Regardless of their child’s disability, parents worry about getting their child an IEP that meets his or her needs. Typically, they want to know how to effectively prepare for the IEP meeting.

To develop an IEP that is likely to produce substantial progress in important areas, it’s critical for parents to write down the questions that need answering and to share them with the case manager at least two weeks in advance of the meeting. This helps to focus and structure the IEP meeting on their child’s most pressing needs.

When writing the questions, parents need to make sure they’re specific and answerable. Below are sample questions for David Enigma, a mythical child with reading disabilities. Although incomplete, the list should give you an idea of what such questions should look like.

Looking at the list may cause you to think, “This may take two or three meetings.” It might. If justified, that’s OK. A poor IEP, one that’s vague and incomplete, may well cause your child to regress or stagnate.

Note to David’s Case Manager

Dear Case Manager [insert name],

With Dr. Terry Brown, our educational consultant, my husband and I developed the questions below. We realize that not all these questions can be fully answered in one meeting. We pose them so you can understand our thinking and so we can work with you to get the answers. We believe that quality answers will help all of us develop a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for our son David.

Thank you for your anticipated assistance.”

Sample Questions

1. Progress in the 2019-2020 School Year: For each goal and objective in David’s current IEP, what objective data are available to assess his progress? To what extent do the data indicate that David has made the substantial progress needed to achieve all his current IEP goals?

2. Social-Emotional Learning-Assessment: As his current IEP notes, David’s social-emotional and behavioral difficulties have impeded his academic progress. What has the district identified as the factors trigging and sustaining these difficulties?

3. According to the research, what interventions will most likely help David overcome his social-emotional difficulties? To what extent have these been systematically implemented throughout the day?

4. Exactly what word recognition difficulties impede David’s reading and writing progress? In other words, what does he have to learn to achieve a year or more growth in this area? How and when were his word recognition difficulties systematically assessed?

5. What are David’s independent, instructional, and frustration levels for word recognition, for listening comprehension, and for reading comprehension, with and without lookbacks?

6. What motivates David to read?

7. What weakens David’s motivation to read?

8. How much time can David typically attend on reading assignments before his attention starts to wander, he gets fidgety, or he appears mentally exhausted?

9. What strategies have been used to strengthen David’s memory? What does the data show about the success of these strategies?

10. Does David learn to read better in large groups, small ones of two or three students, or in one-to-one tutoring situations?

11. Compared to grade-level expectations, how strong or weak is David’s listening vocabulary?

12. Compared to grade-level expectations, how strong or weak is David’s expressive vocabulary?

13. What strategies or methods have been used to improve David’s writing? What objective data are available to assess his progress?

Many, But Not All IEP Teams

Many case managers and school IEP Team members will welcome your questions. You’re helping them focus on your concerns which helps them prepare. In the long run, it may save time and prevent unnecessary conflict.

But some won’t. Some will stonewall you. Paraphrasing one director of special education, “These parents should listen and just follow our directives as we understand Vincent’s problems and the kind of program he needs. We have the degrees. The parents don’t.”

The United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS)

Below are several pronouncements from SCOTUS and the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), followed by my interpretations. Please keep in mind that I’m an educator, not an attorney. Thus, my comments are not legal advice, but the views of an educator who has spent decades developing IEPs for parents, public schools, and private schools.

If you don’t get the information you requested and your requests are reasonable, you might strengthen your influence by sharing these powerful quotations from SCOTUS’ unanimous decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.

SCOTUS: "The IEP [Individualized Educational Program] 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."

Having argued many cases under this pronouncement, Staci Greenwald, Esq. of Sussan, Greenwald, and Wesler makes clear that, “The anticipation is that school districts will now realize that students with disabilities are capable of making meaningful progress and will program for them accordingly; otherwise they run the risk of being told they have failed to provide an appropriate educational program.”

Without having answers to your critical questions, how would you know if the IEP is “aim[ed] to enable [your] child to make progress”? You wouldn’t.

SCOTUS: "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."

Ms. Greenwald also makes clear that judges will interpret the phrase “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress.” Specifically, she notes that “Authorities [will] differ on how much progress should be expected. In these cases, it is left up to the judge to determine which authority he or she is giving more weight and credibility to.” Thus, parents need objective, relevant, valid, and comprehensive information about their child’s progress and the conditions under which he succeeded and which he continues to struggle.

How can you have a valid understanding of “the degree of progress [your] child's IEP should pursue” if you don’t have relevant and comprehensive information detailing your child’s abilities and struggles? You can’t. At the IEP meeting, you won’t have the knowledge needed to make meaningful contributions. Your child may wind up with an IEP that’s not “reasonably calculated to enable [him] to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances."

The United States Department of Education (USDOE)

In interpreting the Endrew F. decision, the U.S. Department of Education published a Question and Answer guide. Sharing several of their relevant answers with a recalcitrant case manager and IEP Team may get you the information you need. Here are three of the department’s critical answers.

USDOE: “In determining whether an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, the IEP Team should consider the child’s previous rate of academic growth, whether the child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency, any behaviors interfering with the child’s progress, and additional information and input provided by the child’s parents.”

If, before the IEP meeting, you haven’t received the information you requested, how can you adequately prepare for the meeting? How can you knowledgeably consider what the other IEP members are saying and recommending? You can’t. You need a quiet place to research, study, and ponder the information you requested. A busy IEP meeting is not the place.

USDOE: “If a child is not making expected progress toward his or her annual goals, the IEP Team must revise, as appropriate, the IEP to address the lack of progress.”

If the case manager and other school IEP Team members don’t have relevant, frequently collected, and valid progress-monitoring data, they’re re depending on their memories and impressions. It’s like sailing across the Atlantic without taking navigation readings. It’s unreliable. It’s likely full of inaccuracies. It’s fraught with danger. And it tells you a great deal about the Team. Thus, you must press for an IEP with a strong plan for ongoing progress-monitoring.

USDOE: “The parents of a child with a disability have the right to request an IEP Team meeting at any time. If a child is not making progress at the level the IEP Team expected, despite receiving all the services and supports identified in the IEP, the IEP Team must meet to review and revise the IEP if necessary, to ensure the child is receiving appropriate interventions, special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, and to ensure the IEP’s goals are individualized and ambitious.”

If the school doesn’t send you the information you requested, there’s good reason to believe your child’s not achieving all his IEP goals. Excuses like, “we assess progress annually, in late May” don’t wash. By then, if your child’s been in a program that failed him, it’s too late to modify or replace it. He’s lost almost a year’s opportunity, opportunity that no one can replace. Now comes the task of creating an IEP that offers a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This may well take many more hours than is needed for children who are well on their way to achieving their goals. If the school’s IEP Team members limit you to one IEP meeting and you need a second or third, request it. The Department of Education made this clear. Just ensure that your request is justified.

At these meetings, make sure that all the goals and objectives are meaningful and measurable. As Jamie Epstein, a highly experienced special education attorney noted, measurable requires specificity: “The IEP must be stated in measurable and observable terms. If it's not, progress cannot be ascertained. The IEP will be so subjective, progress will be left to whatever the IEP Team says it is.” Some Teams will be forthright; some won’t.

As you ponder Mr. Epstein’s comments, again consider this part of SCOTUS’ ruling:

SCOTUS: “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."

If the school’s IEP Team members lack the information you requested, how can the school satisfy this standard? They can’t.

The Bottom Line

You and your child have many rights. Study them. Most are in your state’s special education code.

You have a right to be fully informed about your child’s progress.

Study the quotes in this article. If you use them correctly, they can prove tremendously powerful.