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How Parents Can Get the Most From Their Child's Individualized Education Plan
IEP Meetings: How to Make Them More Productive and Compassionate
“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."
When I was a young teacher working at an inner-city school, our principal would write that same quote on top of our faculty newsletter each week without fail. I'd wonder: Why the same quote again and again? Is she just too lazy to find another one? It wasn't until years later when I had a child of my own with autism that I understood the quote and why it's key to all we do as educators.
I've attended many meetings for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) -- some as a teacher and some as a mother -- where the fundamental element of caring has been absent. These meetings have proven unproductive, alienating parents and frustrating teachers. How can we improve IEP meetings so children get the special education services they need, moms and dads become involved in the process, and classroom teachers aren't overburdened?
What Is an IEP and What Is an IEP Meeting?
Each student who receives special education services has an IEP or Individualized Education Plan. It's a legal document that spells out the child's unique learning needs and what modifications and services will be given to meet those needs. Services may include one-on-one or small group instruction, occupational therapy, speech therapy, assistive technology, and modifications for assignments, test-taking, and physical education. An IEP team at the school meets with the parents to draft the document and to get everyone's signature on it. This team typically includes a case manager, the school psychologist, speech and occupational therapists, the special educational instructor, the classroom teacher, and a note-taker.
Let's Just Sign the Damn Thing and Get Out of Here!
I have attended dozens of IEP meetings at different times and in different roles: as a teacher and as a mother of a son with autism. Surprisingly enough, whether I attended as an educator or as a parent, the process felt the same: cold, bureaucratic, rushed, and unproductive. Instead of focusing on the child, we turned our attention to the IEP so we could get it signed – neat, tidy, and legally binding. Concern for the child, the parents, and the classroom teacher was sorely lacking. The question, therefore, is: How can we improve IEP meetings so they're more productive and compassionate? Here are five ways to humanize the process and get better results:
IEP Meetings Need to Be Humanized
1. Slow It Down.
The case manager conducts the IEP meeting and her demeanor sets the tone. Too often a case manager acts in a hurried way, running through the procedure at warped speed as if she has just downed a bottle of amphetamines. Her rapid-fire speech, full of special education jargon such as inclusion, least restrictive environment, direct instruction, accommodations, and modifications leaves the parents frustrated and bewildered.
A skilled case manager speaks slowly and calmly, putting everyone at ease. Her unhurried behavior lets everyone know that she considers the meeting a priority and values their attendance. She talks in plain language so everyone understands. When using an unfamiliar term, she takes the time to explain it in a way that's helpful, not condescending.
Unfortunately, too often the case manager is a bureaucrat – charged with keeping costs low, restricting services, and getting all the i's dotted and all the t's crossed on the paperwork. I highly recommend to parents that they bring an advocate to their IEP meeting. This person is a friend, family member, or professional who's familiar with the process, can ask some pointed questions, and make sure they understand all that's getting decided for the child.
A Case Manager Leads the IEP Meeting and Is Key to Its Success or Failure
2. Have a Case Manager Who Knows the Child.
A case manager unacquainted with the child and parents dooms the IEP meeting, causing disappointment and distrust. The case manager should ONLY be someone who works directly with the youngster. When my son received early intervention services, his case manager was the speech therapist who worked with him weekly. She had built a strong relationship with both my child and me, establishing herself as a hard-working, knowledgeable, and caring professional who wanted the best for us. Therefore, when she led the IEP meetings, I valued her leadership and trusted her recommendations.
Conversely, at the most recent IEP meeting I attended as a teacher, the case manager didn't know the child, the parents, or me. She was clearly there in the role of bureaucrat -- keeping services limited and costs low. She was patronizing to me and dismissive of the parents. Because strong relationships were never established among the team members, the child suffered -- missing out on the early intervention services that would have benefitted him greatly.
3. Set a Positive Tone.
Too often an IEP meeting gets off on the wrong foot. The team starts in on the child's deficiencies: poor articulation, low test scores, lack of social skills, illegible handwriting, poor grades, unruly behavior. As a parent in that position -- hearing negative comment after negative comment about the child I love dearly -- I simply shut down. I stopped listening, stopped trusting, and stopped being part of the process.
The best IEP meeting I ever attended began with each team member saying something positive about the child: how polite he was, how responsible he was about turning in his homework, how kind he was to his classmates. I watched his parents' reactions as they listened to these glowing remarks about their son. They smiled with recognition at each comment, pleased to know others saw what they saw in their boy. Their bodies started to relax, their expressions became animated, and they began to trust the process.
When it was the mother's turn to speak, she felt safe and supported -- knowing she was surrounded by people who cared deeply about her son. She cried, telling us about her struggles to get pregnant. When she finally did give birth at 42, she considered her son a "miracle baby."
This IEP meeting transcended the signing of a legal document. We reached a higher plane of understanding, trust, and cooperation. By starting on a bright note, we set a positive tone for the entire meeting and turned a bureaucratic process into a human experience.
If Only All IEPs Were as Unhurried as This One!
4. Assign responsibilities to team members and hold them accountable.
Too often the classroom teacher leaves an IEP meeting with many more duties while the rest of the team leaves with none. The case manager is responsible for making sure this doesn't happen and that each member of the team, including the parents, exits with at least one new responsibility. Assigning each person a job lessens the teacher's load and increases everyone's connection to the process. This is not something thrust upon them; this is something that involves them!
During a productive IEP meeting, team members bring up their concerns about the student: She doesn't turn in homework. Her handwriting is illegible. She's reading below grade level. The note-taker writes these concerns on the chalkboard or white-board.
At the end of the meeting, the team determines who is responsible for managing each concern. The parents, for instance, might be assigned the task of checking their daughter's homework each night to make sure it's completed and ready for class. The occupational therapist might be assigned the task of improving the girl's illegible handwriting by working with her on proper pencil grip. The special education instructor might work one-one-one with the girl in the resource week for 45 minutes per week until her reading reaches grade level. The case manager's duty is to hold all team members accountable for their tasks by getting regular updates.
Parents and Teachers May Find an IEP Meeting Emotionally Upsetting
5. Acknowledge Parents as Full-Fledged Team Members.
Unfortunately, some case managers discount the role of parents at the IEP meeting -- seeing them as a handicap, not a resource. For the sake of expediency, they marginalize parents – putting them on the sidelines, not on the field where they belong. Without coaching from the case manager, parents are unprepared for the IEP meeting and clueless about their role. They sit like deer in the headlights – stunned, confused, and silent.
An effective case manager educates parents about the IEP meeting before it happens. She lets them know they're full-fledged team members and should speak up, ask questions, share concerns, and seek clarification. The case manager should encourage them to bring an advocate of their own choosing to the meeting: a lawyer who's knowledgeable about IEPS, a social worker, or a friend or family member who's knowledgeable about the process.
There's so much we can do to make IEP meetings more productive and compassionate. While the IEP is an important legal document, it should not eclipse what really matters -- getting children and families the help they need. The IEP meeting is a collaborative process that must honor all who are involved and not leave any team member feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.
A Valuable Resource for Parents
I wish every parent was as fortunate as I was when I had IEP meetings when my son was little and getting diagnosed with autism. The professionals were so knowledgeable and caring and I knew my boy was in good hands. I totally trusted those good people. Unfortunately, as a teacher, I've seen the other side – burned out bureaucrats who are going through the motions. That's why it's imperative for parents to educate themselves about the IEP process. This book is a fabulous resource – easy to read and full of useful information. I highly recommend it.