It’s time again to meet for an annual IEP meeting and you’re ready. If you’re the teacher or therapist at the table, you’ve got piles of data to prove that you’ve done your job in helping the student move forward and a clear plan of what needs to happen next for them to be prepared for further education, employment, and independent living. If you’re the parent at the table, you’ve rehearsed in your head a hundred times what you need the staff to know about your child’s education.
No matter what your role at the IEP table is, you know there’s always the question of what’s really going to happen, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The culture of your IEP team does not need to fit past experiences of IEP meetings filled with new information and recommendations you’ve never heard before you pulled up your chair to the crowded conference room table. Your entire process for developing IEPs with excellence before, during, and after IEP meetings can be enhanced by building trust and integrity at the table.
Before we leap into the steps needed to build trust and integrity on your IEP team, we need to look at the big picture for why we need to create more trust, integrity, and leadership within every one.
Outcomes of Building a Foundation of Trust and Integrity
When you trust your IEP team, you are not always striving for perfection and getting things right the first time. Your team will trust that when things fail they will be fixed, and this leads to the ability to reach outside of what has been done in the past. Also, feeling safe to contribute a new idea benefits the child by increasing the chances you will find the right solution more quickly for greater progress and reaching ambitious goals.
A student benefits exponentially from a community of collective knowledge. Trust within an IEP team requires teachers and parents to work in partnership in building an appropriate education. Our community connections start inside of our special education teams, and when these are built strongly, the connections grow outside of our immediate circle of resources. With powerful community action from parents and teachers, opportunities for supported, inclusive activities both inside and outside of school start to grow.
Trust eliminates the feeling of starting and stopping your work on a child’s IEP. Many IEP teams feel frustration in creating a document at the IEP table and then returning back to the classroom without much changing. When we have constructed a trustworthy team, both parents and teachers have confidence that the IEP will be executed consistently, not just at the time of the IEP meeting but year-round. Getting into a consistent IEP work flow produces integrity and trust, which allows your entire IEP team to believe that what was planned at the IEP table will get done.
Breaking Down Myths about Trust
Next, we need to bust some myths about trust because many parents and teachers believe that complete trust is an impossible goal for special education teams. They’ve been burned before and don’t believe the future will be any different than the past. Even if this is not your belief, it’s necessary to be aware that several people sitting at the IEP table with you may feel this way.
Trust is slow
This doesn’t have to be true. Creating authentic trust can happen quickly when words, actions, and outcomes from an IEP team member align with their promises.
If trust is destroyed, it can’t be recovered
Actually, when trust is broken—assuming there was no harmful intention—you can begin to create trust again and make your team stronger than ever. Broken trust is often seen as a dead end, but it can actually be a significant new beginning. If you have broken someone’s trust on the IEP team, get your action plan together and restart. You can gain more trust and integrity than you had before because you fell down and you got back up.
Trusting your team means nothing will ever go wrong
This is simply not true—a perfect IEP experience is an unreasonable expectation for both parents and teachers. You cannot prevent all catastrophes, but you can assemble a team filled with trust and integrity to handle anything that comes their way.
Trust Must Be Rooted in Integrity
Trust cannot flourish without integrity from each individual on the IEP team. Integrity means committing to honesty, walking your talk, and having the courage to act in alignment with your values and beliefs. It means having humility and being more concerned with what is right for a child’s education than being right at the IEP table.
Keeping your commitments throughout the IEP process is one of the biggest trust and integrity builders on IEP teams. However, we often disappoint ourselves and others by not keeping our commitments because of our own faults or how our commitments are entwined with others’. Your integrity and your intentions can often help you move through the failure of an IEP commitment. If you have displayed consistent integrity, your intent was honest, and you don’t repeat those failed commitments, even missteps in the IEP process can be acknowledged without destroying trust.
Integrity is your character combined with your action plus your competence. Throughout the IEP process, be transparent and show data to support your recommendations and expectations for the student. When you decide to do your best work for your student or be the best voice for your child, and you show up fully through the tough conversations without excuses, your personal trustworthiness and integrity grow abundantly within the IEP team.
10 Actions to Build Trust and Integrity
1. Create your agenda
Your agenda is what you intend to do with the motive of establishing an appropriate education for a child. If you have the right motive, your agenda contains action items toward the end result that everyone believes in and can support at the table. When creating your agenda to share with others, be direct. Stop using jargon, even within the IEP team. We know you know your stuff—no big words needed. Let’s be more straightforward than ever before and use everyday terms for where a child is, where they are going, and how we are going to help them get there.
