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How to build a happy IEP team

IEP
Illustration by Courtnay Hough

IEPs can be altogether stressful affairs. They are filled with unfamiliar jargon and confusing requirements. It’s easy for anyone to get grumpy when faced with such a situation.  

Families especially can be unhappy with the IEP process. They may not fully understand what it means to have a student with a learning difficulty. They may also get mixed messages on the topic from the media, well-meaning friends and family.

Add to that general education teachers who don’t always understand the law or have experience with the needs of each individual student, and administrators who face limited budgets…

Basically, it can be a powder keg.  

That can make special education teachers, school psychologists, and speech therapists who act as case managers, very nervous. 

There are very real risks for making a mistake including, poor student outcomes, reprimands, and even litigation or dismissal. 

But is there a way forward? 

Of course there is! Here’s our guide to creating the conditions of an IEP team that leave everyone happy, or at least willing to compromise, so every student gets what they need.

Memory Vectors by Vecteezy

Know your IEPs like the back of your hand

Not every IEP is helpful. I have in fact read some that were riddled with inaccuracies up to and including that student’s name. Even the poorest written IEP is a gold mine of information. 

When I would find such a document, riddled with mistakes and untruths, I would rewrite it, using the 30-day transition window. Even if I had to do some quick testing, it was worth it. 

You see, when a family and student see that you care enough about them to see that document was useless to them, and want to do the amount of work it takes to make a new one, they get a message that you care about that kid right away. It puts them immediately on the same team as you. It was never a waste of time or effort. 

When IEPs are accurate, they give you great insight. They tell how this student may react under different circumstances, what their goals once were, how many skills they have and what they are working on.

Use that information! Take special care to place students in environments you think they will be most successful and challenged appropriately. Speak to teachers and staff that will be working with that student to apprise them of any information pertinent to their interactions. 

Character illustration of people holding speech bubbles

Communicate early and often

This brings me to communication. Long story short, you can’t communicate too much. 

When you get your student IEPs (and have them noted carefully) start communicating! 

Email teachers and staff who need to know accommodations, behavior plans and general information that will help them help the student be successful. 

Make calls home to families if you need clarifications or need to rewrite the IEP. 

Make your introduction to families as early as you can, and make it positive. Communicate your desire to help their students have a great, successful year. Again, it’s about communicating that you are both on the same page. 

Families might take this time to recall their poor experiences with schools in the past. Listen to their concerns and when appropriate communicate their needs with the teachers and staff that student works with. 

When in doubt communicate! These may be frosty conversations sometimes, but they are always worth having. It’s much easier to be angry or annoyed with someone you never see or hear from, than someone you see and hear from all of the time. 

No need to get crazy! Most people wouldn’t welcome a daily call, but every few weeks, and anytime that something they need to know about happens is sufficient. 

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Track your contacts (and attempts)

Every time you pick up a phone, every time you send an email, every time you send a note, track it. 

This DOES NOT mean just to families. I mean every time. When you call another teacher about a student. When you have a little meeting in the copy room about a student. Document it. 

This is a tracker you could use if you wanted. If you wanted to make your own all it would need is time/date of the interaction, person contacted, and what was discussed (roughly). 

Some school content management systems have a place to document this information. I do suggest an additional document that is searchable no matter what you go with for ease of use. If you can filter by date or person the record becomes a million times more useful. 

No matter where you track the information, remember this is a public record. Write like a detective: just the facts. Your feelings on the matter are not material to the record. 

The other thing that this tracker is great for is showing how many times you have tried to communicate with a team member. 

It was not uncommon for people to mistakenly say that I never spoke to them. During these very special occasions, I could take out my tracker and identify the various ways I tried to make contact (when I left messages, when I wrote emails when I sent mail) to clear the record. This refocused the conversation to what the person was dissatisfied with at the time and not on perceived personal failings. 

Document Vectors by Vecteezy

Get everything in writing

Tracking communication is great, but it is not the only way to make sure you are all on the same page. Getting key agreements and acknowledgments in writing is always a great idea. 

