IEP CoachWhen parents begin to work with me, one of the first things I teach them is how to begin to step into their role as an equal IEP team participant.

Most parents don’t know that IDEA endows them the right to be involved in all aspects of the development of their child’s IEP.

These areas include:

  1. Involvement in groups that determine data collection, evaluation and eligibility
  2. The district must consider the information they provide
  3. The district must keep parents informed
  4. The district must allow parents to fully participate in meetings

The parents of a child with a disability are expected to be equal participants along with school personnel, in developing, reviewing, and revising the IEP for their child.

Accordingly, the IDEA Amendments of 1997 require that parents have an opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child, and the provision of FAPE to the child. (Sec. 300.501(a)(2)).

This is an active role in which the parents have the right to:

(1) provide critical information regarding the strengths of their child and express their concerns for enhancing the education of their child;

(2) participate in discussions about the child’s need for special education and related services and supplementary aids and services; and

(3) join with the other participants in deciding how the child will be involved and progress in the general curriculum and participate in State and district-wide assessments, and what services the agency will provide to the child and in what setting.

The primary reason I teach parents to understand why it is so important to learn how to advocate for their child is this;

Due to the lack of state and district oversight to ensure compliance, parents are responsible to enforce the fidelity and implementation of the IEP and protect the educational rights of their child. 

The problem is this; parents aren’t aware of their rights and they don’t know how to implement them because they don’t understand the IEP process or the terms the IEP team uses.  Unless parents educate themselves about the IEP components and learn the special education acronyms and language, parents won’t understand most of the content in the discussions that are held during a meeting.  This puts parents at a disadvantage and at risk of the district violating their parent rights and the rights of their child.

The district is a bureaucratic institution and as such, they are focused on short-term profits and maintaining power and control.  Moreover, districts are typically overwhelmed with the unmanageable number of students on an IEP.  And because they don’t have enough staff to serve all the students in their district, service providers and educators become overwhelmed with enormous caseloads and paperwork. This is just another example of the broken system, however, this is not an excuse for denying services or failing to conduct their jobs with fidelity.

Teachers and service providers know that special education ignores the necessity for parents and educators to trust one another, simply by the way the laws are written.

They know that the special education system is set up to be adversarial.

They know that parents are at a disadvantage because they don’t know their rights and the staff are frustrated with the amount of students they are expected to serve.

District employees are angry because they don’t have the support or resources they need to conduct their jobs with excellence, yet school districts place their staff in the position of being responsible for unreasonable caseloads. But what teachers and service providers also know is that no one is watching them!  This is one of the shocking examples of the broken system.  Because there is no oversight~ there is no accountability, even when staff members are known for being negligent in doing their jobs.

Most teachers go into special education to work with kids with special needs and make a difference in their lives.  However, many teachers and service providers end up leaving the field because of the bureaucratic burdens of managing the adversarial way the system is set up to work with parents coupled with the overwhelming paperwork and caseload.  Don’t forget, there are more than 7 million students in the US on an IEP, which is 14% of all public school students nation wide.  According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, one in six children, ages 3 to 17, have one or more developmental disabilities nationwide, and still more face other challenges. School districts just can’t keep up with the amount of kids being diagnosed and found eligible for an IEP.

This is why I liken the role of the parent to a coach of a sports team. 

Now, most parents will ask me…

Valerie, why do I have to be the coach of my team?

Shouldn’t they just be doing their job without me having to coach them?  How do I become the coach when they are the ones who are the “experts” in special education? I’m just a parent!”  Again, if parents don’t learn their rights and gain the skills required to oversee their child’s IEP, no one will.

By assuming the role of a coach of your team, you will lay the foundation to begin to see real results during your IEP meetings for your child.  Once you learn your role and responsibilities as the coach of your team, you will be crystal clear about why it is the parent’s job to drive their child’s IEP.

When a parent assumes a leadership role on the IEP team, the team members will begin to focus on your child to ensure they are making progress toward meeting their goals. 

The team will begin to unify in an effort to show accountability when reporting on their part during IEP meetings.

be the coachAs the coach of your team, you will be knowledgeable about who is on your team because you will have built relationships through regular communication as you supervise your child’s services and progress in the classroom.

You will be a parent who is involved and knowledgeable about your child’s program while being cooperative and professional in developing working relationships with the team members.  You will understand how to hold your team accountable to conduct their jobs with fidelity to ensure your child makes progress toward their goals.

