feelings, not just to respond. Do ALL of those active listening skills we teach to and expect from our students. Parents NEED to feel heard and validated. This is their baby, no matter how old the student may be. They know their child better than anyone on the team does. Are their perceptions misguided sometimes? Maybe now and then. Are some parents unrealistic, in our opinions, at times? Sure, sometimes. None of that matters. What matters is that the team show them the respect they deserve and listen attentively without glancing at clocks and iPhones or fiddling with papers. That’s how to build productive, mutually respectful relationships. Empathy never hurts either.
If you stay focused on the child’s needs, the meeting is more likely to be a home run. Focusing solely on our own personal expectations/agenda, the parents’ expectations/agenda or the district’s resources does not serve the student and will result in power struggle. Sure, there are boundaries we have to work within with regard to district resources, policies and law, but keep brainstorming about the student’s needs within those boundaries. The effort of continued brainstorming shows you’re willing to problem solve and compromise. Don’t draw lines in the sand. Nothing good comes of those. If needed, say, “Let’s remember why we’re here today. It’s because we need to meet (insert student’s name) needs, who we all care about.” Even parents who are growing testy can’t argue with that simple statement. I once had a mom actually bring framed photos of her son to an IEP meeting, and she set them up on the conference table. The meeting ended up being pretty contemptuous, but seeing his face there was pretty powerful, and kept our team focused and productive.
Reducing or increasing service minutes? Discontinuing a related service like speech or language therapy, PT or OT? Changing accommodations? Sometimes I sit in IEP meetings and these recommendations appear to be random. There is no explanation or data to support those decisions, or maybe there is but there is no mention of them. If it feels random to me, I would bet my bottom dollar it feels random to the parents as well. All recommendations should be backed up by an explanation of the thinking behind them- better yet, backed up with hard data (that you’ll explain in a super parent friendly way). I had the unique opportunity of getting to listen to an attorney that consulted with parties of the Endrew case (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District) which has forever raised the bar for us special educators. That attorney explained that the judge expected everyone on Drew’s IEP team to explain the reasoning behind their decisions (placement, service minutes, service delivery, goals, strategies etc.). I can’t prove this to be true, but I think about it every time I’ve written an IEP since that case was ruled upon. Explain it to the parent to gain and maintain their trust, or you just might have to explain it to a judge instead (gulp).
Just like we do with students, it’s important to stop once and a while to check if parents have questions or want something clarified. I’ve not encountered too many parents over the years that offer, “Hey, I have no idea what y’all are talking about right now!” For goodness sakes, don’t use acronyms (because they don’t live in sped land like us). All the paperwork associated with special education is daunting (even to us who reside in sped land) so I know it’s even more overwhelming to them. Most parents stay quiet rather than admitting that they don’t know what something means. Give them an out. Just say outright that all of this IEP paperwork is hard to understand (even to most of us who do it everyday) and weird/unfamiliar so it’s okay if they want to stop us to ask questions or have us explain things. This lets parents know that you don’t expect them to understand all the lingo and that you truly want them to understand exactly what we are saying about their child. It gives them an out to speak up without being judged because you’ve just put it all out there- SPED IS WEIRD – and also let them know that you care that they are well informed. Just like with kids, avoid saying, “Do you understand that?” Assume they don’t and explain in simple terms, also being careful not to be condescending. Read your audience.
By the end of an IEP meeting, parents have heard a LOT of complex information about their child in a sped language they don’t hear the other 364 days of the year. They’re likely to walk out and forget a huge chunk of it. That’s why you should wrap up the meeting by summarizing the major changes (if any) that the team made (such as new goals, new accommodations, reducing accommodations, changing related service times, changing placement, reducing inclusive time, adding a writing goal, increasing “pull out” time, etc.) These will be the last things they hear, and the information will be more likely to “stick.” Also, ask them if they feel good about today’s meeting. Ask if there anything they’d like more information about. All of this communicates that you value their input and want them to be happy and comfortable with the decisions made about their child. Always thank them for coming and assure them that you’re here for them if they have future questions or concerns.
Did I miss anything. y’all? Please share your favorite IEP meeting tips in the comments!!