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Managing Conflict in IEPs: Tips for Families

Managing Conflict in IEPs: Tips for Families

By Guest Author John Tweedy, Esq., Robinson-Tweedy, P.C., Boulder, CO

As a lawyer for students with special needs, I am convinced that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting remains the most important step in the special education process. Because decisions reached in IEP meetings are so crucial, disagreement and conflict at this stage are often unavoidable – even necessary. How we manage that conflict can make the difference between a failed IEP, leading to litigation or worse, and one that helps both parents and educators find the best outcome for their student. The following tips can help parents navigate the process.

1. Get Help Early. 

Parents sometimes think they should wait until the process goes awry to seek professional advice – that they need to "be nice until things get bad." But, seeking out professional advice such as contacting one of PEAK's Parent Advisors (who provide information and guidance at no charge to families in Colorado), or hiring an educational consultant, advocate, cultural mediator, or attorney does not mean one is becoming adversarial. Instead, professional advice is valuable at the beginning of the IEP journey, to help parents understand their rights and roles before they attend their first IEP. If you wait until you are dissatisfied, angry, or desperate, your student may spend that time not getting the educational services she needs.

2. Make Full Use of Evaluations.

By law, school districts must provide appropriate evaluations when a student qualifies for special education, and every three years thereafter. As a parent, you may not know much about relevant evaluation tools. But you are the foremost expert on your own child! With professional help, you can identify evaluation methods that make sense to you, and you can advocate for the use of those tools to help the IEP team gain the best grasp of her unique strengths and needs. This is especially important at the "triennial" review three years on, when both school and family have some experience with the process.

3. Don't Let the Schedule Slip.

Educators are busy, the months fly by, and suddenly your team is rushing through an IEP on the last week of school. Don't let this happen. Make a point of contacting the school administrator during the first week of the semester in which the IEP meeting is to occur, and politely insist that it be scheduled before the final month of that semester. Then, if a follow-up meeting must occur, there is still time.

4. Do What's Right for Your Family.

To truly fit your child's educational needs, an IEP also needs to fit within your larger cultural and familial framework. This means involving your husband, your domestic partner, or -- if appropriate -- your student herself. The IEP team should consider your family's wishes as to whether – and how -- a student is "labeled" with an official diagnosis. Especially as a student gets older, issues of social stigma and self-image loom very large, and candid family discussions can help balance the need for services with social and cultural values.

5. Communicate Well with School Personnel.

Parents are often counseled – and correctly so -- that they need to document their interactions with school personnel. But effective advocacy also requires building trust and lowering barriers to communication, which may best be done with face-to-face conversation. Emails, in contrast, can convey an overly harsh tone and are often subject to misinterpretation. So what to do? I counsel clients who have good interpersonal skills to talk matters through in person, keeping the tone as civil as possible, and then follow up with a "confirming" email documenting the talk. Also, observe the "one move per day" rule -- when an email exchange involves disagreement, do not send more than one email per day. Sure, go ahead and draft that spicy reply – but sleep on it and revise in the morning before hitting "send."

6. Get the IEP Draft in Advance of the Meeting.

Parents may be bombarded with evaluation reports, draft IEP documents, and oral communications from team members, all for the first time during the IEP meeting. They are then asked to make crucial decisions about their child, on the fly. No wonder they get upset! I insist on receiving drafts of IEP documents at least a day in advance of the meeting itself, so that my clients and I can digest the language before the meeting.

7. Focus on Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance.

Often, parents and advocates gloss over the first sections of the IEP, which describe present levels of function and needs. Professional IEP team members may insert in advance overly-glowing language about a student's positive personality or other traits and academic progress. While such language may make parents feel good, it may also paint a misleading portrait of a student's progress, or mask a lack thereof. It is therefore crucial for parents to make sure that these early sections of an IEP accurately portray a student's strengths and challenges, using concrete, fact-based observations.

8. Don't Let the Goals Get Too Small.

Educators often talk about "SMART" goals, an acronym in which the "A" stands for attainable. This sometimes leads the IEP team to drafting goals that are too small, and though they might be easy to document, these small goals may not be a priority for your child. As a parent, your can dream big for your student, inspiring (and even pushing) educators to make IEP goals that reflect your goals for your child's life.

9. Make Service Delivery Statement Specific.

Some administrators propose an all-inclusive service delivery statement, inserting vague language about a range of possible services "as appropriate" in every student's IEP. Politely point out that the "I" in IEP stands for Individualized, and object to catch-all boilerplate language that does not describe the services to be delivered to this particular student. The Service Delivery Statement is the perfect place to identify the unique Accommodations and/or Modifications that work best to support your individual child's learning.

10. Don't Be Rushed Into a Placement Decision.

Placement discussions often come at the end of a long, exhausting meeting. It is a parent's right to defer agreeing to a placement offer until you have had a chance to digest all the information, research the placement offered, explore alternatives, and get professional input.

These tips are no substitute for personalized advice – but they can help you keep the IEP discussion on track.

Photo of compass on sidewalk included under a Creative Commons License by Margaret W. Carruthers.

 Copyright 2012 © by PEAK Parent Center, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce may be obtained from PEAK Parent Center.