So how would parents go about learning to become a coach their IEP team?  Well, let’s look at the characteristics of a good coach of a sports team.

  • A coach will have team meetings on a regular and consistent basis.
  • A coach will hold their team members accountable to a standard of excellence.
  • A coach will rally their team to build team spirit to work together to win the game.
  • A coach will “call out” and discipline team members when they don’t fulfill their responsibilities.
  • A coach will lead their team and model ethical behavior to build trust between team members and elicit respect for the coach.
  • A coach will motivate, encourage, and educate their team with the sole target of winning the game.

And of course, winning the game for us means that your child will make educational progress toward their goals that will enable them to be more successful in school.

A great coach communicates consistently with each team member and knows which position they play. A typical protocol for the role of coach would be to hold a standard of excellence for their team.  Coaches will make themselves quite clear to communicate an expectation of seeing each team member grow in their abilities, as they work toward achieving the goal to win the game.

These same qualities and characteristics should be acquired as a parent advocate. By acquiring these attributes, a parent will set the stage to take the driver’s seat by initiating communication and developing collaborative relationships with their team members. But, how can a team be untied and collaborative if they only meet one time a year for 60 minutes to talk about your child during the annual IEP meeting? Conversely, IDEA only requires a school district to conduct an IEP meeting to work with your team one time a year.

To address this problem, parents should call an amendment meeting during report card time to review the benchmarks and progress on goals. This is how you begin to create camaraderie to build a cohesive team with a focus on your child. When you require your team to meet on a regular basis, they will have a means to collaborate by reporting on your child’s present levels

If a parent wants to oversee their child’s IEP team and take part in discussions during meetings, they must learn the special education acronyms and legal terms used in the IEP process.  When a parent begins to speak the language of special education, they will be much more successful in understanding the conversations that take place during IEP meetings and be able to offer their suggestions and input regarding their child.  It will eliminate the need for parents to ask, “What is a PWN?  Or “What is LRE?  When you are able to use these terms and understand them, your team will realize you are a parent who has done their homework and is knowledgeable about your parent rights and the IEP process.

Some of the powerful buzzwords for special education are “non-implementation of the IEP.”  This means that a component in the IEP is not being implemented.  The IEP is a legally binding document and once a parent signs it, districts are mandated to implement everything written in your child’s IEP.  However, non-implementation of the IEP occurs all the time but most parents are not aware this is happening because they are not informed and they don’t communicate with their child’s IEP team.

When districts fail to implement something in the IEP, they are in violation of IDEA for “non-implementation of the IEP.”  I have written many compliance complaints over the years for this violation and was successful in having the state find the district in violation of IDEA.  If your IEP team is failing to provide something in your child’s IEP and you use the term, “non-implementation of the IEP,” believe me, they will sit up and listen to you.

When your child is not making progress and you state, “I am concerned that my child is not receiving educational benefit,” they will begin to take you seriously. Educational benefit means the student is making progress toward their goals as mandate by IDEA.  Many students will go year after year and not make progress but will not be held accountable for failing to provide educational benefit. This is the power in learning the special education terms and buzzwords used in IEP discussions.

When parents begin to become the coach of their team by learning these skills and implementing these strategies, you will earn the respect of your team and step into the parent role of equal IEP team participant.  When parents learn how to oversee and ensure compliance by having the language and understanding to hold them accountable, they will begin to see a more unified team and their child will begin to make educational progress.

The best strategy to hold team members accountable to conducting their jobs with fidelity is to call “Progress on Goals” amendment meetings during report card time.  During this time, IDEA mandates the district to provide parents with a “progress on goals report.” This report shows whether or not the benchmark for each goal has been met.  The purpose of calling a progress on goals amendment meeting is to require all team members to report on the goals they are responsible for and show evidence of progress by bringing work samples and informal tests and quizzes to the meeting.  However, prior to the meeting, you must request they bring the evidence to the progress on goals meeting.  Otherwise, the teachers and service providers will simply give their opinion and say, “Oh, they are making great progress toward the goals.”  This means nothing unless they have evidence to substantiate the progress.

This is how parents can hold their team accountable to conducting their jobs with fidelity.  It will ensure that the team will be working diligently on making sure your child meets their goals because they know they will be required to report on progress during the progress on goals meeting.  Otherwise, they know they won’t have to report until the annual IEP, when many goals are simply continued if they haven’t been met.  When this happens, students will fall further behind grade level and the remedial gap continues to widen.

