I sat in the IEP meeting, willing myself not to cry. I attempted to look calm and confident, but inside I was an emotional mess. I was trying to explain my daughter’s conditions. She has RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) and FASD ( Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). I wanted the school officials to understand how these affected her behavior.
I was already wrung out with stress, and overwhelmed with worry about all the behavioral issues we were seeing at home and at school. I was exhausted and needed help. This was my first ever IEP meeting and I had no idea what to expect. I hoped that the professionals in the room would have solutions to what we were facing with our daughter. I hoped that finally someone would get it.
But that was not the case. As soon as I got in, the social worker asked me, “What is the home environment like? What is happening at home to make her act out?”
That is when the tears started: angry, frustrated tears. I wanted to say, “She is what is happening at home; her RAD and FASD are the reasons she is out of control.”
But I could not say anything. I was too emotional. This was my first IEP but it was certainly not my last. I have sat through many IEP meetings. These meetings can feel overwhelming, frustrating, and confusing. But you can go into an IEP meeting prepared and with confidence (and hopefully without tears). Below are some tips that may help you.
Be The Expert
You know your child better than anyone, so be the expert on her diagnosis. Be prepared to share a short explanation. Make it short and concise, because in an IEP meeting there are many issues to cover.
It can be overwhelming sitting around a table with so many professionals. Remember that you are the professional when it comes to your child. This is your chance to educate the people who work with your child on her condition.
In my case, people do not understand RAD and FASD. People make assumptions with RAD. They assume that when a child cannot attach it means they are withdrawn. I have had so many people say “She is so friendly: surely she doesn’t have attachment issues!” But kids with RAD are very friendly to strangers.
So give a short, professional explanation of your child’s condition. Explain how that condition affects your child in the day-to-day. Remember that the child they see at school is not necessarily the child you see at home. So educate the educators on your area of expertise.
Ask Questions, Keep a Record
As stated earlier, IEP meetings are full of many different people. Every professional at the meeting will have to speak. There is a great deal of information. I take a notebook and take notes. I jot down the names of the people and their role. I make notes on what is said and what questions I may have later.
Sometimes, in the moment, there is so much going on that I need to go home and think about some of the information. So I ask, “Who do I follow up with about this issue?”
Do not be afraid to ask questions. Many of the terms used in the meeting were unfamiliar to me, so I always ask for clarification.
Remember That the Teacher is Your Ally.
At the beginning of every school year, I send a letter to each of my child’s teachers.
I give them a brief explanation of my child’s disability, and explain what we expect from our child in her class. I thank her for working with our child. I encourage her to reach out and let us know if she has any concerns. I want her to know I support her, and that I want us to be a team. In this way, I open the door to have a relationship.
This is important, because the teacher does want what is best for your child. I want to have a relationship with my child’s teacher so when I walk into the room I already feel like I have an ally.
This is beneficial. I can use the information from my correspondence with the teacher to help inform the rest of the room what is going on with my child.
While not every relationship with a teacher is positive, I have found that reaching out in the beginning with information and support is very important. This builds a bridge of trust and communication.
Teachers have hard jobs. I know how hard it is to live with my child daily — I cannot imagine what it would be like to have her in the classroom with thirty other kids.
Lower Your Expectations.
In my first IEP meeting, I went in expecting the professionals to have all the answers. I hoped they would provide all the support my child needed. I realize now that was a naive assumption.
School is not home. I am the expert on my child at home, and they are the experts on my child at school. They are not set up to do it all.
So prioritize what you want to address regarding your child. Come in with 3–5 questions you want to address. In our situation, our daughter was struggling with her academics and her behavior. She had low grades. She was stealing and bullying other kids.
I informed the teacher that she will steal when unsupervised, but the school was not equipped to have their eyes on her all of the time. So I had to let the stealing go and focus on getting my child in an environment where learning was optimized. Most of the bullying happened at recess, so she had an alternative recess. We gave her accommodations that fit my top two priorities. I had to pick my battles, because the school was not equipped to do it all.
Also, do not assume that a medical diagnosis is enough to put an IEP in place. Schools do their own testing and evaluations. They want to see how the disability is affecting the child in the learning environment. So bear in mind that the school will conduct their own evaluation. You should expect that to take some time.
Consider Bringing an Advocate.
It is your right to invite whoever you want to be present at the IEP meeting. Most schools appreciate knowing this in advance, but it is totally acceptable to do this.
There are several options for finding an advocate. We had a wonderful special ed teacher who tutored our kids. She would help me prepare for the IEP. Having someone at your side to help advocate for you or give moral support is such a help during this process. There are many resources online about a special education advocate.
If you have managed to get through the IEP meeting without crying, good for you! However, you may still feel very frustrated and overwhelmed.
Do not be afraid to follow up with questions or concerns.
Remember you are your child’s advocate and the expert on your child. Be confident in that role and follow up as needed.
You will be attending many more of these over the course of your child’s academic life. It is vital for you to become comfortable in this role, and a lower-stress IEP meeting is totally achievable with time.