Parent advocates in virtual IEP meetings

5 ways to overcome the challenges involved in special education team meetings when the parent has hired an advocate.
By: | October 28, 2020
Getty Images: Alistair Berg

Miscommunicate during an IEP meeting with a parent advocate and you run the risk of denying the parents meaningful participation in their child’s IEP development process. This is no different when it comes to virtual IEP meetings, except in virtual meetings parents may also have difficulty communicating with their own advocate.

“I think it may be harder,” says Loree Bruton, associate superintendent of federal and special programs at the Alvin (Texas) Independent School District, of communicating online. “People may feel a little more empowered to [be challenging]. In a virtual meeting, the advocate wouldn’t have the parent next to them to cue them and calm them down … [or] ask them to take a break to talk with them.”

Consider these steps to constructively involve an advocate in a virtual IEP meeting:

  1. Send documents ahead of time. With parental consent, send the advocate any relevant documents at least a week to 10 days ahead of the virtual meeting. Then arrange a small, informal gathering ahead of the IEP meeting of just the case manager, parents, and advocate to discuss any questions or concerns the parents and advocate have. “What ends up taking a lot of time during IEP meetings is discussing how things are worded and how much specificity they want in the IEP,” she says. “We can iron out the detailed pieces of the IEP ahead of time in a way that everyone is comfortable with so the whole IEP committee is not present when discussing the details.”
  2. Excuse team members. To cut down on the number of people on the screen during a large virtual meeting, have related services providers address early in the meeting their areas of concern, such as physical therapy or occupational therapy, and answer any questions the parents and advocate have about their service recommendations. Then you can dismiss them from the meeting, Bruton says. “That helps facilitate the meeting a little bit. You’re not dismissing any required members.” Just be sure to discuss this with parents and the advocate ahead of time and document their agreement to it.
  3. Watch the time. Virtual meetings with an advocate may take longer but recognize that you can set a time limit and reschedule if you can’t address everything within that time limit. “We can set aside two hours for the meeting and if not all concerns have been addressed, we can meet another time,” Bruton says. Also set up breaks ahead of time,. For example, if you know a meeting may go beyond 45 minutes, mention at the beginning of the meeting that everyone will take a break at the 45-minute mark. Remember that you can reschedule the meeting if the advocate talks over others and impedes the progress of the meeting, Bruton says. “We need to keep all communication professional.”
  4. Prevent misunderstandings. Ensure school-based team members use prescheduled breaks and don’t just turn off their camera and get up from the meeting without notice. It can look like they don’t take the parents and advocate seriously. “You wouldn’t ever do that in a face-to-face meeting,” she says. “Be mindful about being present for the meeting.” If an emergency comes up and colleagues have to step away briefly, suggest they use the chat feature to notify everyone else in the meeting. Or, if the meeting isn’t that big, they can just say they need to jump off briefly, why, and that they’ll be back. At the same time, discourage colleagues and the parent and advocate from using a chat or messaging feature to discuss aspects of the meeting apart from others, Bruton says. “It’s akin to passing notes under the table. If you have something to say, say it to the entire committee.”
  5. Prepare to field requests for recordings. Determine ahead of time how you will address requests from advocates for recordings of virtual meetings. Most platforms allow the videoconference host to record video and audio. Bruton agreed when one advocate asked because of the nature of the platform and the times. “It would have felt strange to ask them to just audio record it,” she says. “Good, bad, or otherwise, I didn’t question it because of the nature of the platform.” Just remind everyone about the recording before the meeting.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.