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5 Tips for Incredibly Successful IEP Meetings
by Pamela Wright,

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Do you get a knot in your stomach when you receive a call, letter, or email inviting you to an IEP meeting?

Do you have questions about what you should say? Not say? If you are like many parents, you don't realize you have a unique role in developing your child's IEP.

In 5 Tips for Incredibly Successful IEP Meetings, we answer questions from parents about the parental role at IEP meetings, what to do and not do, managing your emotions, and why you need to protect the parent-school relationship.

woman asking questions in a meeting

Your Parental Role

First, you are the expert on your child.

Think about it. You spend hours every week in your child's company. You've observed your child in hundreds of different situations and with a variety of people. You notice small but significant changes in your child's behavior and emotions that others are likely to overlook.

Teachers, therapists, and aides observe your child in the school setting only, so their perspective is limited.

Second, you represent your child's interests. You speak for your child at school meetings. You are your child's voice.

Teachers and administrators will be involved in your child's life for a short time -- a few years or less. As a parent, you are the one person who will continue to play an active role in your child's life. You have a powerful interest in ensuring that your child receives appropriate educational services.

You are a Negotiator

If you are like most parents, you didn't realize that you negotiate with the school members of your child's team for special education services and supports.

When you attend meetings about your child's special education program, you represent your child's interests. You speak for your child. You are her voice.

You think, "I don't know how to negotiate." You have more experience as a negotiator than you realize.

You negotiate with co-workers about work schedules and with your employer about your salary. You bargain with family members about housework and money. When you buy a car or house, you will negotiate with sales people.

When you negotiate with the school, you have an advantage -- you can prepare.

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5 Tips for Incredibly Successful IEP Meetings

Keep these tips in in mind as you prepare for the next IEP meeting. (Yes, you need to prepare!)

Tip #1: Know what you want.

"I told the team that I was worried about Joachin's reading skills. The chairman said, 'What do you want us to do?' Why did they ask me that question? I'm not a teacher. I'm just a parent. Don't they know what to do? I think they wanted to make me feel stupid." - Marie at a parent training session.

Did the team intend to make Marie feel stupid? We don't know. Was the school's request unreasonable? No.

When you attend a meeting about your child's special education program, you need to share your observations, concerns and requests in clear, simple language. Use facts, not feelings. Be prepared to answer these questions:

  • What are you concerned about?
  • What do you want?
  • What action do you want the school to take?
  • What facts, incidents, or observations support your request?

Tip #2. Don't blame or criticize.

When you negotiate, you are dealing with people. Stick to the facts. Put your emotions in your back pocket and use them as a source of energy.

Treat the team members respectfully, as you want to be treated.

Assume you plan to discuss your child's reading problems or you want to request a change in your child's program or placement. Although you don't intend to criticize, some team members may get defensive. They may disagree. Disagreements can take many forms.

  • Denial: team members insist that the problem you reported is not a problem, despite evidence that it is.
  • Minimizing: team members acknowledge the problem but insist it is not what it seems.
  • Blaming: team members deny responsibility and claim that the problem belongs to someone or something else.
  • Diversion: team members change the subject to avoid a topic that they view as threatening.
  • Hostility: team members feel defensive when you bring up a problem, incident, or event, so they get angry, hostile, or irritable.
  • Procrastinating: team members say they will take action on an issue you raised tomorrow or "later".

Tip #3. Understand the school district's position.

When you negotiate, you need to know what will motivate the people on the other side of the table to give you what you want. You need to be able to answer questions like these:

  • How does the school see the problem? What are their perceptions?
  • What does the school want? What are their interests?
  • What is the school afraid will happen if they give you what you want? What are their fears?

How can you find out what the school wants and what they fear? Ask questions. Listen carefully to their answers. If you don't understand, say so -- "I'm confused."


How does the school perceive parents? How do the staff view parents of children with disabilities? How do the school staff view you?

Do school staff perceive you as demanding? Do they think you complain too much? Do they believe you are passive and uninvolved?


What is important to your school district? What do they want?


What does your school district fear? What keeps the school superintendent up at night? If the school gives you what you want, will this mean they failed? Will school personnel have to admit that they were wrong? Will people have to do things they don't want to do?

When a team meets with an open mind with the goal of developing a "win-win" solution to a problem (no one loses), the team will be committed to making their solution a success.

If the district gives you what you want, are they afraid the floodgates will open and dozens of parents will demand what they gave you?

Does the school fear losing power? Do they fear losing face? Do their fear losing respect in the community?

Tip #4. Look for win-win solutions to problems.

Make a list of possible solutions to resolve the problem. If you have a friend who is a special ed parent, ask your friend to help you brainstorm solutions.

During the meeting, let the team know you've given serious thought to solutions. If the school ignores you or belittles your ideas, don't argue or get overtly angry. Document their reaction in your after-meeting follow-up letter.

Assume you answered the questions about the school's perceptions, interests, and fears. This will make it easier to devise a solution that meets your needs and the school district's needs and wants.

Tip #5. Protect the parent-school relationship.

Are you prepared to remove your child from the public school and pay for her education forever? No?

View your relationship with the school as a marriage without the possibility of divorce. When you make this shift in your thinking, you'll be able to focus on the essential issues.

When parents and schools negotiate, their personal relationships often get entangled with the problems. You need to separate your relationships with people from the problems. If you view people as the problem, you will set yourself up to feel angry, bitter, and mistrustful.

Remember: When you negotiate, you have two interests:

  • to solve problems, and
  • to protect relationships.

You will negotiate again!

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