Getting Unstuck: Tips to Avoid the Endless IEP Process

The author, Juliet Hiznay, is a special education advocate and attorney in private practice in Northern Virginia. For information about her practice, visit 

There is an exhaustion factor to being a parent or guardian of a child who requires special education services.  Getting the proper plan in place is not a single event.  In fact, continuous adjustments need to be made every year, and often more frequently, based upon the child’s development, the changing demands of school and the classroom placement.  The process feels like an endless grind of revisions to the individualized education program (IEP), which creates tension.  School staff are under considerable pressure to meet regulatory requirements while serving children.  Parents see the clock ticking and fear that the opportunity to address their child’s needs is slipping away with each passing school year.  In this environment, members of the IEP team commonly have trouble agreeing to revisions, and this can lead to a failure to get in place a plan that will best serve the needs of the student. Most parents are not interested in pursuing legal action because it tends to seriously compromise cooperation with school serving the student.

So, short of bringing a legal challenge when the IEP team gets stuck, how can parents move forward?  As with any other difficult situation, the answer is usually to examine why the team is stuck and then problem solve. The inability to agree in an IEP process often stems from communication problems among members of the IEP team. There are three common communication problems which, if solved, can get the IEP team to come to agreement:

(1)    School staff and parents disagree that the child has a particular need. Rather than argue about who is right, the professional approach would be to collect data (school work, observations, school assessments) and openly share what is happening at home and school, thus ensuring that all team members have updated information about the needs of the child. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) explicitly permits annual assessments of children.  Parents do not need to wait for a triennial evaluation to pursue formal testing. Sharing new information, even if it is only anecdotal, provides the benefit of giving everyone the opportunity to “save face,” meaning they do not have to admit to being wrong, they can simply change their minds based upon new information.

(2)    Attitudes among school staff and parents creates divisions on the team.  Sometimes team members fail to demonstrate respect for one another. Working to maintain respectful interactions maximizes the opportunity to exchange information. Even if respect cannot be there, the appearance of it (courtesy) is a requirement for repairing interactions. Reminding the team how stressful and emotional the process is can help prevent communication breakdowns. Sometimes one individual takes over the direction of the meeting. When this happens, team members may no longer feel comfortable sharing their ideas. Asking individual members of the team questions can help break this type of dynamic. A more drastic work around can also be required, such as asking that a new case manager or liaison be assigned. Apologies for negative attitudes, criticism or outbursts can become necessary. However, if the relationships are damaged beyond repair, it may be time to put together a new team.

(3)    Parents’ fear of situations or distrust of school staff stymies decision making.  School staff rarely have a full picture of the pressures on parents of children with high needs.  Such parents’ concerns are both immediate (e.g., My child is not meeting benchmarks in reading.) and longer term (e.g., Will my child be an independent adult?), with unpredictable outcomes. The desire to protect privacy can lead to many misunderstandings of the issues that families face. Being fearful and mistrusting of school staff most often stems from a parent’s lack of information of what is happening at school.  In this type of situation, it is important for parents to have the opportunity and take the time to observe their children in the school setting and to gather information from school.  Obtaining information will either alleviate parent concerns or, if the support is inadequate, it will clarify what additional work must be done by school staff to meet the child’s needs. Generally parents know their child best, so observation is a powerful tool.  Sometimes what a parent makes the wrong assumptions about what is happening.  A parent observation can shift members of the team to problem solving. Whatever approach is required, it is crucial that the parent is given the tools to help the staff serve the student. Knowledge is power.

The IEP process is designed to be a collaborative process. When it is working at its best, the opportunity to achieve the individualized service envisioned under the IDEA can be miraculous for students.  The never ending work within the team process is exhausting, however, and it is easy to get stuck. Communication problems can be simple to identify and solve, particularly if there is a participant who can take a fresh look at the issues and help remove roadblocks. That is why experienced veterans of the IEP process recommend that parents attend meetings with an advocate or, if that is not possible, with a friend. When the IEP team gets stuck, a fresh perspective can be a godsend.

Published April 15, 2013; All Rights Reserved Juliet D. Hiznay

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