A friend of mine, who lives in another state, emailed me recently to ask me some questions about the IEP process. With schools letting out for the summer, many parents are bracing themselves for the big yearly IEP meetings to set up school accommodations and modifications for next year. It's a stressful time, regardless of whether your IEP is lengthy and involved, or short and fairly simple. As a parent, it's daunting and frightening to imagine that you have two or three hours in which to pave the way for your child's success for the upcoming school year. You feel the weight of responsibility on your shoulders and worry constantly about whether you've thought of everything. You lie awake wondering how your child's IEP team might react be to your ideas. Will they bulldoze them? Agree? Compromise? Will you fight back the tears the whole time, or leave feeling as if a weight has been lifted from your shoulders?
We've been lucky. My son's school is very small and the teachers and staff are supportive and helpful. We've had some rocky moments, of course. I'm not sure there's any such thing as an entirely smooth, stress-free, and amicable IEP meeting--ever. And if there is, I'd love to hear about it! I think the very fact that you are meeting with outsiders from your family to discuss the ups and downs of your child's past year (and behavior, and academic work, and social interactions), and the modifications necessary to make the next year even more successful than the last, prevent an IEP meeting from being anything close to a pleasant experience. When you sit there, in too-small plastic chairs, facing pages and pages of forms, you can't help but feel judged. You can't help but feel indignant for your child, whose skills and deficits have been reduced to numbered goals.
L. finished school some two weeks ago, and the big IEP meeting is about a week behind us now. We are by no means veterans of the IEP process, but we've been through enough meetings to have come up with at least a short list of helpful suggestions, and I'd love to see some additions to these in the comments.
First and foremost, don't go to an IEP meeting alone. The worst meeting we had was the one this past spring. I went by myself, because I was expecting to get only some results to an evaluation that had been done. Instead I found myself embroiled in an at-times tense discussion about some IEP goals I didn't expect to defend or revisit at that meeting. Because every school team is made up of at least four individuals, it's best never to go into a situation outnumbered. Even if your spouse can't attend, try to bring an advocate or friend or other relative who can help argue and discuss your side of things.
Do lots of preparation ahead of time. Don't let the IEP team lead you--lead them instead. No matter how good the teachers and staff are, or how much they understand your child, if you let them take the lead they will plow ahead with their goals and follow a script, instead of weighing the pros and cons as they relate to your own child. Before this last meeting, Scott and I met privately with L.'s teacher and then drew up a list of what we hoped for our son for next year. We tweaked this over a period of a couple of weeks, and added and took out things as necessary.
Don't go into an IEP meeting unwilling to be flexible. I've heard horror stories from parents who just dug their heels in and refused to compromise. Remember that wise saying that comes up over and over again in parenting books? Pick your battles...so just as you may have to compromise as a parent and NOT fight over every little thing your child wants to do, don't nitpick everything the IEP team wants to do. Be prepared to compromise.
For instance, we went into the big meeting wanting modified homework for L. We wanted him to be able to complete 50% of his homework, but the team wanted 80%. We wanted L. dismissed 15 minutes early so we could complete his homework in the school library; the school insisted he be dismissed at the regular time and then complete his work at school. It wasn't worth fighting over, so we compromised.
Remember that the IEP team wants what's best for your child, too. As parents we tend to get our backs up at the mere suggestion that outsiders could also want what's best for our own child(ren). But the school has a vested interest in seeing your child succeed, and they have everything to lose in seeing them fail.
Be your child's advocate. Stand up for your child, plug his strengths, bring in samples of his (brilliant!) creative work and relate anecdotes about his interests and successes at home.Don't let the IEP meeting be all about weaknesses and goals, and not about your child's individual strengths and talents; those count too--more than you might even imagine.