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Special Education

5 Strategies to Improve the IEP Process with Parent Participation

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*Key points from Carol Kosnitsky’s blog post, presented by Laura Materi, Frontline Education.

Guest post by author and former Special Education Director Carol Kosnitsky

Nowhere is the value for parental involvement in education more evident than in the special education process. IDEA provides safeguards to ensure that parents assume a key decision-making role in their child’s IEP. To further emphasize its importance, the Office of Special Education Programs annually assesses the “percent of parents… who report that schools facilitated parent involvement as a means of improving services and results for children with disabilities.” (20 U.S.C. 1416(a)(3)(A))

While the positive impact of parental involvement is well documented, so are the challenges parents and school personnel may experience as they work as teams. Consider some of the dynamics that can influence the development of a healthy team:

  • Educators can be empathetic yet may not fully understand the emotional impact an IEP meeting has on parents.
  • School team members have multiple opportunities to become fluent in the special education process. This is not the case for the parent who engages in the process less frequently and with few opportunities for practice over time.
  • Day-to-day contact among school personnel allows for informal communication, brainstorming and team building. Not a part of this informal network, parents come into a meeting in a decidedly different position.

5 Ways to Increase Parent Participation in the IEP Process

Here are some strategies teams can use to increase parental participation in the IEP process.

  1. Make it personal!
    Probably more than anything else, a parent wants evidence that team members know their child as an individual. Have staff introduce themselves to parents and share an anecdote that demonstrates their positive relationship with their child. For example: “Jasmine did a terrific job on her last science lab report. What did you think about that B+ she received?”
  2. Help parents prepare for IEP meetings.
    We all agree nobody knows a child as well as their parents. It’s important to demystify the IEP process and help parents know ahead of time what you’re looking for. Send a simple questionnaire to parents with sentence starters (e.g., “My child is good at _________. My child has difficulty with __________. My child’s behaviors include _________.”). Send the questionnaire with the meeting notice and ask parents to complete it and bring it to the meeting to share with the rest of the team. If you know a parent will have difficulty completing the form, give them a call. Let him/her know you’re taking notes so you can embed his/her ideas into the IEP draft. As with all of us, parents appreciate being asked and feel validated when their input is included! And don’t let the concern that all parents may not respond get in the way of you reaching out to those who will!
  3. Level the playing field through shared information.
    Make every effort to provide evaluation information to the parent prior to the annual review meeting. If a draft IEP is prepared, providing a copy in advance promotes the ability for the parent to fully engage in a discussion during the meeting. Make sure it is clearly noted as a “draft” document and populated with only those sections that can be constructed without pre-determining placement. In addition, make it clear in the transmittal that the draft IEP includes preliminary recommendations for review and discussion with the parents during the meeting. Sharing information in advance eliminates any parental concerns that some team members know things they don’t. Further, it reduces the need for parents to digest a lot of new information “on the spot.” Prior access allows them to compose their thoughts and prepare any questions or concerns they may have.
  4. Seek to understand the parent’s “interest,” not “position.”
    We’ve all experienced situations when we lay out a position that in fact may not accurately reflect our true concern. Once we stake out a position, it can be very difficult to get beyond it. When a parent states a position or demand, it’s critical the conversation focus on what problem is the parent really trying to solve. For example: During the IEP meeting, a parent requests their child be assigned a 1-to-1 paraprofessional. Rather than initially respond to this request (yes or no), ask the parent to describe what it would look like if the paraprofessional was helping their child. If the parent responds by saying the para will ensure their child is safe during recess and lunch, the team may now have insight into the parent’s true concern. A paraprofessional may or may not be the appropriate (or only) solution. However, now everyone is on the same page about what concerns need to be addressed. How you address that interest might lead the team to a whole range of supports never considered when responding to the initial position.
  5. Provide meaningful progress reports.
    Many educators find it difficult to communicate with parents when the child is not making appropriate progress toward a goal. The best way to address this is to ensure IEP goals are measurable, and a structured process is in place to frequently monitor the student’s progress. This data objectively quantifies the degree of progress the student is (or isn’t) making. By collecting objective data, the team can address the lack of progress proactively. Most parents know their children experience challenges in reaching school-based goals, as they have experienced similar challenges with them at home. What is more difficult for a parent is to find out their child did not make adequate progress at the end of the IEP cycle, when a mid-course correction is no longer available.

Final Thoughts on Facilitating School/Parent Collaboration in the IEP Process

There are no guarantees that parents and school team members will always agree on decisions to be made. However, there are things schools can do to increase parent confidence and engagement in the process. Not only will this make the team process more rewarding for all involved, it will strengthen the foundation on which the team can work through conflicts without destroying relationships.

Does your special education staff feel empowered to give detailed answers to unexpected parent questions about their child’s IEP or progress? As you train staff on parent outreach, consider how ready access to live, reliable student data can make their lives easier. Learn more about IEP & Special Education Management with Frontline.