Peeking behind the IEP meeting curtain

“Meet you in the principal’s office so we can talk about what your kid does wrong.” Woo-hoo, sign me up!

What really happens during an IEP meeting? To someone who has never experienced it, the IEP process is a curiosity: What do they do in there all that time and why do people dread it so much?

So, for those who have never experienced an IEP meeting and those who soon will, here’s a glimpse behind the IEP curtain, to try to demystify it a little.


IEP, which stands for Individualized Education Program, is a written document that is developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education. It is legally binding, and parents’ signatures are required for it to be put into place. Sometimes school officials begin the process of suggesting an IEP for a child, and sometimes parents seek one based on medical or personal observations.

The goal of the IEP report is to set goals and objectives for your child to reach in the coming year. So who attends the meeting? Usually it is the principal, the child’s current teacher, the child’s special education program director (if there is one), speech and occupational therapy service providers (if there are ones), a school district representative (the principal can be this or one is sent in “certain” cases), the parent, parents or guardian, and sometimes the parents’ legal representative or advocate. The child in most cases is not included until he or she is are older.

The meeting begins with introductions and legal mumbo jumbo, and parents’ rights rules are offered; then it’s down to business. If it’s the initial IEP, the child’s areas of need are identified and goals are set. Otherwise, the specialists (speech, OT) go through the progress made and then get into the goals.

So why the dread? The law under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is clear: public schools are required to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE) that is tailored to the child’s individual needs. The problem is that “appropriate” can mean very different things to those in the room. Also, to figure out “appropriate,” a discussion of what HASN’T worked is inevitable, which includes hearing about all the things that have gone wrong with your child.

At times, especially in IEPs involving autistic children and others who are non-neurotypical, the focus in the IEP meeting can be entirely on that … a litany of the times the child acted out. This absolutely should not be the case. As a parent and advocate, your role in this meeting is not a passive one. If the emphasis is on “what happened,” you must turn it to “why did this happen?” For example, Jewel used to just get up and run out of the classroom (they call this eloping, which confused me at first because I couldn’t believe they let her get married during the school day). I would hear in the IEP all about the chase, the hiding spots, how affronted the teacher was when she bolted. Then I would ask what happened before she ran. That’s the only way you can set goals and strategies, is to figure out what the child found overwhelming. Don’t let the focus be on the behavior; it needs to be on what brings out the behavior.

The principal or a specialist may be running the meeting and setting the agenda, but you have an equal say in deciding goals, strategies, accommodations, modifications and services. These things are not gifts bestowed by school officials; they are requirements under the law.

Other points of contention in the IEP can include one-on-one aides versus general classroom support, coming up with goals that are measurable and attainable, general education placement versus special education, issues of noncompliance with the IEP, to name just a few.


Surprises are inevitable, so it’s even more important that parents come in with a plan of what they want for their child and why. Other things to bring to the IEP beyond a clear objective of what services you want for your child include any outside medical assessments, a list of suggestions about what works at home with your child, and any questions or concerns your child has raised going into the meeting. Always ask your child what’s working and isn’t working for him or her at school before the IEP meeting.

At the end of the meeting, parents are asked to agree to the IEP program set for their child, including the goals, strategies, modifications and accommodations, by signing the program plan. You don’t have to sign then and many don’t; taking it home to review as you would any legally binding document is a good idea. In an ideal world, you sign it (make sure to get a copy for your files; recordkeeping at the school district can be spotty) and the plan is followed for the next 12 months.  Ideal worlds rock!



2 thoughts on “Peeking behind the IEP meeting curtain

  1. I love the open mind comment. I think that goes for all participants, not just the parents. I hate the “us-against-them” mentality that comes when no one is willing to concede that they don’t have all of the answers.


    1. I totally agree…the best plans are the ones that are collaborations. There needs to be a give and take, and a willingness to show empathy for each side. It’s amazing sometimes in that we teach our kids to be, open-hearted and empathetic, is exactly what would help adults in the IEP process.


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