Being a special education teacher is stressful enough without adding impending litigation to your every-expanding to-do list. The thought of having to testify or have one’s work poured over by a team of lawyers can elicit chills and sweats from the most seasoned special educator. This is becoming a more persistent reality for all of us with special education legal costs on the rise. So how do you avoid this fate and adjust to an ever-increasingly litigious system?
According to an article in the Council for Exceptional Children, the number one reason school districts and families end up in litigation is lack of parent involvement, which comprised ⅓ of total litigation studied (Zirkel & Hetrick, 2016, p.226). Therefore, the number one complaint from parents is not just what was actually in the IEP at the time of the meeting — but was instead how the IEP meeting was handled. }
This complaint addresses one of the IDEA’s most foundational principles of parent participation, which is reflected in the text with this excerpt: “Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by…strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home.” The term “meaningful” can be subjective and interpreted different ways by legal scholars. However, our ingrained training to remove boundaries, ascertain understanding, and create safe spaces should not only apply to our students – it should also apply to the parents we serve. Have we provided parents with a copy of their legal rights? Did we go a step further and actually explain the rights? Did we remove any obstacles for the parents such as providing a translator if necessary? Have we also created a positive and welcoming environment where parents can ask questions or admit they are lost?
Parent participation is not only included in IDEA; it is also integral for supporting the student. Parents are experts on their children and their input will create a more robust picture of the student and also increase parent buy in and ability to generalize supports at home. Here are some easy tips to facilitate meaningful parent participation in the IEP process:
- Ask for feedback BEFORE the meeting by sending home a questionnaire or holding an informal meeting to receive feedback from the parents. Here are some examples of questions that can be helpful when creating the IEP:
- What are your long term goals for your child?
- What are your child’s strengths?
- What types of activities does your child participate in outside of school?
- What types of relationships does your child have outside of school?
2. One of my professors ended up having conservatorship of one of her students. She told our class that she would feel overwhelmed in IEP meetings — even with her decades of teaching experience. This experience informed her recommendation to us to give parents more processing time by sending parents the DRAFT Present Levels and Goals or the entire IEP 24 hours before the meeting. This a great best practice -even if the parent does not request this – so that parents have time to formulate questions or feedback. You will also be holding yourself accountable to complete the work in advance and not the night before the meeting.
3. If it is an initial IEP, keep services and LRE blank. Allow each service provider to demonstrate their present levels, goals, and then recommend services based upon the data and needs. After each report is presented, each team member — including the parents — can discuss their recommendations and where the services would take place. It is integral that all pros and cons are discussed. If it is an annual or triennial IEP, I would keep the old services and LRE as is and let parents know that this will be discussed based upon the data and reports of each service provider.
4. SPEAK LESS AND LISTEN MORE! Based on a study of 109 IEPs, special education teachers talked 51% of the time and parents talked 15% of the time (Zirkel, 2016, p. 187). Yes, it may be more “efficient” to have a shorter IEP meeting driven by the needs and interests of the school. However, the IEP will not be as “effective” without hearing the concerns of the families to understand the holistic needs of the child and without the parents understanding how they can support the student´s progress.
Martin, J. E., Dycke, J. L. V., Greene, B. A., Gardner, J. E., Christensen, W. R., Woods, L. L., & Lovett, D. L. (2006). Direct observation of teacher-directed IEP meetings: Establishing the need for student IEP meeting instruction. Exceptional Children, 72(2), 187–200.
Zirkel, P. A., & Hetrick, A. (2016). Which procedural parts of the IEP process are the most judicially vulnerable? Exceptional Children, 83(2), 187–200.