Being in the Driver’s Seat: Effective IEP Meetings (& meetings in general)

I still vividly remember our first Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. 

The meeting was scheduled for mid-September; Ben was in kindergarten.  My husband and I went to the elementary school, signed in, and we were escorted to a conference room.  We were under the impression that we would be meeting with just our case manager to have an informal conversation about shared goals.

I remember being surprised when we were joined by the school psychologist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, behaviorist, classroom teacher, and special education director.  The formal meeting began with passing around an attendance sheet followed by brief introductions. Each of the attendees spoke about their observations of Ben and recommended goals.

I remember feeling OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE AND VERY INSECURE sitting at the table.  Should I ask questions, is it ok to disagree, may I make suggestions …  As the meeting concluded, we were asked to review and sign the IEP. 

On the drive home I was MAD AT MYSELF FOR TAKING A PASSIVE ROLE in the planning of and during the meeting.  I felt blindsided by the number of attendees and I was not expecting the formality of the meeting.  And speaking of the folks in the room, the one individual who had spent the most time with Ben was not at the table – his paraprofessional.

I spent my career facilitating meetings of all sizes.  I led training sessions on how to run effective meetings.  I understand the value of preparing for meetings and asking questions upfront.  Yet, leading up to and during this first IEP meeting I lost my confidence and questioned my role as a parent at the meeting.

Fast forward eight years … it is mid-September and we just had another successful meeting with our Special Education Director and the key players at Ben’s current therapeutic school.  Each of our individual goals were met and we had an agreed to plan moving forward to best support Ben.

The following are some of the steps I took before, during, and after this meeting.

Before the Meeting

Setting Collaborative Goals

It is CRITICAL to think about what you hope to accomplish by the end of the meeting. That is, having goals for the meeting that are specific and realistic.  For this meeting in particular I had three goals.

  1. I wanted to get a sense from the team on how Ben was doing socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.   Ben is still relatively new to this school and we wanted a well-rounded assessment of his strengths and challenges within this environment.
  2. I wanted to know if they were seeing any improvement with his blood sugar dropping and related behaviors in the afternoon.  He is hypoglycemic and a few weeks earlier we talked about diet and proactive strategies to prevent the “behavioral bonking”.
  3. I wanted to ensure our Special Education Director supported the placement.  I also wanted to gain a better sense of what information she needed moving forward to remain confident in the placement.  The director is relatively new to the school district and due to Ben having not spent time in the school system, she is still learning about us as a family.

Next, I spoke with the case manager at the therapeutic school … what would you and the team like to accomplish during the upcoming meeting.  She said they would like to rework the IEP and review it during the meeting to best reflect Ben and their program.  In particular, they were hoping we would use the time to gather feedback on the goals and strategies.

I also  reached out to our Special Education Director and asked her the same question … what would make this a successful meeting for you.  She was hoping to get an update on how Ben was doing and to get a sense of longer term fit with the program.  Again, this is his 7th placement since second grade.  She was also interested in how Ben was doing with the commute and at home.

Finally, I asked Ben … hey bud, papa and I are going to spend some time with your teachers next week to talk about how we can all best help you learn and have fun at school.  Is there anything you want us to ask or share Ben wanted to know how he was doing and if he can stay there for a while.  He likes this school.

Unknown-1.pngAdvocating for your child begins with the goal setting process Having realistic goals and knowing the goals of others allows me to better plan and prepare for the meeting.  If we are on the same page with our goals for the meeting, then great!  If I know our goals are different prior to the meeting, then I have time to prepare, research, confer with others, and hopefully be ready to confidently advocate.

Setting the Agenda

Our collective goals drove the agenda and determined who needed to be at the meeting.  The agenda follows:

Introductions –  Led by Case Manager

Updates on Ryley’s Progress

Social – Social Worker & Speech Pathologist

Emotional – School Psychologist

Behavior – Classroom Teacher & Occupational Therapist

Academic – Classroom Teacher

Blood Sugar and Strategies – School Nurse

Home – Parents

Review of IEP – School Team

Wrap Up – Led by Case Manager

Confirming Attendees and Sharing the Agenda

When I reflect back on our very first IEP meeting, it struck me after the fact that the person who spent the most time with Ben, his paraprofessional, was not invited to the meeting.

