You are not alone...how to conquer the IEP meeting scaries.
Knowledge is power and you need all the confidence you can muster up before entering an IEP meeting. Make sure you have plenty of time scheduled in your day for the meeting so you have time to prepare before the meeting starts and debrief afterwards. Take time in the days leading up to the meeting to get organized. If your meeting is in person, I highly recommend creating a binder with past IEPs, progress on goals, test results, etc to bring with you to the meeting. See my post about organization for more tips.
I always ask the IEP team to provide drafts of assessment reports, and specific parts of the IEP ahead of time, especially when the meeting is virtual. The law doesn't require schools to comply with the request, but it doesn't hurt to ask. If you have time to review those items before the meeting starts, you will be able to process the information and formulate questions about it. Technically, an IEP should be developed by the team, but the present levels of performance and drafts of the proposed goals could be sent to you ahead of time. Make sure you ask the team for these documents well ahead of the meeting so they have a heads up that they will need to complete them and send them to you with enough time for you to review. Even if they refuse to send them to you early, they should have the capability of sending you drafts of the documents they are presenting (during virtual meetings) on the screen so that you can look at it. This gives you the ability to flip back and forth between pages, or even print them out so you can take notes and refer to previous sections during your discussions.
Even though sitting at a table full of professionals may be daunting, it is important that you ask questions when you don't understand. You will be hearing jargon and acronyms that you aren't familiar with and you will be processing a lot of information that is new to you. The professionals at the IEP often forget that parents don't have the same base of academic knowledge that they do and often rush through meetings without even checking with parents. Whoever is moderating the meeting should stop frequently and ask you if you have questions. If they don't, stop them and ask for clarification. Keep a notepad of questions that you want answered before the meeting even starts and add to it as the meeting progresses.
You shouldn't sign anything unless you fully understand everything on the IEP.
Asking questions can also be a great tactic when a district isn't giving your child what they need. Try asking questions about the service, program, or accommodation and let them explain what it is, how it works, and why it is or isn't appropriate for your child. For example, you want a reading program that is researched based and is proven to work with students with dyslexia. Instead of demanding, ask questions:
What reading program(s) is the teacher trained to use?
What does the research say about it's effectiveness for students with dyslexia?
Are there other programs that the district has that could be more appropriate for your child?
Can you explain that a little further?
Recording an IEP meeting is a very helpful strategy. It gives you the ability to be present and fully focused during the meeting, knowing you can review it afterwards. It may also help when disputes arise.
Check your state's laws about recording before you do anything. Many school districts have different policies about recording IEP meetings, so check with the school first. In California, for example, all parties being recorded must consent to it. Some school districts require 24 hour written notice before you can record a meeting. With the capabilities of video conferencing, you must also check with the school about recording the meeting via Zoom, Google Meets, or other systems.
If you can't record, take detailed notes. Always follow up a conversation with an email recapping what was discussed. This gives you a paper trail that could come in handy.
Don't Feel Pressured to Consent
You absolutely are not required to provide consent to the IEP at the meeting. Many times, you will be asked to sign a section indicating that you participated in the meeting, which is fine. Just make sure you take home the entire document to review carefully. Make sure you understand everything, and if you don't, ask questions. Additionally, you can consent to parts of the IEP while the disputed parts are considered. Just make sure to note the exceptions to your consent. It is also a good idea to have a second set of eyes review the document, which a trained advocate can do as well.
Bring an Advocate
If you feel overwhelmed at the prospect of navigating the IEP process alone, get in touch with an advocate. A great advocate should provide some peace of mind for you that your child's IEP meeting will be more productive and result in a good plan for your child. You have the right to bring anyone to an IEP meeting as a support for you. It is very helpful to have someone with you to take notes, keep lists of action items, and questions that come up during the meeting. It is also so important to have someone to debrief with after the meeting, and it is especially helpful when that person was there with you. For more information about how an advocate can help, reach out for a free 30 minute consultation.