For me, staying calm equals winning.
When my son was younger, I could easily be close to tears before I even walked into an IEP meeting. Many of us know what an emotional rabbit hole this journey can be, and as parents, we are coming from a much more vulnerable vantage point than the Principal, Director, teachers, therapists and the entire team. Hopefully, they care deeply about your child (most do), but since they aren’t emotionally invested the way you are, they have a different perspective.
1. Listen before speaking.
Let the team speak first. Let them give you the update, express their thoughts and give you their intended direction before saying anything. Remember, listening is not agreeing. It’s demonstrating strength and control over your emotions. An overly emotional person can struggle to work collaboratively or if needed, disagree respectfully.
2. Address one person at a time.
After listening, think and speak thoughtfully. Try not to be impulsive or blurt anything out. When you do speak, look directly at the person you are addressing. This alleviates the potential “them vs. you” mindset (on both sides of the table) and moves the conversation to a more one-on-one discussion. For instance, if you have something to say regarding your child’s speech, look and speak directly to the speech therapist.
3. No matter what you hear, continue to stay calm.
Sadly, in some cases, you might hear the most outrageous statements or flat out lies during an IEP meeting. This can be absolutely infuriating. It will be all you can do not to yell out, “Do you even have a degree in special education?” But don’t do it. It might make you feel better momentarily, but it won’t help.
Before my son went to his current school (which is amazing and they have always had my child’s interests at heart) I sat in a meeting where a psychologist told me my son’s IQ scores were low because the demands from 3-year-olds to 5-year-olds increase. Huh? Basically she said, “He was smart when he was 3 but now that he’s 5 he’s not smart anymore.” And she said it with a sad face, like, “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.” Of course, it turned out she was wrong, but at the time I just wanted to scream at her sad face.
4. Stay calm and know the truth will come out eventually.
5. Be firm and friendly.
If you disagree with anything said during the meeting, go ahead and speak your mind, but in a firm and friendly way. For instance, if you hear, “We feel the three-year evaluation isn’t needed because services aren’t going to change…” Instead of saying something like, “Why would you not do the evaluation? Isn’t it the district’s responsibility to evaluate every three years?” You could say, “I understand you feel it won’t make a difference, but we might not always be in this district so I’d like to have the full evaluation in case something changes. Can we set a date for the full evaluation today so I can let my son know when to expect it?”
This is less confrontational and allows them to meet the requirement without assuming there was any malice on their part (which there may or may not have been, many school districts are great, but sadly, some are misinformed and/or have no budget for special services so are constantly coming from a place of resistance.)
Ultimately, staying calm and non-emotional is hard. As a parent, it’s practically impossible to distance yourself from your own child — from what is essentially your own heart.
However, once you recognize your vulnerabilities as a parent, you can take steps to listen, speak slowly and stay calm to stand your ground during IEPs. By doing this, you can emerge from the IEP meeting as a valuable and necessary part of the IEP team. And that, in and of itself, sets a course for your child in the right direction.
Leslie Crowe is the mother of two boys, ages 11 and 15. The 15 year-old was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 3 and thus the journey began. She is the founder of NeedQuest.com, a local, community-based website that connects parents with special needs children to providers in the New Jersey area. She is also a contributing editor to The Mighty, where she writes about Autism Spectrum Disorder. You can follow her on twitter at @NeedQuest or feel free to contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.