Special Education

How to Foster Student Self-Advocacy in IEP Meetings

Students of all ages can contribute during IEP sessions to learn how to advocate for their specific educational needs.

June 27, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

About 80 percent of students from kindergarten to grade 12 attend their individualized education program (IEP) meetings. In 2006, a large-scale study found that of those attending, only 12.2 percent offered significant input and took a leadership role in the meetings. Once students are 16 years old, they’re required to be invited to IEP meetings but aren’t required to attend. 

Other team members present at the meeting may include family, special and general educators, other support or related services staff, and administrators. Special educators take the lead for an average of 51 percent of the meetings, and general educators, administrators, and families average 16 percent. Student talk time averages only 3 percent of meeting time. Students often don’t know the reason for IEP meetings or what’s expected of them, and they make few if any decisions at IEP meetings.

According to researchers Karrie Shogren and Michael Wehmeyer, students who actively participate during their IEP meetings are more likely to be employed and/or enrolled in higher education after graduation. Additionally, students who understand their IEPs are more likely to work toward accomplishing their goals, advocate for themselves in the classroom, be invested in learning and educational progress, and understand the role that related services and supports play in their success. 

Provide Roles Appropriate to Students’ Needs

There is no one right way to facilitate student participation throughout the IEP process, but it’s important that it be individualized and based on the age, needs, and abilities of the student. Teachers can find creative ways to involve students in exploring their needs and provide ways for them to have a voice in creating their goals and planning how to achieve them.

Student participation in the IEP process is on a continuum—from the IEP meeting taking place without the student to the student leading all aspects of the process. There are many ways that students can facilitate all or part of their IEP meetings. All students can participate actively in their IEP meeting regardless of age or disability. They don’t need to lead the meeting to be an active member. What matters is the level of support the student requires.

Students as young as kindergarten can participate by preparing and sending invitations, or they can lead introductions for the meeting attendees. Beginning in early elementary, students might make a presentation about themselves or record a short video introduction to highlight their strengths, needs, and interests.

Older students, beginning in upper elementary, can create a one-page profile of themselves describing the accommodations they need, how they learn best, or their future goals and dreams.

High school students can write certain sections of the IEP or facilitate all or part of the meeting. It all depends on the student’s stamina, desire, and comfort. It’s essential to embed, in all these options, the necessary supports and scaffolds from trusted adults, based on specific student needs.

Preparation is Key

Students should not be expected to facilitate any part of the IEP meeting without information and planning, even though the meeting is about and for them. Teachers can use several strategies to prepare students for their IEP meetings. As early as kindergarten, children can help decide who should attend the meeting, and allowing middle school students to co-develop the meeting agenda helps them know what to expect. Provide practice opportunities for students of all ages. Do a run-through before the meeting and create an “out” for the student as well as a contingency plan for handling any conflict.

Debrief with students after the meeting to identify successes and what needs improvement. For young children, use a scale (happy to sad emojis) referencing specific meeting dynamics such as comfort, feelings about participants, or sections they led, like introductions or sharing strengths. For older students, use an open-ended discussion or rating of meeting sections from the agenda. This can become part of the high school transition plan.

Cultivate Students’ Self-Awareness

Before students can facilitate the IEP meeting, it’s crucial that they understand how their disability integrates within the school environment. First, discuss students’ interests and hobbies. Encourage students to articulate their strengths, challenges, and goals, or areas where they want to improve. Teach them how to effectively communicate their needs and preferences and provide opportunities to practice self-advocacy. Strategies to help with this are:

  • Starting in kindergarten, provide opportunities for students to practice speaking up, making choices, expressing their needs, and assertively communicating with teachers and peers. Vision boards and “about me” collages support this. 
  • Encourage student-led goal setting using dream sheets, SMART goal templates, or student profiles for older students. 

Next, explore what is harder for the student. Connect these challenges to the student’s disability. Help them understand that there is nothing wrong with them and to recognize when they need support (and when and how to ask for it). Guide students to reflect on their academic, social, and emotional needs. Encourage them to identify supports or accommodations they need, and teach them to advocate for themselves. This will foster a sense of agency and confidence to make informed decisions about their education.

Ideas for teaching these skills include:

  • Teaching all students to understand that they belong and have rights.
  • Teaching self-assessment and monitoring through reflection on their own progress, strengths, and needs in all environments (checklists, graphing data). Having young children color bar graphs to chart their progress is highly motivating. Older children do well with personal checklists and journals (journals can include images and words).
  • Remind students that everyone needs help sometimes. Nurture collaboration and group interdependence by setting an expectation that students ask each other for help before asking the teacher (Ask Three Then Me).

Encourage a Solutions-Based Mindset 

Lastly, support students to identify strategies for overcoming challenges. Teach them to identify how they learn best. Of course, it’s also important for students to learn that there are limits to what they can ask for and receive. When students know what is expected of all learners, they can reasonably and confidently express their needs and required support. 

Ways to reinforce these skills are:

  • Offer choices for how students can display their learning. Instead of an oral presentation, suggest a PowerPoint, poster, or a prerecorded video of their presentation.
  • Allow students to make mistakes and then offer the opportunity to reflect and learn from them through discussion, journaling, or drawing.
  • Allow students to opt out and then experience the consequences.

Students of all ages and abilities can facilitate their IEP meetings, with the support of trusted adults who encourage ownership and accountability of the process, promote goal-setting and the monitoring of those goals, foster collaboration and support, and celebrate and reinforce participation by embedding self-determination and decision-making throughout the school day.

Some students may need higher levels of scaffolding, support, and technology to engage with any of these strategies. Use of augmentative and alternative communication or other adaptive and dynamic tools may also be needed to provide students access to IEP facilitation.

By implementing these strategies, teachers can empower students with disabilities to take the lead in facilitating their IEP meetings. By building self-advocacy skills, using opportunities for practice, and utilizing technology and visual aids, students will develop the confidence and competence necessary to actively shape their educational journeys.

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