If your child has not reached their benchmarks on goals, ask “Who, What, Where, When Why, How” questions!  Why hasn’t your child met their benchmark?  What can be done to amend the goal to change the way the goal is written to be more specific or measurable?  What is being done to resolve the problem?  How is the teacher working on this goal?  Who else is working on the goal?  What evidence does the teacher have to show you how the goal is being implemented?

Learning to ask the right questions will give you the information you need to hold them accountable to the requirements of IDEA.  If there is no communication, you will not be informed.  They are not going to offer you information unless you ask for it.  It is the parent’s responsibility to communicate with the team and build relationships through open communication to ensure you are fully informed about what is going on in the classroom regarding your child’s learning.

These questions are not disrespectful because it is your right as an equal IEP team participant to problem solve with the team. Any parent would be concerned and want to know why their child is not making progress. Don’t feel guilty or intimidated to ask clarifying questions. This is how you step into your role as the coach of your IEP team.  Every coach manages each team member by knowing how their level of performance.  If team members don’t perform, they are held accountable and supported to do better.  Remember, there is no oversight for IEP implementation.  If you don’t oversee your child’s IEP, no one will be held accountable for failing to serve your child or addressing why your child is not progressing.

To coach your team you must develop respectful, professional relationships with your team members.  If you don’t communicate with your team and you only talk to them once a year at an annual IEP meeting, no one will be overseeing your case and your child will most likely not make adequate progress.

You need to know each team member’s name and the service they provide.  It is important to call your team members by name during IEP meetings and be knowledgeable about their discipline and what services they are providing for your child.  If you don’t know who your service providers are and you don’t know what services your child is receiving, how can you lead and oversee your team and fulfill your role as a active team participant?

Begin to communicate through emails with your team.  Regular communication from home to school and school to home is a key component to holding the district accountable to serving your child to the maximum extent appropriate as mandated by IDEA.

Emailing your team regularly to inquire about progress and keeping informed about your child‘s school day develops a partnership and elicits cooperation between team members.  When a parent doesn’t make an effort to talk to their team and when a parent doesn’t even know the names of their team members or the services they provide, that parent will most likely see very little progress for their child. It is not uncommon for me to ask parents about the services their child receives, or the names of the service providers and the parent will tell me they don’t know.

It is important to note; along with the responsibility of supervising your team comes the required skill of communicating with respect and professionalism.  Parents should set an example of expected appropriate behavior between team members.  This also avoids having parents labeled as “problem parents” which will do the opposite of what we are trying to achieve as a respected coach of the team. When parents learn to be pragmatic and show gratitude when team members do a good job, you will elicit respect and step into your role as the coach of your team.

By making your child the focus of the IEP meeting, you will weaken and discourage power plays that may occur.  A sports team unifies together to focus on winning the game by working as a whole.  They don’t go off in their own direction with their own agenda. However, in an IEP team, you are working with people with different personalities and conflicting agendas. Don’t let any IEP team member’s personal agenda or opinion distract from the goal, which is your child’s success.  A student centered IEP should always be the priority of every meeting.  Winning the IEP game means your child is making progress by being successful in accessing the curriculum.

Parents must take an active role in order to oversee proper implementation of the IEP and ensure compliance.  A parent, who does not do this, will most likely see their child making little or no progress because of lack of oversight and accountability for the team to conduct their jobs with fidelity with the purpose being your child’s progress.

As a coach of your team, it is important to be organized with your child’s records and be able to write professional emails and letters. If you don’t have your child’s records, request that you receive a copy. Get a large binder and file your child’s records in the order of the date on the document and label it with a tab.  The file should include the assessments and assessment plans, IEPs, correspondence, grade cards and progress on goals reports, and IEP invitations and excuse forms.  A good parent facilitator and as the coach of your team, you must be able to easily reference documents during the meeting to substantiate the point you are making.  Remember, documentation is key in winning the IEP game.  This is a legal process; therefore, all legally sound decisions are made as a result of documented evidence.  This is how you will begin to start winning the IEP game.

If you haven’t already, learn to write professional emails.  I highly recommend you reference “From Emotions to Advocacy” by Pete Wright, to learn more about good letter writing.  The purpose of communication in writing letters would be to build relationships, identify and solve problems, clarify decisions that are made or not made, and motive people to take action.  When you communicate in writing, be guided by the purpose of your letter or email.  What do you want to accomplish?  Don’t write long letters but try and keep them as short and precise as possible.  Don’t make the tone of your letter emotional or include your opinions or what you “want” for your child.  Stay as close to what the law says your child is eligible to receive.  They aren’t required to give you what you want for your child but they are mandated to meet your child’s educational needs.

