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As a teacher, it is likely that you have either held or participated in an IEP meeting. Often times, you have likely interacted with family members who may be nervous or anxious about the process. Some parents may come in to IEP meetings feeling intimidated by the many people sitting around a table or the jargon of special education. Many parents, including parents of children with autism, have very unique and specific concerns about their child, and as a teacher, there are ways you and other school staff can facilitate IEP meetings that feel safe, respectful, collaborative, and welcoming.
Karen Mapp, Ilene Carver, and Jessica Lander, authors of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success emphasize the importance of engaging with families as a fundamental way to support and promote student achievement. In their book, they underscore the significance of teachers’ mindsets and communication as two necessary ideals that serve as the foundation for engaging with families during the IEP process.
As teachers, we must have the mindset that all families must and can be partners in supporting their child with autism and we must be intentional about the way we communicate with parents that promote ongoing and comfortable collaboration. Below are some strategies that you as a teacher can utilize to ensure that parents of students with autism feel safe, welcome, and like true partners during IEP meetings.
Both teachers and parents possess a wealth of information about their student or child. Teachers have many tools in their toolkit such as effective instructional and behavioral strategies for students with autism and can be extremely knowledgeable about the IEP process overall. Parents also possess a wealth of information about their child: they are their primary caregivers and know the child in an environment outside of school. As a teacher, it is your job to ensure that the IEP meeting reflects an equal distribution of voices and is inclusive of all members’ expertise and knowledge. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Often times, parents feel intimidated by the special education language and jargon. Even worse, there are so many acronyms in special education! One teacher who was highlighted in Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success, Emma Fialka-Feldman, developed a strategy called the “IEP one-pager.” On this one-pager, she briefly lists what the student can do independently, what they are beginning to do, what they can do with support, what they will be working on during the school year, and the main accommodations they use in the classroom. She also recommends including a few photos of the child so as to give the parent an idea of who their child is at school. Other ways to make the meeting more accessible for parents is by utilizing both qualitative and quantitative data. In addition to the quantitative data points, include lots of anecdotes from both the parent and teachers, as well as student samples so as to paint a more holistic picture of that child.
When talking about your student, remember that they are someone’s child, and focus on what they can do – their assets – instead of what they can’t do – their deficits. Dr. William Henderson, a principal at the Henderson School in Boston, Massachusetts, utilizes a “three glows before a grow” strategy during IEP meetings, where teachers and other IEP team members discuss three things the child is doing really well before discussing one area of growth. Keep in mind that many parents of children with autism have often heard more about their child’s deficits than their assets, and that likely influences their attitude towards the IEP process. As a teacher, it is your job to ensure that IEP meetings are respectful and focus mostly on the student’s strengths.
As a teacher, you are also an advocate for your students. Parents, similarly, are advocates for their children. In order to be the best advocate for your student with autism, you must be willing to ensure that parents are aware of their rights not just during the IEP meeting, but throughout the school year. Ensuring that parents are aware of the many options and possibilities they can discuss to better support their child will only help to deepen the relationship between you and that parent, and ultimately lead to better outcomes for your student and their child.
While there are many other strategies that teachers can incorporate into IEP meetings to ensure their effectiveness for all members, it is especially important to remember that teachers must develop the correct mindset and communicate intentionally. Often times, teachers and parents have the same goal for their shared student: for them to succeed. Opening up the lines of communication between teachers and parents and believing that all parents want, can, and must be partners in the IEP process will ultimately promote achievement for our students with autism. Happy meeting!
Mapp, K., Carver, I., & Lander, J. (2017). Powerful partnerships: A teacher's guide to engaging families for student success. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Madeline Burroughs is a Specially Designed Instructional Coach at two high schools in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, GA. In this role, she works to coach special education teachers in providing systematic, specially designed instruction that effectively targets students’ strengths and needs. Madeline received her Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education in May 2019, and hopes to continue to serve as an advocate for all students with disabilities throughout her career.