People Involved in Your Child's Special Education

IEP Meeting
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What do you think of when you hear the word "team"? Does the word conjure up images of individuals working hard toward a mutual goal? Do you imagine careful strategizing, intense huddles, encouraging pats on the back, shared feelings of triumph over a job well done?

Or does "team" make you think of game-playing and competition? Jockeying for position and advantage, trash talking, or rivalries over leadership and playing time?

Your dealings with the "team" that plans your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) may reflect one or both of those visions, and there may be times you'll wish you could load up on protective padding before heading in to be tackled again. Other times, you may feel that you and your teammates are actually on the same side, trying to score on behalf of your child and not against one another.

Before you get together with these key players on the field of battle, it helps to know who they are, what they do, and where they're coming from. This guide to your child's IEP team will help you with:

  • Identifying the faces around the IEP-planning table
  • Figuring out what each of those personages is responsible for
  • Realizing which team member is the most important (Hint: It's the one not being paid to be there)

The Core Team Members

While there is an impressive array of people who will move onto and off of the IEP field, there are a few key players who will probably do the most significant legwork for students with special needs—though this may vary based on each child's individual needs and circumstances. They're the ones who will send you letters announcing scheduled meetings. They're the ones who will hand you the seemingly infinite number of copies of the booklets on knowing your child's rights. They'll be responsible for evaluating your child and periodically thereafter. One of these individuals will probably be assigned as your child's case manager.

In addition to their evaluating and program-planning responsibilities, they may actually be able to provide you with information and advice about different situations that come up throughout the school year.

The School Psychologist: The psychologist is the person who will give your child IQ tests and other psychological surveys as part of the evaluation portion of IEP planning. If your child has mental health challenges, you may be more likely to have the psychologist as your case manager, but that varies within school districts and workloads. The psychologist may make observations during the meeting about your child's psychological state or concerns. If your child is having problems during the school year that require counseling, this psychologist may be able to help, or there may be another school psychologist who handles counseling of students.

The Learning Specialist: The learning specialist is the person who will give your child tests that assess their level of educational achievement and ability. If your child has learning disabilities, you may have the learning specialist as your case manager, but again, that varies with school districts and workloads. The learning specialist is often an expert in your child's disability, and may make observations during the meeting about the appropriate educational placement for your child. Should your child need special learning techniques, modifications, and accommodations in the classroom, the learning consultant may be able to strategize those with you and the teacher and help monitor progress.

The Social Worker: The social worker is the person who will take down a family history during the evaluation process. If your child has had behavioral problems or personal struggles at school, you may have the social worker as your case manager, but, you guessed it, this varies with school districts and workloads. The social worker may make observations during the meeting about your child's relationships with other students as well as general participation in the school experience. Should your child need special assistance with their peer relationships and conflicts, the social worker may be able to arrange appropriate programs.

Of all the people you'll work with in planning your child's IEP, these core team members, while they won't necessarily work with your child on a day-to-day basis, are charged with carrying out the district's policies. At times, they may seem heavy-handed in the way they conduct meetings and make decisions, but their main goal is to ensure everything stays on track to keep things running smoothly.

If you can be a good, attentive listener and cooperate whenever possible, it can go a long way to reducing any tension that arises during IEP meetings and promoting teamwork.

For one thing, if you regularly give teachers information about your child's disability, give a copy to their case manager, too. The school psychologist, learning specialist, and social worker may not always be experts on every new bit of research on every disability, but in providing additional background, you'll help make their jobs easier now (and your job easier later), when you don't have to keep explaining everything over and over again.

Oftentimes, from the school's perspective, nobody knows your child better than the teacher. So it's natural for the teacher to be involved in the planning of the IEP. Inconvenient, perhaps, since it pulls the teacher out of a classroom or forces meetings into the constraints of the teacher's break time, but natural, nevertheless. That's good news for you if you've already built a solid rapport with a teacher, or if a teacher has a particularly good feel for your child's unique abilities and needs.

If your child has multiple teachers in the course of a school day, they won't all typically crowd the meeting. Usually one of each of these teachers will get tagged to participate—and hopefully they are able to attend.

The Special Education Teacher: Your child's special education teacher—or one of them, anyway, if your child is in a variety of classes—will almost always make it to the IEP meeting. This teacher will be charged with outlining your child's educational progress and prognosis for the IEP, and will gather opinions from other teachers as appropriate. What you hear from the teacher at the meeting should be consistent with what you've been hearing throughout the year. If not, ask why. If you haven't been talking with the teacher throughout the year...well, there's no time like the present. Don't be a stranger.

