By Leah Shafer
September 15, 2017
For families whose child has a documented disability, the start of a new school year brings a new meeting with teachers and school officials to talk about the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
These meetings can be nerve-wracking for families, who may be worried that their dreams for their child will go unheard, or that they’ll be criticized for behavioral problems. And, they might be utterly bewildered by the jargon used to describe their child’s needs.
By keeping these concerns in mind, teachers can use IEP meetings to strengthen school-family partnerships, rather than strain them. Here, we offer strategies for teachers to make families an equitable partner in IEP meetings. This advice comes from Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success, by family engagement experts Karen Mapp, Ilene Carver and Jessica Lander.
"IEP meetings are tremendously significant in the lives of families and students, helping to shape students’ educational futures and chances for success," write Mapp, Carver and Lander. Here's how to make them effective.
Setting Up the Meeting
The way teachers reach out to families to schedule the IEP meeting sets the tone for their partnership. This communication can change a family’s thinking from “the school requires me to attend” to “my child’s teacher needs me in order to understand my child.”
To make families feel valued, Mapp, Carver, and Lander suggest that teachers:
- Call home ahead of time to discuss the meeting, rather than sending an informational letter home with the student.
- Describe what the meeting will entail, and how the family can prepare.
- Explain who will attend: the teacher, the parent, a learning or behavioral specialist, and a district official.
- Arrange the meeting around the family’s schedule.
Planning the Meeting
Schools are often intimidating places for families, especially those who are low-income, immigrants, or people of color.
To avoid the dynamic of “school versus family,” teachers should:
- Think carefully about where the meeting will take place: Will a classroom be more comfortable than a specialist’s office? Is there a way to arrange the seating so that everyone is on equal ground?
- Brainstorm how to position the family as an active participant, rather than just a listener. Prepare questions to ask the family about their dreams, expectations, and concerns for their child.
- Create an “IEP one-pager” to use at the meeting. This document should leave space for the teacher, specialist, and family to list together what the student can do independently, what she can do with support, what areas of growth they will focus on, and the key accommodations they’ll use.
Holding the Meeting
“IEP meetings should be anchored in listening to each other and sharing goals,” say Mapp, Carver, and Lander. Their suggestions:
- Regulations and legal requirement are important — but don’t let them dictate the structure of the meeting.
- Talk together about the student’s strengths and areas of growth. Create supports and accommodations that can be used in school and at home. Connect accommodations to the family’s dreams for their child.
- Avoid jargon, which can be alienating. Watch out for body language that reveals family members are confused or uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to step-in with clarification or reassurance.
- When working with low-income or minority families, keep in mind how their children, particularly boys, are often overidentified as having learnning or behavioral challenges. Make sure you’re getting to know each family’s history, experiences, and culture, and frame that background as an asset for your classroom.
The start-of-year IEP meeting is only the beginning of this partnership.
- Schedule regular follow-ups with families. While regulations require these yearly check-ins, a student may be more likely to make progress if their teacher, specialist, and family are continually updating one another.
- Be flexible with how you communicate with one another. In-person meetings can be difficult to schedule. Ask parents if texting, calling, or emailing would work better.
- Use the IEP one-pager throughout the year to update families on their child’s progress.