Teaching Students to Advocate at Their Own IEP Meetings

Kelley Spainhour

Special Education Consultant

Did you know that students with disabilities are allowed to attend their own IEP meetings? Most special education teachers, leaders, and advocates highly encourage students to participate in and eventually lead their IEP meetings. You may be wondering … how? At what age are children allowed to attend? What if they don’t understand some or most of the discussion? Whose job is it to prepare them? When preparing students to advocate for themselves, considerations include age, cognitive and communication ability, emotional maturity, parental support, and level of preparation before the meeting. With adequate practice and support, students across the spectrum of disability can successfully advocate for themselves by attending, participating in, and leading their IEP meetings.

Here’s how.

What does IDEA say?

One of the most common questions parents and teachers have about inviting children into the IEP process is: What age should students start attending? Let’s start with what the law says. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires students age 14 and older to be invited to their own IEP meetings. There is no minimum age requirement to attend. The law also requires students with disabilities to be invited whenever transition services and planning will be discussed. Though IDEA requires an invitation, it does not require attendance.

How to Prepare Students to Advocate

Every child is different, but experts say that children can benefit from and contribute to their IEP meeting from a young age—even as young as 6 years old! To make this process successful, parents and teachers must play a role in preparing students to participate in their meetings. Younger children will use different vocabulary and the degree of responsibility will be lessened. However, as this article written for the Council for Exceptional Children points out, the concept of leadership is preserved when the emphasis is on asking the child about what is important and using that information to create new goals. Older students may be able to take more of a leadership role, and some will take full ownership of the IEP process during the transition planning process.

When helping a student prepare for an IEP meeting, start by recognizing that different students will be capable of varying levels of participation and leadership. That’s okay. Some students may start by attending 10 minutes of a meeting; subsequent participation may include observing for longer periods, reading prepared statements, proposing new goals, and answering questions from the team. Full leadership of the IEP meeting does not typically happen at the very first meeting the student attends.

Before the IEP meeting, the teacher helping prepare the student should schedule a few conferences to practice going through the agenda and getting used to the structure of the meeting. The student needs to have opportunities to practice speaking about goals, challenges, and ideas.

Consider these questions when preparing younger elementary students to attend an IEP meeting:

  • What do you like about school?
  • What kinds of things do you enjoy doing at school? What are you good at?
  • What is hard for you? Tell us about the things you don’t like doing.
  • What helps you complete your work? What helps you be your best in class?
  • What would you like to work on next year?

For older elementary and middle school students, try asking some of these questions to help them learn to lead:

  • Describe some of the challenges you face in school.
  • Did you accomplish your goals last year? How do you know? What helped you accomplish these goals?
  • Do you ask your teachers for the things that might help you? (Do you use your accommodations in class?) If not, why do you think that is?
  • What are your strengths in this class?
  • If you could change one thing about your school day, what would you change?

To avoid answers like, “I don’t know,” and blank stares, try offering sentence starters or a word bank to help with idea generation.

As you work with your student on self-advocacy, speak openly about their disability and learning needs. There is no need to try to hide or diminish the challenges of the disability for the sake of the student; they live the difficulties every day. It is best to be clear in naming the barriers so the team (including the student!) can work together to find solutions. Knowledge and understanding are empowering, and being informed is a critical part of learning to advocate for oneself.

Part of the preparation includes teaching your student about the services on their IEP. Explain what services they are receiving and why. For example, if your student has inclusion support in language arts class to work on reading comprehension, explain how the co-teacher in their language arts class may work with them in a small-group setting a few times per week to practice specific comprehension strategies. Help them understand this small-group work as one important way their teachers help them succeed in reading grade-level texts.

As the IEP meeting approaches, decide together on the amount of time the student will be present in the meeting and for what specific part(s). Many students begin attending only a portion of the meeting and participate in a particular section of the IEP. For example, a student may share their perspective on how having a dedicated aide and a behavior chart have helped them work on behavioral goals. One student may use symbols or a communication device to express their strengths and extracurricular interests. Another student might explain the physical challenges they have faced on the bus, in the hallways, and at lunch since they started using new adaptive equipment.

There are many ways to include a student in their IEP meeting. The most important thing a parent or teacher can do is prepare the child ahead of time so they are set up for success. Whether a student is attending and observing for the first time, or a seasoned self-advocate leading the entire meeting, student leadership benefits the whole IEP team.

Martin, Van Dycke, and Christensen, in their study, Increasing Student Participation in IEP Meetings (2006), found that students who learn self-advocacy skills exhibit increased self-confidence, self-esteem, and communication skills. They gain practice in goal-setting, teamwork, asking for and receiving help, expressing their strengths and interests, negotiating, and resolving differences. Students who regularly attend their own IEP meetings also develop a greater understanding of their disability and legal rights, and are better prepared to continue advocating for themselves as they transition to postsecondary education and careers.

About the Author

Kelley Spainhour is a special education professional with a decade of teaching and leadership experience. She is passionate about the unique needs of children with medical needs and enjoys collaborating in multidisciplinary contexts. Kelley currently serves as a special education consultant and writer.