When I began working as a school-based speech-language pathologist six years ago, I’d already experienced IEP meetings. I first encountered IEP meetings as a parent, when my daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. My experiences help me understand how it feels to sit on either side of the table.
My experiences as a parent
I often felt overwhelmed at IEP meetings—especially those to discuss my daughter’s evaluations. I found it difficult to sit among a group of professionals who I felt measured my child’s weaknesses. Observation reports minutely describing her atypical behaviors in class made me feel helpless.
It took a long time for me to accept my daughter’s diagnosis. Sometimes I put unrealistic expectations on the school IEP team. I wanted them to “fix” my daughter or at least help her minimize her disability.
I brought all my fears about my daughter and my insecurities about myself to the IEP meetings with me. Would she get teased? Would she become a self-sufficient adult? Her needs triggered my perfectionism and anxieties about my own childhood traumas. All of these thoughts affected my behavior at the meetings, whether consciously or not.
As desperate as I felt to support my child and the professionals working with her, I imperfectly executed my own role on the team. I forgot to return paperwork or to sign her agenda. I watched TV instead of helping her with math facts. It’s challenging to follow the IEP in school. It’s even harder to develop and sustain behavioral interventions, academic support, and good communication skills when trying to make dinner, intervene in sibling quarrels, and work to pay the bills. I wanted to do a good job. I wanted to force the school do a good job. I felt the pressure of those demands. I never felt like I did enough.
I wanted to be part of the team, but worried the professionals would not respect me. I also wanted to trust them—to know they cared for my daughter and saw her as a person, not a problem.
How my experiences ideally inform my practice
Knowing how I felt in these meetings gives me perspective on ways I can put parents or caregivers at ease. I make sure to let parents know the meetings might bring up emotions and offer them time to process their feelings. My experiences also give me more understanding if parents fail to show up to scheduled meetings. They might face numerous difficulties coming to school.
During IEP meetings, I give parents positive details about their child. I discuss their child’s strengths and avoid phrases like, “Johnny is a great kid, but…” Parents often don’t know how to advocate for their child, which I remind myself if they question my recommendations.
Language in IEPs can be challenging, so I explain goals and their purposes in plain language. I encourage parent input, because they often provide useful insights based on observations at home. When I give them homework, I praise follow-through when it happens.
The greatest barrier to great teamwork between home and school can be fear and defensiveness. Experiencing IEP meetings both as a parent and an SLP allows me to alleviate those fears and create a positive atmosphere for potentially difficult meetings.
What are your strategies for making IEP meetings a positive experience for the entire team? Share in the comment section below.
Francine Gulino, MA, CCC-SLP, works for the Oxford Area (Pennsylvania) School District. email@example.com