Parents who have a child with special needs in school will meet annually with the school district to develop an IEP (Individualized Education Program), a document that outlines the educational program and special services their child will receive.  (Although the IEP team must meet annually, meetings can be scheduled any time at the request of a parent or the school.)

IEP meetings can be lengthy, lasting up to three or four hours, and there is a great deal of information that is discussed, from individual goals and objectives to classroom placement to transportation. It can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what to expect or are not prepared. Leave yourself enough time in case the meeting runs long. It is possible to reconvene the meeting at another time, but it’s more convenient for everyone to get it all done at once.

Here are five tips for getting the most out of your child’s IEP meeting:

  1. Do your homework.  Gather all the information you can on your child – evaluations, school records, etc. — and bring them with you.  Research special needs regulations for your state so you are aware of your rights. Take a look at your child’s current IEP and status reports on her goals and objectives. If your child has not achieved certain objectives from last year, make note of it so you can request that it be included in her new IEP. Put together a list of questions and concerns. You know your child best and you should discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses at home so the school is aware of them.  The IEP meeting is the best time to discuss where your child is struggling and what successes he has had.  Think about what accommodations your child may need to help him learn the material.  For example, your child may focus better if he is sitting in front of the classroom, may need more time for homework or to take tests, or may benefit from a quiet area to go when he gets anxious.

  2. Take notes or record.  Bring a notepad to jot down notes and questions and, where permissible, bring a recorder to audio record the meeting.  There will be a lot of information presented and it can be challenging to remember it all. Some states allow parents to audio record the meeting, while others prohibit recording, so check ahead of time. There are recording apps available to download and some smartphones come with a recorder. School districts usually require that you notify them ahead of time if you plan to record the meeting.

  3. Remember that you and the school district are a team. Some parents view the IEP meeting as a battle between them and the school, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you approach it in a friendly, collaborative way, the school district will usually reciprocate. Parents are considered equal members of the IEP team, which typically also includes your child’s teacher, the principal, a representative from the school district, speech therapist, occupational therapist, adaptive physical education teacher, psychologist and other professionals who assessed your child.  You are also allowed to bring a private therapist, psychologist or others who treated your child. Everyone must work together to design an IEP that meets the educational needs of the child in the Least Restrictive Environment, which means a child must be educated in an environment as much like a general education classroom as possible, provided the child can succeed academically.

  4. Bring someone with you (other than your spouse). It is helpful to have a friend, family member or another parent with you for support because IEP meetings tend to be emotional and sometimes stressful for parents.  The friend can also offer an objective voice after the meeting if you need someone to talk to. Parents may want to bring an advocate or special needs attorney in certain situations, but these professionals are probably not going to be needed at the first IEP meeting.  There are procedures to follow if a dispute arises.  Research the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  There you will find information on procedural safeguards and dispute resolution.
  5. Don’t sign the IEP at the meeting.  Take it home and review it and contact the school representative with questions.  Parents have the option to accept all, or part of, the proposed IEP, or reject it altogether. It is always a good idea to put any objections, as well as any communication, in writing.