If I had a conversation with a colleague or parent where we agreed on a certain course of action I would send a follow-up email with the plan in writing and the invitation to have the other party correct me if my understanding was not accurate. 

This made a record in writing of what we all agree on, in case one of us forgot or didn’t hold up our end of the bargain. Emails are great because they give you a receipt of when they were received and opened. 

If I had an accommodation that was unusual for a student I would send it in writing to the teacher and ask if they needed help implementing it in their classrooms. 

When I created a behavior contract with a student, all stakeholders would read it and sign it including the student. 

Documentation is very helpful since none of us are in possession of infallible memories. We all forget or weren’t paying proper attention in the first place. If you can refer to something in writing, it is helpful. 

These documents can quickly pile up, so make sure you have a system for filing them. My email had separate files for each of my current student as well as an archival file for students past. 

Especially in a school where students are transient, you never know when you might have a student back, so I could always easily find and retrieve their files. 

I also kept a physical filing cabinet with a file for each of my students for all those paper contracts, IEP trials, and work samples. 

No matter what system you land on, just be consistent with it. It’s useless to get these things in writing if you can’t find them when you need them.

Law
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Give everyone legal lessons when necessary 

Let’s be real, special education is hard. It’s hard to implement in our one-size-fits-some education system. People may not want to do all of the things in an IEP, especially not if they don’t understand why they need to do it. 

Some people are ignorant about the law around special education. That’s where you can help! 

You are the expert on this issue. You need to educate all the team members on what their legal obligations and rights are. 

This includes students! Most of my students over the years didn’t realize that their teachers were legally required to meet their accommodations. Empowering them with this information often gave them the ability to speak up for themselves. 

Letting families know that IEPs are held yearly and METs (re-evaluations) every three years, as well as understanding the purposes of those meetings helped them know when and how different decisions were discussed and made. 

This doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about any of this. This is not a courtroom drama. You are not entrapping people into confessing to the murder. You are simply letting everyone know what is legally required of them. It’s a courtesy. 

Promise Vectors by Vecteezy

Never Make Promises or Offers You Can’t Keep

It’s just good life advice not to make promises you can’t keep. It’s the same with IEPs. Never tell a student, family or colleague that you WILL make a certain thing happen. 

First of all, you have limited control. You don’t decide on things like scheduling, or alternative placements, or access to certain resources or environments. 

Secondly, team decisions should be just that, a team decision. You are not the decider. Since you are not the whole team, you should not speak for the whole team. 

Avoid ugly foot-in-mouth related incidents with the following phrases:

  • I’ll look into…
  • That’s a good idea and we’ll discuss it at the meeting.
  • I’ll ask my administration if that is possible.
  • I’ll try to implement…
  • We’ll see what the team thinks about…
Children Vectors by Vecteezy

Have student buy-in

The best thing you can do to win over the team is to win over your student. They are the most important person at any IEP meeting. This is their future and their education. 

Before any IEP meeting, I would make time to talk to the student (even if I didn’t see them daily). We would discuss their personal goals, wants, and needs. I would ask them what they wanted to get out of the IEP. I’d also explain the process and what would be discussed. 

I always took special care not to let any IEP become a meeting about problems. This was once described to me as “marveling at the size of the hole” meetings. NO ONE wants such a meeting. 

I would always make teachers lead with their feedback on skills the student was doing well. I would also start with the transition goals in mind. This would focus the meeting on what every member of the team needed to do to help that student meet those goals. Whenever possible I would direct questions at the student as to why they were struggling and what helps them. 

When a meeting is run by a student, it helps focus the team on the outcomes the student cares about. It eliminates most of the “us v them” mentality that can arise between families and schools. Why are we proposing these actions? Because the student wants them and thinks they will help them reach their goals. 

I can hear protests already. They sound like this: “the student is too young”, “the parents won’t let the student come to the meeting”. Let’s take these in order. 

No matter how young a student is they will understand that they are being treated differently. This is scary and frustrating. 

You can talk to them at their development level and explain that they have needs and to meet those needs, there is a meeting every year where people come together to make a plan and you are bringing their feedback to that meeting. 

