How to Build Trust and Integrity Within Your IEP Team
By Catherine Whitcher, MEd
Special education is never going to look the same again, and that’s not a bad thing. After the nationwide school shutdowns of 2020 and more missed services than ever thought possible, some might say special education has fallen apart. Perfect. Now, together, we can welcome the opportunity to put it back together better than ever!
Just like every other year, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting notices are going to be flying in and out of email inboxes at rapid speed in the second half of the school year. When it’s time to meet for your annual IEP meeting, you’ll be determined to be ready. A big focus will be on what worked and didn’t work since the last meeting and a clear plan of what needs to happen next for your child to be prepared for further education, employment, and independent living.
If you’re the parent at the table, you’ve rehearsed in your head a hundred times what you need the staff to know about your child’s education.
If you’re the teacher or therapist at the table, you’ve got piles of data to prove you’ve done your job in helping the student move forward.
No matter your role at the IEP table, you know there’s always a question of “What’s really going to happen at the IEP table? It doesn’t have to be this way.
IEP meetings should not be filled with new information and recommendations you’ve never heard before you pulled up your chair to the crowded conference room table or logged into the virtual meeting room. Your entire process in developing IEPs with excellence needs to begin with the teamwork that allows for no surprises at the IEP table. When the IEP process is done effectively, everyone comes to the table with equal information on successes and areas that need improvement.
IEP meetings in 2021 need to be future-focused and solution-centered to ensure we are using our time wisely, as a team, to support the unique learning needs of the child.
Seven Actions for Parents to Build a Better IEP
1. Share the IEP agenda
The IEP agenda should be a combination of what needs to happen at the IEP table legally and a brief description of concerns that will be addressed during this specific meeting. Parents should request the agenda prior to the meeting and make suggestions of items to be added or removed based on priorities for the child.
2. Declare your concerns and vision Your fellow IEP team members need to know your concerns and bigger vision for your child throughout the entire IEP process. You may think your wants for your child are obvious, but they’re not. What you want for your child may be very different from what other parents want for theirs, and that’s okay! Every IEP in every state has a section specifically for parents to address their educational concerns and set priorities for their child’s education. Use this section wisely, and it can change the entire trajectory of your child’s education.
3. Be ready to make decisions Indecisiveness kills trust and increases conflict. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take some time to decide the pros and cons of big suggestions brought by the team. Being collaborative and building an IEP requires you to say YES and trust the IEP team whenever possible. Use the data at the table to guide your heart and your gut to what is most appropriate for your child. With all of the chaos in 2020, it’s more important than ever that we make decisions and move forward.
4. Ask for help You are not expected to have all of the answers all of the time. If you do not understand any part of the IEP process, this is not something to hide. Be bold and ask for help. Did you know training for parents, when it relates to an IEP goal, can be added to the IEP? It’s true! Whether it’s training on a specific math method, behavior management, or new speech device, parent training can be the missing piece for your child in finally reaching that next milestone.
5. Build on strengths Building a child’s strengths into the IEP for 2021 is a huge motivator for children to jump back into learning. Any time you can integrate a child’s preferred learning method or even their favorite cartoon character into their day, you increase the chance of the child staying engaged with the lesson. With all the stressors of 2020, connecting and building skills with preferred activities is a win/win for teachers and students. This strategy should be specifically noted within the IEP, either within the IEP goals or the accommodations and modifications section.
6. Trust yourself and listen You must trust yourself. Before you can trust your IEP team, you have to own what you know and what your role is in helping your child be prepared for the future. If you don’t trust yourself, your knowledge, and your experience, others will struggle with trusting you, too. One of the most impactful statements you can make to your fellow IEP team members is, “Tell me what you want to help my child achieve and what’s in your way. I’ll help you.” Then wait, listen, and take in all the details without forming an immediate response. Ask more questions, try to fully understand the perspective of your IEP team member, then work together for a solution. With your knowledge of your child and the team’s expertise, you can solve almost anything.
7. Give credit Parents and teachers are more exhausted than ever before. We need to acknowledge and reward each other for both efforts and accomplishments. Praise and recognition help remind each other that we appreciate everyone’s efforts, especially on the tough days. Send an email or a coffee gift card to an IEP team member who has demonstrated consistent efforts to help your child reach both IEP goals and goes beyond what’s on paper. Watch the comradery build inside your IEP team when IEP communication is not always focused on the negative, and emails in the inbox may just be a big thank you.
What to do next...
Do not believe the misconception that successful IEP teams are happy, lighthearted, and smooth sailing. This is often not the case. Successful IEP teams are engaged, communicative, and constantly problem solving to either fix a problem or take situations from good to great. Highly effective IEP teams are always ready to right the wrongs because they know mistakes are going to happen. If the mistakes weren’t happening, then you wouldn’t be trying hard enough.
It’s time for you to decide what you should continue doing, stop doing, and start doing to help the IEP team meet your child’s unique needs. Choosing to build trust and have integrity means making the decision that you always want to be getting better at your role in the IEP process. Trust within an IEP team demands personnel connections, constructive feedback, and a big picture perspective of helping your child be prepared for their future.
Imagine next time walking into your IEP meeting filled with hope, possibilities, and strength, not only because you’ve prepared for your role at the IEP meeting, but because you’re surrounded by a team of knowledgeable individuals clear in what your vision for your child entails. It’s entirely possible to take the unfortunate action of schools closing, hybrid models, and distance learning, and turn it into a true opportunity to improve your child’s education at a whole new level, side by side with your IEP team.
Catherine Whitcher, MEd, Founder of the Master IEP Coach® Mentorship + Network, has been building IEPs for the Real World for over 20 years. With experience as a special education teacher and special needs sibling, Catherine knows the importance of helping a child reach their potential both inside and outside the classroom. She is the host of the Special Education Inner Circle Podcast and currently leads Master IEP Coaches® nationwide in creating collaborative and effective IEP meetings. Her proven methods of building better IEPs have helped thousands of parents and schools work together to prepare students for further education, employment, and independent living.