Once you’ve got an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in place for your child, it can be reviewed and updated whenever any member of the IEP team (including you) requests, but at a minimum, it will be updated annually. The IEPs for my kiddos are due in November and January respectively; however, I received two calls from the school last week about updating both their IEPs sooner, rather than later. Preparing for two IEP meetings to be held on the same day is just twice the fun, right? (<–insert sarcasm font)
While it might not be anyone’s idea of fun because I have a process in place and communicate with the school frequently, I wasn’t surprised and I am not panicked at the thought of getting ready for either of these meetings. Keep reading to learn how I approach both the review process prior to the meeting and the meeting itself.
This article is based on a chapter from my upcoming book, Lanterns on the Dark Path. It will be a guide for shifting your mindset and how to apply lessons on leadership, team-building, communication, and negotiation to advocating for your special needs child. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss future articles and info about the book as it nears publication, sign up here!
Individual Education Plan Annual Review Meeting
Preparing for the Meeting
How you prepare for this meeting will be largely determined by a few key factors: How do you feel about the services your child received over the course of the last year? Has anything major changed for your child (like a new diagnosis)? How are things different for your child this year vs last year (for example, are there any new problems arising from different social and educational expectations which weren’t present last year)? Do you feel like the data being collected is sufficient and accurately measuring progress (or lack of) towards the IEP goals?
The first thing I look at is how I feel my child is doing and what might have changed since the last time the IEP team met. I review how things are going at home and write down my kiddo’s strengths and the things they have worked hard to improve. Seriously, write these positive things down at the top of your paper in bold. Holding the positives and progress made at the forefront of your mind will help you approach this meeting in a better frame of mind.
If anything new has come up, I write it down along with some rough, brainstorm-type notes on how it may influence existing goals or require the team to consider a new one. If there’s a new diagnosis, I make sure I have a copy of the letter from the physician and get it to the school/IEP team PRIOR to the meeting, if I haven’t already given it to them. Just like you don’t want to be surprised in a room full of people, let the IEP team know about any critical updates before you walk in so they have time to incorporate it into their IEP review process as well. Not only does this foster the “one team” feeling, but it’s simply more efficient. You’ll be able to spend the precious minutes of the meeting talking about the goals, not giving a bunch of updates.
Next, I pull out the current IEP document and remind myself of exactly what the existing goals are. Because I make routine communication with the school a priority, I typically have a pretty good idea of where my child is in achieving the milestones in his goals. But, as I’ve said before and will say a million more times, knowledge is power – so I want to know that document from cover to cover when I’m sitting at the table with the rest of the team. I make notes about where I think we are for each goal, if we should keep it as written or not, what the milestones should look like going forward and draft language for any new goals I’d like to see incorporated.
The last thing I do before the meeting is to make sure I’m in the best frame of mind I can be in. I know it sounds touchy-feely, but this is a HARD path we’re on and you have got to be at the top of your game every time you’re interacting with the school in a formal setting like this. Get plenty of sleep the night before the meeting, make sure you’ve gotten some movement into your body that morning (yep, parking in the outer-40 and hiking it into your office counts, so does 5 minutes of yoga) and make sure you review at least the strengths and progress your child has made in the last year.
You’ve got to have a rock-solid mindset when you walk into the school because just like any other meeting about your child, it has the potential to be an emotional rollercoaster. Hearing about the problems and lack of progress on some goals has the potential to push parents into a negative spiral of denial, blame, shame, and anger. NONE of these are productive emotions and will not help you advocate for your child at this meeting. Yes, they are valid feelings. Yes, we have all felt them. Yes, it sucks and we’re all sad for at least a moment or two that our child has to work harder to do things most everyone else takes for granted.
But I know one thing for a fact — if you’re taking the time to read this, YOU are an awesome parent who is doing their best. Your child’s lack of progress towards meeting goals does not mean you haven’t been proactive enough as a parent or are doing anything wrong. It is not a personal reflection on you – it just is what it is. If your child isn’t meeting goals, you need to ask the IEP team some hard questions about the goal (is it written correctly to measure progress? Is it appropriate for your child’s situation? Etc.) or you need to get more creative in the support being provided to your child to achieve it. But try really hard not to let these discussions bring you down.
In the meeting itself
So, you’ve done your pre-work and chanted Om plus your mantras (or ran 3 miles to angry rock music pounding in your ears – you do you, babe) in the morning. Now what?
First, stop by a bakery on the way and buy a sugary bribe. I’ve written about it before, but one of the key lessons I learned in the military is if you feed them, they will be happier than they were. And happier troops, ones with either caffeine or sugar in their systems, tend to feel appreciated and want to work harder for and with the provider of said delightful morsels. If I’m heading into an early meeting, I’ll email the day before to get everyone’s Starbucks order. After lunch meetings get a pan of brownies or mini chocolate chip cookies. This doesn’t have to be expensive – brownie mix is $2.50 – but it will get you SO MUCH in return. Trust me.
Next, show up on time and prepared. The actual meeting agenda will vary, but in general, it will start with updates from you and from your child’s current teacher. They’ll share what is and isn’t working and what they think should be provided or changed for the year to come. They will go over the IEP goals and which ones have been met and which ones your child is still working towards. They will recommend which ones should be removed, changed, or added and you’ll get a chance to provide input as well. The IEP team will go over the supports, accommodations, and assistive technology currently being provided and suggest appropriate changes. Once everyone is in agreement, the school will finalize the language and send a copy home for you to review and approve. After that, you’re set for another year – woop woop!
So what if you don’t agree with how things turned out? At any point during this meeting, you should be able to provide your input and disagree with the recommendation of the IEP team. They should value your thoughts and work with you to come up with an acceptable alternative. Try as hard as you can to come up with a compromise or creative solution to the situation in the meeting. However, if you completely disagree with the decision made by the IEP team, remember you can always appeal the outcome. This is not a step I suggest lightly, but it’s important you know this option is open to you.
I’ve been in the situation where I hit the parking lot after a meeting and said, “Wait! What the heck just happened in there?!?” I’m a trained negotiator and I got caught totally off guard at our first meeting. Thankfully I had a good friend who knew a heck of a lot more than I did at the time and she let me know that I needed to appeal the decision. Depending on your state, who you appeal to might take some determined digging on your part to find, but everyone has a boss. Find them and appeal the decision.
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As always, please comment below with ideas, comments, and suggestions.