Children who receive special education services do so under the auspices of an Individual Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a document that outlines the services your child will receive. An IEP team includes teachers relevant to your child’s services and specified special education personnel. As a parent you are automatically a member of your child’s team. You are not only a valuable team member but decision-making power regarding your child’s education ultimately rests with you.
It is important to understand how to manage team meetings because that is where decisions are made. It’s easy to be intimidated in a meeting when sitting at a table surrounded by many professionals. There are “rules of the road” that can improve your ability to advocate for your child.
Remember, when you negotiate with the school on your child’s behalf, you increase the odds that he will receive an appropriate education.
- Never go to a team meeting alone. I always advise both parents to attend team meetings. This is true whether or not you are currently married. If your child’s other parent is unable to accompany you to the meeting, find someone to go with you, preferably someone who is a good note taker. If possible, select someone who knows the field of education. At the very least, bring someone who exudes confidence. Bring an advocate to a meeting if you anticipate a disagreement over the help your child needs. Bring your independent evaluator to the meeting to explain your child’s evaluation results when that evaluation is completed.
- Be prepared for the meeting. Most team chairpersons work from an agenda. Ask for an advance copy of that agenda and make sure the items you want to discuss are included. You want to know who will be in attendance and what part each person will play. Remember, you are an equal participant in your child’s team. Make certain you have all the documents you will need. If the school has completed an evaluation of your child it is important to obtain copies before the meeting. Study those reports and come prepared with a written list of questions.
- Know what you want. Before entering the meeting, decide what actions you want team members to take. If your evaluator or advocate will be attending with you, confer with them prior to the meeting. Be clear on your goals. What is your bottom line? What is negotiable? What are you unwilling to relinquish? For example, does your child need daily instruction in a pull-out setting with 1:1 help in reading? Is there a particular type of instruction that will benefit him? To make these decisions you must be informed about your child’s needs. That information will come from your independent evaluation. Some advocates recommend that parents prepare a written Statement of Concerns and a Request for Services that list each area of difficulty along with the services their child needs. Bring a copy for each team member and make sure your requests for services receive a formal response.
- Take the time to make an informed decision. Make certain you have the information you need to make the best, most informed, decision for your child. You do not need to make decisions at the meeting. For example, if your school recommends placement in a self- contained special needs classroom, make sure that either you or your representative observe the classroom to determine whether it is an appropriate placement for your child. Remember, you can accept all or parts of the IEP. If there are particular areas you believe do not meet the needs of your child, you can reject those portions of the IEP.
Be respectful. While it is important to be an advocate for your child, be careful not to come across as militant. Be prepared for the meeting and present yourself as composed, confident, and friendly. Be willing to listen as well as advocate your points.
Actively look for ways to validate the positive things happening in your child’s classroom. Be sensitive to honest efforts on the part of team members. In nearly all cases, teachers are doing the best they can.
Leave your strong emotions at home. A team meeting is not the place to break down in tears or engage in a yelling match. Stay focused on the present and the decisions that need to be made now. Don’t indulge in historical recriminations. What is past may well have contributed to your current dilemma, but it does no good to indulge in anger over it. Move forward.
- Become an informed parent. With a clear understanding of your child and his educational needs, you will have the knowledge needed to advocate for those needs. Study the federal law and your state’s special education regulations. As you reveal your depth of understanding of your child, the nature of his educational needs, and the law, you will position yourself as a valuable member of the team. Stay focused on finding solutions for your child. Armed with an arsenal of accurate information, expect to be treated as a worthwhile contributor at the table.
Lorna N. Kaufman, PhD
You can find more information on this topic in “Smart Kid, Can’t Read” available on Amazon.