How to support students in virtual IEP meetings

Nine ways to help students with disabilities to feel comfortable and meaningfully participate in IEP meetings held remotely this fall.
By: | July 9, 2020
Photo by Gabriel Benois on UnsplashPhoto by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

Even if schools in your district return to in-person learning this fall, you may continue convening virtual IEP meetings to ensure everyone stays safe. When these meetings involve the student, you may want to take additional steps to ensure the student is comfortable communicating and showing his face online.

“Not every kid is comfortable in a virtual platform,” says Naomi Brickel, director of the Community Support Network and coordinator of policy at the Westchester Institute for Human Development in Valhalla, New York. “Teams should practice steps to take before having a meeting.”

Consider the following nine strategies to ensure students with disabilities can meaningfully participate in their virtual IEP meetings this fall.

  1. Send documents home for student and parent review. Make sure the student and his parents have a few days to review the student’s evaluation reports and any draft documents before the virtual meeting, Brickel says.
  2. Seek information before the meeting. Have the student’s case manager or another staff member the student is comfortable with call the student and her parents a few days before the virtual IEP meeting to discuss what the student thinks worked and didn’t work in the past year, Brickel suggests. Ask the student which classes she felt the most successful in and why. Ask her which services helped and didn’t help. “You want to get the student’s input outside of the virtual platform, especially if the student isn’t comfortable in such a setting,” she says.
  3. Ensure all participants use their cameras. The student and his parents are more likely to trust that school-based team members are paying attention to them and not doing other work or chores during the virtual IEP meeting if they all turn on their cameras. “When the meeting is happening, you should have your camera on,” Brickel says. “Otherwise, the student and parents are going to wonder what you’re doing behind that camera. Are you doing laundry? If the camera is off, [the student is] not going to have access to your face or your body language and that’s only going to foster distrust.”
  4. Ensure everyone knows how to set up a virtual background if anyone is concerned about privacy. Ensure the student and his parents also know how to turn on their camera and use a virtual background. Everyone should be on a level playing field when possible.
  5. Encourage everyone to use the chat feature. Make sure that the student, her parents and staff know how to use a platform’s chat or Q&A feature before the meeting, Brickel advises. This way if the student has a question, but is reluctant to ask on camera, she can type it in and the meeting leader can respond to the group.
  6. Ask directly for student feedback. If the student refuses to be on camera, but is willing to talk, make sure you periodically stop to ask for the student’s feedback, so he continues to participate, Brickel says. You don’t want him relying only on the chat or Q&A feature for participation.
  7. Share screens. If the student is comfortable and capable of being on camera and communicating during the virtual meeting, make sure he is able to share his screen with the rest of the participants if he has, for example, collaborated with his case manager on a slide presentation about his strengths and interests, Brickel says. Just be sensitive about how much time the student can talk, she adds. The team leader should also share her screen throughout the virtual meeting.
  8. Model professionalism. Remind all school-based team members to follow the same ground rules that you have set for the student and her parents, Brickel says. For example, if you expect a student to sit at a table and not lie down on a couch during her IEP meeting, no teachers should participate seated on their bed. Team members should probably not wear pajamas or baseball caps either. “You don’t want to send a message that none of this really matters,” she adds.
  9. Summarize the meeting. At the end of the virtual meeting, take time to ensure the student and his parents understand everything that was decided and to ask the student if he has any questions, Brickel suggests. A shy student may wait until the end to ask, for example, if he really has to take a certain class when he thinks he can take a more advanced class. The team would want to look at the data again and determine together if he could try the more advanced class. Also send the student a letter afterward to express your pride in him for participating in his virtual IEP meeting, Brickel says. “It’s good to offer some reinforcement.”

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

Also read: Get organized for IEP meeting overload this fall