After completing six episodes of “Parent Prevails” I’ve decided to write a blog series called “How to Win at the IEP Table.” In this series, I will be focusing on the laws and strategies I utilized to win the cases I covered in the “Parent Prevailed” series. Many parents loved the “Parents Prevailed” stories, but wanted to know more about how I obtained the supports and services I won for my client. I recommend you go back and read the “Parent Prevails” blogs to provide you with a full picture of how to apply the law and advocacy strategies to your child’s specific case. 

In this episode, I’m going to focus on “mindset” which is something that is extremely important in order to be a successful parent advocate. Being knowledgeable about how the school district works versus becoming self-aware about our mindset as a parent of a child with special needs, is paramount in winning at the IEP table. 

Our role as an advocate versus our role as a parent

The first thing to fully understand is that parenting and advocacy are two very different things. Parenting is based on powerful emotions, feelings, and belief systems as we make hard decisions regarding our child. Advocacy requires creative thought and collaboration coupled with strategic planning based on laws that can be difficult to learn and understand.

To become an effective advocate for your child, it is important to be aware that our parental feelings and emotions can hinder the advocacy process if we allow them to take over during an IEP meeting.
I know firsthand about the feelings that accompany being a parent of a neurodiverse child. We belong to a select group, which is a special club that we didn’t ask to join. Depending upon the severity of the child’s disability and/or medical problems, feelings of isolation, overwhelm and anxiety is something we just learn to live with.

Most staff members don’t understand what it means to be a parent of a child with special needs. Many IEP team members have predetermined judgments and limiting beliefs about what sped students can and cannot do and what’s even worse, what THEY think is best for your child. In a nutshell, the biggest hurdle in working with school staff members is to bring them to a better understanding of our child’s strengths, gifts, talents, and overall potential, keeping the focus on the student instead of the scripted denial responses they are trained to recite during an IEP meeting. To do this, we must become effective advocates.

You can’t win if you don’t know the rules of the game

The IEP meeting can be likened to a game of chess. However, if you don’t know the rules of chess, how are you going to win? Some may think that meeting a child’s needs should not be compared to a game and this is true. However, because an IEP meeting is conducted by a very specific set of rules and regulations and is a process that can be quite predictable, the same strategic planning to win a chess game is needed to be an effective advocate. 

A skillful advocate, like a skillful chess player, knows when and how to make their next move, presenting specific facts and data in the file to strengthen their position. These kinds of skills can only be utilized if a parent educates themselves on IDEA and their state’s education code. In addition, if a parent doesn’t understand their own child’s disability and educational needs, how will you develop a plan with facts and data to support your requests? We must be as educated or even more informed than the team members about the objective realities of our child’s disability so we present our requests and concerns effectively in an IEP meeting. 

You may feel that the team should agree to your request about how the IEP should be written but unless you can offer practical advice about how and why they should be implemented and provided, you’ll most likely be met with conflict. In other words, your requests must be within the context of the law, offering facts and data to support why the team should agree. Don’t forget that IDEA does not require the school to maximize your child’s support and services. It only requires the school to ensure that your child is receiving educational benefits and progressing toward their goals. 

This is why it is important that you present a good argument to sell your solutions, i.e., increased services, additional goals, aide support, etc. When we want interventions for our children, we must make our proposal appealing to administrators, so they have data to support a decision in your favor. Your requests must be reasonable and supported by evidence.

Learn to be a negotiator by understanding what the team does during your child’s school day and how they do it. Then you can use that knowledge to advocate. Offer practical solutions about how to address problem areas.

It is harder to ignore the problem-finder if he or she is also the solution-giver. School personnel will ignore you unless you understand the realities of what they do during a school day and how services are provided and classes are facilitated. 

