An individualized education program (IEP) serves as a blueprint for special education services. Its creation should be a collaborative process, serving the student as a living document, its implementation requiring a constant and collaborative conversation between all stakeholders. The input and involvement of the student’s family prior to the annual IEP meeting is critical to this process.
Laying the Groundwork
It is important to create an open and ongoing line of communication with families (such as parents and primary caregivers) early in the school year so they can ask questions, provide information about the child, take part in classroom activities, share stories both of success and challenges at home, and discuss thoughts on the IEP’s progress. This data will be invaluable to a teacher as a tool for guiding instructional and programmatic decisions.
Daily journals, reciprocated notes in students’ agendas, phone calls (about both the positives and the concerns), establishing a reliable email chain, invitations to participate in classroom activities, and the use of teacher-created classroom websites are all examples of effective communication.
Establishing a written communication system, such as notes in a student agenda book and those just discussed, keeps parents and caregivers informed of the child’s progress while providing them the opportunity to express concerns or compliments. Implementing the IEP, conducting IEP-related pre-meetings, and writing the IEP will be easier for the team who have been working together with the parents throughout the school year.
Teachers can also use phone conferencing with parents to increase participation. First, teachers must establish clear rules and expectations. Parents should know that because of their teaching loads, school activities, busy prep periods, teacher duties, or school meetings, teachers cannot respond to all calls immediately. Simultaneously, teachers must recognize the importance of promptly returning phone calls. This strategy will help to build trust.
Inviting families to take part in classroom activities is another good way to build rapport. Opportunities to serve as volunteers for classroom parties, guest readers, activity chaperones, or classroom aides allow families to become active participants in the educational process.
Teachers can create a variety of ways for students’ families to gain access technologically. With the click of a computer mouse, they can access classroom events, activities, assignments, and homework expectations. Teacher websites are extremely useful because they allow teachers to communicate with all families at once rather than individually with each parent.
The exchange of student artifacts between parents and teachers is an efficient way to communicate student progress while also guiding and justifying the IEP team’s placement and programmatic decisions. This could include sending home photocopies of student work so that parents can keep track of their child’s progress. Using shared folders (such as those found on Google Drive) allows stakeholders to share work, notes, and other information that can improve the educational experience of the student.
Preparing for the Annual IEP Meeting
Stakeholders can meet in pre-meetings as a prelude to prepare for the annual meeting. Online meeting platforms such as Zoom and Google Hangout allow for document sharing. Team members can easily display student work or data gathered to show why specific decisions will be discussed at an upcoming IEP meeting. The artifact-sharing practice will be more effective than simply sending progress reports as outlined in the IEP’s Measurable Annual Goals section because it will be ongoing rather than sporadic.
Before the annual IEP meeting, the teacher should provide the parents with a draft IEP and give them ample time to read and review it. A pre-conference meeting can help by providing parents time to go over the draft IEP, answer questions, and clarify anything that needs to be clarified.
Helping Parents Write Their Portion of an IEP
It’s common practice to send a form home for parents to complete that summarizes their perspectives on the effectiveness of their child’s educational program. While this practice satisfies the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandated parental involvement requirement, it frequently yields minimal insights and does little to instill a sense of empowerment in the parent.
Instead, a teacher can assist families in writing their portion. Together, they can collaborate to write this section of the IEP, ensuring that any concerns and suggestions are summarized. The parents can then clearly communicate their input to the team during the IEP team meeting.
Conducting the Annual IEP Meeting
Teachers can do things during the annual meeting to increase involvement and participation in the IEP meeting. The IEP meeting seating arrangement can help to set the tone for collaboration. Parents, students, and advocates frequently sit on one side of the conference table while school district professionals sit on the other. This creates an us-versus-them atmosphere. Simply by arranging the seating so that the two entities are not seated across from each other, the intimidating nature of the conference room setting can be reduced.
The special education teacher should actively seek stakeholders’ input and make certain that everyone is on the same page throughout the meeting. A collaborative IEP meeting should never consist of the teacher simply reading the document to the team and asking for signatures. Stakeholders should view it as a conversation rather than a presentation. At the end of the meeting, the team should spend some time summarizing the child’s IEP plan, focusing on goals, services, and specially designed instructional strategies.
Simply thanking parents for their input and participation, followed by a promise of continued collaboration throughout the IEP’s life span, will empower them even more. Familial stakeholders must believe that the IEP meeting is not a onetime event and that the IEP is a living document in which they play an important role.
Finally, following the meeting, the teacher should contact the family for a follow-up. Many IEP team meetings are packed with data, information, and planning. Allowing the parents a week to review the meeting and the IEP document allows them to process everything. A follow-up call, email, or meeting will emphasize the open, ongoing nature of communication, allow them to ask additional questions that may not have been raised during the meeting, and restate the meeting outcomes.