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The 5 Most Important Things to Remember When Advocating in an IEP

The 5 Most Important Things to Remember When Advocating in an IEP

Published: Apr. 26, 2023Updated: May. 2, 2023

You’re headed into your child’s IEP meeting prepared with everything you need (with the help of our ultimate IEP checklist!). You have an idea of the accommodations, services, and goals that your child will need to make progress over the school year, but how do you get your IEP team on the same page? On April 17, 2023, we asked Education Advocate Lisa Carey to go over her five most important tips to help parents get through the IEP meeting with confidence, including red flags to watch for and how to respond when the school district is resistant to your biggest priorities.

Tip #1: Remember that you are the most important person on the IEP team, other than your child.

Parental participation is essential to helping the school provide our kids with a free, appropriate public education. There is an intimidation factor being in a room with a dozen experts in education, but Carey says, “You are the expert on your child. You know your child better than anybody else on that team. Not only that, but you are the only member of that IEP team who will be a member of the IEP team from now until your child is done with school. The rest of the team members will change as your child moves from grade to grade, but you're going to be the constant.”

Carey also says that one of the best ways to overcome feelings of intimidation is to bring someone with you to the IEP meeting, whether that’s a friend, your Undivided Navigator, or an education advocate. Our kids’ therapy providers can also provide valuable insight and support.

Tip #2: Be prepared and know your ask.

One of the most important aspects of being an effective advocate for our children is knowing our priorities when heading into the IEP meeting. “What I recommend,” Carey says, “is that you have a good idea of what it is you think is going to work for your child going into the meeting. Try to be specific if you can. Think about what works at home, what works at therapies. If you're new to the IEP process, don't worry if it's not in the correct format that the school wants to see, just have an idea of what works. For example, if transitions are difficult for your child, and at home, you do a specific way that helps prevent meltdowns, then that might be something that you want to introduce to the team and ask them to use as an accommodation. Have an idea of what works and what doesn't, and jot it down, so you're prepared to share that when appropriate in the meeting.”

Carey explains her process in this clip:

Tip #3: Learn to spot the red flags.

As we all know, it's easy to second-guess our instincts when experts are presenting their perspectives. And that's not to say that we shouldn't consider all perspectives—we should enter into every IEP with the intention and the hope of collaboration. But we also don’t want to let our own expertise on our kids be overshadowed by so many other professionals in the room.

Here are a few common red flags to watch for when going over the different parts of the IEP.

Present levels

Carey says that it’s important to consider, “Are the present levels balanced?” An overly negative focus from any member of the IEP team is a red flag. Carey explains this point with a story about a recent IEP meeting she attended:

“The child was having some behavioral difficulties, which we knew going into the IEP. The teacher did present levels, and it felt like she was talking forever about the negatives about this child. At the end of her present levels, I looked at my recording, and she had spent 30 seconds sharing the child's strengths, and nine and a half minutes talking about everything that the child is not doing well. It was soul crushing. How are we going to write IEPs that are using our children's strengths if that's what's being presented? So one of the things you're going to want to look for is balance. And if they're not balanced, I would ask why. You know, think of a polite way to say, ‘Is there really only 30 seconds of good you can share about my kid? Because I assure you, there's more.’”

Carey also says to watch out for too much filler or fluff in the present levels, which should accurately reflect what the child is accomplishing and where the child is struggling so that you can assess their progress from year to year. If a teacher says a child “is a kind of member of the class” or “loves to help,” that’s good to hear, but how are they actually doing in the class? Carey says, “Ask lots of questions. If they say the child loves to help in the classroom, ask them what that means. Who are they helping — the teachers, the other students? Ask questions so you can get a better feel for what's going on in the day-to-day of your child.”

Goal review

When looking at the previous year’s goals, Carey says it’s a red flag if the majority of the goals weren’t met or were only partially met. She says, “Something that's really been effective is asking if the team has an idea what happened. What went wrong? Why did they think the goals weren't met? It's interesting to hear what people say because they're not always expecting that kind of a direct question.”

It’s the IEP team’s responsibility to figure out what we need to do to help our kids progress, so if goals haven’t been met, it should lead to a discussion about what other supports might be needed.

New proposed goals

Carey says, “The need for the goal should have been reflected in the present levels. So if they're saying that there's a goal that you never heard to this point in the meeting, that this wasn't a need for the child, that's obviously a red flag.”

Goals that are too narrow or too broad can also pose problems. Check out our goal workshop article to learn how to suggest revisions to IEP goals to make them more effective at helping kids make meaningful progress.

One thing to watch for when discussing related services is whether a service is written as a consult only. “Sometimes that is actually appropriate,” Carey says. “Sometimes that's what is needed for your child, and it's fine. But I want you to make sure that you understand what it looks like and what it means. The provider may not actually see or interact with your child at all; they're available to the teacher should the teacher need some suggestions or troubleshoot something that might be going on.”

Leaving or being excused in an IEP

Should you be concerned about IEP team members leaving early or not attending at all? Carey says that it depends on the situation. If team members such as the adaptive P.E. teacher or physical therapist have already addressed all your concerns, then it’s appropriate to excuse them if all you have left are questions for the speech therapist, for example.

