Parents, Do IEP Meetings Make You Anxious?
Here are 5 steps to feel calmer as you advocate for your atypical kid.
I get anxious every year. When my son’s annual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting is coming up, my stomach starts churning and my heart flutters.
What have I learned to do about it? I prepare, communicate, listen, advocate, and review. These 5 steps ease my anxiety as I go through the process.
*I'm not a lawyer! You should consult one if you have serious concerns or questions regarding your child's IEP.
I would scour the internet, wondering, "Have I done enough to get ready for my son's upcoming IEP meeting?" I Googled, "How to prepare for an IEP meeting," "IEP meeting preparation," "parent guide to IEP meeting," and more. I should have earned a degree with all the studying I did! And I know I'm not alone.
It has been nearly a decade. While it has gotten a little easier, I still get nervous. It feels like my son’s future is hanging in the balance every year. Whether it is true or not, that is how it feels. When I'm preparing for my child's IEP meeting, it never feels like I done enough.
Everyone else in the room will be a professional educator, and I am the only one there who literally has to live with the outcome of the decisions made during the meeting. Even when I know his team cares about my son, it can be a heavy, lonely burden.
It may not be fair that parents of kids with disabilities have to do a lot of extra work to ensure our kids have their needs met, but that is the way it is. We might as well have a plan.
I hope these steps help you feel calm and supported as you advocate for your child.
Download the printable cheat sheet:
5 STEPS TO CALM & SUCCESSFUL IEP MEETINGS
5 Steps to Calm & Successful IEP Meetings:
Before the IEP meeting there's preparation to be done, so be sure they give you plenty of notice. When the teacher calls to schedule the meeting, I make an effort to be available at the proposed time since there are usually so many schedules they have to coordinate. I put it in my calendar, and then I get to work.
Skim last year’s IEP if you have one. Make some rough notes. Which goals do you think your child has and has not achieved? What are your biggest concerns in the moment? Prepare something for the “parent concerns” section in each area: academic, social and physical. What are your child’s current strengths and interests?
Most of the communication happens leading up to the meeting, as soon as I know the date. I like to know ahead of time what changes and goals will be proposed for the upcoming IEP, so I ask.
Leading up to the meeting, ask the teachers and therapists informally for a heads up on what they are observing, what they are planning as far as goals, and any changes in services they are recommending. Have conversations about why they are proposing changes.
I ask them to reply by a date which gives me reasonable time to review the information — at least a few days before the IEP meeting. This has helped me to hold onto services that I felt my son still needed, and to have more nuanced conversations about why the teacher or therapist is proposing the changes ahead of the meeting. I feel it is unfair for anyone to spring changes on me at the meeting if I have asked ahead of time. If they do, I think that is a legitimate reason to refuse. Yes, you can refuse changes. Remember, I'm not a lawyer and you should consult one if you get in a serious conflict.
If there’s anything upsetting or emotional going on, I try to get that out in the open and talk about it before the meeting. Usually there are still some tears during the meeting, but I try to get that out in a different context.
During the IEP meeting, I continue my efforts to communicate effectively. I seek out common ground. I tell the team about the ‘birthday present’ test I learned from Paula Kluth: After reading a child’s IEP, someone should have an idea of a good birthday gift for them.
Although the Special Education system is a deficit-based model, I want the educator reading this document to know my kid as a whole human who has strengths and passions as well as challenges. The IEP is often the first introduction a therapist has to a child. I want them to see my kid in his wholeness, with all his adorable quirks, wit, needs, interests, and challenges.
I arrive at the meeting early, smiling, dressed neatly, well fed and rested (if possible), with some sort of non-messy snack to share. I bring out my lists, and also a notebook and pen. I listen and take notes and wait my turn to express my concerns. I do my breathing.
A tip I learned from a workshop at NYU’s Child Study Center: Bring an organized binder with an adorable photo of your child on the cover. Leave it facing up so everyone remembers who the meeting is for.
I have learned not to be too pedantic. One year I tried to make it my mission for goals to have meaningful criteria. That went nowhere, and I gave up. I asked every year for data and graphs showing my son's progress… crickets... but they are really good therapists and teachers, and that matters a lot more to me than what's on paper. I trust my son's team. I’ve learned so much from them. The notes I take are often golden nuggets of wisdom.
In middle and high school you could bring your actual child (rather than a photo) if you feel they are mature enough. Not only will their presence soften the formality of the meeting, but they will learn to self-advocate. If your kid is sitting there, the adults are more likely to play nice.
I DON'T recommend bringing young children to an IEP meeting if you can possibly help it. Either they are totally distracting, or they are too well behaved. This happened at our second Early Intervention meeting when my son was under two. I didn’t have childcare and had to bring him. I made sure he was well rested and fed. He rose to the occasion, and for once played nicely with blocks during the meeting. The administrator used this against us to deny services. That was the end of that.
