How to Help Parents Navigate the IEP Process

By Andrew Hawk

How to Help Parents Navigate the IEP ProcessHaving spent the last eleven years as a teacher, including eight as a special education teacher, I have been through the IEP process numerous times. Last month, I moved to the other side of the table as my three-year-old daughter completed the IEP process as a student with a language impairment. I have to say that even after spending almost my entire adult life working in public education, the IEP process was still stressful when it focused on my own child. It’s hard for me to imagine completing it with little to no working knowledge of special education. For that reason, teachers need to be ready to act as a parent’s guide if the need should arise. Here are some ideas to help parents navigate and better understand the IEP process that I hope you will try.

What Information to Share

  • Special Education Terms. I promise that I have never met a teacher who used a lot of jargon on purpose. Often, teachers will explain several things and then ask a parent if he or she has any questions. Some parents may not be comfortable asking a lot of questions for fear of appearing uninformed. I usually start a conversation by saying, “If I explain anything you already know, please stop me.” Some common terms that parents will need to be informed of include least restrictive environment (LRE), independent education plan (IEP), progress monitoring, case conference, present levels of performance, extended school year (ESY), due process, teacher of record (TOR), and teacher of service (TOS). Even if certain terms do not specifically apply to a student, the terms may still appear in the IEP and will still need to be explained.
  • Case Conference. These important meetings sometimes go by different names. I have heard them called case conferences, IEP meetings, and annual case reviews. Parents need to know that they occur annually, what will be discussed at them, and that the parents’ attendance is very important. In addition, parents should be informed that they have the right to call a case conference at any time if they have concerns.
  • Response to Intervention. Some schools have adopted euphemisms to use in place of the Response to Intervention Committee. My school calls this the Problem-Solving Committee. Students who are struggling behaviorally or academically are referred to this committee. Anyone can make a referral, even a babysitter or family friend. The committee usually consists of the classroom teacher, an administrator or a counselor, the special education teacher, and the parent. The committee puts research-based interventions in place to help the student be successful. The student’s progress is monitored over a period of time—how much time is up to the committee. If the student does not make adequate progress, the committee may decide to request the student be evaluated by the school psychologist for special education services.
  • Evaluation. Parents of students that are being newly evaluated for special education services are often the most anxious. The process is brand new to these parents, and it is difficult for some of them to see it as a positive thing for their child. I have found that parents are more receptive if they understand that they have a lot of say in the process. I explain what evaluations will be completed and tell the parent that, if the student is found eligible for special education services, we will discuss the services in detail. I finish by telling the parent that he or she has the right to refuse the services at the end of the process.
  • Medical Diagnosis. This is an area that gets really fuzzy. Schools regularly identify students who have exceptionalities such as a specific learning disability, mild cognitive disability, and speech or language impairment, which do not require a medical diagnosis. Exceptionalities such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) are all examples of exceptionalities that do require a medical diagnosis. If a parent seeks a medical diagnosis from a medical professional, the school will likely play a role in that process by filling out informational surveys about the student. However, the diagnosis will be left to the medical professional. What muddies the water even further is that schools can offer special education services without a formal medical diagnosis if a student is evaluated and found to be eligible for special education services. Many times, students who show signs of a particular exceptionality but who are without a formal diagnosis will be identified as special education students with an other health impairment (OHI).
  • Duration of Services. When my students are transferring from elementary school to middle school, parents often ask if the special education plans will remain in place. Parents should be informed that the services can stay in place all the way to college if necessary. In addition, tell parents that if they change schools, the new school will have to offer services as well (although the new school may want to make some changes to the IEP).
  • Requesting an Evaluation. Parents of struggling students are often unaware that they can request a special education evaluation at any time and forgo the RTI process. The school may deny the request if they have just cause. But in the schools where I have worked, these requests were never denied if the student was struggling and the classroom teacher agreed with the parent about the request.

How to Share Information

  • Procedural Safeguards. Legally, these must be provided to parents and guardians throughout the special education process. These booklets are sometimes called “parents’ rights.” Sometimes the writing in procedural safeguards can be too technical to be effective. I suggest offering to review these with parents in person or over the phone.
  • Parent Workshop. It is a good idea to hold a parent workshop at least once a year. I recommend making it open to anyone who wants to attend. Parents of struggling general education students often want information about the process but are unsure of where to find it. Due to the fact that special education law can vary from state to state, researching special education on the internet can be challenging if a parent does not know to look for information about his or her specific state.
  • Frequently Asked Questions. Develop a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page. These are great for parents who are hesitant to ask questions. I also recommend including the school contact information of a special education teacher in case a parent has further questions.
  • Be Approachable and Available. Special education teachers should never forget they are the experts on special education at their schools. No one likes a doctor who has a poor bedside manner. This is also true of teachers. It’s important for special education teachers to be approachable and available to parents and colleagues to answer questions about the IEP process. There will be times when new general education teachers will need some guidance with the process as well.

A great resource to recommend to parents to help them learn more about special education is The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education (And Their Parents): Understanding What Special Ed Is & How It Can Help You by Wendy L. Moss, Ph.D., and Denise M. Campbell, M.S.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.

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