Individual Education Plan for Your Special Needs Child

Most special needs children have an IEP (Individual Education Plan) through the Special Education Department of his/her school. Mighty Mommy has 5 tips to help you prepare for and ease the stress of these annual meetings.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #219

Individual Education Plan for Your Special Needs Child

In the first episode of this 4-part series on raising special needs and developmentally delayed children, we discussed steps to take if you suspect your child has any type of special needs. The second episode of the series focused on coping with a formal diagnosis. And now, in part three we will look at the process involved for your child to receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP) through the school district.

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Before you go on, I recommend reviewing Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Children who receive special education services in the public school system have an Individual Education Plan or IEP, which is designed to set appropriate goals for each student. At least once per school year, parents receive an invitation to attend an IEP meeting to review and discuss the child’s progress and create new goals for the following year.

Three of my 8 children had significant speech delays and didn’t speak until they were at least 3-years-old.   Because of this, I have over 15 years of experience dealing with the special education system. There is no question that it is painful to watch your child struggle with a learning disability or developmental delay, but there are plenty of strategies you can use to advocate for the best possible education for your child. 

What is an IEP Meeting?

An IEP meeting is a team meeting run by the school district. The IEP team includes administrators, special education teachers, therapists, social workers, and you, the parents. The team may also include others who know your child.

During the meeting, the team makes recommendations about available special education services. These are later put into a written document called the IEP.

The Individualized Education Program is a road map guiding your child’s education. It explains to you and the district what special services your child will receive, as well as outlines the goals to address. The district is legally responsible to furnish the services in the IEP.

Preparing for and attending IEP meetings can be emotionally draining and even discouraging for parents. But it doesn’t have to be. Mighty Mommy has 5 tips for going into the meeting feeling less intimidated and more confident.

Tip #1: Prepare Yourself in Advance

You know your child better than anyone and will always be his/her biggest advocate. So don’t be afraid to honestly showcase your child as he/she really behaves and learns at home, because at home we often see a much different child than the school team does in their environment. I call this “parental cheerleading” and it can be exhausting! 

Keep in mind that teachers attend IEP meetings all year long. Your child is not their only special education student and they are looking at the situation from a more clinical perspective. That’s why you might hear more negative commentary about what your child can’t do yet, and less about all the wonderful things he/she can do. 

During my IEP meetings, I actually suggested that the team focus on the positive things my child was doing first and then discuss the challenges and strategies second. If you try to set an encouraging tone from the get go, chances are your team members will follow suit.   If they don’t, remember that you have a legal say in your child’s educational plan. So stay the course with a pleasant but firm attitude.

Tip #2: Decide What You Want Before the Meeting

Prior to the meeting, figure out what educational goals you want for your child. If you have a 3-year-old who is speech delayed, your biggest desire is probably for consistent verbal communication within the upcoming year. Come to the meeting with a list of questions, such as:  How will you try and elicit verbal words from my daughter? Will you communicate with me in a written journal each day about her progress and give me some examples of games I can play at home with her to reinforce what she is learning at school?

If you have a child who has been in the school system for several years already, be sure to get out his current IEP along with any updates the school has sent you throughout the year, and do an honest assessment as to whether or not the goals have been, or are being, met. (Keeping a filing system specifically for Special Education services is essential. Get into the habit of keeping all reports, evaluations, report cards, and IEP updates organized and easily accessible.)

Tip #3: Strive to Be Cooperative

Always be polite and cooperative with the district. The most successful IEPs are made when parents and the district work together. Try to never be defensive. You will be more successful if you negotiate with your child’s school team rather than attack it. Teachers appreciate relationships with parents that are encouraging and collaborative, rather than contentious.

Tip #4: What to Bring With You

  • Organize your child’s records in a notebook chronologically, putting the oldest document on top.

  • List your child’s present levels of performance, highlighting strengths and weaknesses. Sections for the list should include social development, physical development, academic achievement, and management needs (aka, what support is needed to help your child learn and behave appropriately).

  • Make a list of any other services your child gets, like private therapy.

  • Devise an accurate list of goals describing what you believe your child needs and what you want from the district.

  • A snack to share with the rest of the team. Food helps break down barriers—even if it’s a bag of hard candies, the gesture goes along way!

Tip #5: The IEP Meeting

Try to arrive at the IEP meeting at least 15 minutes in advance. This takes some of the emotional pressure off and gives you a few minutes of thinking time before the meeting starts, rather than rushing through the door without a moment to spare.

During the meeting you may want to:

  • Take notes. Outline what was said, by whom, and the outcome.

  • Write down the goals that you devise together for the coming year. These may be academic or behavioral.

  • Identify any areas of concern you have regarding your child's progress. Also, list things that have gone well. It always helps to build the relationship with the school if you can provide positives in conjunction with negatives.

  • Maintain cordial relationships with each team member.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Realize that the people on your child’s IEP team want him/her to make as many educational, developmental, and social gains as possible. They rely on you as the parent to give them a glimpse into your child’s life outside of the classroom. This is essential in helping your child have a well-rounded educational and personal growth experience.

After the Meeting

  • Extend a warm verbal thanks to those in attendance, followed by email or even written letter thanking the IEP team members for their involvement (assuming the IEP goals were met). If any teacher was particularly helpful, I make sure to let the principal, superintendent, and/or director of special education services know.

  • Not all IEP meetings are going to be perfect. But instead of getting discouraged, use them as motivation and a learning tool for future meetings.

  • Within a few weeks, the school district will mail you a revised IEP. Take the time to review it and make sure it coincides with the notes you took during the meeting. If something seems incorrect, call your child’s team leader right away and get it resolved.

How do you deal with your child’s IEP meetings? Please share in the comment section or post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. You can also connect with me on Twitter @MightyMommy or e-mail me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.comDon’t forget to check out my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT

Check back next week for the final part of this series which will focus on creating a positive, fulfilling life for your special needs child. Remember, you are your child’s biggest advocate and you are not alone! Be patient, be positive, and revel in his/her victories! Until next time…..happy parenting!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.