Attending an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting can seem daunting, especially if there is disagreement with an aspect of the program or services. Parents are a child’s best and most knowledgeable advocate, but self-advocacy requires preparation, focus and willingness to find solutions. Here are valuable tips to prepare for an IEP meeting and how to advocate for your child and family.

What Is an IEP Meeting?
An IEP meeting is an ongoing evaluation that has three components: receiving information, providing information and making decisions. The nature of an IEP meeting depends on why it was called. As a self-advocate, you must have a working knowledge of how your child’s disability affects performance in an educational environment, assessments, programs and services (past and present).

How to Prepare
Review your child’s educational records and clearly identify concerns and objectives. A record review is important because the entire IEP team relies on the records. Be prepared to direct the team to useful information, explain how records are lacking, or why they’ve misinterpreted something. Categorize your list of concerns (such as by assessment or behavioral support plan). This will ensure all categories are discussed and all concerns are addressed.

What to Bring
Perhaps the three most important things to bring:

  1. A digital recorder. You have the right to record IEP meetings, provided you give 24-hour notice in writing.
  2. Organized records. Records are important. You may refer to them if there is a disagreement or the IEP team is unfamiliar with something that could impact decisions.
  3. Another person. You have the right to bring another person. It’s not uncommon for a meeting to include four individuals from the school and one parent. Having a knowledgeable support person “on your side” will help make the team feel more balanced.

Set the Right Tone
Self-advocating begins with setting the right tone. Keep things cordial and maintain your position in a calm manner. You’re there to receive and provide information that will lead to addressing concerns about your child’s educational program and services. You are part of the IEP team and the school needs your consent before taking steps and making changes. Encourage a meaningful exchange of information to ensure concerns are addressed.

Establish an Agenda
It’s common for the IEP team to have a meeting agenda that the parent didn’t help create. Be willing to let their agenda drive the conversation, but let them know how much time you will need if your concerns aren’t covered. An agenda shouldn’t remove your participation. You are the most knowledgeable team member when it comes to your child — your participation is required.

Communicate Clearly
Communication is the most important aspect of self-advocating at an IEP meeting. Sometimes what you hear about your child or something another team member says is surprising. Overlook the emotional reaction and focus on communicating. If something is unclear, ask for an explanation or clarification. Ask why an individual or the team is, or is not, recommending something. If you don’t agree with the reasons, ask for more discussion. Support your position with records or your unique knowledge of (and experience with) your child. Ask for alternatives and options, if needed. Articulate what you want for your child (and why).

Define Success
A successful meeting is when there is a mutual exchange of concerns, opinions and information between parent(s) and other IEP team members. A successful IEP (plan) is one that takes everything into account, creates goals that address a child’s unique needs, and provides necessary accommodations, modifications, special education, and related services. Differentiating between a successful IEP meeting and the IEP plan (document) is important. The plan is subject to reevaluation and can change as a result of future meetings and discussions.

How to Close the Meeting
Once the meeting concludes, the IEP team will request parent consent to the IEP plan or assessment(s). There is no requirement to sign a document right then. Parents may want to consent to some parts of the IEP and think about others. Other tasks:

  1. Write down the full name and position of all members in attendance.
  2. Ask for signed copies of documents created or relied on during the IEP meeting.
  3. Make a list of any unresolved concerns that you (or the team) have.
  4. Make note of necessary follow-up.

The IEP is a continually evolving document and IEP meetings are central to its development. The law recognizes a parent’s role by establishing procedural protections to help ensure parental participation.

Seth Schwartz is a special education attorney at Brightside Law Group in San Diego.