You can also tell them they are welcome to attend if their family says ok. I’ve had 3rd grade students at their IEP. These meetings are ALWAYS better with the student in attendance. 

As for families that don’t allow students to attend, that’s where communicating early comes in. You should let families know why it is important for their students to attend. 

You may even be able to have them attend a partial amount of the meeting. Even if the student ends up not being allowed, don’t forget you are the STUDENT’S advocate. You can and should bring their feedback to the team. 

Leader Vectors by Vecteezy

Be VERY clear about everyone’s responsibilities 

As mentioned in getting everything in writing, sometimes people forget what they need to be doing. Help them by sending helpful emails about what they agreed to at the meeting. If there is a BIP in place, make sure every team member is clear on what they need to do. 

It is helpful to see where a plan is hitting a snag. Knowing who should be doing what can make it apparent when someone needs more training. 

Get people to sign off on a statement of their responsibilities, be that on an IEP, MET, BIP or any other plan the team makes. 

If a member of the team is being negligent in their responsibilities you have to be sure that they knew what was expected of them. You also need to remind them of their expected actions and ask if they need help filling that role. 

Ultimately, if you have made roles and responsibilities clear and that person continues to fail to meet that responsibility, administration should be informed. Failure to follow through with IEP mandates endangers both the student and the whole school. Never keep that information under your hat, or you will ultimately be the one held responsible. 

Avoid an ugly scene by making sure everyone is comfortable with their role in helping this student be successful.  

Ideas
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Listen and be open to ideas

Gathering input ahead of IEPs is not just a requirement, it’s also a great time to get ideas. Listen to other team members. Everyone on the team has valuable feedback. 

Other professionals may have ideas you’ve never thought of. Families see that student every day and may know an approach you haven’t tried. 

It’s a team because you all work together for that student (including the student themselves). 

It’s ok to listen to an idea and know that it won’t be possible in your school environment. There may be a part of the idea that would work. 

Everyone feels better when they’re being heard. Never come to a meeting with your plan predetermined. Not only is that illegal, but it’s also very counter-productive. 

Really listen when you communicate with people. You don’t always know best. Listen and you will learn a thing or two. 

Be kind
Nice Vectors by Vecteezy

BE KIND

My grandpa always told me, “you catch more bees with honey than vinegar”. I have since wondered how you catch bees with something they themselves produce, however, the point remains. Being nice is the best way to make a team, or anyone, happy. 

You have no control over so many things. People come to meetings having had horrible days, experiencing loss, or even having very traumatic experiences with people in the same position. I once read an IEP that made it clear the contempt that the teacher writing it had for the student. Being that kid’s next special education teacher comes with extra challenges. 

Always treat other people gently. Use positive language. Be solutions-oriented, not blame or recrimination focused. 

Have an agenda ready that focuses the discussion. Help the whole thing stay friendly by respecting everyone’s time and gently redirecting discussions that become unproductive or off-topic. 

Being nice doesn’t cost you anything. 

And I'm just like damn - this IEP is at 7 AM

Don’t Freak Out

No matter how sideways things get sometimes, they can always be fixed. If you’ve followed our advice from above, you have a robust number or records showing how hard you’ve worked to do right by the student. You have been kind and professional every step of the way. 

You have nothing to worry about. 

Your school probably has a lawyer on retainer for when a really serious disagreement comes up. Compensatory services are usually easy enough for a school to arrange if a parent isn’t happy. 

If a colleague isn’t doing what they need to do, and you’ve continually tried to help them, leaving you no choice but to inform your supervisors… That’s on them, not you. 

In my twelve years as a case manager, I went to litigation exactly: never. I was written up exactly: never, as well. 

It doesn’t mean that things didn’t get heated. It doesn’t mean there weren’t disagreements. All that means is that no matter how bad something felt at the time, there was always a solution. 

You are probably one meeting away from making everyone happy again. Follow our advice and that meeting will go ok. 

There is no reason to freak out. Everything will get sorted eventually.  

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