The Regular Education Teacher: Regular education teachers are supposed to be at IEP meetings—though they aren't always able to attend. Deciding factors may include how much time your child spends in the teacher's class and how directly the teacher works with your child. If it's important for you to have the regular education teacher there, make personal contact and urge them not to forget.

Schooling the Teacher

Your child's teacher can be a powerful IEP team player. Here are a few tips to effectively cultivate this relationship:

  • Give the teacher plenty of information about your child's disability. Don't make the teacher do research, or guess; provide plenty of helpful material, with your own personal spin.
  • Meet with the teacher frequently. Build a relationship, and let the teacher know you're always available for conferences, phone calls, or strategy sessions.
  • Whenever possible, try to meet with the teacher before the IEP meeting to float the issues that may be mentioned, present your point of view, and gauge a reaction. If there's a disagreement with the teacher, working things out privately between the two of you will work better than trying to address it in front of other team members.
  • If one of your child's teachers understands your child more so than others, ask if that teacher is available to come to the meeting, even if a different teacher has been put in charge.

Getting the Straight Story

It's a good idea to stay in regular contact with your child's teacher. Unfortunately, though, it may not always clue you into what you'll learn at an IEP meeting. For example, your child seemed to be doing great in their self-contained class: good grades on their report card, good comments on progress reports, and a positive prognosis each time you communicate with their teacher.

"They're doing great!" you're told. But then at your child's IEP meeting, the same teacher reported that the child did not meet their goals, understood very little, and was falling behind. Imagine your surprise!

While it's never pleasant to receive bad news about your child, you want to ensure that you're being truthfully updated on their progress (or lack thereof) on a regular basis. Let the teacher know you can handle any news, whether it's good or bad.

Document the comments you get from your child's teacher throughout the year so if they contrast with what you hear at the IEP meeting, you can cite the misinformation.

Therapy is often an important component of an IEP—what kind your child gets, how long, how often, and to what good effect. Therapists have to submit specific and measurable goals to account for the time they spend with your child, and they're usually supposed to be at the IEP meeting to discuss. This can be tricky, though, if the therapist's time is divided between different schools, or if the therapist is an employee of an outside agency with specific time allotments.

The therapists in question aren't concerned with your child's psychological state—that would be the school psychologist's field of interest, and maybe the school counselor's. These therapists are more concerned with how your child speaks, understands, and moves. And technically, they can only be concerned with those things inasmuch as they affect schoolwork.

The Speech Therapist: The speech therapist works with your child on receptive and expressive language. This refers to whatever your child is able to discern from what they're told, how they're able to make that understanding clear, and how they're able to make themself understood. This includes both types of articulation—the proper production of speech sounds and the proper forming of thoughts into words. Be sure all your concerns for your child's language usage and understanding are being addressed.

The Physical Therapist (PT): The physical therapist works on your child's gross motor skills, which pertain to the movement of major muscle groups to make big movements such as walking, running, and catching a ball or kicking it. Once your child is in school, there may be a particular emphasis on skills that enable a student to make it through a typical school day, such as walking without jumping or flailing, participating in gym class, or carrying a lunch tray or a binder without dropping it.

You should listen to the goals set by the PT and make sure they're meaningful to your child's life and priorities.

The Occupational Therapist (OT): As the PT looks at gross motor, the OT deals with fine motor skills, those small precise movements we tend to take for granted. Things like printing and handwriting clearly. Tying shoes. Coloring inside the lines. Turning a combination lock. The occupational therapist will help your child with their fine motor skills, and writing is likely one of the things that will pop up in OT goals. If your school therapist happens to be trained in sensory integration therapy, you may be able to have some of that calming, organizing activity written into your child's plan as well. It will probably have to be undertaken in such a way that pertains to your child's education, however. (Like being able to remain seated or keep from disrupting the class.)

Working out With the Therapists

Staying in close contact with your child's therapists can reap all sorts of benefits. They can give you suggestions for ways to work with your child at home. They can pass on materials and resources that can be useful in strategizing your own IEP proposals. As a bonus, they can also tell you really sweet stories about your kid.

The fact that therapists are often not employed by the district but by private agencies means that while they may be less available for meetings, they're far less likely to be tied to certain school district politics. By building a good relationship with your child's therapists and you might get some helpful insight.

The aforementioned personnel will almost always be invited to and involved in the IEP meeting. But there are other faces you may find around the table, too, and a few you may wish to bring with you as well. Here's what they're likely to be:

On the School's Side

Guidance Counselor: Your child's counselor may be pulled in to attest to problems, coordinate class selections, or sign off on a plan. If you've already met and talked to the counselor on a regular basis, this shouldn't be an issue, unless you've clashed opinions Even then, though, you'll still know what to expect.

