Whether you are a seasoned special education parent (having attended many IEP meetings) or a newbie (attending your very first IEP meeting), understanding your role in IEP meetings and how it impacts your child’s education is critical. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) identifies five distinct roles that must be filled in the IEP team; however, one person can play two of those roles in most states. One of those roles is that of the parent.
Unfortunately, the exact role of each member of the IEP team is not overtly defined. However, IDEA does specify that a parent will sit in a meeting with at least a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a district representative and a person trained to interpret test and other assessment data. The parent is expected to have as much knowledge as any other person on the team.
Because the parents are not school employees and cannot be required to attend, the law dictates that schools invite parents to IEP meetings and encourage parental participation. It also defines instances when parent invitation is required, such any IEP team meeting at which decisions are made regarding programming or placement.
A parent’s invitation to an IEP meeting typically includes at least three notices in multiple formats. When I was leading IEP teams, I first sent a notice of meeting form, which was designed as a letter encouraging parents to participate in the IEP meeting. I followed that with a phone call, reminding the parent that they had received an invitation to the meeting and saying that we hoped they could make it. If the parent stated that they wouldn’t be at the meeting, we discussed alternative methods of involvement, such as rescheduling the meeting or having the parent participate by speakerphone. My final invitation was a quick phone call the day before the meeting or, later in my career, an email to those who actively communicated via email.
When the parent couldn’t attend the meeting, I always sent a follow-up note with a copy of the newly-created IEP, asking the parent to call or email me with any questions or concerns. I also sent a Notice of Action, in which I legally informed the parent that an IEP was in place despite their lack of participation (thus covering my back).
Beware of Existing Cultures
As a parent, be careful of some of the “cultures” that exist. Some schools and schools districts, whether intentionally or not, encourage parents not to participate in IEP meetings by providing means for them to be indirectly involved without attending. For example, in one school at which I worked, each call I made to invite a parent to a meeting was met with the comment, “In the past I have always gotten a copy of the IEP and then sent my questions without attending. Can we do that?” Of course, I further encouraged the parent to be an in-person participant; but, fewer parents attended IEP meetings in that school than had in other schools at which I worked.
The Roles of the Parent: Advocate and Expert
Your first and most important role as a parent on the IEP team is to be present to serve as an advocate for your child with a disability. No one on the IEP team knows your child better than you. School personnel spend, at most, six hours per day with your child, only 181 days per year; you spend 365 days a year with your child (in most cases) and many more than six hours per day. You know how your child responds under pressure, how they have learned many things and how methods that have already worked well might be translated into the current school situation. Quite simply, you know your child from the inside out, while teachers know the child from the outside in! Understand that although educators are trained experts in the educational process, they are not trained as a parent is trained, knowing the innermost parts of a child–that is where you come into the process!
Speaking as an Expert
You are an expert in understanding how your child child thinks, acts, learns and behaves, and as such you should feel comfortable speaking up when the IEP team is discussing a technique or procedure that you don’t think will work with your child. You can also affirm ideas that that you believe will work well.
Protecting Your Child’s Rights
Part of serving as an advocate is ensuring that the district is protecting your child’s rights. Yes, there is a District Representative on each IEP team that has that stated role, but as your child’s advocate, you need to serve in a cross-checking role. You need to become aware of the IEP process in depth, know who is filling each required role and speak up when your child’s right to a free appropriate public education may be violated.
Parents may play additional roles, depending on the particular IEP team and your prior knowledge of the education process. In most cases, active parent participation is what we as educators want from the parent. The team works really well when a parent (or better yet, both parents) are involved.
For the newbies out there: Welcome to the IEP process! Here are additional articles to help orient you: