IEP Advocacy Moves for Parents – Part 1


Most of the parents I talk to tell me that at one time or another, they have felt powerless during the IEP process. Maybe they’ve asked for additional OT services for their child and been flat out rejected. Perhaps they have requested a specific reading program only to be told, “We don’t use that here.” Or maybe they have expressed their concern about a lack of social opportunities for their 4th grader who is in a self-contained classroom, and heard crickets at the IEP table. Regardless of the particulars, hearing the word no (in any one of its many lovely forms) is always disappointing. 

The parents who come to me for help report feeling frustrated. They feel like the system is rigged against them (they’re right, by the way). In my book Special Education Savvy, I compare the feeling to an amateur soccer player going up against the US Women’s National Team……the entire team! Not exactly an even match, right? The other members of the IEP team have all the right muscles in all the right places. They’ve been training for years and know all of the fancy footwork. Meanwhile, you are a complete novice, lacing up your cleats for the first time. Cover your eyes, this is not going to be pretty! 

The truth is that you, yes YOU, have more options than you think. Parents are not powerless. Everyone reading this can become skilled ENOUGH to get in the IEP game. Here are a few of my favorite advocacy techniques to help you do just that.

Put it in Writing 

Whenever you’re not seeing eye to eye with the rest of the IEP Team on an issue, always start by putting your concerns and requests in writing. Verbally asking for something is not enough. In an email to your case manager, you will also want to include any specific examples/reasons/data points that you have gathered, in bullet point format. The more objective evidence you have supporting your request, the better. 

You are putting your concerns in writing for three reasons:  1) To ensure that communication is crystal clear; 2) To encourage the school team to see your point of view, and 3) To create a paper trail in case you decide to file a formal complaint in the future.

Request an IEP Meeting

Did you know that you can request an IEP meeting at any time throughout the year?  Yup, IEP meetings must occur at least once a year (the Annual Review IEP Meeting); but, if a parent or teacher is concerned that a student’s needs aren’t being fully met, they can and should request a meeting immediately. Services can be added or removed, goals can be changed, and even placement can be reconsidered as needed. There is absolutely no reason to wait until the Annual Review Meeting to make an IEP change. Time is a valuable commodity in the realm of special education. Every day, week, and month counts.  

Here is a sample email template:

Dear Mrs. Smith,

I’m reaching out to request an IEP meeting to discuss Jordan’s performance this year. I feel that all of his needs aren’t being met and that IEP changes may need to be made.  

Please add the following concerns to the meeting agenda:

  • Concern #1
  • Concern #2
  • Concern #3

I look forward to working collaboratively with you and the rest of the IEP Team. I am available on: (give three dates/time frames).  Please let me know once the meeting has been scheduled.


Mrs. Jenkins

Utilize the Parent Concerns Section of the IEP

Taking the above strategy one step further, make sure that you’re taking advantage of one of the most important components of the IEP…..the Parent Input section. You may also see it labeled as “Concerns of the Parent.” This is the place to document your concerns right into the IEP itself. As such, it’s one of the best ways to exercise your right to parental participation. Leaving it blank (which I see way too often!) would be a major missed opportunity. Before every IEP Meeting wraps up, ask how your concerns will be documented. Sometimes the staff member in charge will add a short summary on your behalf, based on their notes. Alternatively, you can submit a statement in your own words and request that it be added. 

I find that the Parent Input section is most useful when the team can’t reach an agreement on a particular issue. For example, if you’re advocating for your daughter to have a 1:1 aide for the following school year, but everyone else at the table insists that a shared classroom aide will be sufficient, what now? 

In the spirit of compromise, a parent may decide to trial the team’s recommendation for several weeks, and then reconvene to review the results. You can consent to start the school year off without the aide, but ask that your child’s performance be carefully monitored and measured. Let them know that you will be requesting an IEP Review Meeting six weeks into the year to look at the data and discuss how things are going. Ask that your concerns about a classroom aide and your intention to meet again in October be documented in the Parent Concerns section. Boom! You may not be walking away from the meeting with exactly what you wanted, but you’ve kept the conversation going. There is now an expectation and a timeline that you can hold the school district accountable to. 

For more ideas about how to communicate your Parent Concerns, I highly recommend the popular advocacy blog, A Day in Our Shoes.  Click HERE to learn more.

Ask to See the Written Policy

Raise your hand if you order the same exact thing every time you go to your favorite restaurant (I see you Chinese Chicken Salad from the Cheesecake Factory!). Or if you and your family sit in the same pew every time you go to church. It’s your routine. A habit. Automatic. It’s just how you’ve always done things. 

Special education teams at school can also fall into familiar patterns of behavior. Students with “X” classification are all recommended for “Y” placement. All of the preschool children in a particular class receive one session of speech therapy per week. All of the middle schoolers with IEPs in general education receive the same modified tests and quizzes. But, when it comes to educating students with disabilities, individualization is the name of the game. It’s the “I” in IEP. Does any of this instruction sound uniquely designed to you though? Nope.    

If you make a request and hear something along the lines of, “We can’t do that,” “This is how we do it here,” or “That’s not an option,” in reply, your parent advocate radar should start beeping loudly. Who says they can’t? Is it written in the state or federal law somewhere? Is there a school district policy on the topic? Politely ask to see it! 

9 times out of 10 it doesn’t exist. This means there is absolutely no reason why your specific request cannot be considered. Even if it’s not how things are typically done, that doesn’t mean it CAN’T be done. Sometimes just pointing out the logic is enough to produce the desired result. At the very least, you’ve found an opening to encourage the team to start thinking about more creative solutions.  

The problem is that too many parents back down when given even the slightest push back. There is no reason to feel intimidated though. Instead, respectfully reply with, “Can you show me the law or written policy that states that?” I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what happens next.

Follow the Chain of Command

If you’re not seeing eye to eye with the rest of the IEP team, you can appeal to someone in a higher position of authority. From the bottom up, the hierarchy of special education generally starts with your child’s teachers and therapists, then progresses up to the case manager, the director of special services (or a similar title), and finally the superintendent. In larger school districts, there may even be a supervisor or two thrown in there. There are times when it makes sense to reach out to the building principal too, especially on matters such as discipline, scheduling, staffing, or safety. 

Parents can invite an administrator into the conversation by cc-ing him or her on emails, calling their office directly, or inviting them to attend the next IEP meeting. A word of caution though…..“going above someone’s head” is the equivalent of telling a retail associate that you want to speak to her manager. To make sure you don’t strain any relationships, you can send a simple explanatory message like this to the IEP team: “Good morning! I wanted to let you know that I reached out to the Assistant Superintendent of Special Education after our last meeting. I would like the IEP Team to have the benefit of her expertise and decision-making power as we continue to work together on Jacob’s IEP. I am very much looking forward to continued collaboration.” 

In reality, sometimes lower-level educators have their hands tied when it comes to making big decisions. They might even fully agree with what a parent is requesting, but not be able to grant it based on directives issued by their department heads. This is a major obstacle for IEP teams to overcome, so I wanted to make you aware of it. According to IDEA, there should already be someone in attendance at meetings with authority, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard the line: “I’m going to have to check with my supervisor and get back to you,” I’d be enjoying a sweet shopping spree at HomeGoods right about now!

In IEP Advocacy Moves for Parents – Part 2, I’ll be sharing a few more techniques that you can add to your repertoire. Between both lists, I’m pretty certain that you’ll be feeling a whole lot more confident taking the IEP field. Watch out Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach!

The IEP Parent's Guide
to the BEST School Year EVER!

A month-by-month checklist of Best Practices 

This is the guide you need
to step up your advocacy game. 

Simple, monthly action steps to keep busy parents on track all year long.
*Relevant for all grade levels and disability categories.*