Before you even walk through the doors for the IEP meeting, you’re sweating. Yes, even if it’s actually cold outside right now. You’re nervous because today will decide the path for your child’s next year in school.
What waits inside is anyone’s best guess. The school’s team has had months to prepare, to gather data, and to coordinate their plan of action. You’ve also had some time, but with fewer resources to draw from.
Before this scene reaches the end, hit pause. Now, rewind. Let’s see if we can’t make this year’s IEP meeting a little bit less stressful.
IEP Meeting Tips to Take the Stress Away
Walking into an IEP meeting unprepared is like diving with very hungry sharks, without a cage. It could be fine, but it could also end in disaster.
Before you even consider the next IEP, it’s time for a look back. The first thing to do is pull out the IEPs from the last few years, at least since the last triennial review (if possible). Lay them all out in front of you to make comparing them easier. Now, go through each one page by page. Ideally, you should be in the same section in each IEP at the same time. This will let you check for changes in that section for each IEP.
You should be seeing changes in the present levels and goals. Present levels should reflect growth over time and be accurate for the grade level at the time of each IEP. You should be seeing different scores, and hopefully some progress. The goals might be similar from year to year, but there should be some changes in wording and expected outcome over time.
If you have test scores of any kind, including classroom tests, from the last year or so, get those out. Compare these assessments and their analysis reports to the present levels of the last IEP and/or the teacher comments from the last progress report or report card. See if they match up. If you see some discrepancies, make a note of it.
If you have been keeping track of your child’s service hours with communication logs or another system, great! Compare your numbers to the hours required per your child’s most recent IEP. If you notice a significant difference, mark it as a topic of discussion at your next meeting. A few hours difference is not a huge deal. These types of things happen due to absences, unexpected scheduling changes, and school special events like field trips. Major gaps in services are a problem and do need to be addressed immediately.
Pro Tip: reviewing your documents and data from several years can help you to form a better idea of your child’s progress over time, as well as how the school has been servicing your child.
With all your data spread out and notes taken, it’s time to figure out your focus and concerns for the IEP meeting.
Look back at your notes and the IEPs/assessments. What did you notice? Where there any major issues that kept popping up? Have things changed significantly, good or bad, since the last IEP? These will be your areas of concentration for the next meeting.
Write down exactly what you are concerned about and briefly explain why. Remember, these notes are just for you, so use what makes sense to you.
One helpful thing to do is to color code your concerns and questions. As you are writing each concern, pick a color highlighter and the same color sticky note. In your IEP notebook, highlight your written question in that color and place the sticky note like a tab on the edge of the page. Now go through your data and place that color sticky note on any pages that connect to that question.
Pro Tip: color coordinating your notes and data pages will allow you to quickly and easily find your support documents during the meeting.
Script It Out
If this isn’t your first IEP rodeo, you might have some ideas about what the school might say or do at your meeting. Even if you are having an IEP meeting for the first time, you probably have already been communicating with the school for a while about your child.
For this step, your goal is to create a script or scripts for your meeting. You could just make one version, imagining the most middle of the road responses from the school’s IEP team. Or you could make a few versions, with the best and worst case scenarios playing out.
Imagine how the meeting will go from beginning to end. Think about who will say what and when. Choose how you want to introduce and address your concerns. Actually write out what you want to say about each concern and how you might respond to school personnel.
Pro Tip: scripting your meetings will help to keep you focused and calm in the moment; you’ll know exactly what to say. Need help? Download Talk to the Teacher for pre-made scripts for school meetings!
Practice does make perfect. In this case, rehearsing your meeting script(s) will help to make you more confident in the moment. You can practice different tones of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and finding your supporting documents.
Have a friend, spouse, family member, or your advocate play the non-parental roles. They will read directly from the script(s) as you have written them. You will play, well, yourself. Use your script at first and over time try to go “off book,” speaking from memory.
Bring all of your materials and documents with you to each rehearsal. You’ll want to practice how to set up your papers, how to find your documents, and passing out information to the rest of the team.
Pro Tip: rehearsing the whole meeting, including documents and data, helps you to fine-tune and perfect your meeting game plan; a smoother delivery makes for a more effective argument!
As you rehearse, take note of what seemed to work for you as you were using your supporting documents. Set up your papers, notebooks, and any other materials so that they are easy to access and distribute if needed.
Do this however it works best for you. Personally, I like to have my script and any notes in one folder. All of my color coordinated documents and data are in another folder. As I am sitting down in the meeting, both folders are in front of me, with a notebook in between them.
During the meeting, as I cover a specific question or use a certain document, I flip that paper over. This was it doesn’t get mixed up with the papers I still need to address.
I rehearse everything exactly the way I will do it during the meeting, tweaking here or there as needed. Practicing my meeting techniques and how to handle my papers over and over makes the motions second nature. This helps me to focus on my message and control my emotions.
No matter how much you review, script, rehearse, and organize, there will probably be a few butterflies on meeting day. This is totally normal! You are going to be deciding the next steps in your child’s educational future, after all.
While you are driving, visualize the meeting going well. Picture remaining calm and focused on your message, using your script and documents to support you. Think about the school being receptive to your suggestions and taking your concerns seriously. Positive visualization can help you to calm down.
If you need to wait a little while for the meeting to start, take deep calming breaths. Count to ten after each breath before you exhale.
When the meeting begins, take a moment to gather your thoughts and control your emotions.
Pro Tip: remaining calm and logical, especially in tense situations, is more effective than becoming very emotional.
If you want personal special education meeting preparation help, email me. I offer comprehensive special education advocacy packages that can help you to feel 100% ready for your next IEP meeting.
How do you prepare for your child’s special education meetings? Share your best tips in the comments.