I feel strongly that during the planning stage parents should be directly involved in determining the attendees.  The agreed to goals for the meeting will drive who should attend.  There are times that regardless of the agenda, others may be invited as well.  I have been asked to join other parents who feel as if their voice is not being heard and they are looking for an objective perspective on the dynamics of the team.  During transitions, future team members may benefit from sitting in on a meeting to learn about the child.

Unknown-1.pngAs parents, we should influence who is in the room.  Regardless of who attends the meeting, it is important to clarify roles and expectations for participation upfront.  Attendees should have time to prepare if they are to present information or lead a discussion.  THERE SHOULD BE NO SURPRISES.

The agenda should be shared with all attendees prior to the meeting.  I often facilitate the goal conversations and collaborate on the agenda, including who should attend the meeting.  However, I do not share the agenda with the attendees.  I feel strongly that the ownership rests with the school team.

When Ben attended the public school, our case manager would share the agenda.  Pending the placement and the relationship we have with our primary point person, either he or she will send out the agenda and facilitate the meeting.  There have been times when out Special Education Director will take the lead.

For this meeting in particular, the case manager at the therapeutic school disseminate the agenda and clarified who was responsible for what during the meeting.

Unknown-1.pngI have learned not to assume the agenda will be shared prior to the meeting.  If the owner of this task has not been identified, then parents should ask who will be sending out the agenda and by when.

During the Meeting

Listen, Clarify, & Contribute

My role as a parent during the meeting is not to lead or to be the loudest voice, instead, to LISTEN, CLARIFY, and CONTRIBUTE.  I try hard to pay attention to the key players and ensure their goals are being met.

During this meeting the school team did a fantastic job at providing updates and reviewing the IEP.  Our Special Education Director was thrilled with the thoroughness of the goals and had confidence in the placement.

One of my goals though had not yet been achieved … understanding what our Special Education Director needed moving forward in order to support and advocate for the placement. 

As we were starting to wrap up, I asked the director what types of updates would be helpful moving forward and how frequently she would like to receive them.

Finally, it is very important to end the meeting with clarity specific to action items and next steps.  If the person leading the meeting does not facilitate this conversation, then parents should.  Before we wrap up, let’s confirm the action items (this includes the what, who, and by when).  Since we are all at the table, lets schedule the next meeting

Regardless of type of meeting, I tend to always ask one final question … how can we (parents) best support you as you work with Ben.

Unknown-1.pngAsking well prepared questions can be a very powerful tool when advocating for your child.  Prior to each and every meeting, I spend time jotting down questions (that I may or may not ask) that provide me with insight, information, and commitment.  Developing these questions takes time and tend to pay off in spades.

After the Meeting

Thank You’s and Follow Up

I believe in the power of sincere thank you emails.  I try hard to send out personal and thoughtful thank you emails to each person who attended the meeting by end of day.

Often times these are easy to write; however, there are those times when I disagreed with someone or they just rubbed me the wrong way.  In this case, I still thank them for making the time to learn more about our son and for sharing their point of view.

Pending the outcome of the meeting I may also add something like I look forward to hearing from you soon once you “completed the action item.”

And hopefully not necessary; however, the shared agenda and thank you emails serve as additional documentation and speak to your commitment as a parent.

In Summary

My favorite Stephen Covey quote is “seek to understand before being understood”. 

Upfront preparation pays off and puts us, parents, in a position to better advocate for our children.  Having clear goals for the meeting and an agreed to agenda provides structure and focus.  Understanding what is important to others allows us to organize our thoughts prior to the meeting.  During the meeting, listening with purpose is a power skill as well as asking thoughtful questions.

At the end of the day, your goals may not have been met.  However, with meeting preparation and documentation you are in a better position to determine next steps and advocate with confidence.


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