As a speech-language pathologist, I’m frequently involved in students’ Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, particularly if they have communication-related needs. My role in these meetings, as I see it, is to provide updates to the IEP team (which typically includes parents, educators, related service providers, the student, etc.) regarding the student’s progress and propose changes to the IEP based on that progress.
Recently, I experienced special education from the opposite side of the table. And wow, did the conversation feel different. I currently serve as an “educational surrogate parent” for a student with special needs. In this role, I act as the student’s parent with regard to all things special education (I advocate for the student in IEP meetings, I request special education evaluations, I receive progress reports and updates from the student’s teachers, etc.). While not a parent in any other sense of the word, I’m getting a taste of what it feels like to be a parent in these IEP meetings.
Having some experience with both perspectives, the parent perspective and the professional perspective, I wanted to offer a few tips to parents and professionals alike.
What parents want professionals to know:
- Cut the jargon. In a recent IEP meeting, I listened while teachers and other professionals spewed out acronyms like “LEA” and “BIP”. And while some of these acronyms were quite familiar to me, others were not. For example, a psychologist offhandedly mentioned how my surrogate child “was given the WRAT-3 and performed poorly.” I assumed the WRAT-3 was some kind of test, but nobody was telling me what it assessed or even what it stood for. To my fellow professionals, I encourage you to explain everything that might require an explanation (especially acronyms). This helps ensure that everyone is on the same page and equally informed.
- Talk to parents before the IEP meeting. You should have introduced yourself to the parent long before any special education-related meetings take place. If you’re working with their child, you have an ethical responsibility to let the parent know who you are and what your role is. But not only is it ethical – introductions before the IEP meeting can also help establish a foundation of trust with the parent. When you’re a member of a team (such as the IEP team), it’s important to build that trust and maintain it. With that said, I also encourage you to have conversations with parents throughout the year to maintain trust. This way, they’re staying informed throughout their child’s education and unlikely to be surprised by anything you say or suggest during the IEP meeting.
- Note the student’s strengths. Even though I’m just a surrogate parent, after getting to know the child I’m serving, words like “poor” and phrases like “significantly below average” started to hurt. So I can’t imagine how other parents feel when teachers and educators focus on their child’s deficits and fail to mention their strengths. To my colleagues, I encourage you to talk frequently and enthusiastically about your students’ successes and achievements. However small they seem, every student has them. Highlighting these strengths (alongside suggested areas of improvement) will help parents know that you see their whole child.
Tips for parents:
- You are the most powerful person in the room. The IEP starts and ends with you. Unless you’re unresponsive to meeting requests and/or uninterested in participating in special education proceedings, few things can be done without your consent. During an IEP meeting, you have the power to request additional services (and provide evidence for why they are warranted), decline services suggested by the IEP team, approve and reject proposed goals, request edits to portions of the IEP, etc. In most circumstances, the IEP does not become official until you sign it. So while you may not feel like the most powerful person there, as the only person who can do all these things, you most certainly are!
- Understand that there are federal and state laws governing the IEP process. Most public schools and public charter schools are operating of under a strict set of rules concerning special education (see Public Law 94-142). These rules govern how frequently IEP meetings should be held, how IEP goals should be written, how quickly evaluations must happen after the parent provides consent, etc. It’s useful to know the federal and state level rules so you can set expectations and notice (a) when your school is out of line and (b) when your requests are likely to be denied. For example, in many schools, a student only receives services for a disability if their disability is impacting their academics.
- Seek help when you need to. What do you do when you’re not satisfied with your child’s special education? If there’s a problem with your child’s IEP (maybe the goals need to be updated or some new medical information should be included), you can always request an IEP amendment to change their IEP, even before the annual review date. For other issues, your school’s special education coordinator or your school’s administrative team is your next best bet. If you’re still having issues or you feel like the school is not following federal or state guidelines regarding your child’s special education, contact an attorney familiar with IEPs and/or a special education advocate.
I hope you, the reader, found some value in my suggestions, or maybe my suggestions sparked a few of your own! If so, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions or response! For more information on IEPs, check out OAR’s guide for parents, Navigating the Special Education System.
Madison Brumbaugh is a speech-language pathologist with a passion for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and serving clients with complex communication needs, including clients who may be nonspeaking. Madison has previously worked in the public school and private practice settings and has experience navigating the IEP process from the perspectives of a professional and parent (though Madison does not have children, Madison currently serves as an educational surrogate parent for a public school student). In her free time, Madison enjoys hiking, playing with her dogs, and trying new hobbies – recent favorites include stained glass making and rock climbing.