The Team meeting experience can be stressful and confusing for parents who have children in special education. We know, because we went through fifteen years of them. Over the years we gained some insights into why these meetings can be so emotionally draining and we’d like to share some thoughts on the underlying dynamics of a Team meeting and how to prepare and make them productive.
Types of Meetings
The first thing to understand is the different types of Team meetings, because each can have different goals. There are meetings to determine eligibility for special education, meetings to determine annual goals and develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and, every three years, a meeting to reevaluate the student to see how much progress he or she is making. There can also be additional meetings to discuss specific concerns that may occur during the school year.
The first Team meeting parents might attend is the initial eligibility meeting to see if their child has a qualifying disability as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This meeting is held after evaluations have been performed by the school to determine the existence of a disability. Once the Team agrees that the child needs special education services, parents and school personnel work together to create an IEP.
After the initial meeting, the Team meets annually to update the IEP, define new goals, and discuss any concerns. Then, every three years the school must perform a reevaluation of the child and discuss the results at a Team meeting. Finally, parents or other Team members can convene a meeting at any time to discuss a wide range of issues that do not fit into the time frame of the annual meeting.
Conflicting Agendas at Meetings
Regardless of the type of Team meeting, and with special education in general, parents need to realize that they are regarded as outsiders by school personnel. School employees who work together on a daily basis know each other and their positions in the school hierarchy intimately. They understand the culture and the unwritten rules of the school. Parents are rarely aware of this subtext.
This inherent tension surfaces in Team meetings because there are usually two agendas happening simultaneously: parents wanting an appropriate education for their child and the school district wanting to contain costs. The stronger agenda is that of the school district. It has more people and more resources, and they present themselves as the education experts. Parents can easily believe that it is the school professionals who know best, leading parents not to question what they are told.
The school’s primary concern, though, is often not the student’s welfare, but the fact that special education services can be expensive and the school district must pay for them. Although IDEA is clear about a student’s right to an appropriate education, school officials watching their budgets will often come up with creative ways to deny expensive services, yet never admit that this is their agenda. The parents’ agenda, on the other hand, is usually open and transparent as they talk about what they think their child needs. This can make Team meetings confusing and uncomfortable for parents, who rarely understand or even suspect the existence of these conflicting agendas. Accepting this reality and understanding the school personnel’s position, however, can help you better prepare for your next Team meeting.
Preparing for Team Meetings
Begin your preparation by writing down your thoughts about how your child’s disability affects his or her education, how your child is currently doing in school and at home, and what your concerns are for the future. You might also want to list your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This becomes your parent report to help the Team better know your child from your perspective.
Next, create a preliminary agenda and share it with your special education liaison. Collaborate with that person and if possible, create the final meeting agenda with the liaison. Try to be realistic about the number of items that the Team can cover in a single meeting.
When you arrive at the meeting, hand out copies of your parent report and the agreed-upon agenda to make sure that everyone has this information. This is a good way for you to document your concerns and goals for the Team. Documentation is critical in special education.
One essential aspect to advance planning is to request in writing copies of any reports or evaluations that will be discussed at the meeting. Ask to receive these documents at least two days before the meeting so you will have time to study them and prepare any questions you might have about them. Having these documents in advance is a right guaranteed by federal law (34 CFR §300.623(a)).
Many parents feel uncomfortable at Team meetings. One reason is that there are often more school personnel than parents, which can leave you feeling outnumbered. Another reason for discomfort is that the main topic, your child, can be an emotional one. If there are significant problems to discuss, it can be hard to focus and think clearly. It can be even harder to listen to the conversation and take notes. In some states and school districts, recording a Team meeting is allowed, but there is no universal right to do this. See our blog topic Recording Team Meetings, Not That Simple for more information.
What You Can Do
With these thoughts in mind, we offer the following tips:
- Don’t go to a Team meeting alone. If possible, bring bring a spouse, relative, or friend who can be supportive and take notes. Immediately after the meeting, write down your thoughts and impressions of what was said and agreed to. If someone took notes, get a copy of the notes.
- Send a written summary of your understanding of what was agreed upon at the meeting to your special education liaison as soon as possible. Include a list of any agreed-upon action items along with a timeline of when they will be accomplished. The letter lets the school personnel know what you expect them to do and serves as documentation for your records.
- Since Team meetings can be intimidating for many parents, consider hiring a professional advocate who can help with navigating the meeting and negotiating with school personnel. An advocate who understands the laws can speak up on behalf of your child’s rights. Parents who do not know the laws and their rights may miss important opportunities for their child.
- If you have an outside professional evaluate your child, consider bringing that person to a Team meeting to explain the results of his or her evaluation and what it means for your child’s education.
- Find a forum other than a Team meeting to express anger or frustration. Use a spouse or trusted friend for animated discussions about what may be troubling you. A trained advocate can be a good sounding board for your concerns as well as a source of advice for how to proceed when you encounter roadblocks. You might also want to talk to other parents who have been through Team meetings for their input.
- Keep an open mind at Team meetings and consider all suggestions thoughtfully. If you find it necessary to seek a due process remedy, the mediator or hearing officer will want to know that you first have made every effort to cooperate and try reasonable suggestions that school personnel offer.
Ultimately, there is no magic formula for surviving a Team meeting, but an awareness of the different agendas in the room, advance preparation, and written follow-up give you the best possible chance to obtain the appropriate education that is your child’s right.
Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
The above article was adapted from Chapter 8, “Team Meetings” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.