I have also learned the valuable lesson, too late, that it is inappropriate to talk about a child right in front of them. Yes, I did that, and regret it.
After that, I always found child care, until last year. My son was in fifth grade. He attended his IEP meeting, via Zoom. I coached him ahead of time not to say “I don’t need that!” and to walk away if he couldn’t listen. He perched on the back of my chair like a cat. He will need to run his own IEP meetings soon.
If anything said during the meeting seems off to me, I challenge it. I’ve gotten better at saying no without getting emotional. I pick my battles carefully. I’ve rarely had an antagonistic relationship with any educator, although I’m not afraid to go for it. I am confident in my position as a member of the team, and the expert when it comes to my son.
We parents are absolutely expected to advocate for our kids, and the current system only works when we do.
The educators know you are just doing your job, and they would do the same for their own kids. I’ve been told as much. If I disagree about a proposed change, I bring a list of reasons, a possible compromise... and cookies.
You have a right to bring someone with you, but that strategy has not helped me to feel calmer. I need to focus, and end up getting distracted by yet another personality in the room. That's me. You may benefit from moral support or a professional advocate. Whoever you ask, make sure they will follow your lead.
Remember that it CAN get ugly, and it is okay if it does, but it isn’t always going to be ugly. Don’t expect it to be, unless you have a good reason.
This may be the most important step. At the end of the meeting I request that nothing is finalized until I have had a chance to review a copy of the IEP. This can cause some friction if the administrators are up against a deadline, but I need to do it. I’ve found errors, and when I have skipped this step and trusted that all would be well… haha! One summer my son rode to school on a full-sized bus, and one September there was no bus at all.
Read the IEP. Make sure you understand it. Ask questions if you don’t. You aren't supposed to know all the jargon.
Reviewing also means checking in with new teachers and therapists to see if they "have any questions" about the IEP. In other words, find out if they have actually read it. This document is your child's educational calling card.
Printable Cheat Sheet:
5 STEPS TO CALM & SUCCESSFUL IEP MEETINGS
More important even than reviewing the IEP is establishing a means of communication with team members early on in each new year. Check in periodically, for example once a quarter — even just to say hello. That way, you know each other before the meeting, and the communication channel is open.
PS: Online Meetings Aren't Bad
The most recent IEP meetings I've attended have been on Zoom, which reduces my anxiety because I can be in my own home. I love meeting educators face-to-face, but not all together once a year when the stakes are high. Not in a cramped room with people walking in and out while I'm trying to "hold it together." It isn’t my "turf" and I can’t help feeling outnumbered. I have less understanding of the codes and laws in general, which leaves me feeling vulnerable.
There is a rushed atmosphere at the school, and I'm aware of everything that needs to be covered in a short time. Teachers and administrators are up against many constraints, and it is the parent's job to solely focus on what is best for their child. On Zoom, I can be more focused, but I can't share snacks. All of these 5 IEP tips can be applied to remote or in-person situations.
At our most recent IEP meeting, things went a bit differently. Based on all the info above, you can imagine that being prepared for IEP meetings is very important to me. This past December I was having an especially stressful day. To be honest, I had a meltdown. My work email was down and I couldn’t get it back up.
I got a call from the IEP coordinator asking why I hadn’t responded to his emails reminding me about the meeting that afternoon. My stress compounded. I almost blew a mental fuse, and then in a moment of clarity I knew that in order to best serve my kid during that IEP meeting, I had to choose my peace of mind above all else. Mind you, I had communicated with the therapists before that day. But on the day of the meeting I was woefully disorganized and pulled in multiple directions.
In the hour I had to get ready for the meeting, I decided to run a bath, eat, be still and breathe. I was the least prepared I’ve ever been, but I was PRESENT. During the meeting I was able to listen, stay calm and speak with the authority of my experience.
The next day when I had more time, I spent a few hours drafting a follow up email to be attached to the parent concerns section. There isn't one way to approach the process of advocating for your child in the Special Education system. You will find your way, as long as you cultivate ongoing relationships with your child's team, and trust yourself as the expert that you are.
Printable Cheat Sheet:
5 STEPS TO CALM & SUCCESSFUL IEP MEETINGS
No matter how much his team cares about my son, it can be stressful to advocate for him during an IEP meeting. When I have prepared, communicated, listened, advocated and reviewed, I feel more at ease.
I hope these 5 steps give you a framework for getting through this year’s IEP meeting with confidence. Remember, Special Education teachers and therapists generally care about our kids and want them to succeed. Thank them. Bring them snacks...
And check that IEP twice!
Do IEP meetings make you anxious?
Here's a free gift for you: 5 Steps to Calm & Successful IEP Meetings: An IEP meeting cheat sheet. Are you ready to join a supportive and welcoming community of parents who understand?
Download the printable cheat sheet now. I hope these steps help you feel supported as you advocate for your child.
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