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Appropriately Ambitious:

A Special Education Legal Blog 

“But [the student’s] educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances …. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives”

Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Scl. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 1000 (2017).

  • Writer's picturePatrick G. Radel, Esq.

IEP Meeting Survival Tips

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

As the weather warms (hopefully), thoughts turn to Spring.

For parents of students with disabilities, this means IEP Season, the time of year when we meet with the school to create the Individualized Educational Plan (“IEP”) and discuss program and placement for the following school year. In my experience, many parents find IEP meetings stressful, emotional, and exhausting. Can we do better?

Here are 4 quick tips for surviving your meeting and (hopefully) building a better IEP.

1. Remember Your Role.

The word parent (or some version of it) appears over 1000 times in IDEA (the main federal special education law).

Parents of students with disabilities are legally entitled to meaningful participation in the development of the IEP. Parents have special expertise about the student, as they are in the unique position of having seen the student in many settings over many years.

Although you may lack formal educational credentials, you have valuable insights about the student’s strengths, learning style, and abilities.

So, go to your IEP meeting with the confidence that you have a legal right to a seat at the table and knowing that your voice must be heard. We have important things to say and valuable information to share.

2. Think it Through, Write it Down.

IEP meetings are emotional and can be contentious, especially if there is disagreement about program, placement, and/or services. You do not want to rely on your memory in the moment. Prepare in advance and write down your concerns and priorities so you can refer to them during the meeting.

I suggest following these steps:

(a) what are your key concerns and priorities? list your biggest worries and top goals (think dreams and nightmares)
(b) what is the basis for your concern? why is this a priority? (write down specific examples)
(c) what should be done? you might have some ideas and/or you may be seeking suggestions from school during the meeting
(d) what’s the “next action”? leave this blank before the meeting and then make sure it is filled in before the meeting ends – it should be clear what is to be done, who is responsible for doing it, and when we should expect it to be done.

3. Adopt a Strength-Based Mindset.

In my experience, IEP meetings often focus far more on the student’s deficits than their strengths. This is a mistake.

Federal special education law identifies the factors the IEP team must consider when developing the program and placement. The very first factor listed under the law is “the strengths of the child.”

As parents, we should adopt a strength-based mindset and encourage the school to shift. We should start by asking what the student does well and then think carefully about how we can incorporate those strengths into the IEP.

We should use student strengths to work on weaknesses. If the student struggles to attend in class, but is engaged by, and skilled with, technology, then we should find better/more ways to incorporate technology into instruction. If the student struggles with social interaction, but is a talented artist, then we should think of ways to promote peer engagement through art projects.

Parents are expert “strength-finders.” We should use this power and share strengths with the IEP team. Students should also be encouraged to think about and share their strengths. This respects their agency and helps build self-awareness and self-esteem.

4. Remember Supports for School Personnel.

Federal law says that special education services include services provided “on behalf of” the student – including “supports for school personnel.”

This is more than just general professional development or teacher “in-service.”

This means student-specific support such as information on the student’s disability and implications for instruction, information on positive behavior supports, and assistance with curriculum modification.

A good IEP not only supports the student, but also supports those who support the student.


For legal education only.  This does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship.

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