It is common for school districts to conduct the most IEP annual review meetings in the spring. These meetings are often a source of dread and anxiety for parents as they feel overwhelmed by the process, the complexity and volume of information, and the number of people around the table. Fortunately, our special education attorneys and advocates have vast experience in navigating these meetings that can be (but don’t have to be!) overwhelming. Below, Denise Verzella, our Senior Associate,  provides her best tips and advice for how to make these annual meetings less stressful and more successful.

Over the years, I have attended countless IEP meetings, both as a professional and as a parent. I have learned some valuable tips and tricks that can help make these meetings a little less stressful and a lot more successful.

Tools & Recommendations:

  • Ask for a copy of the draft IEP in advance of your meeting. Some child study teams may push back on this, so if that is the case, you can ask for the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (“PLAAFP”) section of the IEP as it will contain input from teachers and related service providers as to how your child is progressing. This can help you determine if your impressions of your child’s progress align with the district’s perspective, and enable you to advocate for appropriate supports and/or services to address your child’s weaknesses. Reviewing an IEP or the PLAAFP section in advance of a meeting can be especially valuable if your IEP is virtual. It is almost impossible to adequately review an IEP when someone is sharing a screen or reading from a document.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for additional assessments if there is a particular area in which your child is struggling. For instance, if  behavior is a concern, you may ask the child study team to conduct a functional behavioral assessment. This is an observation by a behaviorist that takes place over the span of several days across varied settings to determine the types of behaviors present, how often they are occurring, potential triggers for the behavior, and recommendations. Likewise, if your child is struggling to communicate, and he/she/they does not use an augmentative communication device, you can ask for an assistive technology or augmentative communication evaluation.
  • Parental concerns – send them to the case manager before the meeting. Have you ever sat through an IEP meeting, listened to all the updates from the teachers, and the proposed program, and then it was suddenly time to end? Many parents feel like they don’t have the time to ask their questions or list their concerns during the meeting. We often recommend sending the case manager a “punch list” of questions/concerns a few days before the meeting. This will give the case manager time to research your questions and address your concerns at the meeting. It is a great way to make everyone’s time more productive. If additional issues arise during the meeting, the parental concerns can be amended at or after the meeting, so you are not locked into the concerns you sent prior to the meeting.
  • Bring someone with you to the meeting, either a family member, friend, private professional, advocate, or attorney. Having someone else who will ask questions that you may not feel comfortable asking is critical. It is always great to have another set of “ears” to take notes about what was discussed at the meeting, so you do not have to miss anything.
  • Record the meeting. You may feel awkward making this request, but don’t! Case managers are used to this request, and are happy to oblige if they are notified ahead of time. Send your child’s case manager an email at least 24 hours before the meeting to let them know that you plan to record because you don’t want to miss any important details. If you record the meeting, the school district will record it as well.
  • Make sure the appropriate people are in the room. You (and your child if they are 14 years or older) should receive an invitation to the IEP meeting. On this invitation, all the district personnel that will be attending will be listed. If your child receives a related service such as speech or occupational therapy, that provider should be in attendance at the meeting.  The New Jersey regulations governing special education requires a special education teacher and a general education attend all IEP meetings.  If you have a specific concern or area you wish to discuss, you can request the teacher who is responsible for that area to attend the meeting.
  • Bring your child. It is often very impactful for team members to hear students “in their own words” what is challenging for them or what support they feel they need. It also can help your child learn to advocate for themselves. I have had children as young as 5 attend IEP meetings. If your child is 14 or older or entering high school, they will receive their own invitation to the meeting. They don’t have to stay for the whole meeting but certainly can attend for a few minutes in the beginning to tell the IEP Team what they like about school and what is difficult for them. If your child is younger and you are concerned about speech progress, asking your child to speak in front of team members can be very powerful.
  • If during the meeting, you do not agree with what a teacher or therapist is saying about your child’s progress, ask for more details. You have every right to ask for work samples, behavioral data, and copies of assessments. If teachers don’t have that information during the meeting, they can provide it to you after the meeting.
  • Don’t sign the IEP at the meeting. Take your time and review the IEP after the meeting. Read every page, paying special attention to the updates from the teachers in the PLAAFP section of the IEP. If you have questions about anything in the IEP, email the case manager for clarification but remember an IEP goes into effect whether you sign it or not, after 15 days (unless it is an initial IEP, those require a signature to implement). If you disagree with the IEP, you must file for mediation or due process within 15 days to enact “stay put” which enables the prior IEP to be in effect while you dispute the proposed IEP.
  • Be collaborative. This is not always easy, especially when your child and emotions are involved but collaboration goes a long way. If you don’t agree with the child study team on their recommendations, let them know that you appreciate their feedback but you want them to work with your child’s private providers so that everyone can be on the same page. If the child study team recommends a change in placement, request to visit the class/placement before agreeing or rejecting it. You also have the right to make suggestions as to what you think would benefit your child. Working with the child study team and not against them, typically leads to better overall outcomes for your child.
  • It is ok to adjourn a meeting and reconvene at a later time. School district staff often schedule multiple IEP meetings in a row and may not have the time to address all your concerns in your allotted time. It is fine to ask to hold the IEP open and reconvene for another meeting. Do not feel you need to truncate your concerns or not ask all your questions because you are running out of time.
  • Know when you need help. If being collaborative has not worked, and if you feel like you are getting nowhere when you attend IEP meetings, it may be time to bring an advocate or attorney with you. Often, having the support of someone who knows the ins and outs of special education, takes the pressure off parents, and allows them to just listen with a clear head.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you want talking points in advance of an IEP meeting or if you would like one of our advocates or attorneys to attend your IEP meeting with you.