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“The Big Secret to a Productive IEP Meeting”

Optimism and friendliness will get your child what he needs to succeed at school.

IEP meetings can often feel like a game of tug-of-war. On one end is the school staff, who are responsible for providing appropriate support for students with special needs. On the other end are the student’s parents, who may not agree with what the school thinks is appropriate. While staff and parents attempt to yank the meeting in their direction in an attempt to “win,” the loser of the game is often the student, who may not end up with the best accommodations for his or her needs.

The first step to a truly productive IEP meeting is to approach it not as a game of tug-of-war, but as a friendly conversation.

The school is legally responsible for providing their students with FAPE — a Free and Appropriate Public Education. An IEP meeting addresses the “A” part of this equation. Its purpose is to determine the appropriate learning environment for your student. The IEP team usually includes a combination of general and special education teachers, psychologists, social workers or counselors, administrators, and possibly other clinicians or school staff. The team also includes the parent(s).

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However, many times parents disagree with what the school determines is “appropriate.” Schools have a legal obligation to provide what they feel is the most appropriate learning environment and supports, but they also need to allow contributions from the parents, who may have an entirely different perception of their child’s needs in school.

This creates an inherent tension in the IEP process. The school team is specifically trained to make these decisions based on educational data, observations, evaluations, and progress monitoring. The parents, typically, are making their own informed decisions based on their gut, their intimate knowledge of the child, and all of the information that they have received or sought out from the school. Both sides are going to think that they are correct, and any disagreements that arise can be hard to solve. So how do they get solved?

When I read articles about IEP meetings, they usually are characterized as a way for parents “to get what you want,” “to be a good advocate,” or “to really be heard.” The articles typically go on to spell out the tactical maneuvers to employ at an IEP meeting: keeping a comprehensive file at home, taking notes 24/7, documenting every academic and behavioral interaction students have at school, writing a formal parent concern letter before a meeting, showing up at the IEP meeting together as a couple, spelling out your concerns to the IEP team, bringing an advocate along, and on and on.

These tips aren’t wrong, but there is a specific time and place for these actions. In other words, they aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every student and their families. An IEP meeting is like any other meeting: The participants should be prepared and informed. However, many of these suggested steps imply that a conflict or disagreement will inevitably be a part of the IEP meeting.

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As someone who has run more than 1,000 of these meetings as a special education administrator, while also having been an advocate for parents for many years, I have whittled down my experiences on both sides of the IEP table to one important component that is a one-size-fits-all tip: establish a relationship with the staff at your school.

This is the single most important part of an IEP meeting. Imagine that you’re attending a sales meeting, or an interview, or are meeting a client for the first time. What is the first thing you do in the meeting? You make small talk, chat about the weather, ask about the traffic, and you work toward building an interpersonal relationship.

An IEP meeting is no different. The objective starting from the first time that you meet the school staff as a parent should be to establish a meaningful, productive relationship. Try to learn a little about the teacher’s personal life, what they do for fun, where they live, if they have kids, and so on. In other words, have normal adult conversations with your child’s teacher to create a bond. This applies to the special education teacher, and to all staff members who work with your child.

Each interaction should be viewed through the lens of, “How can I get this person to like me?” At the end of the day, we are just people interacting with one another. And it’s no surprise that we’re more willing to accommodate someone whom we like, respect, and trust, as opposed to someone we don’t. A parent’s voice is so much stronger when they have a positive relationship with the school.

I know how hard this can be. In some cases, it can be challenging. It might involve experiencing some discomfort, swallowing your pride, or controlling your emotions. However, when you stroll into an IEP meeting where everyone is smiling and enjoying each other’s company, constructive conversations will follow. Keep in mind that, depending on the age of your child, you may be working with school staff members for another two, three, or four years.

Approaching the meeting with an open mind and an optimistic attitude is more important than compiling comprehensive files at home, tracking mountains of data, sending email after email, and logging every detail of your child’s life. Absolutely do those things, but ensuring you have a positive relationship with your child’s school will have long-lasting effects that will help your child now and in the future.

The trickiest part of this? The hard work falls on the parents. There are going to be times that the parent feels like the school staff has it out for them, are treating their child poorly, don’t know what they are doing, or are just bad people. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the short-term well-being, long-term growth, and future of your child depends on your willingness to form and maintain a positive, friendly relationship with your child’s school staff. This will turn every IEP meeting into a collaboration, not a confrontation.

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