The most effective individualized education plans (IEPs) are written collaboratively by team members who trust and support one another during the process. Although many members comprise an IEP team, the parent and special education teacher are arguably the most important members. After all, they know the child the best. If they can work together, parents and teachers can be a powerful force in advocating for a child.
Here are three practical ways that parents and teachers can work together to write effective, child-centered IEPs.
1) Prepare ahead of time and be cognizant of time limitations. Much of the IEP can be discussed and written before the meeting. Early preparation of this document can significantly cut down on the amount of time spent at the actual meeting, and leave valuable face-to-face time for the team to discuss areas of real concern. Prior to the meeting, try to speak with one another over the phone at least once to discuss present levels, new goals, suggested modifications and accommodations and any test results. Email is also an excellent tool for collaboratively writing goals. Try to avoid utilizing email for any areas of disagreement, however. If differences of opinion arise (and they will), save the discussion for the face-to-face meeting.
If you are a parent, and you know your child’s annual review (AR) is approaching, start thinking about what you would like to see included in the IEP. Do you feel that he or she has met the goals the team set for him or her last year? What goals would you like to see for the next year? What do you think he or she is doing well? What are areas of need? Feel free to take it upon yourself to contact the teacher before he or she reaches out to you. Do try to have a little patience. Remember that your child’s teacher wants to talk to you, but during school hours he or she is also running a classroom. Unlike many other professionals, a teacher is not able to check his her email regularly throughout the day, or return phone calls within the hour. She will get back to you, although it will most likely be after school.
If you are a teacher, begin planning for the IEP meeting at least one month before the due date. Take responsibility for contacting the parent ahead of time to ask for his or her input, such as how the student is doing at home, any areas of concern and possible goals. Remember that some parents are unable to speak with you during school hours. If at all possible, take some time to speak with the parent after those hours—the parent will appreciate this small consideration. In addition to speaking over the phone, email a draft of proposed new goals at least one week prior to the annual review so that the parent can have a chance to review them before coming in. Also, send all new testing information and other other data home to the parent well in advance of the annual review. Remember, it is always best to avoid any surprises in the meeting.
2) Treat One Another Like the Experts You Are. It will happen. At one time or another you will think that your child or student needs a modification or accommodation and the other person will disagree. The most contentious IEPs occur when parents and teachers forget that they are equally qualified to recognize the needs of a child.
If you are a parent, remember that the teacher is most likely the only person in the room with an advanced degree in special education. This, by definition, makes him or her an expert. This teacher also spends between six and eight hours with your child every day. He or she may not know your child the same way you do, but this teacher does know him or her. Listen closely to what the teacher is saying, and trust that he or she is offering good advice. Remember, too, that your child’s teacher is ultimately responsible for your child’s academic progress and for implementing any accommodations or modifications in the IEP; thus, her opinion should carry significant weight with you and the team.
If you are a teacher, remember that your student’s parent may not be a special education expert, but he or she is an expert on his or her child. It is rare that you will encounter a completely irrational or demanding parent. Trust that if the parent sees an area of need, it probably should be addressed in some way. Also, parents are excellent sources of information about what motivates children, what bothers them and what their real feelings about school are.
3) Understand the purpose of behavior goals or behavior support plans (BSPs). Rationally, we all know that kids make mistakes. We also know that when they make the same mistake over and over, they need a plan to help them avoid making it in the future. Sadly, though, nothing puts parents and teachers at odds more than discussions about classroom behaviors.
If you are a parent, remember that your child’s teacher likes your kid. Really. One of the worst mistakes parents can make is to assume that the teacher simply hates your child, and then refuse to implement behavioral interventions. This demeans the teacher and her authority and it prevents your child from growing and learning. Instead, try to be proactive by helping to write a BSP that you think can really help your child to make some positive changes. Contribute ideas about rewards and consequences for positive and negative behaviors. Think about and share with the team how you plan to implement the BSP at home.
If you are a teacher, try to remember what a difficult topic this is for parents, and be sensitive to their feelings. Try to stay as positive as possible and talk about the specific behavior, NOT the child as a whole. Don’t assume that Johnny hits other students because his parents don’t supervise him. Never use negative labels such as lazy, disrespectful or rude. Try to describe the behavior as clinically and objectively as possible. For example, instead of “Johnny is defiant,” try, “Johnny refused to work on his math problems four times in one hour.”
As with any team effort, the IEP process is much more successful when it is built upon a foundation of trust, empathy and mutual respect. By following these basic guidelines, parents and teachers can work together for the overall good of the child.