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Surviving an IEP Meeting (with 17 Participants!)

Seventeen people with strong emotions and an agenda sat around the table. I had been on the job for less than a semester and was a recent graduate. In this collection of people, six held degrees in Speech Pathology, one being the child’s parents' lawyer. The lawyer had a college professor as her representative. Two were local speech pathologists, and the last was my direct supervisor. Did I mention that I was the least experienced speech pathologist present?

I didn’t know that I would be the only one presenting new information in a continuation of what, I can presume, was a contentious meeting. I was a consultant, as the student did not attend my school.

Looking back, I wish that I would have known the following things:

The bottom line here. Parents want to know that we care for their child. They want to believe that we get up in the morning to do the best for their child. We need to communicate how we care about their child, even if the child gets under our skin.

1) What did the parents want for their child?

The vision statement by the parent was not a part of the IEP at that time. When parents wish that their child “sound” like every other child, the task can be daunting. But we can’t change wishes if we don’t know them.

2) Where was the mismatch?

Often the mismatch occurs when a parent expects a certain kind of service and it either a) gets delivered, but they don’t receive communication about the service, or b) the service is neglected or overlooked. Communication to the parents remains the critical factor here.

A mismatch can occur when the parent doesn’t have a working understanding of the curriculum and has a word that sounds appropriate. For example, one parent wanting a service that would facilitate an upgraded diet level, but it was not suitable for her child. The parent chose a term that they had heard somewhere else and thought it would be desirable. The parent needs to be educated and given a choice and not dismissed.

3) What did the parents fear about their child?

If parents knew what would help their children, they would do it. They depend on the decisions we make and the execution of those decisions. When children get dismissed from services, parents feel that their child is being abandoned. They don’t have the knowledge base to know that it is the right time for their child’s dismissal from therapy.

We need to give power to a parent’s need to be heard. Even if you vehemently disagree with the parent. LISTEN to their concerns. Validate the reality from the parent’s point of view and then troubleshoot how to head off obstacles in the future.

Sometimes parents fear that the school has opinions about them personally as parents. They may need to receive compliments for doing a good job parenting their special needs child. Sometimes they feel isolated. They worry about the future of their child. The IEP meeting is a great way to start talking to parents about their child's goals and share insights and resources for the child’s benefit. If parents knew that they would be helpful performing something within their repertoire, they would do it. Often the fear is that they don’t know what to do to help their child, and unfortunately, they can become harsh to the professionals helping.

Parents may need to allow other parents to call them to help be a friendly ear. Parents that network feel like they have power. We need to remember that parental control is not something to fear; it is something to celebrate.

You may need to restate what the parent has said for them to feel respected. At one IEP meeting that promised to be tense, it was surprising how well a meeting went when we acknowledged that another professional had made a diagnosis. While it wasn’t an educational diagnosis, issues were impacting this child and this family. Once the administration used the parent's “label” and then redefined it and talked about how we could treat it, the tension immediately dropped in the room.

5) Scheduling Challenging Meetings

The challenging meetings need to happen with plenty of notice. Difficult discussions bring dread for educators and parents alike. I find that when you call the parent before the meeting, ask what they have thought, collect their statement ahead of time and allow them to review what you heard them say before the meeting. There are no surprises! Surprises are not fun at IEP meetings.

If the parent wants to Invite an advocate, ask them how they would like you to handle the advocate. Ask for the advocate to have prepared questions so that you can give informed and parent-friendly answers. After all, we do like to think in Speechie lingo!

If nothing else, have candy at each of the place settings around the table. Make the parent feel welcome and essential.

6) Communicate with administration

I can remember instances where I believed the child would qualify for speech therapy and possibly special education in general, but the administration refused for some reason or another. It seemed to me that we, as the school, were deliberately angering the parents. I had to act on behalf of the parents as I knew my services might be the only service the child received. Angry parents don’t make for amicable partners.

Let the administration know alternate ways to provide service outside of the IEP if relevant. Services may look different for each child, but we can work with the parent.

Not every IEP meeting can be a dream. But if we understand what motivates and worries parents and supply communication to that extent, we have a chance that the meeting will not end in tears.

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