Planning and Prevention Strategies Reduce Problems at IEP Meetings

by Judith Greenbaum, Ph.D. from CEN’s Focus on Results

Many parents and educators approach an individualized education program (IEP) team meeting with a certain amount of caution. Parents and educators feel this way even though evidence shows that most IEP team meetings proceed rather quickly and quietly. IEP team participants may worry that some-thing will go wrong or that participants will disagree, or they may feel unprepared.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a team of individuals prepare a student’s IEP (see Figure 1). By requiring a team approach, lawmakers hoped to ensure that each student would have the benefit of several good minds working together to create a quality student IEP. It’s not that lawmakers thought they could prevent disagreement among team members; they actually thought that some disagreement among people with different perspectives might result in a better IEP.

In other words, disagreement can be good—if it is handled respectfully. This can result in an IEP team meeting far richer than one in which no one voices an opinion. Differences of opinion about what is best for the student are part of the problem-solving process, and problem solving is the heart of IEP planning. Disagreement that is thoroughly discussed and results in consensus, usually produces a more appropriate, effective IEP for the student.

Communicate for Student Success

Many factors can interfere with a full and productive discussion of what is best for the student. These include:

  • Misunderstandings or miscommunication.
  • Lack of information or misinformation.
  • Differing expectations of schools and instruction.
  • Lack of understanding of teacher roles and responsibilities.
  • Differences in communication styles.
  • Differing interpretations of the law.
  • Non-compliance with the law.
  • Shortage of resources or financial constraints.
  • Lack of trust due to broken promises, lack of success in the past, gossip, and innuendo.
  • Direct or implied blame.
  • Little or no preparation for the IEP process.

Who should attend an IEP meeting?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) calls for the following people to participate on the individualized education program (IEP) team:(B)(d)(1)(B) Individualized education program team.–The term ‘individualized education program team’ or ‘IEP Team’ means a group of individuals composed of—

(i) The parents of a child with a disability;

(ii) Not less than 1 regular education teacher of such child (if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment);

(iii) Not less than 1 special education teacher, or where appropriate, not less than 1 special education provider of such child;

(iv) A representative of the local educational agency who–

(I) Is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;

(II) Is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and

(III) Is knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the local educational agency;

(v) An individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results, who may be a member of the team described in clauses (ii) through (vi);

(vi) At the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate; and

(vii) Whenever appropriate, the child with a disability.

Source: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004). Final Enrolled Bill, Sec. 614.

Misinformation, Misunderstandings, or Lack of Information

Problems caused by misinformation, misunderstandings, or lack of information can cause disagreements where none actually exist. IEP team members can prevent many of these problems from occuring in the first place or from going further, by listening carefully, speaking accurately, and correcting misunderstandings as early as possible. Paying careful attention to the accuracy of others’ and one’s own statements, and providing clear, corrective explanations can enhance communication and understanding. School staff members have a major responsibility for keeping themselves informed and up to date about the IEP process as practiced in their particular school district. They also have the responsibility of ensuring that parents fully understand the process. Parents have the responsibility to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Parents should also correct any misunderstandings school staff may have about their child or themselves as early as possible.

Differing Values, Expectations, and Communication Styles

Other communication problems arise from the differing values, expectations, and communication styles of the different members of the IEP team. Staying aware of these differences, and bridging the gaps, can lead to sound decisions. For example, some parents expect more than schools and teachers can deliver. Differences in expectations need to be uncovered and clarified.

Differing Interpretations of the Law or Suspected Non-Compliance With the Law

It is better to leave differing interpretations of the law or suspected non-compliance with the law to compliance officials and legal authorities, rather than constantly rehashing them at an IEP team meeting. IEP team members, however, do need to acquaint themselves with the law, how their district is interpreting the law, and administrative procedures their district has put in place to serve children.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide a copy of a booklet called Procedural Safeguards Available to Parents of Children with Disabilities to the parents of any child who is eligible for special education services.

Resource Shortages and Financial Constraints

Shortages of resources, financial constraints, and the extra-high case load of a particular staff member are generally not good topics to discuss at an IEP team meeting. These topics should be discussed by administrators and staff in other settings.


Lack of trust on the part of a parent, stemming from a difficult history with the schools, can be very hard to overcome. Lack of trust can be the strongest barrier to successful completion of an IEP team meeting. The school members on the IEP team should do all in their power to impress upon the parent that this year can be better for the student, while presenting compelling reasons for their belief. They should encourage all participants to consider each new IEP team meeting as a fresh start.

Teachers, too, need to approach each meeting professionally and without preconceived notions based on old “war wounds.” In order to prevent the past from getting in the way of current discussions, both parents and school staff can try to develop and implement a new belief system, such as the one that follows:

  • Everyone wants the student to be successful in school, including the student.
  • The student is not happy when he or she is behaving badly.
  • Everyone needs encouragement, praise, and thanks.
  • The student is not lazy, controlling, or unmotivated; the student’s educational program may need adjusting.
  • The student can be taught new ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Parents, teachers, and students prefer to work well together.
  • Parents, teachers, and students can work through their problems.
  • There are creative solutions to most problems.
  • Many heads are better than one.

Prepare for Student Success

Often, parents—and students—don’t know how to prepare for an IEP team meeting. School staffs are generally prepared to present information but may be caught off guard by misunder-standings, misinformation, and lack of trust on the part of parents—and students. If school staffs, parents, and students prepare for the IEP meeting using a standard set of guidelines, the meeting will proceed more quickly, easily, and productively.

IEP team members can use the check-list in Figure 2 to gather information in advance and prepare themselves to discuss the pros and cons of various suggestions that can arise at the team meeting.


In order to keep the IEP team on track, remember a few simple rules:

  1. Communicate honestly, directly, and to the point.
  2. Think creatively.
  3. Don’t blame.
  4. Make sure that everyone is prepared to discuss student needs.

Teams that follow these rules are more likely to end up with an effective and appropriate IEP for the student.

If IEP teams can address problems related to the factors that can interfere with full and productive discussions, they can eliminate many of the things that can go wrong at IEP team meetings. With these issues resolved, the team can focus on the student’s IEP.

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