Breaking Ground 103 - All About IEPs - Tips from a Specialist, and a Parent and Teacher

Two perspectives on IEPs

Part 1: Tips from a Specialist

By Alison Gauld, Low Incidence and Autism Coordinator for Special Populations, TN Department of Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects the right of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate education. IDEA makes certain each student gets the education and support they need to be successful adults. One important part of the IDEA law is the individualized educational program, called an “IEP”. An IEP plans the education goals for a student with a disability and describes the help the student will get to reach those goals.

The IEP meeting is a time for everyone to talk about your child’s strengths and needs and then create a plan together at least once a year. It is important that you attend the meeting, so make sure you let the school know when you’re available. Also, share any concerns you have about your child’s education with the teacher or principal before the meeting to make sure there is enough time for discussion. You should get a draft of the IEP before the meeting to review if one is created. It will typically be sent to you two days before the meeting. If you need more time to review it, make sure you let the school know.

Preparing notes and thoughts before the meeting can be very helpful. Here are a few questions to help you prepare:

  • What are you child’s strengths?
  • What do they do best?
  • What do they most enjoy doing?
  • What do you dream for your child’s future?
  • What will they do for fun?
  • What are you most concerned about?
  • Is there anything that you think will limit or get in the way of your child’s success?
  • What worked best for your child this past year?
  • What didn’t work as well as you hoped or what needs to be changed?
  • How does your child feel about school?
  • What are the things you hope your child learns this year?
  • Were there any changes at home that the school should be aware of?

For students over 13 years old, as the student, family and IEP team begins to think about what life might look like for the student after high school:

  • Will they live on their own once they are an adult?
  • What will they do as a career?
  • What will they do with friends, family, and their neighbors?
  • How will they get the training they need for work?
  • What help will they need to be independent?

At the meeting, make sure you share your thoughts and participate in the discussion. You are the expert on your child and want them to be successful. The school wants them to be successful, too.

Remembering that everyone has the same goal can help the discussion stay positive even when there are different opinions. Someone should be taking notes at the meeting, but you may find it helpful to take your own notes, as well. You should receive a final version of the IEP with the notes and changes from the meeting.

The IEP is written for a school year, but if you have a concern or feel that there need to be changes during other parts of the year, you can ask for a meeting at any time.

Parenting is hard work, and some days are harder than others. The IEP team meetings can be an opportunity to work with your child’s teachers to plan for the hard days and celebrate the good ones together.

Tips for things to take to the meeting:

  • Your meeting notes
  • The draft IEP
  • Any new medical information about your child
  • Your student, if appropriate. This is your child’s plan and you may choose to have them as a part of the planning team, even if only for a part of the meeting. If you give your student a chance to participate, they may surprise you!

Alison Gauld is Low Incidence and Autism Coordinator for Special Populations for the Tennessee Department of Education. She taught special education for children with low incidence disabilities within the public schools for more than 20 years. At the department, Alison has been involved in policy, guidance, and training for IEPs, teaching strategies, behavior, the occupational diploma, the alternate academic diploma, transition, supported decision-making and alternate assessment. Alison’s work reflects her strong belief that all students can and will achieve. She has a BA in Special Education and a MA in Educational Leadership from Arizona State University.

Part 2: All About IEPs: Tips from a Parent and Teacher

By Lesley Guilaran, Council Member representing the Southwest TN Development District for the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities

a family photo of the Guilarans – husband and father Fonsie is kneeling behind a couch where the rest of the family is sitting; the younger son Xiao Yu on one side of mom and wife Leslie, and the older teen son Angel on the other side; Leslie’s arms are around both of her sons. Leslie is a white woman with short brown hair, glasses and a big smile. Both sons are Southeast Asian and have short black hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Angel has a short mustache and a visible cochlear implant on one ear. Fonsie is Filipino and has long black hair pulled back in a ponytail
Lesley Guilaran (center), husband Fonsie (back), and sons Xiao Yu (left) and Angel (right)

As a special education teacher and the parent of children who also have IEPs, I have made some observations about what helps to make an IEP meeting successful. 

  • Make sure that everyone at the table understands from the beginning of the meeting that this meeting is a team effort. Everyone at the table has an equal say and valuable input to give regarding the student.
  • A positive attitude can go a long way.  Come in with an assumption that the people at the table are there for your child/young adult’s benefit and have good intentions.  I know that sometimes there are situations that prove difficult. Tensions can be high if you are on opposing sides of an issue. Please, always advocate for your child.  However, coming in angry and with your guard up just makes the situation more difficult and more challenging to find solutions.
  • Bring your child/young adult with a disability to the meeting!  Talk to them about their IEP from a young age.  Hopefully, their special education teacher is also doing that, so that they learn from a young age how to advocate for themselves.  For some students, I understand that this can be a challenge. However, teaching your child/young adult that they CAN ask for a meeting if they are unhappy about something or see something that needs to be changed is incredibly empowering and valuable to a successful life in the future.  Learning to advocate for yourself is an amazing skill!  I got to see this happen personally. My oldest son, who has multiple disabilities, asked for a meeting this past year because he wanted something changed.  We had the meeting, and he walked through the door signing what he wanted changed!  The team was so proud and all agreed that the change needed to be made.  That was a powerful moment for him.
  • One of my favorite memories from a meeting as a special education teacher was when the parent came into the meeting with a mason jar of flowers she had picked from her yard, and gave them as a “thank you” to me. That simple kindness was such a gift and a mercy to me and I still think about it often.

Lesley Guilaran lives in Jackson with her husband Fonsie and their two young adult sons. Their older son is Deaf-blind and has autism, and their younger son is Deaf. She works as a special education teacher in Jackson-Madison County Schools. Lesley has served on the Council on Developmental Disabilities since her appointment by Governor Haslam in 2016.