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Things I Wish I Knew Before My First IEP Meeting

Advocating for your child with Special Education needs can be intimidating. Knowing how the system works will make you better prepared.

By Carl J. PetersenPublished about a month ago 6 min read
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

A Special Education IEP is a detailed guide of the tools and assistance necessary to ensure a child reaches their excellence.

- Source: SpecialEd Resource

Our daughters were six when my wife, Nicole, and I started dating. While one of the triplets had already progressed out of her Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), it was clear that the other two were going to need long-term services due to being on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Nicole had already learned that obtaining the support they required was an adversarial process and that she had to be prepared to fight the system for them to succeed.

As Nicole and I blended our families and headed toward marriage I became more involved in IEP meetings. While I was able to bring a fresh perspective to the process, I also quickly learned that it could be difficult to make the changes that the girls required. While my family was eventually able to secure services that would help my daughters meet their full potential, getting there was a difficult process filled with equal parts trial, error, and frustration. These are the things I wish I knew when I first embarked on the IEP process:

  1. WHO DECIDES THAT YOUR CHILD NEEDS AN IEP? For some children, it will be the parent who suspects that there is a need. In our family, the suspicion was voiced by a preschool teacher. Pediatricians, family, friends, or anyone else who has regular contact with your child may voice concerns. While the news may be difficult to hear, time is of the essence. The earlier a child begins getting services, the more likely it is that they will reach their full potential. In California, if your child is less than three years old you will contact the Regional Center to start the process. Otherwise, the school district will be responsible.
  2. HOW DOES THE PROCESS BEGIN? Once a parent gives consent, the child will be evaluated. If the child is diagnosed as having a condition that will impair learning at school, an IEP will be developed by a team that includes the parent, teacher, and other professionals. This team will meet so that together they can agree on a formal plan for the student that is formalized in a written IEP document. Once signed, the IEP is a contract that must be followed by the school district. This agreement will be reviewed at least annually. Every three years the student is reevaluated, even if they have a permanent disability.
  3. A WARNING ABOUT THE IEP TEAM: While the entire IEP Team is supposed to work together for the benefit of the student, as a parent you should realize that most of the rest of the team are employees of the school district. Whatever they believe personally, the district expects them to be gatekeepers for services, especially ones that are expensive to provide. Always be patient with the team, as they may be acting as required by the district and cannot give you what you are requesting, even if they agree with your assessment. Remember, it is better to have them as allies than to alienate them and ruin any chances of future support.
  4. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS AS A PARENT: While the rest of the team may be formally trained, you have insights as a parent. Listen carefully to what the team reports to you but do not let yourself be bullied into taking an action you feel will not benefit your child.
  5. YOU CAN BRING SUPPORT TO AN IEP MEETING: While an IEP team may attempt to dissuade you from doing so, you have the right to bring a trained advocate or any other source of support to a meeting. You do not have to provide a reason for bringing them, but it can be someone who is more experienced in the process, someone who knows your child and can provide input, or just someone there for moral support.
  6. YOU CAN RECORD THE IEP MEETING: As long as you give notice to the IEP team at least 24 hours before the meeting, you can record it. This can be helpful if you feel that you will be too overwhelmed to remember exactly what was said. If you do avail yourself of this right, the district will most likely also record the meeting so that they have a reference.
  7. YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO HAVE A TRANSLATOR AT THE MEETING. You cannot give informed consent if you do not understand completely what is being said and, therefore, have a right to request that the district provide a translator for the meeting. To ensure that this does not force a delay in getting your child the services that they need, you should make this request in advance so that the district can ensure that they have enough time to meet the request.
  8. IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH THE IEP, DO NOT SIGN IT: The IEP is a contract between you and the school district to provide services for your child. If you are not satisfied with the results, refuse to sign the document and proceed to Due Process or another form of dispute resolution.
  9. IT IS PERMISSIBLE TO REJECT SPECIFIC ITEMS THAT YOU DISAGREE WITH: If you want your child to begin receiving some services that were agreed to while resolving other disputes, have the meeting leader specify what you are agreeing and disagreeing with on the signature page. Those items you agreed with will then be in force immediately and you can proceed to the Dispute Resolution process for the rest of the IEP.
  10. IF YOU NEED MORE TIME, TAKE IT: Sometimes a lot will go on during an IEP meeting and you will feel overwhelmed. It is acceptable to bring the document home and read it over carefully before you sign it. This may be discouraged by the IEP team, but you should work on a schedule that is comfortable for you.
  11. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO HAVE THE IEP TRANSLATED INTO A LANGUAGE OTHER THAN ENGLISH: In order to give informed consent you must be able to fully understand what is contained in the IEP. You, therefore, have a right to read a document that is in a language that is most comfortable for you. If you cannot completely understand the English language document, wait until it is translated before signing.
  12. DON’T LET COSTS PREVENT YOU FROM GETTING A LAWYER: If the district is found to have not offered you services that your child was entitled to, they may be ordered to pay your legal costs. There are, therefore, lawyers who will work on a contingency basis. They will not require a fee from you upfront and will collect one only if the district loses. Make sure to read any contract carefully and understand the billing structure before signing.
  13. IEPs ARE NOT CAST IN STONE: You do have to wait for the annual meeting if you have concerns about your child’s progress under the IEP. If you want to make changes you should notify the school site in writing. They are required to open a new meeting with the IEP team within 30 days.

If you ever feel overwhelmed by the process, always remember that you are not alone. There are advocacy groups that can provide assistance. For legal questions, lawyers will often provide an initial consultation at no cost. It also helps to cultivate a relationship with your child’s teacher and other members of the IEP team. They may be able to provide you with unofficial advice and point you in the right direction.

Good luck.


Carl Petersen is a parent advocate for students with special education needs and public education. He was elected to the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and is the Education Chair. As a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action. Dr. Diane Ravitch has called him “a valiant fighter for public schools in Los Angeles.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.


About the Creator

Carl J. Petersen

Carl Petersen is a parent advocate for students with SpEd needs and public education. As a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action. Opinions are his own.

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