Special ed teacher
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If you have a child who has special education needs, the Individualized Education Program  (IEP) meeting is a pivotal part of planning your child's education. (In Canada and the United Kingdom, this is equivalent to an Individual Education Plan). While the initial process may be overwhelming and intimidating, it is important to keep involved throughout all the steps of the IEP journey. Parental involvement has significant impact on the direction of the meeting and the decisions made. 

While the school has a responsibility to give your child to provide the most appropriate and mainstreamed education possible, you also play an important role in your child's educational plan. You are your child's strongest advocate and know what is best for your child. Your involvement and input will have a large impact on the direction the meeting goes.

When your child has been determined to need special education services either through a medical condition or through testing, it is important to prepare for the (usually annual) IEP meeting. There are many aspects to consider as you get ready to meet with the special education team at your child's school.

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your child's IEP meeting:

Be Informed and Educated

Preparation is one of the most important keys to having a successful IEP meeting that results in an appropriately-designed education program for your child. The best way to approach this is to get educated and informed about laws and policies relating to special needs education. In addition, it is a good idea to find out everything you can about your child's needs and how these can impact his or her education.

A good resource is to contact your state's education department and obtain brochures and pamphlets regarding the special education process; your child's school should also provide you with a booklet describing your rights.

Additionally, you should consult with your child's medical doctor and learn all you can about any medical conditions which impact learning to ensure your child receives the correct classification to obtain special education services. Unfortunately, some schools often will give a classification that is not the appropriate one (in the United States, there are 13 classifications, one of the most recent additions being Traumatic Brain Injury  For instance, before this addition, many students were placed in inappropriate learning programs - be sure your child's disability or learning issue is correctly classified).

If you are armed with this information it will help you if you run into any hurdles during the meeting to justify services needed for your child.

Be a Team Player

Once your child enters the special education system it is a good idea to get to know everyone involved with your child's education. This includes teachers, aides, administrators, psychologists, therapists, service providers and any other staff who has contact with your child.

Your meetings will go more smoothly if everyone is used to working and communicating with one another. The first meeting is always the most intimidating, although subsequent meetings can have its challenges too.

When it comes to your child's education, you enter a partnership with your child's school. It is more beneficial to work with administrators and teachers rather than against them. Take an active role in your child's school; this gives you a chance to network and develop relationships within the school community. View the IEP process as a partnership, not an "us vs. them" scenario; this approach will be more successful than viewing it as a battle.

While you want to partner with your child's team, you also don't want to be timid. If something isn't sitting right with you and you feel uncomfortable about a decision being made, always speak up. This way the issue can be better clarified and any misunderstandings are addressed immediately. Conflicts can usually be resolved if you speak up early on; never wait until after the meeting is over to bring up concerns you have with any issue or discussion happening in the IEP meeting.

Parent-teacher conferences
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Pick your Battles

Unfortunately, there will sometimes (perhaps more often than not) be disagreements at some point of the annual IEP meetings. If  you disagree with the school's assessment and type of services they want to provide, choose your battles wisely. Before entering the meeting, make a mental (or better yet, a written!) note of what services you are not willing to budge on and which ones are more flexible or less important.

Often if a school refuses to allow or continue certain services it may be due to underlying budget issues and pressure from administrators. Other times it may be your child simply doesn't need a particular service anymore and/or the team feels the current approach isn't working and something new may be in order.

Change is hard, so if the team recommends discontinuing a service, evaluate whether or not it is on your "must" list and if it is the change which makes you disagree or if it is something truly worth going to battle over to retain. Be sure and keep your emphasis on the services you feel are most pertinent and relative to your child's education; don't sweat the small stuff. It is much better to be an assertive parent at an IEP meeting, not a confrontational one because the latter is counterproductive for your child.

Keep Copies of all Paperwork

A paper trail is always important to follow. Throughout each IEP meeting, medical appointment, testing assessment or any other action that will relate to your child's education, keep copies of all reports, notes and jot down any dates and make a notation of who you spoke to if the information came from conversations.

Always keep copies of previous IEP reports, minutes of meetings, progress reports and any other communications; these will be useful to refresh your memory and to serve as documentation if you need it. Lastly, bring a notebook to the meeting, this way you can write down any new or other pertinent information. Some experts also recommend recording the meeting; if you go this route, be sure and give the school notice.

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Fortunately, if you get overwhelmed in the IEP process in most cases you can request a parent advocate. Usually, parents who advocate for other parents have been through the process themselves and can teach you the proverbial ropes of how to handle an IEP meeting. Don't ever be afraid to ask for help if you feel you need it.  It is good practice to bring someone with you anyway. 1 It can hard to absorb all the information that will be flowing and the meeting may also be stressful which means you could miss some important information. Additionally, it is acceptable to also invite a doctor or other specialist, one who has worked with your child, to accompany you to the meeting. If this is not an option, a written statement from an expert is also helpful to bring.

The reality of IEP meetings is they don't always go smoothly, but this can vary widely from school district to school district. Some schools are very accommodating and willing to go the extra mile to provide appropriate services while others will fight tooth and nail to provide the bare minimum they can get away with because they don't want to pay for certain services.

IEP meetings are an important part of your child's education. It is a good idea to keep the lines of communication open and be involved, your input is valuable. You know your child best.

Open house at school
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Additional IEP tips are included in this short video