Re-engaging parents in the IEP process

Most of the time I think of parents as my primary audience when writing an Ask ECAC blog post.  This time I would like to “flip the script” and address the educators and other professionals who have a lot of influence on the type of experience parents have as they participate in their child’s education.  First, I’ll share a personal anecdote and then I’ll offer a few ideas that I think might make a positive difference for many parents.

When my son started high school there were several indications that things were not going to go as smoothly as they had with his older sister.  The first clue was his class schedule that had everything wrong except for the PE class.   Apparently the school had made the assumption that, because my son had an IEP, he needed to be placed in the lowest level courses that were available.   There were a couple of bumps after that, but let’s fast forward to October when I received an Invitation to Conference notice about his upcoming IEP annual review meeting.

There was a name on the list of invitees that neither me nor my son recognized.  When I asked his EC case manager who that person was, she responded, “That’s the regular education teacher that we use for IEP meetings.” It was clear that she was not prepared when I suggested that it would be better to invite at least one of the seven regular education teachers that had him in their class.  When I later came to the school for the IEP meeting, the case manager had actually left the school grounds and two of the teachers had to leave before she returned.  She started circulating the signature page of the IEP while we were still on page one.  When she asked why I didn’t sign it and pass it along, I explained that we were not finished developing the IEP.  Her reply, “that’s what we’re doing now,” referring to the fact that she was reading the draft that she had prepared, without so much as a pause that would allow anyone else to offer input, let alone invite us to participate.  When I asked how case managers were assigned, she was eager to get rid of me as a parent who “asked too many questions.”

The new case manager was a teacher that I knew and loved from her previous work with my daughter.  As generally wonderful as she was, I was surprised one day when I came for a scheduled IEP meeting and watched her scramble to find a room and round up the appropriate staff. I didn’t say anything, but she responded to my very expressive face by saying that, “you have to realize that only about 20% of parents come to IEP meetings.” I was shocked to hear this because I know that 99% of parents care about their kids and want what’s best for them. How could it be that so few of them come to high school IEP meetings?!

Admittedly without having conducted peer-reviewed research on the matter, I utilized my 25 years of experience working with parents to come to the conclusion that the poor attendance rate was largely the result of the experiences that the parents had up to that point.  Many of these parents had been trained to believe that their input wasn’t needed or welcome.  They showed up at meetings only to be read to and handed copies of a document that they really did not help create.  When they made suggestions, most of them were shot down for reasons that they did not understand or agree with.  Some of the IEPs have become so repetitive and/or generic that the meeting feels like a mere exercise in compliance.  In some cases, there are parents whose children exhibit behavioral challenges, who have grown weary of hearing about how terrible their child is, or worse, made to feel like people consider them to be a lousy parent.  Who would take time out of their life and make the effort to go the school for that?

If you are reading this, you are probably one of the good guys who try very hard to not do the things that I mentioned.  However, you may know folks who have gotten into some bad habits, or you may be in a position to have a positive influence on staff that are involved with IEP meetings by raising awareness and cultivating good habits using formal (e.g. staff development) and informal (e.g. modeling, peer-mentoring) strategies.  Parents will engage in the IEP process if they feel valued!  Some very obvious “Don’ts” are imbedded in the text above. 

six raised hands joined together

Here are some “Do’s” that should help staff establish and maintain a productive working relationship with parents, based on mutual respect:

  • At the beginning of the school year, initiate communication with parents so that know who you are, what role you play in their child’s education, and how they can reach you.  Clearly express that you want to hear from them if there are questions, concerns or information that they feel you should know regarding their child.
  • When you are planning for an IEP meeting, let parents know what is on the agenda (sometimes the check boxes don’t provide enough information for a parent to really know what to expect).  Ask parents if they have any additional matters that they would like to discuss or people that they want to have invited.
  • Make sure that enough time is allotted for the meeting so that important discussion isn’t curtailed and the meeting doesn’t feel rushed.  Nothing says, “I don’t care” like starting a meeting with, “we only have 20 minutes so let’s move on.”
  • Allow a few minutes for the parent to tell you about their child and what they think makes him special and unique.  It not only helps the parent feel that you truly care about that child, but may also reveal  information that could be useful to the IEP team and others who work with him/her.
  • Send the parent a draft of the IEP proposals in advance of the meeting and invite them to think about any changes or additions that they would like to see.  This gives the parent time to digest what is proposed, get clarification if needed, and come into the meeting with the same information as everyone else.  Remember, information is power, so share it.
  • Pause at the end of each chunk of the IEP, look at the other team members (make eye contact with the parent) and ask if anyone has any comments or suggestions.  At points you can shorten this to a pause,  look around and “Is this okay?”, but you want to set the tone with very deliberate invitations for parent input–not just with the parts of the IEP that require it.
  • Recognize that the parent knows their child best and regard the information that they share as data that has as much value as the data generated by school staff.  If there are important discrepancies between how the parent describes their child’s skills or behavior and what is seen at school, rather than declare that the only thing that matters is what happens at school, try to find an explanation.  This could lead to a better understanding of the child and more effective educational planning.
  • Be open to the parent’s ideas for accommodations, modifications, supports or strategies.  Even if there seem to be some problems with the original suggestion, an earnest discussion about why the parent thought that it was a good idea can lead to another suggestion that the team can reach consensus on.  That would feel so much better than simply being told “No.”

Just as negative experiences can discourage parents from attending IEP meetings, positive experiences can get them back in the game.  The stakes are too high to simply allow parents to sit on the sidelines.  The right coaching and teamwork can lead to the result that everyone wants: the child wins!

Posted on July 10, 2013, in Advocacy, Education, Parent Education, Parent involvement, special education law and rights, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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