The suggestions below are practical advice, not requirements. ESS and Dispute Resolution staff have collaborated to share their ideas about how to develop, nurture and maintain good relationships with parents, how to make the IEP process smoother and more understandable, and how to help build a culture of ongoing compliance along the way.
Make it a habit to schedule IEP and MET meetings well in advance of the IEP anniversary date or the 60-day evaluation or reevaluation deadline. Then there will be sufficient time if the parents ask to reschedule or if unanticipated events require the meeting date to be changed.
IEP Meeting - Parental Participation
Parents are usually outnumbered at IEP meetings and can feel that the IEP process is not collaborative but adversarial.
Suggestion: Use round tables when possible. Have school personnel wait outside the room or remain standing in the meeting room until the parents arrive so that everyone either enters the room or sits at the same time.
IEP - Draft Copy
If the school creates a draft IEP as a proposal for the IEP team to discuss, then a copy of the draft IEP should be provided to the student's parents in advance so that they can review it at their own pace and process the information; this extra time will enable parents to meaningfully participate in the IEP meeting. The draft IEP should be clearly marked as a draft to avoid any appearance of predetermination on the part of the school.
IEP Meeting - Use of Names
Starting off an IEP meeting with introductions helps everyone be more comfortable and sets a positive tone.
Suggestion: Ask parents how they want to be addressed and then follow their requests.
IEP Meeting – Know Your Role
At the start of IEP meetings, the participants typically introduce themselves in the following ways: I am Mary Smith, the general education teacher; or I am Bill Jones, the special education teacher. However, it is far more important for the parties to understand each person’s role.
Suggestion: Have each participant explain his/her role. Example: I am Mary Smith and I teach second grade. My role in this meeting is to answer questions and provide input about grade-level curriculum and grade-level standards. Because I am in the classroom with second graders on a daily basis, I am aware of different learning styles, strategies and behaviors typically seen in a second grade classroom. I know how typical second graders learn and the misunderstandings and pitfalls that they often encounter. As your child's general education teacher, I can also provide information on your child's progress and interactions with others. I am here today to help this IEP team as it considers information and makes decisions.
IEP Meeting – Start With the End in Mind
Often an IEP meeting begins with a review of the old IEP and any progress made, followed by a discussion of the student’s needs, his/her proposed goals, the services to be made available, and then placement. Very little time is devoted to the ultimate goal of what happens to the student after graduation.
Suggestion: Start the IEP meeting with the focus on the future and how current progress and proposals will help move the student to the desired outcome. Begin the conversation on a positive note by sharing a student's strengths, accomplishments and progress.
IEP Meeting - Student Role
Suggestion: If the student is going to be a participant in the meeting, consider adopting a student-led IEP meeting. While working toward this goal, a school can assign the student a preparatory role: have the student introduce the participants; explain what his or her disability is; explain what accommodations are helpful and necessary to his/her success; outline future goals.
IEP Meeting - Train the Agency Representative
It is not uncommon that IEP team participants do not understand the role of the agency representative. Because this required IEP team member understands the overall curriculum, provides or supervises the delivery of special education, and can commit resources, the agency representative is the person ultimately responsible for making decisions if consensus does not occur, either between the parents and the school or between staff members.
Suggestion: Train the staff who will serve as agency representatives at IEP meetings so that they fully understand their role and responsibility.
IEP Process – It’s Not Jumping Through Hoops
When reduced to basics, the IEP is a communication tool used so that everyone understands what is expected will happen. School personnel often fall into noncompliance because they view the regulatory requirements as administrative hoops to jump through rather than important steps to follow to ensure clear communication and a shared understanding. When school personnel view the regulations as an impediment or a bureaucratic imperative only, the result is often a frayed relationship with parents and noncompliance can result.
Suggestion: Learn and understand the regulations and how they can affect the outcomes of a student's school experience. Remind and instill in your staff that there is a purpose behind the regulations and that they are not an end in themselves. The regulations exist to guide schools so that there is a common and shared understanding of the student’s present levels, his/her educational needs, the goals, the services to be made available, and the student’s ongoing progress.
PWN - Timing
Although the term prior written notice sometimes leads people to believe it is a document provided before a meeting, similar to a meeting notice, it is to be provided after a decision is made but before it is implemented.
Suggestion: Be mindful when assigning the implementation date for a service. Make sure the PWN is provided to the parents after the decision is made but prior to its implementation.
PWN – Include the Date
Often the prior written notice (PWN) form will have a date at the top when it is provided to the parent, but the date of the decision referenced in the PWN is often not included, leading to possible confusion.
Suggestion: Include in the wording of the PWN the date of the meeting when the decision to propose or refuse the action actually occurred, as the date when the PWN was written is not always the same as the date of the meeting when the decision took place.
PWN - It’s More Than Checking Off the Boxes
Although the use of PWN templates, drop-down menus and check-off boxes on PWNs is not prohibited by the regulations that implement the IDEA, the sole reliance on these can lead to misunderstandings and can damage relationships with parents. Often a PWN will only say that the school proposes to implement an IEP. This is problematic when the decision was to stop providing paraprofessional support, reduce speech services from 60 minutes/week to 30 minutes/month, or to remove accommodations.
