School districts must ensure that the parents of a child with a disability are included in the IEP Team that is assembled to review an evaluation, determine eligibility, develop or amend an IEP, decide on a placement, discuss discipline matters or anything else related to the child's special education program.
School districts are not only required to make sure that parents are part of the IEP Team but they are also required to consider the concerns of the parent regarding the child's education. Further, the IEP Team meetings are to be scheduled at a time and place that is convenient for both the parent and school district personnel.
The parent has two important functions at his or her child's IEP Team meeting. The first is to make sure that the child's rights, as defined by federal law, Pennsylvania law and local school district policy, are protected. The second responsibility of the parent is to make sure that he or she shares all of the information about the student that the parent is in a unique position to know and to share his or her concerns and desires about the student's educational program. Details about how to fulfill these important parental functions will be discussed separately below.
Protect Your Child's Rights
In order to protect all of your child's rights, you should:
- Be informed. Review the Pennsylvania Parent Guide to Special Education. It is important to understand your child's rights under special education law.
- Be involved. Know what is going on at school. Speak to your child's teachers and service providers regularly and ask questions about whether the specific IEP services, accommodations and modifications are being implemented.
- Keep good written records and notes. Take notes about all of the information provided to you by school personnel whether it occurs at a formal IEP meeting or during an informal phone conversation.
- Never sign anything that you are unsure about. Take your time and make sure that you understand and are comfortable with any paper which you are asked to sign. If you are unsure then do not sign it immediately and instead take the time to think about it or do the necessary research to make sure you know what you are signing.
- Confirm all meetings before and after they occur. This will not only help you make sure that you know when meetings are but it will also create a paper trail to show that the meetings were planned and did in fact occur.
- Bring an attorney. If you believe that your child's rights are likely to be violated or if you feel more comfortable with the support of an attorney then consider bringing an attorney with you to the Team meeting. This may be particularly important if matters of discipline and alternative placements are going to be discussed.
Advocate for Your Child's Free Appropriate Public Education Program
- Know what you want going into the meeting. Meetings can be overwhelming and stressful. It is useful to have your goals in mind so that you do not lose sight of them once the meeting starts.
- Have examples of what you want with supporting documentation if applicable. It might be useful to have visual aids to show the other Team members what you are talking about.
- Know what you are willing to concede. It is important to prioritize your goals for the meeting and be willing to concede on points that do not impede your child's rights or education.
- Bring an advocate or friend. Meetings can be very emotional for a parent. Sometimes, it helps to bring an educational advocate who is knowledgeable about special education and can speak a little more objectively. Other times, it is useful to bring a friend for emotional support.
Develop an Effective Relationship with School Personnel
This point cannot be overemphasized and can help protect your child's rights and help you advocate for your child's educational needs. Below are some tips on developing an effective relationship with other members of your child's IEP Team:
- Be Polite. Remember that the goal is not to create an adversarial relationship with the staff who work with your child. The goal is to create the appropriate educational program for your child. There are likely to be times when you disagree with school personnel. When those times occur, politely disagree with their statements or positions rather than creating a tense and adversarial environment.
- Acknowledge What the School is Doing Right. Everyone likes to be complimented and beginning your dialogue with things that the school district is doing well can help change the tone of the meeting.
- Make Sure You Understand What Other People are Saying. Sometimes educators forget that not all parents understand some of the technical terms they use. So, it is always important to repeat back what you understand the person to be saying in your own words and to give the speaker the chance to correct your understanding if it needs to be corrected.
- Take a Break. If the mood becomes tense or if you are having a difficult time digesting some of the information being provided about your child then request a break. Step out into the hall and take a deep breath, regain your composure and come back to the table.
- Review What Happens Next. Have a list of steps that need to be taken to implement your child's program or to gather more information in order to implement the program and review it with the Team prior to the conclusion of the meeting.
- Be Confident in Your Knowledge of Your Child. You are the child's parent. You know your child the best and your child is counting on you to advocate for him or for her.
IEP meetings can be overwhelming. However, the parent has a very important role to play in order to protect a child's rights and make sure that the child receives a free appropriate public education. The actions described above can help you be an effective advocate for your child.