When is it a red flag? “It's not appropriate if you're discussing placement,” Carey says. “If you're going to be arguing against the placement the school wants, or if you're going to be trying to get a different placement, you're going to want to have the team there.” For example, if the school is offering the placement of a special day class and you want to discuss a gen ed placement, it’s important to have the gen ed teacher there.

Carey says, “I would definitely encourage people to not feel pressured to excuse people. If you're not sure that you might need them, ask them to stay. And if they really can't, then ask for a part two or part three. There's nothing wrong with that.”

It’s important to remember that there’s no time limit to complete the IEP. If you need to schedule another session (or two or more!) to make sure all your concerns are addressed, even if they’re short sessions, then do so. “As parents,” Carey says, “you have the ability to ask all of your questions and make sure you understand everything. And whatever amount of time that takes is whatever amount of time that takes.”

Red flag phrases

We asked Carey for her take on some very common statements the school district might make during an IEP meeting and her tips for addressing them.

  • “We don’t do that here.”

    • Carey says, “What I would do is I would ask why. Why don't you do that here? Can you explain that to me? Can you help me understand? Is that a policy? Can I have a copy of that policy? And then after the meeting (because we advise never to sign the IEP in the meeting, even if you agree with everything!), if you're an Undivided member, you can go and ask your Navigator about it. Or you can use Google or a friend or whatever resources you have to try and get some more information.”
  • “Your child isn't talking, so they don’t need speech,” or “They’re not making progress in OT, so we're gonna cut the service.” Or the opposite: “Hurray, your child met their OT goals, so we're going to cut services.”

    • Carey says, “If they want to end a service, or change a service, ask for an assessment.” She also recommends that parents test fading away a service, such as a 1:1 aide, before agreeing to remove it completely.
  • “You can't take your AAC or AT device home on the weekends.”

    • According to Carey, “the best practice is: this is your child's voice. You can't take it away, period. When they give your child an AAC device, it should be with your child 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with the exception of small chunks of time during the school day when they might need to update the app or do a backup or clean it or change a new case or whatever. And if a school is telling you that, I would start with making sure the speech therapist is involved in this conversation. You will have to sign a document that you're going to take care of it and whatever the document says, but it should be with your child all the time, including summers and holidays.”
  • “You have to sign the IEP before you leave the room.”

    • Carey says, “You don't have to sign the IEP. You do have to sign attendance, which is acknowledging you were there and you participated in the meeting. But you do not have to consent to the IEP if you don't want to. So there is no requirement that you sign it within any certain amount of time, whether it's that day in the room or within five days or within 15 days, that doesn't exist. You take it home, you review it, and you take your time. Just know that services that are new will not be started until you sign it.”
  • “Your child is significantly delayed, and we should be focusing on functional goals.”

    • Functional goals could mean the school wants to focus less on academics and more on life skills such as doing the laundry and dishes. Carey says, “If that is not appropriate for your child, then you can absolutely push back and let them know that you work on those skills at home, and they're at school to learn academics. There are some high schoolers, especially in the adult transition program, where the parents feel that is what's best for their child. But if you feel like you want the school to focus on academics, and you're going to focus on the laundry, grocery shopping, and ATMs and stuff at home, then you can push back and let them know that.”

Tip #4: Get the why and the who.

Any time the school disagrees with a service or support you’re requesting, it’s helpful to ask why. Carey explains in this clip:
You also want to be clear on who is responsible for carrying out everything in your child’s IEP. For example, if a student uses AAC, then both the SLP and the teacher can work on goals during speech sessions and throughout the day. If a student has other accommodations or modifications, the IEP should spell out who is responsible for implementing them.

Tip #5: Compromise, collaborate, and know your options.

Carey says to always start from a place of compromise and collaboration. Both we as parents and all the members of the IEP team have the same goal: to help our kids learn and grow. We can get across what’s important to us and our kids while remaining open to input from the rest of the team. Carey says, “Be willing to hear what they have to say and really listen to what they're saying. They may know something that you don't know about how your child learns.”

She adds, “But at the end of the day, if your ask is something that is essential to your child's well-being, and the school doesn't see it the same way, you might have to at least know the options of what comes next and what that looks like.” If you disagree with your team, you might only partially sign the IEP while you proceed to alternative dispute resolution or due process.

Carey’s final advice is to follow your gut:

Thank you to Undivided’s Education Advocate Lisa Carey for all of her tips and for answering questions during our event! (You can catch the full recording and transcript here.) If you have more questions about special education services, IEPs, and more, be sure to attend our bi-monthly Office Hours for Undivided members where Lisa is a regular guest along with Undivided’s experts in public benefits and insurance.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page to learn more about upcoming events, and join our private Facebook group to get your questions answered by fellow parents in our supportive community!



Tip #1: Remember that you are the most important person on the IEP team, other than your child.

Tip #2: Be prepared and know your ask.

Tip #3: Learn to spot the red flags.

Tip #4: Get the why and the who.

Tip #5: Compromise, collaborate, and know your options.

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Brittany OlsenUndivided Editor

An editor and cartoonist who loves using words and images to simplify and share ideas. She has ten years of experience as a copy editor and lives near Portland, Oregon. She often spends her free time going on nature walks with her dog or trying new bread recipes.

Reviewed by

Lindsay Crain, Undivided Head of Content and Community
Adelina Sarkisyan, Undivided Writer and Editor


Lisa Carey, Undivided Education Advocate
Lisa Carey, Undivided Education Advocate

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