As the new school year begins, many families will be meeting with schools to review Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for their children with special needs. IEPs can be confusing documents, and recent changes to the federal law (the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act or IDEA) have brought about changes in many states and school districts. Preparing for an IEP meeting is an important part of helping your child succeed, as well as integral to having an effective meeting. This post will be part of a five part series for parents and teachers. In this post we'll cover some general information and talk about planning for IEP team meetings. In subsequent posts we'll be talking about the IEP process; what IDEA means to your kids, you and your school; definitions and real world explanations of IEP terminology and communication techniques to help keep things calm and productive. If there are other topics you'd like to cover, please leave your suggestions in the comments and we'll add more posts.


I've sat on both sides of the IEP table. Before I became a special education teacher, I managed a group home for kids with autism spectrum disorders and would frequently attend IEP conferences with parents or as a representative of parents when they could not attend. Since I've left teaching I've worked as a student advocate for several families, helping them communicate with schools in difficult circumstances before taking the process to mediation or due process hearings. I know the process can go beautifully, and I know it can fail. The most effective IEPs come from teams that work together, with parents and schools combining their knowledge and expertise to develop a plan that is student-centered and goal focused.


Steps to Prepare as a Parent


No one knows your child better than you do, which makes you an expert. The people who make special education laws recognize and respect your expertise, which is why your input is such a critical part of the IEP planning and implementation process. Before you go to any meeting with school, take time to pull some information together before hand. It can be hard to put your thoughts and ideas together "on the spot," by providing yourself with notes you can make sure you cover everything which is important to you. The following tips may help you organize the information you have.


1. Gather reports from doctors, therapists and independent assessment providers who've seen your child since the last IEP meeting.


2. Jot down any specific concerns you have with as much detail as you can. Keeping a good record of all your interactions with school will help you gather this information, as well as help you keep track of what you've already addressed and what your newest concerns are. Bring evidence to support your concern - for example, if your child is struggling with math, bring examples of math homework or notes from the math teacher.


3. Find the most recent IEP, report cards and other measures of your child's progress provided by the school. Review these documents and note what you think has been successful and what might need more time or additional help. If your child receives other services such as special transportation, in-school therapists, consultation with specialists or has a behavior intervention plan review how they were addressed in the previous IEP as well.


4. When you receive a notice of case conference form from school, make sure to return it in a timely manner. If you can't attend on the suggested date, offer three or more alternative times which do work for you. If the meeting occurs during school hours, your child's teacher will need to find someone to cover his or her class - giving the teacher several availability options will make it simpler for her to devote all his or her energy and attention to the meeting.


5. Have a positive attitude about the IEP experience. While there are many horror stories of parents fighting with school districts, most people who choose to work with kids are there because they love what they do and because they want the best for your child and all the children they serve. A great attitude can go a long way in building a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with your child's school.


Preparing for Teachers


Teachers can be involved in the IEP process in a variety of roles. Special education teachers are required to work with general education teachers when developing and preparing and IEP. This ensures the plan meets the needs of the student in a way which is most aligned with his or her non-disabled peers. For example, if you are the special education teacher of record for a student with a reading disability, you want to ensure the interventions you use are helping the student perform more in line with students his age who do not have a reading disability. Additionally, special education teachers also work with general education teachers to adapt the general education materials and curriculum to meet the needs of students who receive special education services.


A student who is visually impaired, for example, may need textbooks in braille, a way to write in braille, careful classroom arrangement, accessibility software on classroom computers and audio copies of lectures to have the same access to education as peers without visual impairment. In this situation, the general education teacher will work with the special education teacher (in this case a visual impairment specialist) to determine what the student will need to learn what's being taught. While a special education teacher has more legal requirements to prepare for an IEP meeting, general education teachers who serve students with special needs have just as much to offer the process and a legal requirement to be involved. Depending on your role, your preparation may be a little different. Additionally, there are many different types of both special and general education teachers - this is a generic list, meant to apply in broad terms only.


1. Data is king, long live data. Data is your very best friend, teachers. Data makes what you say about student performance mean something. In a time when teachers aren't necessarily seen as the experts they are, data gives you credibility. Saying a student is struggling with math is one thing, proving a student isn't grasping the concept of how to decode words with a series of bits of evidence proves you right and gives you hints on how to solve the original challenge to boot. Collect copious data, even beyond the copious data you're already required to collect. Collect intensive data a few weeks before the IEP meeting with your collection period ending with sufficient time to analyze what you've collected. By now, you have a stack of information about how this particular student is performing in school, hopefully displayed in illustrative graphs and charts. This is fantastic information for you as a teacher, and for the IEP planning team. If you use this data to plan student goals, you have a baseline to measure progress as well as a measurement process you can easily replicate each time you need to assess that particular goal. Data, charts and graphs are wonderful tools, but not effective if you don't know how to interpret it. As a teacher, you've been taught (likely beaten over the head with) the importance of data, as well as been instructed in how to collect and interpret it. Keep in mind most parents do not have that same training in data analysis as you do and take your data to the next level - explain it in terms parents can understand and use.


2. Have a great working relationship with parents long before the meeting. Great special education teachers know how important it is to work with parents in a respectful, mutually helpful manner. Communicate often and honestly with parents, whether it be by note, email or phone call. Encourage classroom visits and participation. If you've established an open, honest and frequent line of communication between school and home, you're much less likely to face a difficult IEP meeting.


3. Remember the good stuff. I've sat in more than a few IEP meetings where the focus remained on challenges and negative information about a student. Give as much attention to the strengths, gifts and achievements of the student as you do to the challenges. Something as seemingly insignificant as language choice can make a lifetime of difference to a student with special needs. An IEP is an official record that will follow this student for a long time - make sure the it paints a picture of the whole student.


The next post in this series will appear in one week, in the meantime there will be a few (shorter!) posts on some great Fun and Function products and how they can help in the classroom. Keep your eye out on the Facebook page for an upcoming sweepstakes, too! You can now comment on this blog with your Facebook account, so feel free to jump in the discussion! We've been using the Facebook page to highlight the stories of some extraordinary people with special needs, as well as offering some downloadable goodies to help integrate our products into the classroom for all your students. Become a fan to keep up!