10 Tips for Navigating IEP Meetings for the General Education Elementary Teacher
Individualized Education Program, or IEP, meetings represent a key step in a larger, more complex process to address a child’s unique learning needs.
In a nutshell, an IEP is a document developed for each child who receives special education services under federal law as a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IEPs are developed through a team effort, involving the student’s parent(s) or legal guardian(s), the student’s case manager, a school or district representative, advocates for the student, an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of the results of the student’s evaluation, and at least one general (regular) educator if the student is participating in the regular education environment. It can be overwhelming for first-timers. In addition to understanding all of the participants involved, learn more about the goals and components of an IEP itself.
For a general education teacher new to an IEP team, it can be intimidating to jump in, make productive contributions to the meeting, communicate effectively with other members, and truly feel like one is doing what is best for the student’s academic success right from the outset.
As a general education teacher, you are an essential part of the IEP team. You not only help to track the student’s progress in the classroom and identify areas for improvement, but your input is also valuable when crafting a program that will help the student succeed in general education curriculum. So, take on your role with confidence.
Here are 10 tips to help you prepare for and engage in successful IEP meetings:
1. Collaborate with other team members
If possible, arrange to touch base with families/caregivers and other IEP team members before the formal meeting or at least make some kind of meaningful contact beforehand. It’ll help you feel more comfortable during the meeting, save time on making introductions, and allow you to work better together to plan an agenda to ensure that the meeting is productive. Something this simple can change the dynamic of the meeting from the onset.
2. Get your documents and data organized ahead of time
Documents you’ll want to bring with you might include the IEP student’s schedule (making note of any accommodations or modifications); data from assessments, online programs, and in-class activities; and a log of any behavioral issues and intervention strategies used to help resolve them. Don’t forget something to take notes with during the meeting too! Remember that your firm understanding of the general education curriculum you teach is the area of expertise other participants may not have. Don’t be afraid to call upon that experience during group discussions to support ideas or solutions. By exploring the data prior to the meeting, you will gain a vision over time, and with that, you will be less likely to focus on a single defining event. If you use technology and can run reports, bring them. Include them in the data story of the student.
3. Always start off on a positive note when discussing students
IEP meetings may sometimes be tense or emotional, so it’s important to acknowledge and praise progress when you can. Improvement happens one day at a time, so always acknowledge the little signs of development when you see them.
4. Be sensitive and sincere
When the time does come to discuss behavioral issues or academic needs, do your best to present the issues with as much detail as possible without being subjective. Use the data. Parents/caregivers might be sensitive to hearing about issues their child is having in class, but you need to communicate them in order to overcome the challenge. Turn to what you’ve seen and experienced to guide the conversation. Instead of listing off “problems,” talk about “areas of improvement” or “goals” grounded in data, observations, and facts.
5. Be a problem-solver
When discussing student struggles, come prepared with suggested solutions and ideas. Dropping problems into the conversation and expecting the group to find a way to work them out can cause tension during an IEP meeting. Instead, for every area of improvement you bring up, have a suggestion ready for remediation or a series of questions to encourage productive dialogue. Be sure to listen. You may not have the solution, but someone in the room might. This meeting is to help find that solution, not to criticize your instruction.
6. Ask for support
During the IEP meeting, you will get to discuss what kind of training, assistance, or support you will need to carry out the IEP. If you’re not sure what kind of support that might mean, ask the special education teacher or other IEP team members. This will also convey your willingness to actively participate in the IEP process. Again, there are opportunities here to adjust your instruction, as well as to build in expectations for support from the team.
7. Get students involved
Including students, when it is appropriate, can be empowering for them. Elementary students might not be ready to actively participate in their IEP meetings yet, but they still have valuable input Inviting students to talk about what their favorite and least favorite subjects are, where they feel they need improvement, and what they hope to accomplish academically can help drive the IEP meeting to a more productive place. After all, it is about them. By giving them a voice or having them pick the material that they want to share in the meeting will bring them in on the team and provide them with opportunities for ownership.
8. Let students guide
If students are ready to take on a more active role—such as a high school student ready to transition—suggest that they lead the meeting themselves. For students who have been through this process already a time or two, allowing them to participate, or even lead the meeting, not only puts them in better touch with their strengths and areas of need, but it also gives the other meeting participants the chance to hear firsthand what students think about their proposed IEP goals, accommodations, and modifications. This ownership and collaboration provide transparency and support students in their decision-making.
9. Be an information sponge
Because IEPs are required to be submitted annually, you could be involved in a meeting with a student you’ve never met before at the very beginning of a school year. If that’s the situation, make it an opportunity to soak up as much information as you can. Being present at these meetings can offer insight into the bigger picture of that student’s academic journey so far, as well as the interventions that have worked or didn’t work in the past.
10. Stay focused on why you are there
Your head might be buzzing with the millions of other things, but do what you can to stay present during the IEP meeting. Families will appreciate that you have a genuine desire to see their child succeed and that you are invested in working out a plan to fit their child’s needs. And, at the end of the day, you love your students and want them all to reach their full potential. So, be proud of your role as an IEP team member and keep in mind that you are changing lives.