For any family, there’s always that moment of taking a deep breath before stepping into an individualized education plan (IEP) meeting about their student.
As parents, we know there will be a lot of information we’ll go through with our educators and paraprofessionals, and much of it will already be familiar to us. We know our child is behind—that something is “wrong”—that they need extra help.
We’ll review testing data and do our due diligence to meet all legal requirements for the meeting. And, although it’s the only meeting our family will have this year, we know ours might be the fourth or fifth our educator has that day in a long week of many IEP team meetings.
As a parent, I’ve had the experience of participating in some IEP meetings that were deeply supportive for my child and myself as well as meetings that were not as supportive. Below are four things some educators have done that have supported us the most.
1. A Future-Oriented Focus
The framework of that crucial discussion can make all the difference as families and educators come together to find the best path to support the learner. We’re all there to develop a plan for this child we care so much about that moves them forward—the direction of potential growth based on their current achievements.
So, I offer a challenge: What could that meeting be if we intentionally focused on a future-oriented perspective of real, big-picture possibilities—if, when we review what the learner has achieved, we frame those data points through the lens of why it matters and where it can lead, and do so in a way that doesn’t feel like simply checking boxes on missed or completed milestones that now, having been acknowledged, become irrelevant? In other words, can you tell me a story of my child’s ongoing learning journey beyond a recap of where they’ve been?
2. From Now to What's Next
Maybe you’ve witnessed my child making progress in their behavior or achieving a small goal. That’s the data any family longs to hear—those moments when our student moves forward into new possibilities—and we treasure those stories you share with us. They show us the future the IEP can lead to, not simply how to remediate what’s missing.
When data and progress monitoring become an unfolding story of human actions, we begin to see what it will mean when those goals are met. This forward-looking framework centers the whole student in the planning process as you explain to us what they have now that they didn’t have before. And we’ll share highlights we’ve seen, too. When everyone around the table at the IEP meeting understands what the student is doing well, we can leverage those insights in setting and more deeply connecting with next year’s goals as we build upon a foundation of success.
I’m not suggesting a trophy for every triumph, rather establishing an understanding for the family of what their student does well and the “whys” behind next year’s goals. Why does achieving a particular goal matter? If the student is progressing in one area, can we build on that to move them forward in another area? It’s all about context, so together we can commit to the highest IEP priority that may help unlock everything else.
3. Plans That Tell the Story of the Whole Student
All the stakeholders at the table—the administrator, teacher, service provider, and family—are partners with leadership responsibilities in a process that has a monumental impact on the student’s life. We deeply believe in our IEP teams' work, but sometimes it’s hard to see the human context in all that valuable data. When education leaders present the big picture to us in a rich, unique story with a background, character development, and conclusion that show what success really means, we have something unforgettable to guide us as we support our student. By helping us see the real possibilities that can arise from good data and educator expertise, we better understand what we as families can do to help.
4. What You Should Say/Not Say at an IEP Meeting
Finally, it’s not what you say or don't say at the meeting that matters. It's all about the way you say it. Being honest with families is critical, but so is being empathetic, because you're talking about what our child needs. Sharing disappointing news like our child is regressing, has developed new challenges, or isn't growing the way you thought they would, isn't easy for anyone. But if the information is shared with a focus on our student, without blame or accusation, it will be easier to hear. The important thing is to explain the information thoroughly so we can focus on a plan for moving forward together.
Thank you to all the IEP teams around the country for doing the hard work of building student success. You are appreciated more than you know.