Parent collaboration in the Special Education process is vital. No one has a better understanding of a student’s history, abilities, development and any factors that can affect them at school. Parents are, by law, equal partners on their child’s IEP team.

As a parent of two boys with autism, aged 10 and 8, I’ve had my fair share of IEP meetings. I’ve had meetings where I’ve wanted to cry from joy from looking around the room and seeing all the people who love my boys and want them to succeed just as much as I do. People who truly make me feel like a valuable member of the team. I’ve also been to meetings where I want to cry from sadness and frustration, where I don’t feel listened to and I feel like my child is completely misunderstood.

When you can combine the expertise of educators + parents- well that’s when the magic can truly happen. Here are some suggestions on how to foster a collaborative IEP meeting experience for all sides of the IEP table.

Communicate in Advance

Reaching out to a parent before the IEP helps makes sure you operate as a cohesive unit, and makes sure parent concerns can be acknowledged and addressed. I LOVE this document Sasha sent out to her families. Before an IEP meeting, parents are typically asked, “What concerns do you have about your child?” That phrasing doesn’t always translate into meaningful suggestions for a teacher/classroom. But a simple-What do you want to see more of? What do you want to see less of? Can open the door to so many truly functional skills, goals and activities.

The form is linked in this post!

I am a BIG BIG (BIG!) fan of sharing an IEP draft in advance. According to the Wrightlaw Website, “IDEA 2004 discourages the use of “draft IEPs” because they send a message that parental concerns and parental participation are not valued. If the IEP team chooses to use a draft IEP, the team must ensure that the parents understand that the document is a draft, and is not set in stone.”

However, “if the IEP team uses a draft IEP, they should provide a copy of the draft to the parents well in advance of the IEP meeting. The parents must have enough time to give careful consideration to the recommendations in the draft IEP.”

As an added bonus, when IEP team members have time to process and plan the things that can be planned in advance- the meeting can run much smoother and go by much FASTER. Some Districts have their own policies regarding IEP DRAFTS, so it’s good to know your own.

Parent Accommodations

Some Parents need accommodations for the IEP meeting, although they may not share that in advance (or at all). Parents may need anything from a translator, large print, the IEP read aloud, extra processing time, to a special meeting time–to make it possible for them to participate in the meeting. This is another category where a DRAFT can come in handy. They may not tell you if they can’t read, but with a DRAFT, they may be able to have it read to them before the meeting.

Cultural Competence is important consideration for Case Managers. If you are working with religious and ethnic groups different from your own, do some homework. Use information from research to guide your questions, but avoid stereotypes and assumptions while talking to families.

Make sure you and the District Members of the team try and avoid acronyms and complicated educational jargon. Chances are a parent will begin to feel intimidated if they don’t understand, and then start to shut down instead of repeatedly asking, Wait- what is MLU? How does Most to least prompting work? What are multiple exemplars? Check in with parents as you might with students, Does this make sense? Can I explain any of this further? If you hear another District Team Member use an acronym without first introducing it, jump on in and provide clarity.

No Surprises.

Having a healthy level of transparency and communication throughout the year, not just at the IEP meeting builds trust and improves outcomes for all. Nothing discussed at the IEP meeting should be a complete surprise. Not a student’s proposed change in placement, not how they are doing on goals, not if the accommodations are not enough, not if there is a plan to decrease services, not if their child is truly struggling. Ongoing communication ensures the IEP meeting is simply a review of the past, complete with the new plan to move forward.

One way to create a strong relationship with a parent, is simply by truly knowing their child. By talking about them with a spark in your eye. By sharing stories along the way- showing that you get my kid. Like truly get them. By showing me that you see all the incredible skills and abilities my child has- and by understanding that they are so much more than a sum of their deficits.

The sharing doesn’t need to be a one-sided Pollyanna view. I want it all! Share the struggles, the things that didn’t work, the things that aren’t working, the things you’ve tried, whether successful or not. Coming with problems, proposed solutions and an open mind for collaboration is key. I don’t ever expect a teacher to be perfect or have all the answers, and I celebrate when they share the things they don’t know. I see that as a strength every time- not a weakness. There’s a reason why there is an IEP team- because sometimes group collaboration holds the answer.

Keep it focused on the Individual Student.

This sounds simple, but I’m surprised how often things are said that may indicate otherwise. Whether it be- After (x grade) students no longer work on academics. Or, “This program is for functional skills only”. Or “All students with autism are only taught reading through sight words because they can’t learn to decode.” Or, “Everyone should use the same type of Visual Schedule.” Nothing makes my momma bird feathers stand on end as much as a gross generalization about students across a disability category. It’s important that the language we use reinforces the idea of Individualized.

Words Matter.

The language we use matters. Sometimes little substitutions can make a big difference.

Remember the power of YET. They aren’t doing that YET. That three-letter word can keep open a door of hope and endless possibility. Nothing screams presume competence as much as YET.

Once I was at an IEP meeting where my son was repeatedly called “disruptive” by a member of the team. He was in the midst of working on appropriately protesting, but we weren’t there yet. After the 5th disruptive, I stopped listening and instead fell deep into a whole of fear and concern and what his future will look like when I die. Seriously- sometimes you are triggered to go right there. “Disruptive” or even Maladaptive behavior can instead be interfering behavior. Nonverbal can be preverbal.

Accept the responsibility to be the catalyst for change. Phrases like, Refuses to participate, or won’t pay attention– puts the owness of change on the child. These behaviors are frequently in line with a diagnosis of autism, so it’s an adult’s role to change the environment or approach to access a student’s attention.

Effective collaboration between School and home all year long can create efficient IEP team meetings. Cohesive collaboration amongst all stakeholders is necessary to help each student truly prosper.

Chrissy Kelly

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