Just five? Sometimes it feels like I could write a list a mile long about the ways that IEP meetings could be improved. While I typically write from a positive angle, I think it's worthwhile to step back occasionally and offer constructive criticism about the process before providing suggestions for improvement. If you've been in one or 100 IEP meetings, I'm sure these complaints will resonate with you!
1. Team members approach the meeting through a deficit-based lens. I know what you're thinking: "Well... the whole point of an IEP is to create goals that the student needs to meet. To set a good goal, you have to know and discuss the student's struggles." That's true, but the entire meeting does not need to overshadowed by only the student's needs. In nearly every meeting I attend, the team blows past the Present Levels to get to the goals. And you know what that means? There is no celebration for the skills the student has achieved since the last meeting. In addition, the student's gifts should be acknowledged and leveraged to help the student overcome deficits. A great IEP meeting should be heavily focused on how the team can utilize the student's strengths to help him or her meet the agreed-upon goals.
2. There's a lack of agenda. You know what I see over and over again? Parents and teachers who go into meetings with totally different ideas about the purpose of the meeting and what would make the meeting successful. This is a one-way ticket to misery for everyone involved. It's a good idea to start each meeting with an overview of what is going to be discussed and what needs to happen-- even if it's just an annual IEP review. Some teams like to follow the IEP in order, going section by section, while others want to start with parent concerns which can lead directly into goal setting before you know it's happening. Ask for a true agenda or bring your own (which is what I suggest!), and don't be afraid to direct everyone back to it if you veer off-track.
3. Students aren't invited to their own meetings. Gosh, I could write forever about this and I already have. Feel free to jump on over to this post to read all the good insight about having students join their own meetings starting EARLY.
4. Ideas are prescriptive rather than creative. I hate, hate, hate when school teams present parents with a few options and want them to pick one, or worse, tell them that their student must be placed in X class/group/placement/program of study because that's what they offer. Repeat after me: That's not how it works. That. Is. NOT. How. It. Works. The purpose of an IEP is to create an individualized educational program that is based around what the student needs, NOT based around what the school offers. It's great if what the school offers serves the student! But if it doesn't, it's the responsibility of the school to provide the staff, services, therapies, supports, or accommodations that will. Anything can be on the table if you can demonstrate that the student needs it to be successful in school.
5. Nothing actually ever changes. Have you ever been to an IEP meeting that felt great? That felt like everyone was collaborating, that your concerns were heard and validated, and that you finally had new strategies in place to make things better? There seems to be a disconnect at times about what people offer and what they can follow through with. You can have the best plan in the world...but if it's just a plan without any action it's worthless. Make sure to follow up in writing after an IEP meeting to reiterate your understanding of the changes that will be made. Ask the school team to provide their agreement in writing as well. A great IEP will have designated "check-in" times-- if the IEP says that your student will be evaluated on a goal monthly, ask the school team for their report when the time comes. Accountability is key to making sure changes are made and not just discussed.
So there's the list. What are your biggest concerns and frustrations with the IEP process?
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I get this question a lot because I tend to work with families that are beginning the transition planning process. I'll give you my answer up front: Do NOT wait until age 16 to invite your child to attend their own meetings!
We're not raising children-- we're raising future adults. We need to prepare students to advocate for themselves one day. Just like we can't suddenly expect a student to tie their shoes or use the bus without weeks, months, or sometimes years of training, we need to give our students as many opportunities as possible to see us (parents and teachers) model good advocacy and to teach them how to self-advocate.
By attending IEP meetings:
1. Students will learn the language. This means sharing with students the name of their diagnosis, the symptoms or expressions of their disability, the names of the accommodations, tools, or supports they need, and the vocabulary that's used to describe these things. If we want and expect our children to be able to manage their own case at some point, these are the words they will need to be able to use. Expose them early and often. But won't my child feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if s/he hears us talking about deficits or areas of weakness? This leads us to our next point...
2. Students will see their needs as normal, rather than viewing deficits as shameful. You know what happens, as humans, when we realize that certain topics are approached with whispers and secrecy? We start to believe that there's something embarrassing about the topic. This is what we unintentionally teach kids when we don't invite them into the conversation. By opening up a dialogue, we communicate instead that having needs is a normal part of life. That asking for help is something that EVERYONE does. That having things that we're good at and things that we're not so good at is a typical part of the human experience. Shielding our kids from these realities does not help them-- it makes it seem like their autism, or their dyslexia, or their depression is something they should be ashamed of or "can't handle." This isn't true, and it will prevent them from being able to live authentically and successfully in the future.
3. Students will get comfortable sharing about their needs and preferences. Once our students know what their needs are and have the language to talk about them, attending IEP meetings gives them the opportunity to practice expressing those needs. Advocacy, or standing up for what you need or what is important to you, works like a muscle. It can be painful at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Do we really want the first time our children ask for what they need to be at a job with a stressed-out boss? Of course not! Start early, and start often.
4. Students will provide ideas that we may not think about. Have you heard the phrase,"Nothing about us without us"? We don't like the idea of someone talking about us without our input, and neither do our kids. By having students attend their own meetings, they learn that their voice matters. We often worry about our kids being taken advantage of, and a great way to prevent that is by teaching them, through our actions, that they have a say and that their ideas and boundaries are worthy of respect. In addition, our children know better than anyone what helps them. Perhaps your child has an idea of how they can participate meaningfully in a certain class or manage their anxiety in a crowded lunch room better than we can. By inviting students into the meeting, we show them that they can and need to be part of solving the problem. In addition, the solution will likely be easier to implement with student buy-in from the start.
So what age am I thinking? The earlier the better. Even a kindergartner can join for 10 minutes to share (verbally, with pictures, pointing on a choice board, etc) about their preferences and what helps them at school. Prepare by talking in advance about what an IEP meeting is, how it can help them and what they may want to share. You may want to assist them with writing down their thoughts and questions. Build up stamina and increase from there as the years go by. I can promise that you will not regret it.
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