Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings can be frustrating and emotional, especially for parents. If you’re a single mom on top of it all, you need some special prep so you can show up with confidence and advocate for the things your child needs to be successful at school. These eight tips from behavior analyst Rachel Hoover will put you in the know.
I arrived solo to my son’s first IEP meeting, smiling and nodding my way through to the end. The whole process took less than 45 minutes, and the structure and formalities flew right over my head. Fast forward two years, and the process intensified to the point of me in tears on the phone with my friend Rachel Hoover. Little did I know that Rachel happens to be a behavior analyst. She came to my rescue with the inside scoop on the IEP process and a special focus on child and parental rights.
Supercharge Yourself with Knowledge
It’s hard enough as a single parent coping with the reality that your child is different in some way and is having trouble at school. If you don’t understand how the IEP process works or have an experienced friend, you’re going to struggle even more. So what’s a mom to do?
“Become knowledgeable and see how other people have overcome the problems your child is facing,” advises Rachel. “Give yourself time to deal with the emotional aspect so that when you go into the IEP meeting, you’re ready to go.”
After guiding me through my own son’s IEP process, Rachel sat down and gifted me with these eight tips for my readers. My experience takes place in the Florida education system, but all states are required to follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Your processes and timelines may vary, but overall they should follow the same flow. If your child does not have an IEP and you think he might need one, contact your state’s Child Find to begin the process.
1. Know Your Rights
You know the big stack of paper that gets sent home prior to the IEP meeting? Read it.
“They’re sending you the terms and conditions,” says Rachel. “It’s long and boring, I know, but this is your kid.”
Another resource for accurate, reliable information about the IEP process is wrightslaw.com. If your child has a particular diagnosis, for example ADHD, it’s helpful to browse the site’s resources by topic for information on how the federal law applies to your child’s specific needs.
2. Find an Advocate
Rachel offered to accompany me to my son’s most recent IEP meeting, which made it less stressful and more productive. If you don’t have a behavior analyst who is willing to serve as your advocate, contact the county’s district office of special education and ask if there is anyone on staff who is an advocate for IEPs. “Their job is to facilitate and be that referee to ensure collaboration between school and parent,” says Rachel.
You can also search for various nonprofits that may have someone on staff to serve as your advocate, for example, the nationwide CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disorders) program. If you still come up empty-handed, consider using another parent who has IEP experience. Many people hire IEP lawyers, but be aware that this can be extremely costly.
3. Get Organized
The paperwork associated with yearly IEPs, evaluations, and home-school communications can really add up. Creating an IEP binder will ensure nothing gets lost and allow you to easily reference materials as you prepare for and participate in meetings. I used this article as a simple guide to creating a binder with six sections. If you don’t have the time or patience to do it yourself, there are a couple of options on Pinterest where you can even buy a binder that already has the tabs, advises Rachel.
4. Request a Draft of the IEP
Legally, the school has to give you 14 days advance notice before an IEP meeting takes place. This gives you time to request a draft of the IEP to review as you prep for the meeting.
“They may not always see it this way, but advance drafts save the school time and money,” says Rachel. “It gives parents time to go over the IEP and get through it much faster when everyone meets. Ultimately that reduces the likelihood of needing a second meeting where the school would have to hire a substitute teacher yet again to fill in for your child’s usual teacher.”
This ended up being a difficult step for me. I received an incomplete draft the afternoon prior to the meeting. It turns out that even though you are entitled to see a draft, there is no specific timeframe attached to when it must be delivered. The other complicating factor was that my son was switching from a Developmentally Delayed IEP to an Other Health Impaired IEP to reflect his recent ADHD diagnosis. A draft is less likely to be available when a category change is in progress.
5. Know Your Contacts
It’s important to know who to go to for help if you’re having trouble getting a draft of the IEP, scheduling the meeting at a time when you’re available, or receiving timely correspondence from the school. Because I didn’t understand the draft process associated with an IEP category change, I ended up contacting the district special education office. You want to get to the director of the district, which may or may not be possible depending on how big the district is and if you have someone to tell you which specific person to contact (ahem, thank you, Rachel!). There are also people under the director who work to make sure the schools are legally following the IEP.
“If you need to call, be very specific about your concerns,” advises Rachel. “Tell them what steps you’ve taken and what the correspondence with the school has been. This shows them that you know what you’re talking about.”
6. Write a Parental Input Sheet
Prior to my son’s IEP meeting, Rachel advised me to create a list of my concerns and what I want for my son’s education. For example, if your child has ADHD you might ask for written or visual daily schedules, transitional prompts when switching activities, verbal reminders of classroom expectations, extra time for tests, and verbal encouragement when completing assignments. Be sure that your written list is included in its entirety in the meeting notes and not simply paraphrased by the notetaker.
“Your requests can be for accommodations as simple as limiting distractions during independent work or as involved as daily sensory breaks in a therapy gym,” says Rachel. “The school doesn’t necessarily have to provide you with what you ask for, but you can put it in the notes.”
The point of a parental input form is that it is a legal document. If at some point you have an attorney involved or someone from the district office, your input is written right there in the IEP. Depending on how the meeting is conducted, you may have ample or minimal time to state your input.
“It is okay to ask whatever questions that you want,” says Rachel. “You will have an opportunity before you sign that paper at the end of the meeting.”
7. Take Your Time
Something that many parents don’t realize is that when you get to the end of the meeting, you do not have to sign. There is still a way for your child to begin receiving services and leave the door open for further input and revisions.
“You can always request an addendum meeting,” says Rachel. “Put in the notes that you approve the IEP, but you’d like an addendum meeting because you still have concerns with a specific goal or particular accommodation.”
Another thing that can catch parents off guard is when they recommend that your child either be retained or placed in a different school. Your child has the right to learn in the least restrictive environment possible. If a school can’t show that the IEP and behavior plan has been implemented, they should not be recommending a change in placement.
“Know your rights before you make any decision,” says Rachel. “Say ‘I’m not ready to make that decision yet.’ Go home. Look at blogs and research. Think about what you should do before going forward.”
8. Request an Implementation Meeting
Because I knew that some of the accommodations on my son’s new IEP would be difficult to implement, for example a daily home-school report card, I asked to have an implementation meeting with his main teacher and exceptional student education (ESE) teacher. This meeting helped us hash out details like what the report card would look like, what specific nonverbal cue the teacher would use to ask for my son’s attention during circle time, and what type of sensory breaks could realistically be weaved into the school day.
Despite this follow-up meeting, we still experienced a delay in implementation. I pushed further by going into the classroom to ask for the report card when it didn’t come home in my son’s daily folder.
“If after a month or two, the IEP has still not been fully implemented, it’s time to schedule an IEP meeting to address it,” says Rachel.
While most IEP meetings take place in May, you can request another IEP meeting at any point in the year—even over the summer.
“An IEP is a living document,” says Rachel. “You can always request to add an addendum or change something in the IEP.”
What tips from your experience would you add to this list? What other special challenges have you faced with the IEP process as a single parent?
Rachel Hoover is a board certified behavioral analyst who contracts her services with Behavioral Solutions Consulting. As a behavior analyst, she approaches her clients from an objective, data-driven mindset to discover how to decrease unwanted behaviors and encourage desirable behaviors. She has extensive on-the-job experience as an IEP advocate in Florida and Louisiana. While she provides services primarily to children with autism, she also provides services to children with other types of learning disabilities. As a parent and child advocate, she examines her clients’ emotional, social, and independent goals and ensures the IEP modifications and accommodations are appropriate.