For many parents, anxiety is skyrocketing. They fear the worst. It's IEP season.

Past experiences have taught them to expect a bitter struggle, followed by feelings of powerlessness, despondence and anger. But if parents understand their legal rights and critical court rulings, effectively use documents that support what they believe their child needs, know what to say in stressful situations, and treat school personnel with utmost respect, they radically improve their child's chances of getting the instruction, placement and services she needs.

To help parents who fear the worst, I’ll discuss three topics:

  • The Supreme Court's (called SCOTUS) recent Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District decision. This unanimous decision is critical.
  • The nature, importance and use of supporting documents.
  • What to say in stressful, confrontational situations.

1. A critical Supreme Court decision

If you're a parent who had bad experiences with IEP Teams, you and your child can benefit greatly from the overall thrust of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District and a few of its representative quotations. The quotations may well prove quite helpful if school personnel refuse to provide your child with the kind of program she needs to make relevant, realistic, substantial and challenging progress.

Here is one of Endrew's more useful quotations, followed by my educational perspective.

"The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress. After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement. ... When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' [trivial or minor] progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.

"For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to 'sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out' ... Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives [italics added]."

In essence, SCOTUS ruled against any IEP that offers a child little chance to make important, meaningful progress, progress that should reflect the purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), the primary law governing special education. IDEA states that:

"The purposes of this title are — to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living [italics added]."

Without instructionally-relevant diagnostic information, a Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance section of the IEP that is Comprehensive, Accurate, Relevant and Explicit (CARE), and goals (and objectives in some states) that reflect the child's Present Levels, in ways that are Meaningful, Measurable and Manageable (MMM), it's unlikely that her IEP would satisfy IDEA's purpose and the SCOTUS ruling in Endrew.

Services are an example. If the goals in a child's IEP are vague and poorly measurable, she's unlikely to get the services needed to substantially benefit from special education. She would not have "the chance to meet challenging objectives."

2. Supporting documents

In its Endrew decision, SCOTUS offered important insights about the breadth of parental involvement and the school's obligation to make sound, justified decisions:

"The nature of the IEP process, from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child's IEP should pursue. ...

A reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances [italics added]."

This raises two important questions. The first is "How can parents cogently justify their requests, including requests for placement, accommodations and services?"

Dr. Gary G. Brannigan and I take the position that documentation is oxygen at IEP meetings. With it, you can develop sizable power to influence your child's IEP. Without it, you may have little to no influence.

Often, the documents you need are in your child's school records, including report cards, teacher comments, test scores, past IEPs and formal evaluations. Request copies of these. As you review them, identify critical, authoritative quotations that offer strong support for your requests.

Then, you need to mail and email a List of Needs and Sources to your child's case manager well before your next IEP meeting. The list usually needs three columns. Here's a partial example:

Though a List of Needs and Sources can increase your influence, it's not absolute. To strengthen it, you need to use your list with skill, diplomacy, persistence and respect.

The second question refers to draft IEPs. Here's the essence of the question: "By their very nature, draft IEPs frame my child’s program and narrow the ensuing IEP discussion. By setting a psychological anchor point, draft IEPs tightly frame the discussion and limit possibilities. How can I prevent this?"

From my educational perspective, the Endrew case suggests a solution. The SCOTUS decision said: "The nature of the IEP process, from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child's IEP should pursue [italics added]."

Extrapolating from this statement and the overall gist of Endrew, I suggest that you prevent the problem rather than waiting to respond to a dreaded draft. Here's how.

Mail and email a request to your child's case manager, asking that the team, of which you are a full-fledged member, fully involve you in developing the draft. Or mail and email a request asking that before a draft is written, you meet with the IEP team to review and discuss your List of Needs and Sources. According to IDEA's federal regulations, the school has a limited number of days to send you a response that adheres to specific, fairly demanding guidelines.

3. Confrontational situations

In more than 35 years of developing IEPs in three states, I've dealt with many IEP teams. Most were genuinely helpful and supportive. And many team members were clearly dedicated to doing their best to help children.

Nevertheless, for administrative, budgetary, historical and other reasons, they occasionally created unwarranted roadblocks. Below are several typical roadblocks, along with recommended responses based on the text of IDEA, its regulations, and case law.

Example 1 — The team says, "She's not entitled to that. It's only for students without disabilities."

You might say, "Please show me where the special education code says that. I have a copy of it right here."

Example 2 — The team says, "Having that book in digital is a good idea, but unfortunately it's unavailable. She'll just have to try harder."

You might say, "Trying harder won't work. Alexis has tried for years. She's overwhelmed. We have to minimize, not increase, her frustration. The good news is that you can scan and digitize lots of reading materials. The Kurzweil systems or a regular scanner plus MobiCreate, a free software program from Amazon, can quickly turn articles and stories into digital books. With a PDF or Word file, it takes less than a minute.

"And like thousands of schools throughout the country, you can get help from Learning Ally. Membership is inexpensive and offers more than 75,000 digitized books. And you can download digital books from many local libraries. So, to provide her with a FAPE, let's put digital books in her IEP. After all, it's very doable."

Example 3 — The team says, "Our reading specialist and our special education staff are not available to provide her IEP's one-on-one instruction. But we do have volunteer parents who attended our half-day workshop on using phonics reading programs."

You might say, "Volunteer parents, however well motivated, are inadequate. Reading disabilities (or special education lessons) are complex. That's why hundreds of graduate textbooks focus on just this topic. I doubt that anyone would go to a volunteer parent for knee surgery. So please, let's get an experienced, state-certified professional."

Example 4 — The team says, "We'll provide that service, but informally. We do it for all students with these problems. So there's no need to put it in the IEP."

You might say, "Thanks for providing that service. But to protect my child, it must be put in her IEP. People come and go, people forget what they say, budgets get cut, and rules and regulations change. So to protect my child and reduce my anxiety, let's put it in her IEP."

Whenever you disagree and respond to other members of your child's IEP team (of which you're a full-fledged member), it's important that you respond with a tone of genuine respect.

It's also important to respond from a wealth of knowledge. This requires study. You need to study your child’s records, your state's special education code (which must reflect IDEA), and critical case law, such as SCOTUS's unanimous decision in Endrew.

By studying, speaking respectfully and focusing on the issues, you’ll likely develop considerable competence in influencing decisions.

Support personnel

Though this article focuses on helping parents, it can also help teachers and special education support staff who are dedicated to helping their students achieve ambitious, but realistic goals that will meaningfully improve their lives.

For example, creating a List of Needs and Sources can expedite IEP meetings while helping parents to see the intellectual honesty with which you're operating. And if the issues result in a formal due process hearing, your list may provide strong support that you hewed to Endrew's statement that "a reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances [italics added]."

Ultimately, this should help you, the child and the parents.