What is it?

Students in Special Education have an IEP meeting once a year to review progress, chart goals, and evaluate what services the student will receive for the upcoming year.

Who attends?

The meeting is usually attended by teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists, a school representative and a district representative, the student (when appropriate), the student's parents or guardians, and any advocate the parents want to bring.

Why so many people?

The teachers and therapists are there to give reports and set goals. The school and district reps are there to make sure the budget isn't squandered and there is no danger of lawsuit if the child doesn't reach the goals set. The student attends when he or she can understand and be a productive part of the meeting, and the parents are there to make sure their child's educational needs are met.

So why is the IEP so scary for parents of special needs kids?

Because first they get to hear how far below normal their child is performing from the reports. It can be heartbreaking - especially if this is the first complete report of the child's skills and abilities. Tears are par for the course.

After that there are the recommendations of the experts. The experts are very hard to question. Is a half hour of speech therapy enough for a child who only has three words? What does OT mean? Is it individual or is it group? All the questions one wants to ask seem occur only on the way home.

The district representatives make it worse...interrupting the experts when they seem like they may be offering more services than the district is willing to pay for - so parents might feel that they aren't getting the whole picture.

Finally it's the parent's turn to talk. What should parents ask? How are they sure their child is getting everything he or she needs? Parents who have no experience and no help can feel powerless and bulldozed by everyone at the table. They are asked are asked to sign papers signifying that they understand and agree to the therapies offered.

So what should a parent do?

Educate yourself about the law. US law says that special needs children are entitled to "free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment". The law is also very specific about rights during an IEP meeting including:
   -the right to bring anyone to the meeting the parent desires including doctors, therapists, lawyers (though this is a last resort!) and friends
   -the right to an interpreter if English is not their first language
   -the right to not sign the IEP if they don't agree with any portion of it
   -the right to a second opinion paid for by the state/school district (depending on area)
Always remember that the decision-making process is 50/50. The school, experts, and administrators share one vote, and the parents have the other vote. The power is on the family's side.
Get support. Find an appropriate parenting organization for parents of special needs kids. Look in the yellow pages under parent support or parenting or visit The Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Projects at http://www.taalliance.org/. If nothing local is listed call Easter Seals. They will help find doctors, advocates, and other services so parents are not alone.

A /msg in my inbox from noder Jennifer brings up a wonderful point. Often gifted and talented kids go through the same administrative process: "I was in gifted education and did my IEP every few years. Might want to add that in as falling under special ed too. My IEP was great-- gave me a lot more academic freedom in secondary school."

Thanks to Lometa, deep thought, and Jennifer for insightful additions to this write up. If you have experience in the IEP process, from a teacher, administrator, parent, or student viewpoint, I encourage you to node it below.