How to Master Your 504 or IEP Meeting
504 and IEP meetings can be intimidating. After all, the school officials are the putative experts, and you but a parent who has spent many sleepless nights worrying about you child and wondering how she or he can get a fair shake in school.
While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ( http://idea.ed.gov/ ) requires that parents be provided with opportunities for “meaningful participation” in 504 and IEP meetings, it doesn’t always happen that way. As an advocate for students with learning disabilities (including dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, auditory processing deficits, and executive functioning deficits) and other learning challenges (including ADD and ADHD, ASD, social anxiety, and depression), I have participated in some harrowing IEP meetings, meetings during which school officials have
- Blamed parents for their child’s academic difficulties
- Denied or trivialized the child’s medical diagnosis(es)
- Relegated parents to a subservient, listening role
- Spoken so quickly and in a jargon so hard to understand that the parents have been unable to understand what’s being said
- Spoken in a discriminatory way about people with learning disabilities and other conditions that interfere with learning
- Made insensitive “jokes” at the expense of the student
- Insulted the student
These meetings can tear your heart out.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are four ways you can help better manage your child’s 504 or IEP meeting and win the accommodations you want for your child.
Know How to Defend Your Child Before Entering the 504 or IEP Meeting
Know how your child’s disability (ies) or condition(s) is implicated in learning. For example, because reading is a laborious physical challenge for dyslexic students even after remediation, dyslexic students should be provided with extra time for all reading assignments. When we don’t provide a dyslexic student extra time and that student is downgraded for not finishing the reading on time, we are unfairly penalizing her for her disability. Because handwriting is an arduous physical challenge for students with dysgraphia, dysgraphic students should be allowed to use a keyboard for all writing assignments, in school and at home. When we require a dysgraphic student to write by hand, and the student is downgraded for not completing an assignment, we are penalizing that student for her disability.
Familiarize Yourself with Accommodations Commonly Used to Support Children Like Yours
For example, it is very common to modify the amount of reading a dyslexic student is required to complete. In other words, if the teacher requires students to read two short stories, a dyslexic student should be required to read one and should be assessed on his mastery of that story only. If a student’s dysgraphia and dyspraxia interfere with his ability to handwrite and type, the student should be allowed to dictate his homework and test responses using speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking (https://www.nuance.com/dragon/industry/education-solutions.html). Once dictated, the student can email the homework or test responses to the teacher in the form of an audio file. If the teacher requires clarification or wants revision of the submitted homework or test responses, that work should be conducted orally. If an ADD or ADHD student has trouble staying focused in class and therefore has difficulty keeping up with notetaking demands, he should receive teacher-generated notes. If moving enables a student with ADD or ADHD to stay focused, he should be allowed to stand as needed. If a student has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, that student should not be required to make eye contact with the teacher when answering questions. Likewise, if the stimuli in the classroom interfere with an ASD student’s ability to concentrate, he should be allowed to choose where he sits so as to help buffer himself. If a student has been diagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder that interferes with his completing his homework, that student’s workload should be modified and he should be assessed on the basis of the work he is able to complete.
There are many other accommodations commonly provided to students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and to students with other school learning frustrations such as ADD, ADHD, ASD, anxiety and depression. Explore them, identify those you think will best help your child, and be prepared to explain to the school officials how the accommodations you want will enable your child’s teachers to accurately assess your student’s mastery of taught material, and enable the teacher to avoid penalizing your child for her disabilities or conditions. (If this sounds daunting, call me: http://writingcenterofprinceton.com/contact/).
