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Parent-Teacher Conferences. Should parents of children with IEPs be excluded?

advocacy iep iep coach parenting special education special needs

Because of who I am and what I do, I spend a little time each day on social media, especially in parent groups of children with IEPs.  This keeps me current on the pulse of the community so I know I’m giving advice and support where and how it’s needed.  Recently I came across a post by a mother whose child’s teacher was holding parent-teacher conferences and she wasn’t included because she had just attended the annual IEP review.  I definitely had an opinion, and tried to respond, but I was too triggered by memories of my own experience that I couldn’t do so professionally.  Until today…..


Why was I triggered?

My youngest son has had an IEP since kindergarten and in those early school years I spent A LOT of time in that school.  During his first grade year, often more than once a week, I was called in for one behavior after another.  Each time I was escorted into a small meeting room beside the principal’s office where the rest of the team of experts crammed around a tiny table.  The atmosphere was very formal and uncomfortable.  They all had things to say that were difficult to hear and I felt cornered, overwhelmed, frustrated, exhausted…. ALL the feelings.

In the midst of all of the summons to the tiny torture chamber it was parent-teacher conference time.  I knew it was, because the cute monthly calendar my son brought home had it highlighted with a fun little graphic of a smiling teacher with outstretched arms… like she was welcoming me into her classroom. Instead of the sickened and defeated feeling I usually got when a note or phone call from the school was received I felt, well…almost like it was typical and routine.  Nothing about the last couple years felt typical OR routine.  And I just craved typical.

After one particular meeting I ended with excitedly asking my son’s teacher when I would be seeing her for a parent-teacher conference. The whole room stopped, looked around at each other and then some started to chuckle.  The young first grade teacher, almost roaring with laughter, reached across the table and put her hand on my arm and said “Oh honey, you’re here all the time!  You don’t need to come back in for that!

I was gutted. My little piece of “typical” was gone.


What was wrong with their reaction?

There was so much about their reaction that was wrong, but we’ll stick to the point of parent-teacher conferences and why I, or you, shouldn’t be denied the right to have one.

I’ll briefly go back to the routine of the whole thing. We, as special needs parents, experience our child’s school years differently in so many ways. The more typical and routine experiences we have the easier it is to deal with the differences.  At least that’s how it is for me. 

Denying us the opportunity for those typical experiences is wrong.  I’d like to think they didn’t have any thoughts of malice, or that I was undeserving of a simple parent-teacher conference. I’m certain, to them, they were sparing me an extra trip to the school.  But I sure felt like the last kid in line at the candy store and all that was left was black licorice. 

The teachers in my situation were convinced I wasn’t missing anything and I know some topics discussed may have similarities.  But it’s important to note there are fundamental differences between the two.  They differ in purpose, participants, frequency and length, topics, and have different outcomes.  


What are 5 significant differences between a parent teacher conference and an IEP meeting?

Purpose: A parent-teacher conference is typically focused on discussing the student's academic progress, behavior in the classroom, and can provide more detailed information about how the student is performing in a particular class. An IEP meeting is focused on developing, reviewing, or revising the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) and ensuring that the student's needs are being met in the classroom and there is a legally mandated process to follow.

Participants: A parent-teacher conference typically involves just the parent and the teacher. An IEP meeting has legally required members and may include a variety of professionals, such as special education teachers, school administrators, school psychologists, speech therapists, and other related service providers.

Frequency: Parent-teacher conferences are usually held once or twice a year and have no mandatory frequency requirement. IEP meetings are required to be held at least once a year and may also be scheduled more frequently if needed.

Agenda: A parent-teacher conference will typically have a more informal agenda, with the focus on the student's academic progress and behavior.  You may be shown work samples or examples of instructional materials. An IEP meeting will have a more formal agenda with required topics of discussion and a specific focus on the student's special education needs and services.  You will review evaluation reports and data in order to make required decisions.

Outcomes: The outcome of a parent-teacher conference is usually a better understanding of the student's progress, and a plan for addressing any concerns or issues that have been identified. The parent also gets a good snapshot of how their child’s day is spent in the classroom and the relationship with the teacher and classmates. The outcome of an IEP meeting is a written document, the IEP, that outlines the student's special education needs, goals, and services that will be provided to meet those needs. The IEP is a legally binding document that needs to be adhered to by the school and the team.

Another possible difference is location and atmosphere.  My child's district, and many of my client's schools, hold their parent teacher conferences in the classroom either on a day-off from school or the evening.  This allows a more casual and comfortable meeting where you can see where and how your child spends the day.  IEP meetings are usually held in the administrative offices area of the school around a conference table and are formal business meetings.  


Closing thoughts.

I always try to give the benefit of doubt to everyone.  I would never jump to the conclusion that schools or particular teachers are actively seeking to exclude or deny any parent.  But errors get made and feelings get hurt.  If you are or have been excluded from the typical routine at your school I would encourage you to reach out to your teachers and let them know you want those experiences and are just as entitled to them as any student’s parent.

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