If you're a parent to one of the six million children with disabilities in the U.S., you're undoubtedly well aware of the individualized education program (IEP) meeting. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents of a special ed child meet at least once a year with representatives of the local school district to prepare their child's IEP -- a detailed, written description of the child's educational program. (For a general overview of special education and the IEP process, read the article Special Education Law.)
For many parents, the annual IEP meeting is a difficult and stressful encounter. You may have trouble making your child's case for services because you feel intimidated by school administrators and experts. There may be obstacles beyond your control, such as a teacher shortage, insufficient funds, or undesirable program options. While the process can seem overwhelming to a parent, it doesn't need to be this way.
You don't need to be a special education expert or a lawyer to be an effective advocate for your child in the IEP process. What you must do is be prepared and plan ahead. Every parent -- whether it's their first or their tenth IEP -- will benefit from taking the following steps well in advance of the IEP meeting.
Obtain a copy of your school district's IEP form. Become familiar with the sections you will be filling out at the IEP meeting. These typically include:
Become an expert about your child's educational performance and needs. Keep in regular contact with your child's teacher and other school representatives, and gather opinions from professionals who know your child. Get a copy of everything in your child's school file, including assessments, testing data, and written teacher comments. Figure out what each item means and think about whether you can use it to demonstrate your child's need for a particular program, service or methodology.
Develop your child's ideal IEP. While IDEA says that you and the school district must develop the IEP together, it is still a good idea for you to put together a clearly expressed blueprint of the educational program and services you want beforehand. This will not only help you learn your material, but will also get you to think about how to prove that your child really needs the educational help you're asking for.
Gather all available information -- and develop new material -- that supports your position and your child's ideal IEP. This may be a statement from your child's teacher, an independent assessment of your child (an evaluation by someone outside the school district), or a statement from your child's pediatrician or other professional.
Find out who will attend the IEP meeting on behalf of the school district. If you can, try to find out what position these folks will take at the meeting. Usually your child's teacher, the school administrator responsible for special education, and specialists, such as a school psychologist, attend the IEP meeting. Be especially clear about the position of your child's teacher -- the teacher is potentially the best ally or worst enemy you have in the IEP process. Either way, because the teacher has had lots of contact with your child, he or she will probably be the most convincing member of the IEP team.
Invite appropriate allies to speak at the IEP meeting on your child's behalf. This may be your child's physician, an independent assessor who's evaluated your child, or a specialist who supports the program, service, or other IEP component you want for your child. If key people can't attend (or it's too costly for them to do so), have them prepare a written statement for you to read at the meeting.
Organize your materials. Put all your papers and documents in a three-ring binder, with clearly labeled sections you can easily access at the meeting.
Understand your child's legal rights to special education. Your school district is required by IDEA to give you copies of special education statutes, regulations, and policies. Read these carefully, keeping in mind that under the law, parents are equal decision makers -- just as important as everyone else at the IEP meeting.
Determine your options. Gather information about various programs within your school district (as well as those outside of it) that may be appropriate for your child. Talk to your child's teacher, the school assessor, the district special education administrator, and other parents. Visit as many of these programs as you can before the IEP meeting.
Mastering these tasks requires you to be organized, to ask questions, and to make use of resources that are widely available. Parents' groups and disability organizations can help tremendously in the process. If you plan, organize, and persevere, you will help your child. You may not make the IEP meeting perfect, or even pleasant, but your child will benefit from your efforts.
For comprehensive guidance on special education and the IEP process, read The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).
Or, if your child has a learning disability (as opposed to another type of disability), read Nolo's IEP Guide: Learning Disabilities in which Lawrence Siegel tailors his discussion of special education and IEPs specifically for the parents of children with learning disabilities.