Once your child has qualified for special education, the next step is to create the IEP (Individualized Education Program). Each school district has a slightly different approach, but they all follow the same basic process.
The team will draft the IEP before the meeting, using your state’s standard IEP form. They should give you the draft to review before the meeting and you can discuss it then. Nothing is set in stone and you don’t have to sign it at the meeting.
Preparing for an IEP meeting is important. If you follow these 5 steps and know what to expect, it will help make it successful.
Preparing for an IEP Meeting in 5 Steps
#1: Write your concerns and vision for your child
These are often, but not always, parts of the IEP form. You should write them yourself:
- Parent and/or Student Concerns: What challenges does your child have that the IEP can address in the next school year?
- Vision Statement: What do you see happening for your child in the next 5 years?
The school team may ask you to write these before the meeting so they can add them to the draft. If they don’t, you should write them anyway and send them to the team before the meeting. Ask that they be included in the IEP.
Think carefully about what you want for your child and write down your thoughts.
- What are my child’s strengths and interests?
- What are my child’s challenges in school?
- What do I hope for my child in the years ahead?
- What has the school been doing that helps? What could they be doing better to support my child’s needs?
Be ready to check that these are all included in the IEP draft. It may help to take some notes.
- A clear description of your child’s vision for their future
- All diagnoses that your child has (for example, write “autism” and “developmental disability” if they have both)
- Detailed descriptions of the challenges they have that might affect their ability to live independently, get a job, or do academic work
- Detailed explanations of why they need certain services and accommodations
- Goals that you’ve thought about carefully and fit your child’s vision for the future
Then make sure that the IEP goals and supports reflect these hopes and concerns.
When making goals, set a high bar for your child!
Remember, your child has a legal right to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)! FAPE means more than just getting by. Students should be getting the support they need for their own goals. Make sure those goals are as high as you can reasonably expect!
It is important that you be honest and thoughtful. Think carefully and be clear about what you want for your child.
#2: Get paperwork from the school and review before the meeting
The school should send you a copy of the IEP draft and the evaluation reports before the meeting.
If they have not, ask for them! You have a right to review these before the meeting so you know what questions to ask, and can suggest changes if you need to. The school is required to give you a copy of these documents at least 2 days before the IEP meeting.
For the IEP draft:
- Look it over to make sure your contact information is correct.
- Make sure the “Parent Concerns” and “Vision Statement” reflect your feelings.
- Look at the goals and services they wrote.
- Don’t worry if there is a lot on the form that doesn’t make sense! There are many details the school needs to add, and a lot of confusing language. They will go over it with you.
For the evaluation report:
- There will probably be a few different reports from different specialists.
- Read through them. Ask the team questions about anything that you don’t understand.
Write a list of questions to ask the team at the meeting. Think of what you may want to change or add and write notes.
It is also helpful to get familiar with the IEP form before the meeting.
#3: Preparing for an IEP meeting includes collecting your materials
You may have noticed there is a lot of paperwork!
It can be helpful at the meeting and through the whole process to have a way to organize it all. Many parents create an IEP binder: a 3-ring binder to keep all of the paperwork together.
Put these documents in the IEP binder:
- Previous progress reports from the school
- Notes from meetings or conferences
- Evaluation results
- Reports from outside service providers, like therapists
- Medical documents and test results
- Emails, letters or other input with teachers or school staff that may be relevant
- Most Important: Your list of questions and thoughts
#4: Plan for the support you need at the meeting
Here are 3 ways to help make it a successful meeting:
For each of these, tell the IEP team a few days before the meeting.
1. Bring supporters
If you need some moral support, someone to help you describe your child’s needs, or just someone to help take notes, you can bring supporters with you to the IEP meeting.
These can be:
- a friend or other family member
- another caregiver for your child
- an outside service provider
- anyone else you trust, who knows your child
Some families choose to hire a special education advocate to help prepare for the IEP meeting and attend it with them. This is usually only if they expect a problem working with the school.
2. Record the IEP meeting
You may want to record the IEP meeting. This may help you to absorb the information and review what happens later on. (It can also prove later what you agreed on.)
- You can use your mobile phone’s voice recording app.
- Make sure it’s on airplane mode so it doesn’t get interrupted by an incoming call or text.
- Tell the team at least a day before if you’ll be recording the meeting. Tell them that it will help you review it later.