When parents feel like they have to battle educators for benefits, they lose confidence in those educators. When parents lose confidence in their educators, those educators feel unappreciated. Many educators want to do what’s best for your child, but their hands are tied. They must follow the directives of the school principal and the district administrators. It is much better to lead your IEP team rather than be the team’s enemy. Burning bridges will only set you back and make it more difficult to negotiate to get what your child needs. 

When a parent is knowledgeable and conducts themselves in a professional manner, willing to collaborate and bring solutions to the table, they will be much more apt to have a successful outcome. 

I understand that this is one of the most challenging things to do when working with a team that has consistently denied your requests and may have even caused your child to regress. Believe me, I’ve sat in hundreds of IEP meetings and witnessed team members blatantly disregarding the needs of the child while they repeat route scripted denial statements. Nothing angers me more than seeing a team that is not working in good faith. 

Hostility can have its place, especially in a lawsuit or a Due Process Hearing. However, if parties get to the point where the battle has become a war and the relationship deteriorates to becoming enemies, any chance for a working relationship is dead. Since it is in the best interest of our children to have a cohesive team working towards the common goal of meeting the needs of our children, we as parents must take a leadership role in sustaining cooperative energy in an IEP meeting. 

Moreover, even if a meeting goes badly, we can call another meeting because the IEP is a working document, that changes and amends commensurate to your child’s present levels of academic and functional performance. 

Make every attempt to sustain relationships

Like a game of chess, IEP negotiations play out over time. Successful negotiations are always more victorious when working with a team that likes and respects each other. You know the old saying, “You can attract more bees with honey than vinegar?” 

Whether or not we like or get along with our child’s teachers, school psychologist, principal, service providers, or administrative personnel, we are stuck with them unless we move out of the district. If we move, we will be stuck with new school officials with whom we will most likely also have conflict. And it’s important to remember that staff are replaced and can be moved from school to school, so difficult people can be promoted or moved to another school site or district.

In any event, we have to learn to work with people we do not agree or get along with. There are many administrators that I can’t understand how they think and why they refuse to work ethically and according to the law. Don’t be fooled, the school district is a bureaucratic institution, and administrators are trained to sustain the district’s power and control by utilizing gatekeepers who allocate the funds. 

Nevertheless, they are there and will be there, year after year. The best path forward is to take the high road, lead the team, present your position supported by facts and data, and keep focused on your child’s needs. Getting angry or personally attacking a team member even when they deserve it will lead to hostility that will not serve you or your child. 

Remember this, the IEP team members who are not administrators and actually work closely with your child will have a very different perspective than the administrators and can be your ally.  

Beware of demonizing well-intentioned people even if they may have an approach that you cannot agree with. Instead, utilize them. They can turn out to be of great help to your child in the long run. Very few of the people you will meet at your child’s school are out to intentionally hurt your child. But be very alert for the ones that are there to blindly follow district agendas and disregard the needs of your child in order to promote their own interests. 

In closing

IEP meetings should not turn into a game of lies, manipulation, and gaslighting with everyone trying to guess who is bluffing or offering half-truths. A successful parent advocate should be a strategic negotiator who needs not lie or be worried about tipping their hand, but uses facts, data, and the law to the child’s advantage. Many strategic paths can lead to a successful outcome and many different chess boards can win the game. 

Cheering you on always!


If you haven’t joined our Private Special Education Parent Empowerment Facebook Group yet, you should check it out here.

Here’s what parents are saying about the group:

“I can assure you and everyone here that I have learned more on your page than I have from my school district. I appreciate you and applaud you for what you do as it is NOT easy! You give us guidance and you have a place in the heavens for your selfless work and service to our special needs children and their families. Thank you, Valerie!”  -Reyna

“I’ve seen other posts and advice from other Facebook pages. Your page is concise, provides further knowledge, and I just don’t see other pages that compare to yours in my experience.” -Jessica

Valerie Aprahamian is a special education advocate, IEP strategist, and speaker. She speaks on behalf of parents to protect the rights of neurodiverse children to receive the supports they need in public school.

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