Special educator works with the parent to prepare for an IEP meeting.
Nell Curran, Ph.D.
April 16, 2024

How your IEP team can get parents involved at the meeting: Steps to engage families in a collaborative IEP team

Looking to learn how your IEP team can get parents involved at the meeting? Read here for concrete steps that help your team achieve meaningful parent participation in the IEP process.

At Exceptional Lives, we know that meaningful family engagement in the IEP process makes for a better, easier process for you and for the family – and most importantly, leads to better educational outcomes. Here, we teach your IEP team how to get parent involvement in the meeting and get these better results.

If you’re a special educator, you know that the IEP process requires meaningful parent involvement. But learning exactly how your IEP team can get parents involved in the meeting may not seem straightforward or simple. You might already know that parents and families are experts on their own kid. Your team might be totally bought in, and fully want parents’ input into a student’s IEP. Even with a lot of preparation and your best intentions, though, many parents feel intimidated walking into a room full of experts. There’s uneven numbers between school and family representatives on the “sides” of an IEP table.

Many parents also might carry baggage from their prior experiences with school teams, and even from their own education. Families may not feel like they have equal power or a strong voice in their children’s education. It can be really hard to weigh in on goals or options and participate in the IEP process if they aren’t speaking from a position of strength.

If you want families to participate in an IEP meeting, then, you can help them get past discomfort by providing scaffolding that helps them find their voice during the meeting itself. Here’s a few strategies to help. 

Set yourself up for success by preparing ahead of time

Whether parents are just starting out with their child’s first special education evaluation, or their kid is approaching a new transition, the IEP process has a lot of complicated, moving parts. It’s very hard for parents to actively participate during an IEP meeting if they don’t know what to expect.

The best way to involve parents in the IEP meeting is to do a bit of extra prep work ahead of time.   Any work you do to make sure the parents know what they need to know sets the stage for a trusting relationship. This can make everything during the actual meeting more efficient and more positive.

Orient families with information that helps them understand the IEP process

Having an IEP Meeting Primer, a training that offers an introduction to the process, or even just a quick phone call ahead of time between a member of the IEP team and each student’s family can make the meeting go much more smoothly. 

Since special education terms and acronyms can also be overwhelming, try to make sure you present this information using plain language– it’s friendlier and less intimidating, it’s kind, and ultimately it also means parents are likely to use the materials you’ve prepared.

Get input from parents ahead of the IEP meeting

The work you do to prepare families for the IEP meeting  is a chance to affirm that you value family input. When families know you value what they say, they are more likely to feel comfortable speaking up during the meeting itself. 

Give parents a chance to tell you about their goals for their child for the next year, their biggest concerns, and any recent growth they have seen in their kid. Whether this work happens on a worksheet or in a conversation, you will be using your team’s time wisely if you provide a structured way to plan ahead.

This pre-planning conversation can also be a chance to learn more about a child’s interests, which can give you insight into how to support and engage the child. This conversation sets a warm tone at the meeting and makes parents more comfortable participating. It also prevents conflict by giving you time to consider parents’ priorities and goals, instead of trying to anticipate requests they may not even make.

Encourage families to request reports ahead of time

Parents might not know they can ask for meeting materials in advance. If you are proactive in encouraging them to request the reports, you are building trust by sharing information they may not have had. And sharing information on a child’s academic progress or the results of any evaluations ahead of time can help set everyone up for success.

If you want to have a great meeting, families should not be getting brand new information about their child’s educational progress in a room with seven to twelve other people. It’s not efficient, and it doesn’t give them time to process what they’re learning. Help them help you by giving them more time to think about suggestions to include in an IEP that better meets their child’s needs. You’ve probably been in meetings where parents tried to review 17-page documents on the spot, and you know that it’s not very effective for anyone involved.

So make a point of letting parents know they can request all of these documents ahead of time. This will accomplish 3 important things:

  1. You’re building trust by making sure parents have what they need
  2. You’re setting up parents to be better-prepared at the meeting so they can bring ideas and questions
  3. You’re making better use of the meeting time

Remember you’re building a relationship, not just a document.

Since good family engagement is about building trust, and parents need to trust you to be able to participate and help your team, it’s important to approach the meeting as an opportunity to set a positive tone for family communication.

One way to help is by making sure parents have time and information to warm up to the larger IEP team, and that you have a chance to demonstrate you care about their child. Here are some strategies:

Create and share an agenda for your IEP meeting

A meeting agenda tells parents and team members what to expect, and helps them add input in the right moments.

Make sure your agenda includes time at the beginning to review the information parents provided during pre-planning. Putting this front and center during the meeting makes sure everyone on the team can be on the same page about what’s important to the family. It also shows families you care what they have to say. 

Start with introductions

IEP meetings are often too short, and there’s a lot of information to get through. It’s tempting to get right down to business, but don’t skimp on introductions, even if everyone has met before. This might seem obvious, but it still sometimes gets missed.

Make sure your approach is as warm as possible

Starting a meeting with warmth can help put parents at ease, and affirm that everyone shares the goals of the best outcomes for the student. This is even more important if you suspect there may be points of contention in the conversation.

Thanking families for making the time to come sets a positive tone. So can telling a story about a positive interaction with their child. One of my child’s teachers always thanks us for sharing him with their learning community, which helps align our meetings even in difficult moments.

The bottom line? No matter how friendly or approachable your team might be outside of the meeting, families can’t participate and engage in an IEP meeting until you build a little bit of trust.

Try not to rush

We know that it’s hard to get enough time for everyone to accomplish everything you want to do in an IEP meeting. But this work is definitely not a sprint, and rushing through it can create a lot of misunderstandings. If you want families to really participate in the marathon relay, make sure you’ve treated them like a full member of the team. This starts by taking the time to fully answer their questions. 

Hopefully, pre-planning, a good agenda, and having warm relationships will help you avoid meeting surprises and cover some topics ahead of time. But if you’re getting close to time during a meeting, and you sense that people are getting anxious, there’s nothing wrong with suggesting everyone take some time to think, finish some of the conversations over the phone or through email, or even reconvene if necessary.  

We know you have too many meetings to have in too little time, and that each of them requires a lot of work. Still, we promise that building trust and making sure families are heard is the best way get to a document everyone is happy with and that meets all your compliance needs.

Make a plan to follow-up after the meeting

If you’ve gotten this far, chances are really good that you’re prioritizing relationships with families, and you are well on your way to understanding how to get parents involved in the IEP process.  Making a plan to follow up and communicate regularly with a student’s family throughout the school year can help you continue to build these strong relationships.

Family engagement research shows that the most important thing families need to have positive engagements with schools is trust. Since every communication with parents is a chance to build their trust, making a plan for follow-up can set you up for even greater success in years to come.

Have questions about family engagement in Special Education or how you can get parents involved at the IEP meeting? Reach out to us here

Learn more:

Introducing families to Special Education: Build a great relationship from the beginning

How to communicate with parents of Special Ed students: 5 tips from a veteran IEP

Using plain language for effective communication with parents

  • Nell Curran, Ph.D.

    Head of Product

    Nell is an anthropologist, UX evangelist, and a passionate advocate for equitable design. At Exceptional Lives, she works to center user experience and high-quality data in our product strategy & design decisions. She is deeply committed to alleviating inequality and improving opportunities in tech for marginalized communities, and brings a background in tech, nonprofit strategy, as a justice studies professor in prisons, and as a health disparities researcher.

    In addition to her professional background, she also brings personal experience advocating for her own all-neurodivergent family, including her autistic child.

    Follow me on LinkedIn
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