Towards a Working IEP: Part One – Balancing the Playing Field

A great deal of my consulting work has come about through parents of kids with disabilities inviting me to be a part of their son or daughter’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. IEPs are the central paperwork portion of the special education services that students receive in schools, and are filled with loads of information that is used throughout a school year to meet the needs of kids with disabilities.

It has been my experience that IEPs can be beautifully written and executed. I have also experienced IEPs that are basically useless paperwork that follows a child through their school years without much meaning. The intent is for it to be the former, but that is, unfortunately in many cases, not how they are written or used.

Often the invitations I receive from parents to attend these meetings stems from two major issues. One issue that brings parents to me is a general feeling of inadequacy that they have about the process itself, the legalities around it, or the scope of the services that they feel they can advocate for their child during the process. Parents may be new to the services that are being considered as in the case of a new IEP, or may be more seasoned with the service delivery – and have a general sense of “something just isn’t right about this…”.

Another issue that exists, that brings parents to ask for my help, is after my professional colleagues act in insensitive or inappropriate ways during the meetings – believe me, there are many examples of this that I have encountered, and many parents I have seen cry at meetings because of this. Upon crying, I have seen many parents lose their credibility with the team, and become instantly in a position of less power or influence generally for decision making and advocacy for their children. Teams of professionals can be demeaning, unprofessional, and just not nice! At times this is subtle or unintended, and other times – not so much. One example that I LOVE – is professionals sitting on big chairs, parents sitting on little chairs! Of course, I say this to be funny and give an example of a rather small detail that we can all relate to – but it is a common thing at IEP meetings, and although subtle, instantly creates an unbalanced playing field between parents and professionals.

My experiences at IEP meetings cause me to ask two essential questions:

1) how do we balance the playing field between parents and professionals in planning and determining the programs and services for kids with disabilities? and

2) what are the basic tenets of a working IEP that can be built upon by teams of professionals and parents together, that meets the needs of students with disabilities?

I am going to address the first question in this post, and address the second question in my next post, so I can share more specific ideas with you about this important topic.

The Playing Field

Obtaining a balanced playing field between parents and professionals at IEP meetings results in a collaborative space being created, one where rational discourse can occur between all of the people present. One assumption that I am making that is inherent in this statement is that the parents are coming to the meeting wanting fair and decent things for their child that can be delivered, or is professionally defensible. As many times as I have seen professionals act in unprofessional ways at IEP meetings or in their interactions with parents – I have also seen parents that want crazy stuff, where there is no way it can be delivered, and professionals try to express this in the best ways that they can.

Balancing the field between parents and professionals assumes that both are going to do their part in creating this balanced space together.

For parents, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Know your legal rights – ask questions of the school professionals, or people that know the laws whom are outside the school setting – get informed and knowledgeable.
  • Never go alone – ask a consultant that is familiar with the process, an advocate from one of the many local advocacy agencies, a disability rights attorney, or even just a close friend of yours. Having another person with you to hear the information covered and be able to reflect, and have a conversation with you afterwards is priceless. Additionally – there is strength in numbers, having one more person with you just feels good. Do it. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Make your priorities known to all before the meeting – surprises are not always fun. To the best of your ability before the meeting, think about what you want to have come out of your time together, and goals or dreams you have for your son or daughter. Write it down and share it with people beforehand. Transparency and clarity is a good thing for creating collaborative relationships.
  • Analyze and counter each point of contention – this does NOT mean argue with each thing you don’t agree with. Ask questions, look for clarification, restate and paraphrase what you think you are hearing being said, and offer other suggestions. You are a valuable member of the team; you know your son or daughter better than anyone around the table.
  • If all else fails – make someone on their side cry first! – my trusted advisor, Lou Brown used to say this all of the time…tongue and cheek as it is, the message being that we all are hopefully in this for the right reasons, to create supports and services that work for kids. When parents are put in situations where they feel inadequate or doubtful about their sons and daughters, advocacy gets muddy and tears can fall. Professionals are absolutely there for the right reasons for kids – but these meetings are inherently set up in ways that many times bring tears to the parents first. Through your stories and your strength in knowing about your child, make them see your point – make them cry first. 😉

