Last week, I addressed teachers and parents at two joint professional development sessions. It was an unique opportunity for parents and teachers to come together, improve their understanding and start working together effectively from day 1.
After talking communication and IEPs at these sessions, it was somewhat fitting that I’d need to practise what I preach as soon as my own kids returned to school!
Last Friday, on the second day back, I received a series of calls from the high school, to arrange my kids’ IEP meetings.
Now, in theory, this is great. I welcome having these discussions and getting their plans sorted ASAP. However, my experience on Friday reminded me of the many pitfalls that face parents in this process. This got me thinking about ways schools could improve the IEP process for parents in future.
Let me tell you my story.
I was finally catching up on all the emails I’d pushed to the side over the holidays. I had my music on and I was in the zone, after 6 weeks of stop-start efforts with everyone at home. So, it wasn’t a welcome sign to see the school’s caller ID come up before 10am in the morning.
I must have answered the first call with that resigned sigh in my voice as the teacher quickly reassured me that everything was okay. They just wanted to schedule in IEP meetings for Monday. It was short notice, but I felt ready to get started, so I agreed.
After I settled down (it’s always stressful seeing the school’s number come up), I received another call from the school. Again, I answered in trepidation, and again they reassured me all was well, they just wanted to schedule in IEP meetings.
After some initial confusion (hadn’t I just had that same conversation with someone else?) we set a meeting for a few weeks time. I was happier with this outcome, as it was still early in the year but it gave me a little more notice to get prepared.
Satisfied with that, I was finally ready to get back into my work when I received a third call from the school. You can only imagine my reaction seeing that caller ID yet again! This time, it was the original caller, telling me we’d have to reschedule the initial meeting, as they couldn’t get everyone on board in time for Monday.
So, I filled them in with the updated arrangements for the meeting, based on my previous call. I then politely suggested they speak to the other person making similar calls to avoid more miscommunication. They were hugely apologetic and the call ended with a common understanding. I’m pleased to report there were no more calls from the school that day!
This is the first time I’ve experienced this level of confusion when it comes to organising IEP meetings. I’m lucky that I’ve had positive, productive and professional experiences with the school over the last two years. I know the meetings will go well and I’m confident in our collective ability to make a solid IEP for my kids.
However, I couldn’t help thinking how that scenario would have played out, had that been my first experience with the school. If the school couldn’t schedule a meeting effectively, how would you have confidence in their ability to plan an IEP?
It would also be a concern if the parent felt pressured to attend a meeting at such short-notice. They may have been left without support, without time to get all the information together and lacked the confidence to effectively advocate for their child’s needs.
It could have easily turned into a disaster for the school, the parent and, most importantly, the student.
I wanted to share this experience to highlight simple ways schools can improve IEP processes. It’s not that hard to take steps to better communicate with parents, reassure them of the process and give them the support they need to fully participate.
How Schools Can Work With Parents to Improve the IEP Process
Take the Parent Perspective
It’s vital to look at the IEP process through the eyes of a parent. As a school, you may have a great internal process for managing IEP meetings, but does that translate to a positive experience for parents? It’s important to design a process where the school, the parent and the student know what’s expected and can be fully engaged as a team.
The most effective way to improve the IEP process is to look at each step from the point of view of the parent. Imagine how you’d feel and respond as you follow the process from the other side of the desk. Better yet, ask for parent input directly. Get a parent to go through the process with you, to identify areas of improvement or concern. Design an IEP process that benefits everyone, not just the school.
Provide Plenty of Notice
Where possible, provide as much notice as possible for IEP meetings. Parents often work, have other family responsibilities and may need time to gather all the information required to fully participate in the meeting. In my recent example, the teacher holding the meetings found themselves with an unexpected window of time to conduct meetings. Good for them but problematic for other potential attendees.
In complex cases, there may be many stakeholders who need to be present in order to create the best possible plan. This will mean a longer lead time for a meeting. Giving more notice also helps take the pressure off all participants, particularly if they need time to gather infomation, write reports, get feedback or create resources. Make it easy on everyone and give plenty of notice for IEP meetings.
Develop an Overview of the IEP Process
You may have managed hundreds of IEP processes for your school but that doesn’t mean everyone has the same level of knowledge or experience. Some parents may be new to the IEP process or they may have negative experiences from past meetings elsewhere. Some parents may come from different cultural backgrounds, may still be in denial about the need for an IEP or may be totally overwhelmed.
Providing an overview of the IEP process to all parents will yield better outcomes. Prior to the meeting, share a summary of the areas to be discussed, to encourage parent input. Guide parents on their responsibilities and clearly state what they need to do, who they can bring and what they can expect at the meeting. Follow up the meeting with a summary and what they can expect for the rest of the year.
As my recent experience shows, when it comes to IEPs, it’s not all about the meeting itself. Prioritising communication across the entire process will make IEP planning more effective. Supporting and encouraging parent engagement through clear communication will lead to better planning. It will also build trust in the process from the outset and allow valuable discussion beyond the meeting itself.
Identify touch points for parent interaction throughout the process and document how you’ll communicate with them. From that initial call to arrange the meeting, through to follow up emails and IEP review processes, document how communication will be handled. What channels will you use? Does this align with the communication preference of parents? Don’t leave communication as an after-thought.
Explicitly Welcome Parent Input
It’s vital that you are explicit in inviting parent input. Inviting them to a meeting may not be enough. They may not know what to expect or how to prepare. They may not be confident in their ability to advocate for their child’s needs. They may not be aware they can bring along support people to the meeting. That’s why it’s important to clearly welcome input and support parents to be active participants.
Providing a meeting template or a process overview to parents is an effective way to support them through the IEP process. Suggest questions they may wish to ask. Allow time for strengths and interests to be discussed. Ask for their advice on how best to engage their child. Actively invite parents to be a part of the process so you get the input and the information you need to make the best plan.
Care to share your own IEP experiences as a parent or teacher?
Do you have other suggestions for improving the process?
Would you like more support as a special needs parent?
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