By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA
As discussed in my previous blog, federal law requires that students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) be invited to attend their transition IEP meetings. In Massachusetts, this means that students approaching the age of 14, often 8th graders, should be invited to attend their IEP meetings to start the process of transition planning if this has not already begun. However, many students are not invited to their team meetings until high school, if at all. Additionally, research has indicated that when students do attend team meetings, they have the lowest level of satisfaction about their IEP meeting of any team member and they feel the least comfortable sharing their thoughts and suggestions in the meeting.[i] Nevertheless, studies across the country have shown that students can learn skills to actively participate in their IEP meetings, especially when they are directly taught terminology, roles, and how to participate, and when team members expect student participation.[ii] In the first part of this blog series, I provided five tips for helping students to become involved in their IEP process: Explicitly learn about the IEP document and process; Talk about strengths; Talk about challenges; Complete interest and preference inventories; and, Talk about the student’s goals for after high school. Today, I am adding five more tips aimed at truly helping the student to be an instrumental part of their team meeting. After all, the student’s voice and their vision are the most important aspects of transition planning and special education.
- If testing is being discussed, make sure that an adult talks about the testing with the student BEFORE the IEP meeting—The ability to use assessment information to develop goals is one of the most important skills a student needs in order to be an active participant in their transition planning process. This means that students need to have access to, and an understanding of, assessment information just like every other member of the team. Professionals and parents all have the right to access evaluation results ahead of a team meeting and traditionally come to the meeting having read the evaluations, often more than once. Moreover, they have typically seen the same tests or similar tests beforehand and usually already have some sense of the student’s learning profile, strengths, and challenges. When the student has undergone evaluations that will inform IEP development, it is critical for the evaluator or another adult who understands the testing well to sit with the student and explain the findings and recommendations from the evaluations in a developmentally appropriate manner. The student needs to know what areas were evaluated, and to have a general sense of the strengths, challenges, interests, and preferences that were highlighted within the testing, in order to be able to participate in a meaningful discussion about their short- and long-term goals and the services that they need. Moreover, they need to have time to process this information, with support, before they are expected to participate in a discussion about what to do with the information.
- Give the student options as to how they would like to participate—Just like any other activity, an IEP meeting can be broken down through a task analysis process, and participation in the IEP meeting can be scaffolded, rather than taking an all or nothing approach. There are many actions and “micro-actions” that a student can take to be involved in their team meeting in a way that feels comfortable and satisfying to the student. Certainly, there are the preparatory activities described in my previous blog (e.g., participating in assessment, learning about the IEP, completing a one-pager, etc.). But there are also administrative tasks that the student can participate in, like photocopying materials or sending out invitations or reminders to participants. Students may also want to prepare a script, PowerPoint, video, work portfolio or other materials they can share with the team during the meeting. Also, they may want to share their experience at the meeting with peers afterward or present highlights of the meeting to a staff member or family member who could not attend. There are many examples of ways to participate before, during, and after the team meeting in this great brochure from the I’m Determined project (https://www.imdetermined.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/iep_participation_brochure.pdf). Some students may choose to take a more passive role, but it is important that the student has the opportunity to prepare and to make an informed choice regarding their participation. Over time, students should be building their skills for IEP participation so that they can ultimately lead one or more of their transition IEP meetings (http://www.ciclt.net/ul/mgresa/2.HowtoHelpStudentsLeadIEP.pdf).
- Practice!—This tip may seem obvious, but I am taking time to state it because it is often something that is forgotten. Participating in an IEP meeting, especially as the student, is not a normal activity. Sitting in tight quarters with your parents, general educators, special educators, therapists, counselors, and any number of other professionals, who are all talking about you and your challenges is inherently uncomfortable—especially if you have difficulties with language, social cues, anxiety, etc. One way to make the experience “less weird” is to practice. Generally, students will be asked questions about their concerns, strengths, accomplishments, challenges, and goals for the future. It helps to practice answering questions about these areas outside of the IEP meeting and to not be answering these types of questions for the first time in the meeting. An even more useful practice activity is to have a mock IEP meeting. There are plenty of scripts online that follow the typical format of an IEP meeting, such as introductions and attendance, questions and concerns, reports of current performance, transition planning, and IEP development. It is particularly important for the student to be aware of times in the meeting when they will be specifically asked for their contribution (e.g., introductions, student concerns, vision statement, etc.).
- Invite preferred staff—Scheduling team meetings is a logistical puzzle, and often not all staff can be present for the whole meeting, if at all. Ask the student who they feel knows them best and who they really want on their team. If you know which teachers are the most motivating for the student, make sure that they are invited. Moreover, when there is a choice related to staff participation, prioritize having the meeting at a time when staff who the student likes and feels comfortable with can be part of the meeting. For student’s who have 1:1 paraprofessional support, it is really important for the paraprofessional to be at the meeting so that the student can have the same level of assistance (and feel the same sense of safety and support) that they do throughout their school day. The student is the most important member of their IEP team, and they will feel most included if they look around the room and see familiar faces of people they know are on their side.
- Expect the student to participate!—The most important thing that adults can do to assist students in participating in their IEP meetings is to make the time and space for the student to participate in the meeting. This may mean requesting a longer meeting than usual so that adults in the meeting can slow down or rephrase language in terms that are accessible for the student and so that the student has time to formulate their thoughts and language in order to participate in the meeting. Whatever accommodations a student needs to participate actively in a classroom discussion should be considered and put in place if they are needed for a student to participate actively in the team meeting discussion. Adults need to be respectful of the student’s voice and to not speak for the student, interrupt the student, talk over the student, or disregard the student’s input. The student’s participation needs to be expected, empowered, and applauded, because, after all, it is their IEP meeting, their education, and their life.
About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.