3. Ask for an interpreter if you need one
- The school is required to provide–and pay for–a professional, objective interpreter.
- Ask the team as far ahead of the meeting as possible.
- Then call a day or two before to confirm that they have one scheduled.
#5: Know your legal rights for the IEP meeting
The IDEA law gives you certain rights as you go through the IEP process. Getting familiar with these rights is another step in preparing for an IEP meeting.
- You have a right to ask for changes in the meeting plan. For example, you can ask for:
- A different date or time
- A different place
- A phone or Zoom meeting
- You have a right to bring supporters. (See above)
- If English is not your preferred language, you have a right to get all paperwork in your language and to have a professional interpreter at all meetings.
- You have a right to question the IEP draft. You can reject all or parts of it, and not sign it if you don’t agree with it.
What to expect at the IEP meeting:
- There will be a team of people at the meeting who will be part of your child’s plan.
- If it’s the first IEP meeting (or a 3-year re-evaluation), they will go over the results of the evaluation and make suggestions about what services your child may need.
- If it’s a yearly meeting, they will go over progress since the last meeting.
- You will share your thoughts, concerns, and ideas with the team.
- The team will walk you through the IEP form. They should have given you a draft beforehand to look over.
- The IEP will state your child’s goals and say what services they will get and how often.
- You will discuss the plan and make changes as needed.
- You will eventually have to sign the IEP to either accept it, accept it in part, or reject it. But you don’t need to do it at the meeting. You should always bring it home to review before signing.
- The process might be different from school to school.
What you can do:
- Use your IEP binder. (Remember to bring it!) This should have your list of questions, concerns, and important papers. Take notes to refer to later.
- Feel free to advocate for your child. Remember, no one knows your child as well as you do. It’s OK to:
- Ask any questions you have
- Ask the team to explain things that you don’t understand
- Ask to take a break if you need one. (The team knows that talking about your child’s needs can be emotional!)
- Keep an open mind. Remember that everyone on the team should be working together for your child’s best interest. Be open to discussing different opinions about what may work best.
Signing the IEP and next steps
You do NOT have to sign the IEP right away at the meeting.
Speak up if you want to add or change anything on the draft!
If you’re happy with it, you can sign it at the end of the meeting. But you can take home a copy and review it first. You do not need to sign it right away!
Make sure that this document addresses all of your child’s educational needs. Remember that things like emotional regulation and social skills affect a child’s ability to learn in school.
Here’s what you can do:
- Review the proposed IEP in detail. Ask yourself:
- Do you agree with the services that it lists for your child?
- Are there services your child needs that are missing?
- Is there anything that is confusing or unclear?
- Will your child be with non-disabled peers as much as possible? (Least Restrictive Environment, LRE)
- Get advice from other people about the IEP: doctors, counselors, teachers, or family.
- Write down any questions or concerns you have.
- Take the IEP home and review it. Decide if you agree with the proposed plan and services.
This can be a hard decision, and it’s okay if you are having trouble with it. If you’re not sure what to do, talk with one or two people on the team.
You will need to address your concerns and decide soon if you will sign it or reject it in part or in full.
If the school doesn’t hear back from you, they cannot start to give your child the services. (If your child already has an IEP, they’ll work from the latest version on file. So they will be getting services, but not the updated ones. This is called your right to “Stay Put”.)
If you are happy with the IEP:
- Sign and date the form.
- Make copies. Add one copy to your IEP binder so it’s ready for next year’s IEP meeting.
If your child is 18 or older, they will need to sign the IEP. Learn more about supporting your adult child’s decision-making, or getting permission to make decisions for them.
Once the IEP and placement decisions are final:
- The district will share the IEP with all the school staff who work with your child
- Your child should start getting the services and accommodations right away, but no later than 10 school days after you sign the IEP!
While the school is responsible for following the IEP, it is your job to make sure they do! Read more about how to monitor the IEP services and your child’s progress.
If you disagree with the IEP
You have many options for what you can do to solve a disagreement with the school, including rejecting an IEP that isn’t right for your child. IDEA gives you the right to disagree, and describes processes for Dispute Resolution.
Talk to people who understand and get advice, training and support!
Preparing for an IEP meeting, using the steps described here, will help you to be informed about the process and know what you want your child’s education plan to look like. This will allow you to advocate more effectively for your child’s needs. It’s an emotional process, but with good support and preparation, you can do it!