If you’re going to an IEP meeting for the first time, you might feel nervous and wonder what to expect. It’s easy to feel intimidated by everything involved in the process, but once you understand it you’ll see that it’s not so scary. You’ll discover so much about your child and how they learn, and you’ll build relationships with your child’s team.
As former teachers, we’re here to give you an overview of the path to special education services, as well as tips to help you advocate for your child along the way.
The ball gets rolling once you or the school have formally requested that your child be tested to see if they qualify for special education services. There’s a lot of paperwork and deadlines throughout the process, so be sure to get all the information you need and stick to due dates.
Your child will be evaluated in the areas you and the school have concerns about. That may include IQ and academic tests, as well as assessments related to social emotional or motor ability development (and potentially several other evaluations). Looking at your child through these various lenses will help the team make best-fit recommendations.
Since these tests are completed during the school day, your child will miss some classes. Help them communicate with their teachers about what they’ve missed and the best way for them to catch up.
Once the evaluations are completed, written reports will be shared with you, and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting will be scheduled. The reports are long and can be difficult to understand, so focus on the summaries at the end and jot down questions. The school team will translate their findings at the meeting, but don’t be shy about asking them to clarify anything at any point. Sometimes they forget that what’s familiar or obvious to them will not be to parents who are new to all of this.
Speaking of the team, when you get to the meeting, you might be surprised by the number of people present. Don’t be intimidated! They’re all there to help you and your child. Typically, in addition to you, the following people will participate:
Depending on your child’s needs, these other service providers may also attend:
Your child can go to all or part of the meeting if you feel it’s appropriate. We’re big fans of ownership, so we like for the student to have a seat at the table – even if just for a few minutes. (It also takes away the mystery of what all those adults are talking about.)
Some parents find it helpful to invite a friend or relative to be an extra set of eyes and ears. You may also invite an educational consultant, independent psychologist, an advocate, or a lawyer.
After the team reviews your child’s evaluations, they will walk through a flow chart to determine whether or not your child is eligible for special education (and related) services. If your child does not qualify for services, they may be approved for a 504 plan or other supports; ask the team to discuss all available options with you.
Creating the IEP
If your child is eligible for special education services, the next part of the meeting will be the writing of the IEP (this includes a summary of your child’s learning profile, goals and objectives, and accommodations).
You might find that they focus on weaknesses, which can be deflating. Rather than looking at it as “This is what my child is good at, and this is what they’re bad at,” reframe it to “This is how my child’s brain works. How can we teach them in a way that maximizes their strengths and incorporates strategies that will help them compensate? What’s the minimal scaffolding we need to provide for them to learn and achieve?” Looking at it this way will help the group focus on all facets of your child as well as solution finding.
You are an equal member of this team, so your input is vital. While the school team members are the experts in their respective fields, you are the expert on your child. It’s immensely helpful to hear the parent perspective and learn about the child’s home life. It’s not unusual for a child to look different at home versus at school, and the team needs a clear picture to determine next best steps.
Here are some questions to consider providing answers for:
You should also plan to ask the team questions to get a sense of how they see your child outside of the evaluation process, to understand your role moving forward, and to know how the IEP will play out in real life.
Here’s a sampling of questions:
The team will meet again in a year to revisit and likely revise the IEP based on your child’s progress. Another evaluation will be carried out in three years. That said, we urge you to schedule regular meetings (maybe once a quarter) with the special education teacher to have a conversation about how it’s going on both the school and homefront. As classroom teachers, we appreciated the parents who kept in touch and worked with us to support their child. You are your child’s best advocate!
For a much more detailed look at the special education process in Illinois, we recommend visiting the Special Education Programs page of the Illinois State Board of Education’s website.