Parent Participation at the IEP Team Meeting

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

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I am sitting at my desk at school, cluttered with papers, folders stacked on the table situated beside it to create an L shape so I have more room to store stuff. There are binders full of tracking sheets, tracking sheets which note the words per minute my kids attempt to read bi-weekly. There are blue folders which contain IEP's because I have more than a few meetings coming up within the week. If it were April, I'd feel overwhelmed, but it's still Fall, and so I am ready to face these days head-on. There are notes to be added into these blue folders, and they will be completed soon enough. There are keys, coffee cups, notes to pick up milk on the way home, to pay the power bill. There are drawings colored in for me by my sweet students during our rare classroom "down" times where they get to have free time. I realize by staring at this well organized mess that I work hard for your children. And I love it.

Free time doesn't come to them freely-they work hard to earn it.

This little merry band of students works hard for their free time. They know it. They understand it.

Mostly, though, they get bored after about 10 minutes of the earned 30 and after noting them having a conversation together, I wonder if there will be a mutiny. Of a sort, there was: they wanted to save the remaining balance of their free time for another day and go back to learning.

Well, how about that?

Intrigued, I asked them why they wanted to give up this rare precious gem. The nine year old spokeswoman of the group said, "Because we love to learn."

How are you going to argue with THAT?? What teacher, in their right mind, is going to pump the brakes of academic acquisition? Not this gal.

So I'm sitting here, looking through the mountainous pile of stuff, all of which has merit, value, meaning and all of which has a specific location on the desk. I can tell you where in the pile everything is. It is my homage to teachers past and present. It is a heap.

It is representative of hard work and all the thought which goes into making sure my records are complete-that documentation is sound and will stand strong in the students' files for a year, the notations being pulled out of the hard blue 2 pronged folders which house my students' IEP's, formal assessment information, and the action plan for their education.

My pile represents the very humble beginnings of the legal document housed in this blue folder: the I.E.P.

I hear a noise in the hallway and my thoughts return to the task at-hand: preparation for an upcoming Individual Education Plan Team meeting. The parent has confirmed her attendance. The speech pathologist made arrangements to attend. The general education teacher, the Principal, and of course, I will be there. The paperwork is complete, conversations have been had and the document is a representation of assessments, discussions, and input by all concerned parties.

The appointed time arises and I walk with my big blue folder to wait at the front office for the arrival of my parent and the other team members. The time ticks near and one other person arrives. Soon after, two more. NO parent. My text messages are getting no response. The general ed. teacher has to get back to class. A behavior issue draws the Principal back to her office. The speech pathologist needs to leave to attend another IEP in a different building. We have waited nearly 30 minutes and decide to review the paperwork together.

Three days later, the parent calls and wants to schedule a new time and day for our meeting. Some seem irritated; I'm grateful for the desire the parent shows-who knows? Maybe something awful happened to detain her the other day…no judgment here. The meeting is rescheduled for the following week. The parent doesn't show but a family member calls to say the parent had been rushed to the emergency room. A valid reason to reschedule.

This scenario got me to thinking about all the times parents did not show up to IEP meetings and it caused me to wonder one simple thing: why not?

Why are parents opting OUT of these meetings? Is there a level of trust in some communities that runs so deeply that IEP Teams are given carte blanche by parents who believe in your decisions so fully that they feel no need to listen in or actively to participate? Is this lack of participation a regional phenomenon in our country or is it a national trend? Do parents know their right to have meetings scheduled at times where they can attend?

Do parents know they have significant rights under the IDEA law? Parent participation is a hallmark component of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and the goal is for the team to function in a manner which is wholly centered on the needs of the child. Schools are MANDATED to welcome parental involvement. It's really a big deal.

RELATED RECOMMENDED READ - Parental Tips and Advice to Get an IEP Approved for Your Child

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Please know, teachers WANT parents to participate. Why? We WANT to know everything which can be shared about the child because it helps us to assemble a more complete picture of the child and their needs. What may seem insignificant to a family member can be a really big deal to an Educator. The baby didn't roll over independently until they were nearly a year old? That matters. We won't k now that information unless you tell us. The baby was delivery two months prematurely and was in the neo-natal intensive care unit for three weeks as they gained weight and their lungs developed? THAT MATTERS. Baby didn't eat well and was considered Failure to Thrive for six months? THAT MATTERS.

Here are some really good reasons to participate as noted on Eric Digest (

  • Your attendance helps the teacher better understand your child and your home environment.
  • Your attendance causes teachers to help you better understand your child's learning environment.
  • Communications and rapport between home and school are developed.
  • Because a relationship between home and school is established, goals can be agreed upon for all the right reasons.

What are some reasons parents don't want to attend? I've heard most of them. The hardest part for me, as a teacher AND as a mother/grandmother is to hear the reasons given to me by parents and then my mind is blown because they're unwilling, in many cases, to put their child FIRST, ahead of the parent's own fears or anxieties. Here are some of the reasons I've been given for parents not attending along with reassurances I've issued-and have, indeed, followed through on:

Excuse Reason In Which Excuse Given Is Typically Rooted Response Given/Work-Around Which Is Offered
"I don't have time. I work all day." Legitimate in most cases. Food needs to be put on the table! I am happy to connect with you on the weekend. I cannot guarantee everyone from the committee will join us. Can we meet during your lunch break?
"I have my younger kids and they're too noisy." In many cases, families don't have family to watch younger siblings who are not yet in school. "Bring them with you. We'll have a few toys set out for them to enjoy." In some cases, I've been able to have an available adult staff person provide care for the siblings during our meeting.
Parent is incarcerated. Yep. This is a reality in some cases. I have gone to the county jail and sat in the visitation room with the permission of necessary parties to hold conferences at minimum and medium security jails.
"My spouse is in the military. We can't both be there." A combat-weary soldier often wants desperately to have a hand in their child's education, but distance/duty can preclude this. When possible, Skype sessions have been set up to include the second parent. Talk about a great way to build rapport!
"I care for my aging parent and can't leave their home." Aging parents is a reality for every generation. I have offered to go to the home to meet there. Again, I inform the family that I cannot commit the entire team to coming along, but in several cases, it has worked out that several team members were able to join me.
"I don't have gas to get there." If you know the family's situation, you will know if this is legitimately rooted in financial need. Either get the parent a gas card or offer them a ride (check with your district for their policy on this. Some would allow it, some would not).

My point in this chart is that if we think outside the box, parents can be included. When they say they can't attend, be gentle but inquire as to why. Figure out a work-around for the problem. It has been my experience that most parents WANT to be at the meeting. However, parents need to be forthcoming as to why they cannot attend. Schools can't always read minds but schools DO want to help.

There are too many great reasons to attend your child's IEP, but only one matters: the educational progress and program for YOUR child.

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Mary McLaughlin