As a special education teacher in a small, central-Phoenix elementary school district, Christopher Tiffany was very familiar with the concept of an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. It was part of his job to work with parents and teachers to create IEPs—annual documents that establish goals and describe services schools will provide for children who qualify for special education.
But when his own son, Jeremy, was diagnosed with autism at age 2, Tiffany entered new territory.
“I went from being a teacher and facilitator in IEP meetings to being a parent on the other side of the table,” he says.
Tiffany, who holds a master’s degree in education, quickly learned how intimidating that side of the table could be.
For parents, IEP meetings “come with a lot of emotion,” says Tiffany, who is now director of family support and education for Raising Special Kids, a Phoenix nonprofit that supports families of children with disabilities. “You’re sitting in a group of professionals, expected to talk about your child objectively when you can’t possibly be objective.”
A team approach
An IEP is a written statement for a child with a disability that identifies measurable goals and strategies to help that child achieve success in school, according to Amy Corriveau, deputy associate superintendent of early childhood education at the Arizona Department of Education.
Developing an IEP is intended to be a collaborative process among family members, teachers, child development experts and school administrators. Its guiding mission, as determined by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is to provide a free and appropriate education in the least-restrictive environment possible.
As the people who know their children best, parents are key players on the IEP team.
“There is no secret methodology with special education,” says Corriveau. “It’s trial and error. What works and what doesn’t work is equally important. You can see where families really play an important role in that.”
But the IEP process “can be very overwhelming for parents,” says Fran Grossenbacher, director of special education for Gilbert Public Schools.
Parents are hearing new terminology they may not understand. They may feel intimidated by the academic credentials of the other members of the team. They are still reeling from their child’s diagnosis and may not know what questions to ask.
“At the school level, we have to be really sensitive,” says Grossenbacher. “Our job is to make [the process] as family centered as we possible can. We are a team when we’re sitting around that table.”
She recommends parents bring notes. Write down questions and be sure you ask them.
“No one is going to think anything negative about that,” says Grossenbacher. “We’re not going to know what you’re thinking—what your worries are—without that. It can be hard to think right at that moment. It’s easy to feel outnumbered and overwhelmed. You’re trying to remember who’s who and what they bring to the table.”
It’s also important to focus on the positives.
“In our district, we follow a process for our meetings,” says Grossenbacher. “What are the child’s strengths? What’s going well? What are the child’s needs and areas where the child struggles? Even in a district that doesn’t follow that process, I would encourage parents to be really aware and ready to share: ‘Here some things my child does really well’ and ‘Here are some worries I have about my child.’”
The challenges of collaboration
From a legal perspective, Corriveau says, parents are equal members of the IEP team: “Their ideas about what’s best for their kids have to be heard and acknowledged.” At the same time, she says, “parents don’t always get everything they want. This is a negotiated process about what we can all live with. Case law and the courts say it doesn’t have to be the Cadillac of service models. The IEP process is different from a medical focus. The focus is on outcomes to make the child successful in school.”
As Arizona’s official Parent Training and Information Center—an entity each state must provide under IDEA—Raising Special Kids offers free services to parents who want to better understand their rights and responsibilities and learn how to advocate effectively for their child.
“That’s a lot of what our organization does—help families present information in a way that’s respectful and clear,” says Tiffany. “We help them do it in a way that also acknowledges the school’s point of view—and is even appreciative of it. Through discussion, there is an opportunity for everyone to see both sides and to reach a compromise.”
Ideally, parents undergo training before the first IEP meeting is scheduled.
Unfortunately, Tiffany says, “We’re often contacted at a time when the relationship is contentious.”
On a case-by-case basis, Raising Special Kids will assign an IEP Partner to accompany parents to IEP meetings.
“We will not run right out to the meeting the first time the parent calls us,” says Tiffany. “We go in after the family has gotten some training and tried on their own. We go in to model effective team participation, help parents stay focused on what their concerns are and help clarify communication. Our role is not to speak for the parent but to help the parent share their own voice.”