Transition Coordinator: If your child is moving from one school to the next, a representative of the future school may opt to be in the planning meeting. You may wish to arrange for this yourself. You may also want to talk to this person in advance.

Paraprofessional: The good news is having your child's aide in the meeting can provide another firsthand source of information from someone who likely has your child's best interests at heart. The not so good news is if your child's aide is in a meeting, that means your child's aide is not with your child (unless your child is in the meeting as well). If you invite your child's aide to the meeting, be sure a replacement aide is put in place in their absence.

Other District Folks: Sometimes, other decision-makers from the school district are brought in to intervene when there are disagreements. Whether this individual has any particular knowledge of your child and their personal needs is another matter entirely. Regardless, parents should be notified if additional school district personnel are attending the IEP meeting so they can be prepared.

On Your Side

Your Partner: Presenting a united front as your child's parents make it apparent too all parties that you're involved, concerned, and participatory, regardless of whether you are married, divorced, or separated.

Your Child: This is the person the plan is being made for, after all, and having them present as a human being and not as a list of deficits can give your child a powerful introduction to self-advocacy. Still, would you want to be in that room, as a child, with a bunch of people talking about you? Keep in mind this might make your child uncomfortable. And you might get a little uncomfortable, too.

Your Friend: Inviting a sympathetic companion who knows you and your child well can serve as a sounding board. Don't spring the extra person on the IEP team, though; let them know in advance you're coming with a trusted ally.

Your Paid Advocate: In some cases, you may need a hired gun who knows the law and your child's rights under IDEA better than you do—and who isn't afraid to speak out. This person can help you advocate for your child if there's a disagreement about their progress or their IEP plan.

And now, the star of the team, the number-one MVP.

You.

Yes, you, the parent. You are the most important member of your child's IEP team. Don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise! You are the expert on your child, and your child is the reason all those people are sitting there at the meeting. You are the only one to have witnessed your child in multiple settings, over multiple school years, through multiple moods. You are the only one who has talked to all the doctors and the specialists. You are the only one who has traced your child's development from early days until now. And you're the one who will still be involved in your child's care years from now, when the important decisions made at this table will bear fruit.

You may run into situations when your child's IEP team comes across as knowing more than you do about what's best for your child's education. If you suspect this is the case, consider the following three questions so you can prove the team who's really in charge:

Do you dress the part? If you're showing up at meetings in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers while everybody else is in business suits and shiny shoes, you might be giving off a "I'm just here to sign," impression. You don't have to drop a month's salary on expensive professional attire or anything, but the team might take you more seriously if you put in some effort and dressed like an adult.

Do you make a professional presentation? Whatever you expect of the school personnel at that table, expect the same from yourself. If you expect them to document their observations and recommendations, document yours. If you expect them to report from records rather than memory, bring records of your own. If you expect them to deal in specifics and facts rather than platitudes and preconceptions, be mindful of what you say, too.

Are you just going to meetings and signing papers? Think about how infuriating it could be to have someone from the school district who's never even met your child before drop in on a meeting and, on the basis of a brief scan of your child's file, starts setting major policy and goals and expectations. Then, think about how teachers and administrators must feel when parents who make no contact at all during the school year suddenly show up in an IEP meeting and start throwing questions and judgments and orders around. Make an ongoing effort to be involved in your child's education.

Keeping up a constant dialog with your child's IEP team throughout the school year will not head off all problems, but it will prevent miscommunication that arises from a lack of connection.

Leadership Anxiety

And sometimes, it just comes down to this: Are you intimidated and afraid to speak up? If you are, don't beat yourself up about it. It can be a source of comfort to assure yourself that school officials know exactly what they're doing and have your child's best interests at heart—and hopefully they do.

Even still, it's important to step outside of your comfort zone and speak up for your child when you know that something's just not quite right. It could take years of monitoring, researching, arguing, advocating, and educating yourself and everybody else—even if you're worried that you're stepping on other people's toes. It means there will be times when you attend IEP meetings that leave you frustrated and even angry. Regardless, you have to speak up anyway. You have to advocate for your child. The kids who are not advocated for simply do not benefit in the long run.

The bottom line is, if you want to be a valuable member of this team, then step up to the challenge and be an effective team player. If you want to be accepted as the MVP you are, then be valuable. Get in the game—your child will come out a winner.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. A Guide to the Individualized Education Program. Updated August 30, 2019.

  2. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Agents of Their Own Success: Self-Advocacy Skills and Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities in the Era of Personalized Learning. 2018.