The purpose of a parent letter should be to:

  • Request information
  • Request action
  • Provide information or describe an event
  • Decline a request
  • Express appreciation

Write the subject of your email in the subject line and be sure to carbon copy all pertinent team members. Make sure you are sending the letter to the correct people on your IEP team, and include the appropriate administrator.  Emails will provide a paper trail to serve as evidence to hold the district accountable. Be sure to spell check your letter or email and ensure the grammar is correct.  If you want to be respected, it is important to be professional.

It is so important for parents to know how to make your concerns and requests in writing, using factual timelines and clear language.  Include dates and reference documents to build your case.  Be specific on what you are concerned about and what you are requesting.  When the district receives an email regarding a request or concern, the district is mandated to remain within a specific timeline that dictates when you should receive a response.  Every state has different timelines so please look up what the timelines are for your particular state.

Every IEP should always be centered on your child’s needs and focused on the education of your child.  This is what’s called a “student centered IEP,” which is another buzzword in special education.

A good strategy in accomplishing a student-centered IEP meeting is to bring a picture of your child and place it on the table for the entire team to see.  At the beginning of the meeting when you are asked to discuss your parent concerns and priorities for your child, you can state, “This is my son/daughter (Name).  I’d like to keep the focus on him/her.  My priority for (Name) for this school year is…”

When parents learn these skills, the IEP team will begin to respect you as an equal IEP team participant.  It will then give you the authority to coach your team to target the focus of every meeting back to your child.  And as a result, the power plays based upon people’s opinions or prideful agendas will be diminished and the “us against them” culture will be dissolved.

The IEP is an Individual Education Plan and the individual is your child

IEPEvery meeting should be completely about your child and nothing else.  Don’t allow the district to make it about their culture or district agenda.  Don’t allow any team member’s pride to supersede your child’s needs.  When they say things like, “Every first grader acts that way,” or “that is typical for every child that age,” you can bring the focus back to your child and their unique needs.

Don’t be surprised if you get “push back” when you begin to advocate and start implementing some of these strategies.  They aren’t going to like it.  They may begin to test you or even try and intimidate you.  Don’t play into their manipulative tactics and stand your ground.

Again, IDEA is behind you and you are standing upon a very powerful law, written to protect the rights of you and your child.  You have nothing to be afraid of and you are doing nothing wrong.  This is their way of trying to get you to step back and allow them to take back the control.  But in reality, you have the power under IDEA.  If you remain calm, cool, and collected by remaining respectful and focused on your parent agenda, you will be fine.  Don’t let them throw you off your game!

These are the things your local school district doesn’t want you to know.  And when parents do learn about this information, districts bank on the fact that you won’t have the ability to utilize the information to advocate for your child.  And when parents do begin to advocate by utilizing the sanctions in IDEA, the district may resort to intimation and delay tactics to try and persuade and mislead you.  All of these tactics and strategies are taught to district staff members to control parents and keep them in their place as outsiders.  Always remember that you have equal power to any person on your IEP team.

Some parents become afraid that their child may be retaliated against if they begin to advocate for their child.  This cannot be further from the truth.  IDEA protects the rights of you and your child in a big way!  There are multiple statutes that endow you to advocate for your child.  If any district staff member retaliates against you or your child for advocating, you should immediately contact your Director of Special Education and if they don’t address it, you should then write a compliance complaint to the State Board of Education. Parents should never be afraid to speak out for their child’s civil rights or be a part of creating social justice for this neurodiverse population of 7 million kids across the nation.

When parents begin to learn their rights under IDEA and step into their role as an equal IEP team participant, their child will reap the benefits through a conscientious, cohesive, and unified team.  When school districts fail to educate students on IEPs, it places that child at risk of leaving high school without the skills they need to live an independent, productive and purposeful life.

When you are able to become successful as a powerful parent advocate for your child, you will be counted as one of the parents who have moved our cause one step closer to creating a national system reform. The special education system is broken and is the only law on the books that requires parents to enforce the statutes in IDEA.

As the coach of your IEP team, parents can hold their local school district accountable to ensuring their child receives the education they deserve.

Written by: Valerie Aprahamian, Special Education Advocate

Valerie Aprahamian






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