Forming an individual education plan (IEP) for your child with autism involves meeting with a team of educators to discuss his or her current level of performance, goals for the coming year, and the services the school will provide. For many parents, the annual IEP meeting can be an overwhelming experience, but that doesn't have to be the case. With proper planning, a basic understanding of the process, and a good sense of your own role, you can work with the school to craft an IEP that will help your child learn and grow in the coming year.
10 Tips for IEP Meetings
Know Your Role: Insights and Advocacy
It can feel overwhelming to walk into a room full of professional educators who already know each other and are confident in their roles at the meeting. However, you also play an essential role: you are the person who knows your child the best. No matter what your background, education level or job, you can offer insights no one else can.
In addition, as the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you must act as an advocate for your child. This means that you will consider your child's needs and wishes and represent your child's best interests at the meeting. Being an advocate can be difficult sometimes, especially if you dislike being assertive, but taking on this role is part of being a special education parent. Remember, you have both a right and a responsibility to be at this meeting.
Understand the IEP Process From the Parents' Perspective
Understanding the IEP process and the part the IEP meeting plays in that process is very important. According to the United States Department of Education, crafting an IEP for your child will include the following steps:
- The school will identify your child as requiring special education and conduct any necessary testing. If your child is already receiving special education services, the school will measure progress and re-evaluate your child as needed.
- The school will send you a document titled "Notice of a Team Meeting." This notice will include the date and time of the meeting, as well as the names of all the people invited to attend. You should receive this before the date, allowing you enough time to reschedule if you need to. The school should also contact you over the phone or through the mail to make sure you are aware the meeting is happening.
- The entire team will meet on the date specified. This is the official IEP meeting to talk about the goals for your child and the services he or she will get from the school. It should include your child's regular education teacher, special education teacher or case worker, any other service providers, and you. It may also include the principal of the school, your child, other professionals, and anyone else you want to bring to the meeting.
- The team will draft the IEP document and send it home to you. You'll also receive a "Prior Written Notice;" this is a document detailing the services your child will receive under the plan, as well as any decisions made about services. You should have adequate time to review the IEP before you sign the Prior Written Notice.
- If you agree with the IEP, you will sign the Prior Written Notice. If you do not, you'll work with the school to create a document you can support. After you sign, your child will begin receiving the extra help outlined in the document.
- The school will update you periodically about your child's progress on his or her goals. After a year, you'll meet again.
Get Familiar With the Jargon
Before you attend the meeting, it helps to get familiar with some of the terms you may hear. Teachers and therapists may use jargon, or education-specific words and terms, to talk about your child. You need to know what these words mean in order to make good decisions and fulfill your role as an advocate. You are likely to hear the following terms and acronyms at the meeting:
- Accommodations - These are special allowances or helpful additions the school will make to help your child be successful.
- APE or DAPE - This stands for "adapted physical education" or "developmental adapted physical education" and means a special gym class that focuses on the skills your child needs.
- ASD - This acronym stands for "autism spectrum disorder."
- Direct instruction - This means that the teacher or therapist will be working directly with your child.
- ESY - This stands for "extended school year," which means summer school for special education.
- Indirect instruction - This means that the teacher or therapist will not work with your child directly but will talk to other teachers about how they can best help your child.
- Least restrictive environment - This refers to the practice of including your special education child in the regular education setting as much as possible.
- OT - This stands for "occupational therapist" or "occupational therapy," the type of therapy your child may receive for sensory integration or fine motor skills.
- Sensory break - This is a time set aside for your child to do activities that will help him or her focus and behave appropriately during the school day.
- SLP - This acronym stands for your child's speech and language pathologist or speech therapist.
- PLP - This stands for "present level of performance," or how your child is currently performing in school.
- PT - This stands for "physical therapist" or "physical therapy."
There are many other terms you may hear in the meeting, and if you find that you don't know what something means, always ask.
Know Where Your Child Is Now
As you prepare to attend the meeting, take some time to figure out how your child is doing. Look back through your files at last year's IEP and any progress reports you've received since then. Think about whether you feel like your child has achieved the goals you set last year. Then consider the areas that seem to be a challenge for your child now.
At the meeting, you'll hear about how your child is doing at school. However, it can also help if you can present your own ideas about his or her functioning.
Make a Wish List
Jot down some notes for the meeting about the things you'd like to see in this year's IEP. If your child is old enough and developmentally able, talk to him or her about goals too. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you want your child to be able to do at the end of the next year?
- What seems to be especially hard right now, and what would make that better?
- Which services or therapies seem to be helping the most?
- What would you like to change?
Do Everything You Can to Get Comfortable
Hearing about your child's special needs is never easy, and advocating can be challenging as well. Take steps to make yourself as confident and comfortable as you can possibly be in the meeting. Try some of the following ideas:
- Line up child care for any younger kids you have at home. Having these siblings at the meeting will be distracting for you.
- Dress professionally. You'll feel more confident, and you'll present a put-together appearance.
- Bring someone with you. This could be your spouse, a family member, a friend, or an advocate.
- Take a few moments to review your notes before going into the meeting.
Listen Well and With an Open Mind
During the first part of the meeting, each professional will update you about how he or she sees your child. They will talk about how your child is performing now and what they hope to see in the coming year. You may not agree with what you hear, but listening to these perspectives is very important.
- Remember, these team members see your child in a different setting than you do, so they may have different observations. These observations are important to creating a well-rounded plan.
- If you find yourself feeling upset by something you hear, take a moment to process it. Then try to make sure you understand it properly by summarizing what you heard and asking if it's correct.
- Take notes throughout the meeting. You can keep them for your records, and writing everything down may also help your understand and process what is being said.
- Ask questions about anything that is unclear.
Keep the Focus on Your Child's Needs
The point of this meeting is to discuss your child's educational needs. These can include social challenges, behavioral challenges, academic challenges, and functional challenges. If your child is having trouble in an area, it needs to be part of this discussion. However, it's easy to get off track.
You may come to the meeting with IEP goals you want to see or specific resources you want your child to receive. Similarly, other team members may discuss limitations in what type of services the district can provide. In every case, you need to be able to attach the topic of conversation to the needs of your child. If that connection is unclear at any point, simply ask for help in clarifying how this relates to your child's needs.
Don't Sign the IEP at the Meeting
The IEP meeting is for planning the IEP document with the entire team. You should not receive a complete document at the meeting, because that IEP would not include your input. If you do receive a draft IEP at the meeting, do not sign the Prior Written Notice while you're there. Tell the team that you would like to take the document home to look it over.
Even if you feel that you agree with everything that's been said, this is not the time to make that decision. Take a day or two to consider it. If you are in doubt about how long you have to review the document, check with you state's Department of Education.
Foster a Good Relationship
While being an advocate means being assertive, it doesn't mean you have to be adversarial. In most cases, everyone at the meeting wants to help your child. You can reach agreement more easily and be more successful at getting the services your child needs if you work on the relationships. Try the following:
- Talk to one or two team members before the meeting to create a starting place for your interaction.
- Be polite and warm at the meeting. Show that you are friendly.
- Before you leave the meeting, thank every member for his or her hard work.
- Consider sending a quick email to the team after the meeting, thanking them again for their insights and help.
Helping Your Child Succeed
As your child's parent and advocate, you have a very important role to fulfill at an IEP meeting. Taking the time to prepare can help put you at ease, and understanding what to expect can keep you feeling confident. In the end, you'll feel great knowing you helped to craft a document that truly addresses your child's needs and helps him or her to succeed this year in school.