Some practical advice for IEP meetings: Setting the tone.
When I worked in the special education system, one of my least favorite things was watching overwhelmed and intimidated parents meekly acquiesce to the process of the IEP meeting when they are VIP-status team members (take it from Dr. M.: you as the parent are the most powerful person at IEPs!). Although as a psychologist I made an effort to meet or talk to parents privately before the meeting to discuss my often sensitive findings, unless I “chaired” the actual IEP meeting (which was my preference, but was a decision made by administrators), I had less control over the proceedings than the parents who attended. A parent can and should be in control of the IEP meeting to the extent that 1) you have all your questions answered to your satisfaction, and 2) you have all items on your “agenda” addressed.
[Important Aside: It is usually better to take the paperwork home to review and think about before you sign anything except the attendence sheet. Upon getting the paperwork home, for example, you may find that key issues and concerns have not been noted and should be added. You can write your own addendum on a piece of paper if you wish, stating that you want it to become part of the IEP document (include the date, etc.). If applicable, you may also want a special education attorney to review the IEP paperwork]
Unfortunately, IEP meetings often seem to progress willy-nilly without any specific agenda. However, you, as the parent and as a crucial player according to law, should come prepared with your own agenda whether or not school personnel are organized enough to do so themselves. Often there is an “unspoken agenda” that everyone but the parent knows about. Obviously even a written agenda cannot obliterate an unspoken agenda. But if you’re prepared, at least you will not have to “think on your feet.”
Don’t feel pressure to be “nicey-nicey.” It may seem counterintuitive, but if you encounter difficulties in the future, it may be easier to make your voice heard when your demeanor has been professional. IEP meetings aren’t informal gatherings and shouldn’t be treated as such. You will be signing legal documents that will greatly impact your child, and you will have to take in an enormous amount of information in a short amount of time (always ask if you don’t understand and never sign anything unless you are satisfied that you do understand; do not under any circumstances feel stupid for not immediately understanding what others have spent years doing for a living). In my opinion, there is no reason that IEP meetings cannot be both friendly and professional. When I chaired meetings, I considered them to be important enough to warrant formal presentation status, complete with a typed agenda given to each member of the team. I was acutely aware that I was a public servant, and the parent (taxpayer) was paying my salary.
My purpose here is to not go into the “meat” of IEP meetings, as the process has been explained often and well elsewhere. However, as a psychologist, I do have some ideas to offer about setting the stage so that you feel more comfortable. It was my firm belief when I chaired meetings that an attempt should be made to “level the playing field” during the first 10 minutes so that those who weren’t school personnel (parents, advocates, outside service providers) felt comfortable, welcome, and most importantly, part of the team. I also believed that a certain level of comfort can be provided simply by comporting the meeting professionally. I call this “setting the tone.” Unfortunately, you may have to do this for yourself. Here are some key aspects:
1. Formal introduction of each team member. Name, title, relationship to the student. You may want to ask (because this information is rarely offered even though it should be standard procedure) what academic degree(s) or license(s) the person possesses, especially if they’ve assessed your child. Ask for their card if you desire; this makes them easier to contact later if you have any questions. Never be afraid of sounding stupid if you ask “what is it exactly that you do?”
2. Statement of confidentiality; reminding the team that anything discussed during the meeting stays at the meeting. I’ve personally never seen anyone else do this, probably because I was the only one ethically bound to do so. However, it is especially important to remind those who are not bound by a strict professional code of ethics that information shared at the meeting isn’t open to discussion in the teacher’s lounge or across their backyard fence. The parent of a minor can, of course, discuss the proceedings with whomever they wish. For the rest of us, though, discussion is limited to only those who personally provide services to the student for the sole purpose of information-gathering in the best interests of the child. In other words, gossip isn’t kosher.
3. Providing the parent(s) a copy of procedural safeguards. Asking the parent or guardian whether they’ve ever been exposed to the procedural safeguards before, and briefly explaining key aspects if they aren’t familiar with them. Encouraging them to read them thoroughly when they have the opportunity to do so.
4. Stating the purpose of the meeting (initial evaluation, triennial, manifestation determination, etc.) including: an explanation of what this particular type of meeting is supposed to accomplish, as well as the possible outcomes of the meeting and the ramifications of those outcomes. It always amazed me how infrequently this is usually done. In business, if you held a meeting with a client and didn’t formally introduce the players, the purpose, and the anticipated outcome, the client would understandably take their business elsewhere.
5. Inviting non-school team members for their input. Asking the parent and/or persons accompanying the parent (including the student themselves, if present) if there is anything not covered in the written agenda that they would like added to it.
Now the “body” of the meeting can begin by addressing parental questions and concerns.
It is unlikely that any or all of the above items will be addressed during the first few minutes of your IEP meeting. It will likely be up to you to politely interject questions and make statements such as:
“I see that you don’t have a written agenda outlining the components of this meeting. Can someone please catch me up on what the specific agenda is for this meeting?”
“I don’t think I’ve met everyone here. Could the other team members please introduce themselves and tell me your official title, as well as what level of formal training you have and in what field?”
“I feel a little uncomfortable talking about these things. Is what we talk about confidential? Is it shared with anyone else outside of this meeting?” (If information is shared, with whom and why?)
“I know that I will be reviewing legal documents today. Can someone please explain my rights to me before we begin?”
“I’m a little confused about the purpose of this meeting. Could someone please explain in detail what a (triennial, manifestation determination, etc.) is?”
“Thank you for explaining what a (triennial, manifestation determination, etc.) is. Could you please tell me a little more about the determination process? What are the legal ramifications of any decision made here today?”
“Unfortunately, I am not as knowledgeable about this process as those of you who attend these meetings all the time. As a part of the IEP team, I’d like to understand (insert your question) before we proceed in order that I may fully participate.”