For professionals, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Acknowledge your position of authority – know that you are in a position of authority by means of your title. Parents, even if they have a background in education or related field, are not coming to the meeting as professionals – they are parents and advocates for their children. They need to feel that they are welcome and respected members of the team. Your authority, in and of itself, can be a barrier to successful collaboration, if you misuse your positional authority. You need to create ways for parents to engage in conversation in equal and respected ways.
  • Don’t use teacher speak or special education jargon – IEP meetings and the language used in conducting them are filled with teacher speak or acronyms. To the greatest extent possible, avoid using terms that would inherently exclude parents from the conversation. If acronyms or special education terms must be used, explain them in detail and confirm understanding of the use of the terms before moving ahead in the meeting.
  • Know your legal rights – just as important as parents knowing their legal rights, professionals need to know the laws as well. It is a basis of understanding for both groups to build upon. Laws are clear, and meant to be guidelines for instructional planning. If you are unfamiliar with specifics, ask a person from within the school or district, or a disability rights attorney to be present, so that there are not miscommunications or misunderstandings.
  • Create physical and emotional spaces that are conducive to collaborative conversation – pay attention to the actual meeting space (chairs, seating arrangements); the way professionals and parents are distributed around the table (as well as who is sitting next to whom); how people are introduced or introduce themselves; the ways ideas are written or conveyed; as well as offering beverages or snacks for the meeting are all ways to create conducive environments for conversations. Being aware of the human aspects of the meeting – knowing that parents may be feeling uncomfortable, and you hold the key to making them feel more at ease in this situation – goes a very long way. (By the way, I am assuming in all of this that if there is a language difference – there are appropriate accommodations made so that parents can be fully participating members of the discussion).
  • Communication, communication, communication – before, during and after the meeting – your communication is not only legally required and outlined specifically with timelines and expectations, but additionally there are things you can do to go above and beyond the legal requirements around communication that ensures successful meetings. Like the parents, outline and share before the meeting what your priorities are. During the meeting, pause and check for understanding, make clarifications, and assume the positive intentions of the parents. After the meeting, follow up with a phone call, email or other way of reaching out, to make sure there aren’t issues or questions that still exist.

These ways of balancing the playing field between professionals and parents creates a place for discourse, dialogue and different opinions to be expressed. From here, we can start the task of creating a working IEP that supports kids with disabilities in meaningful ways in schools. The student-centered piece of the IEP is my next post. I hope you’ll come back to read all about it!

3 thoughts on “Towards a Working IEP: Part One – Balancing the Playing Field

  1. Lisa Humphreys

    Jen, seriously, thank you so much for the info! I have to run IEP meetings all the time and my goal is to make parents as comfortable as possible during the meeting, and to not feel “inferior” in any way. I try to always see myself in their shoes, and how they are feeling. Some people running meetings are so cut throat, drives me nuts! Do you mind if I forward your info to work colleagues?????

    I find that if I can look at things from the parents’ eyes, perspectives, the meeting goes much smoother. Also, if you can bring some light humor to the meetings, and not be way too serious. I’m always looking for better ways to run meetings. I feel for parents that sometimes feel “attacked” by professionals…

  2. Clare Davis

    I love this post! As you know I have been to my share of IEP mtgs for Conor and I have experienced both good and bad ones… the bad ones where I leave feeling, “what the heck just happened there?”. The best ones are those that make me feel that they have seen Conor as a kid first, and someone with autism second. Understanding that this kid is just as unique as his ‘typical’ peers sets up the meeting in which his ACTUAL needs, pertaining to him and his struggles as a kid with autism, come through, instead of, ‘let’s just get through this, we know what is best’ cookie cutter approach. Such an intimidating thing.
    Thanks for starting the discussion!

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Hi Clare!
      I hope that you are experiencing more of the good ones as you describe, my friend! You and I have talked about this issue before, so you know that I believe you can do this! The bad ones will come, and hopefully they are fewer and farther between. YOU know Conor best, have the dreams and hopes for him, understand his gifts and struggles…just like ANY parents do for their kids! You need to be the one that stops the meeting and asks tough questions, makes them think harder and go back to square one if need be.

      That being said, I am really happy you are having meetings that are focused on Conor as a person. Seems so intuitive, but not always the case. When it happens, it is amazing what the adults can do together. The professionals are there for the right reasons – sometimes we just need to remind them of that and stay focused on the one person you are there to talk about.

      You are an example of a parent that is NOT asking for crazy stuff! You need to remember that!! Stay positive, and if ALL else fails…make them cry first! 😉

      I hope you can make the next community meeting! May 5th – see my event page for details. Would love your voice and wisdom in the room. Best, Jen


Comment on this post

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s