There is a misconception that Raising Special Kids does paid advocacy work, says Tiffany. “That is not our role. Our role is to empower parents with information, training and support they need to become that advocate for their child.”
Though there are more formal options to resolve disputes—mediation, filing official complaints—“when we stop talking to each other, the person who loses out is the child,” says Tiffany. “If we have a plan everyone can live with and support, I call that success.”
For Tiffany’s son Jeremy, now 8, the support of a dedicated IEP team and additional home- and community-based services have made a world of difference.
“Jeremy is now 8 years old,” Tiffany says. “He started speaking at the age of 6½. He’s doing great. He loves school. He loves getting on the bus.”
When he joined the staff at Raising Special Kids, Tiffany says, it was the first time he truly felt supported as the parent of a child with special needs. “I got to benefit from the parent-to-parent support we do here, even though I never got it officially,” he says.
Just by coming to the office every day, he is exposed to other staff members who have children with disabilities.
“Everyone has a connection,” he says. “If it’s not a child, it’s a niece, nephew, cousin, brother. When parents [of a child] with a new diagnosis call, you can almost hear the tension go out of their voices when they hear that’s how we’re set up—that they can connect with someone on that level.”
Tips for effective IEP meetings
- Before the meeting (a week or 10 days ahead), request a draft of the IEP to review and make a list of questions.
- Ask the other members of the IEP team if they would like a copy of your observations and concerns before you meet.
During the meeting
- Bring notes listing questions and your observations about your child.
- Focus on collaboration, not confrontation.
- Ask open-ended questions: “What progress has my child made toward goals?”
- Be open to trying strategies the school team recommends.
- Don’t get defensive.
- If you don’t understand something, “Tell me more about that” is a neutral way to ask for clarification.
- Ask for ways to support what’s happening at school at home and in daily routines.
After the meeting
- Give yourself time to absorb, process and debrief.
- Follow up if you have additional questions.
- Consider sending a thank-you note to team members.
Throughout the year
- Keep talking. Teams that function most positively have ongoing communication.
- Ask your child’s teacher(s) for regular progress reports so that you can respond quickly if your child is struggling.
When you need support
- Ask your school district about available resources. Some provide “parent buddies” to help mentor families new to the IEP process.
- Contact Raising Special Kids and get involved in free parent-training sessions, listen to training webinars online or ask how you can work with an IEP Partner.
—Sources: Arizona Department of Education, Gilbert Public Schools, Raising Special Kids
The 10 steps of an IEP
1) Child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services. (See May 2015 article “Recognizing Diverse Learners.”)
2) Child is evaluated based on medical records, developmental assessments and the observations of parents, teachers and other child development experts familiar with the child.
3) Eligibility for special education services is decided by a group of qualified professionals, with parents’ input.
4) Within 30 days of being declared eligible for services, the IEP team must meet to write an IEP for the child.
5) IEP meeting is scheduled at a time and place agreeable to parents and the school.
6) IEP meeting takes place, with parents (and students, when appropriate) as part of the team. The IEP is written.
7) Parents must give consent before schools can provide special education services. If parents do not agree with the IEP, they can attempt to work out differences with the IEP team, ask for mediation or, in extreme cases, file a complaint with the state Department of Education.
8) Special education services must begin as soon as possible and the child’s progress toward annual goals must be measured.
9) The IEP team must review the IEP at least annually (more often if the parents or the school request it) and revise as needed.
10) The child must be reevaluated for IEP eligibility every three years.
—Source: U.S. Department of Education
Raising Special Kids
Provides support, education and training to parents of children ages birth to 26 with diagnosed or suspected disabilities. Services are free, available in English and Spanish and open to families of all cultures, structures and backgrounds.
Parents Education Network (PEN) Phoenix
A parent-led, nonprofit resource and support organization that works to demystify learning and attention differences and collaborates with parents, students and educators to support academic and life success.