Each year, I attend scores of IEP meetings and each one is unique in its own way. However there are a few things I’ve noted, especially with those that involve students with milder disabilities. First of all, I don’t know if I’ve seen any of them go over the mastery of previous goals sufficiently. If you are a teacher new to the IEP process, this is the perfect place to start. Even I get all flustered when first starting to write an IEP and looking at the mountains of paperwork I have to chisel away at. I put the things off and off, and then wonder just where I’m going to start. I have two of my own (Jim and Ravi) that I’m working on for next week. I wanted to get drafts out today, so I had a hard deadline I’d given myself. So I sat down with my pen and a copy of the previous year’s goals and began working through them one by one to see how well they mastered them. Mastery of goals should be done in advance of the meeting, not during the meeting. Assemble whatever data and grades you need. Once you do this, you have an idea of where the student is at and which goals need to be kept, changed, or simply were not good goals in the first place. Now you’re ready to write.
In the mean time, you also need to communicate with parents to get their input. In my experience, parents are not sure what to do or say at most meetings. Ask for input till you’re blue in the face, but you probably aren’t going to get much from them until you share some of your information with them. This is why I like giving my parents a weekend to look over a draft of the IEP. Make sure they understand that this is a DRAFT and that they can make whatever changes they like before or at the meeting. Obviously, I’d like to know their intentions in advance, but if they want to wait until the meeting this is fine.
As special education caseload managers, we have certain steps and procedures we simply must follow. These can take a lot of time, and frankly many of them are boring. My goal in giving out the draft is to concentrate discussion on the most salient features of the IEP, or those that the parent has the most concern about. They may be fine with most of your goals but have questions on a couple of them. They may have some valuable input for the transition plan or add things to the present level of performance. The more informed a parent is, the more they will be able to meaningfully contribute.
I’m going to try something a little more advanced this year. I’m going to put sticky notes throughout the draft with some questions that I have for them. The present level has many parts where parental input is needed, for instance I need to know what medications the student has and if there are any changes in medical status. Transition is really a huge thing, here. The school system has certain responsibilities, but we really are pretty limited when it comes to dealing with outside agencies. Therefore, parent input is crucial.
For students who are not as severe as mine, getting inside their head can be equally as important. Find out what they like, what their goals are and where they want to be in 5 or so years. Obviously I’m zooming in on high school students, but anything you can get at a lower grade as far as likes and interests will be helpful.
Today, my parents will be getting a fairly substantial packet of stuff that I hope they’ll look at and bring to the IEP. If there are portions of the draft that are unfinished (i.e. my SLP and the PT will probably not have anything finished yet) I’ll remove them. But parents rights, a copy of a paper I wrote about guardianship, a copy of the mastery and any other assessment reports that I have will go home. The hope is that they will at least feel less anxious about the meeting walking in. I have had some parents say they’ve felt better having their stuff ahead of time. I still worry a bit about it actually increasing the anxiety in some parents as the whole thing can seem overwhelming to them when they get this big, huge packet.
Jim’s mother will definitely come, because she always does. She has never NOT come to any sort of meeting we’ve ever had. Ravi’s mother, on the other hand, is a very big question mark. She will be getting a phone call before the meeting so that I can be sure I have everything I need and press her about her attendance. I’m not going to pressure her into attending but simply try to get an honest response.
It’s pretty common that parents sign the notice and state that they will be at the meeting. Then they don’t show up, leaving everyone waiting including an embarrassed student. They later claim they thought it was on a different day or at a different time which is far fetched simply because we try to deliver multiple reminders and we document the method and response. I think many parents are a bit embarrassed by their unwillingness to attend. Remember, no one really likes these meetings except possibly attorneys and paid advocates. So what I’ve done with some degree of success is to assure the parent that if they can not attend, we are very much okay with it and not judgmental. I’ll talk to them and get whatever input over the phone and tell them this is fine with me if it’s fine with them. I simply want honesty, and if they back out during that last phone call, I’m okay with it. That will save the entire committee a ton of time and anxiety from waiting for someone who isn’t going to show up. In other words, I’m not going to wait until the meeting to get input from this parent who I think just might stand me up. I’m going to make sure she gets to contribute in a way that may be less intimidating for her without guilt or blame. She will be able to advocate for her son in a meaningful way.
With the above approach, I have managed to turn things around on occasion. I’ve had parents actually decide to attend meetings who had not attended in several years. I think this may be because I did everything I could to limit the intimidation factor. Even if I had to go to the student’s house and spend time with the parent that way, I was laying a foundation of trust and safety.
As a parent myself, I totally get why parents don’t bother showing up or participating. Every time Thomas has a meeting, the school redoubles its efforts at intimidation by inviting a slew of teachers and administrators from several agencies and services and then everyone tries to stare me down when its time to make a decision. Been there, done that. Gotten sick and tired of it. And his inexperienced caseload teacher is probably all but wetting her pants because she thinks she’s going to get nailed for a lousy IEP. Thing is, despite goals and objectives and a behavior intervention plan that are totally lackluster, he continues to improve. That’s really all I’m after. But it would be nice if the red carpet of trust was laid down well in advance of the annual review. If school systems insist on cultivating this adversarial culture, they are going to reap the whirlwind of hostility.
So if a parent doesn’t want to go through these motions and hoops after having done it for over a decade, far be it from me to blame them. So perhaps one of my best strategies in getting parents to participate more is to not be so hard on them if they choose not to. They have lives beyond this one child and this one meeting with this one teacher. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time with that child in his own house with his own family, you have no idea what sort of pressures and stresses that family is under. Being nonjudgmental can go a long way in forging some trust. Perhaps the family might come around to thinking that you might be someone worth spending some time with, and someone who will not make them feel small. It is hard being a parent and not feeling very small and insignificant when surrounded by all of these well-dressed, well-spoken and well-educated professionals, especially when parents might barely have a high school diploma themselves.