Be Prepared to Suggest How Accommodations Can be Implemented in School
School officials often balk at requested accommodations and protest that they don’t have the money, the time, or the staff to accommodate your child. However, the IDEA guarantees your child’s right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) ( https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/frontpage/pro-students/issues/dis-issue03.html ) designed to meet your child’s unique needs and to prepare your child for further education, employment, and independent living. That said, you’ll be better able to serve your child and save yourself another meeting if you look into ways that the accommodations you are requesting can be put into practice in your child’s school. For example, if you are requesting that the teacher meet with your child for twenty minutes, one-on-one, once a week, be prepared to suggest how this accommodation might be implemented (every Friday, second period, in the learning center). Also, prepare to suggest the format of the one-on-one meetings (five minutes will be spent reviewing homework, ten minutes will be spent reviewing the week’s classroom discussion, and five will be devoted to writing an email to parents that includes a summary of the day’s meeting and a detailed update on the student’s present areas of strength and weakness). Also, be sure to identify the date on which you want the meetings to start.
Before the 504 or IEP Meeting
Because 504 and IEP meetings can be emotionally trying, you can best serve your child if you prepare notes to take into the meeting. Your notes will help you remember your agenda and will help ground you if you get rattled.
Your notes should include:
- The name(s) of your child’s diagnosed disability (ies) and/or condition(s) that interfere with learning
- A general statement describing how your child’s disability (ies) or condition(s) impact learning
- A list of specific accommodations you want to discuss during the meeting
The night before the 504 or IEP meeting, type your notes on one page in an easy-to-read font (I type mine double-spaced in fourteen-point Arial so I can read them without needing to switch from my distance to my reading glasses). If you become confused or flustered, your notes will help you regain your composure and refocus your attention.
Also, if possible, role-play. Find a friend or partner who will play the part of a reluctant or even resistant school official while you practice keeping your cool and advocating for your child. If you don’t have a friend or partner available, role play in your head. Imagine the kinds of objections the school officials might use to refute, rebut, or dismiss you, and practice your responses. Role-playing will also help you build your confidence before the meeting and help you maintain your dignity during the meeting.
During the 504 or IEP Meeting
Remain civil but firm. Try not to let yourself become distracted by unexpected or undignified comments or responses made by the school officials. That way, you can better focus on your main goal which is to secure acceptable accommodations for your child. If you become angry during the meeting, you can spout off as soon as you leave the building.
Don’t be rushed. Be prepared to stay in the room until all the desired accommodations have been discussed and negotiated. If all of the desired accommodations have not been discussed and negotiated, and the meeting must come to an end, don’t leave until the school provides, in writing, a date for a second meeting, preferably within the next day or two to finish the meeting.
Make sure to get a signed copy of the guidance counselor’s or case manager’s notes at the end of the meeting. Review them before you leave. If the school notetaker’s notes don’t accord with your understanding of the agreed-to accommodations, hammer things out on the spot. Make sure to get a signed copy of the revised notes before leaving the meeting.
When to Hire an Advocate
Advocating for your child can be exhausting and even demoralizing. A seasoned advocate can help you manage your stress and help you secure the accommodations your child deserves.
A skilled advocate will:
- Provide you with information about different accommodations and modifications; pedagogical approaches; and teaching techniques, both traditional and non-traditional; and will help you determine which is most appropriate for your child
- Give you examples of how accommodations have been implemented in schools
- Provide you with information about your school district’s history of accommodating learning disabled and other learning challenged students
- Help you explore ways your child’s school can put into practice desired accommodations
- Play bad cop to your good cop. Because it’s in your best interest to maintain cordial relations with the school officials, during the 504 or IEP meeting, a good advocate will maintain a no-nonsense attitude while you do what you feel is necessary to maintain cordial relations with the school officials
- Have your back and will help you manage any dodges, feints, curve balls, lies, or insults thrown at you or your child by the school officials
- Help you and your child’s school systematize home-school communication to ensure that accommodations have been enacted and are being practiced
- Continue communication with your child’s school after the 504 or IEP meeting if you wish
- Direct you to what you need to know about the IDEA and special education law in your state
Although 504 and IEP meetings can be challenging, it’s important to remember that accommodations are neither handouts or gifts, but a right awarded to your child in order to ensure that your child receives a free and appropriate public education. In other words, the law is on your side, and so are we here at WCP (http://writingcenterofprinceton.com/contact/ ).
Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.
About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.