Suggestion: If your school uses drop-down menus or PWN templates, supplement the information with specific details to ensure that the school is clearly communicating with parents, particularly when a service is added, removed or changed.
PWN – Avoid Nonsense Phrases
Often a prior written notice (PWN) will state that the school considered but then rejected not having an IEP meeting, not considering a parent’s suggestion, or not conducting the required three-year evaluation process. The PWN will then go on to state that such notions were rejected because these are required steps. It makes the school look silly to suggest that it seriously considered rejecting a requirement.
Suggestion: Take time when constructing a PWN so that it is clear and that all statements actually make sense and incorporate the actual thinking of the parties and any decisions that were made.
Accommodations – Document Any Limitations
Often an IEP will list an accommodation without explaining whether or not there will be any limitation on that accommodation. Is that accommodation needed all day in all of a student’s classes or subject areas? Is that accommodation needed in all activities, or only in some?
Suggestion: The IEP team should have a careful discussion about accommodations at every IEP meeting, and the IEP should include sufficient explanation of any limitation for an accommodation, for without an explanation of limitation, the expectation is that the accommodation is made available all the time in every circumstance.
Accommodations – Review Them Carefully
It is not uncommon that at an annual IEP review there will be only a short time devoted to accommodations, and typically all accommodations are rolled over from the old to the new IEP without discussion. The discussion of accommodations should be a thoughtful process, not an automatic one. One purpose of the IDEA is to move students with disabilities to independence, and simply rolling over accommodations year after year can result in learned helplessness and dependence.
Suggestion: Part of any discussion of accommodations should be about whether or not the student continues to need an accommodation and if it is time to try to wean the student off that accommodation. If the team decides the time is right to wean a student off an accommodation, the IEP and PWN should reflect how, when and for how long the experiment will last, and the documentation should include how data will be collected, who will gather the data, and when and how the IEP team will receive and review that information.
Accommodations – Avoid Laundry List Mentality
Often an IEP team will add accommodation after accommodation because the team thinks the more, the better, or that additional accommodations would be nice. Accommodations should be carefully considered, and only those accommodations that are necessary to ensure equal access should be added to an IEP. If an IEP has dozens of accommodations, it is unlikely that school personnel will remember all of them or ensure that they are made available.
Suggestion: The IEP team should have a careful and deliberate discussion about each proposed accommodation, and only those that are determined necessary to ensure equal access should be included in the finalized IEP.
Modifications – Implications for Graduation Credits
“Modifications means substantial changes in what a student is expected to learn and to demonstrate. Changes may be made in the instructional level, the content or the performance criteria. Such changes are made to provide a student with meaningful and productive learning experiences, environments, and assessments based on individual needs and abilities.” [A.A.C. R7-2-401(B)(13)] If a student passes a general education class but has a lower performance standard and a different grading standard, then the student should not receive a regular graduation credit.
Suggestion: Sufficient time should be taken at IEP meetings to explain how modifications might prevent a student from receiving a graduation credit for that particular class or subject so that everyone understands and so that parents will not be surprised. Make sure that the IEP team has a clear understanding of the differences between accommodations and modifications.
Specially Designed Instruction – IEP Meeting Preparation
It is not uncommon even among special education teachers and administrators that there is a misunderstanding about exactly what special education is. Specially designed instruction is by definition different from the education provided to general education students, and it is not academic support (helping a student with assignments) and providing accommodations. Special education is defined in the federal regulations as specially designed instruction, which means adapting as appropriate to the child, the content, methodology or delivery of instruction. [34 C.F.R. § 300.39(b)(3)]
Suggestion: Train your staff so that they know what specially designed instruction is. Have each special education teacher prepare for each IEP meeting by having him/her write a short paragraph describing the specially designed instruction that will be made available to the student. This information should be shared at the meeting and documented in the IEP.
Specially Designed Instruction – Document in the IEP
It is not uncommon that service times written in the IEP are written according to the bell schedule instead of the needs of the student. For example, if a class period is 55 minutes, then the IEP will often say that the student will have 55 minutes of special education service. It is not the length of a class period or the mere presence of a special education teacher that equates with specially designed instruction. If a student is in a special education resource class for 55 minutes/day, he/she may receive academic support (assistance with assignments or practice and reinforcement) from a paraprofessional or another student for 15 minutes, he/she may work independently for 15 minutes, he/she may be involved in the general curriculum for 15 minutes, and may receive specially designed instruction for only 10 minutes.
Suggestion: Carefully and clearly document in the IEP the anticipated amount of time the student will actually receive specially designed instruction, not just the amount of time he/she is in a special education environment. The information on the IEP service page and in the LRE statement should make clear the anticipated amount of specially designed instruction the student will receive and also lay out the anticipated breakdown of time the student will be in a special education environment and how that time will be devoted.