2. Declare your intent
Your fellow IEP team members, including parents, teachers, therapists, and admins, need to know your intent throughout the entire IEP process. You may think your intent is obvious, but it’s not. We’ve all had negative experiences throughout the IEP process in the past, and these often cloud our judgment when working with our current IEP team. Parents need to share their vision for their child and how they expect the school team to support that vision. Teachers and therapists, you need to define your role and actions to each other for each piece of the IEP.
3. Make decisions
Indecisiveness kills trust. Choose to operate and make decisions from a “why not?” or “yes” standpoint. Do not make decisions based on limits you’ve known in the past, but fill your decisions with hope and possibilities. Make strong suggestions to your IEP team that will open up alternative paths for success for the student. Narrow-minded decisions or limits in the past do not have to slow down progress for a student in the future.
4. Ask for help
Every child is unique, and every IEP is required to meet their needs. You are not expected to have all of the answers all of the time. If you are not capable of meeting a child’s needs, this is not something to hide. Be bold and ask for help. Get the training you need written into the section of the IEP that holds you and your team accountable for continuing education. Advocating for your own education and assistance in meeting a child’s needs is an enormous trust builder between home and school team members.
5. Challenge old assumptions
Make a conscious choice to do things differently than you have in the past when it comes to setting goals and establishing services. Too often, IEP teams get stuck in a rut when creating expectations for a child’s future. Ask questions of parents and teachers that break their conception of what a child can and cannot do in the future. A great example is to ask, “If ___________ were not a concern, what would [student name] be able to achieve next year in school?” If the desired outcome is exciting because it will help a child achieve more, then it’s simple to decide as a team where to focus and break boundaries next.
6. Build on strengths
As an IEP team member, you’ve been told before to build a child’s strengths into their IEP, but what about your strengths as a parent or teacher? Your strengths—how you deliver information and connect with a student or specialized training you’ve mastered—can absolutely be worked into the delivery of the IEP. You will be a stronger team member when you step into your own unique capabilities at full power.
7. Trust yourself
You must trust yourself. Before you can trust your IEP team, you have to own what you know and what your role is in helping a child be prepared for further education, employment, and independent living. If you don’t trust yourself, your knowledge, and your experience, others will struggle with trusting you, too.
8. Give credit
Praise and recognition within the IEP team for goals accomplished and efforts given are key to operating within our full capabilities. As a team, you often discuss how to keep students engaged and excited at school. This is just as important for parents and teachers. Send an email to or buy a coffee for your fellow team member who demonstrated trust and integrity. Watch the camaraderie build inside of your IEP team when you’re not calling each other out for mishaps, but are focused on the momentum of good outcomes instead.
9. Embrace the messenger
Inside of the IEP team, members often don’t share their struggles or admit they might have been wrong because they fear the response by the person who is receiving the message. We need to flip our actions when we hear concerning news and embrace the discomfort of things going wrong on your IEP team. Interact in ways that make team members feel safe and supported. You’ve got to be quick to forgive, and give help instead of criticism, if you are going to build trust.
10. Be a brilliant listener
One of the most impactful statements you can make to your fellow IEP team members is, “Tell me what you want to help the child achieve and what’s in your way. I’ll help you.” Then wait, listen, and take in all the details without forming an immediate response. Ask enough questions to fully understand the perspective of your IEP team member. Then work together for a solution. The best problem solvers are intense listeners.
Continue to solve the inevitable problems that come up
Distrust is a bottleneck in the IEP process that stops progress for the child. It’s a heavy burden within the team dynamic. Do not believe the misconception that successful IEP teams are happy, are lighthearted, and enjoy smooth sailing. This is often not the case. Successful IEP teams are highly engaged, communicative, and constantly problem-solving to either overcome an obstacle or take situations from good to great.
Outstanding IEP teams are ready to right the wrongs because they know mistakes are going to happen. If the mistakes weren’t happening, then you weren’t trying hard enough. Don’t ignore mistakes or justify the missteps within the IEP process. Use the opportunities of imperfection or a history of mistrust to step up and be the leader of trust and integrity on your current IEP team.
Keep the student’s needs in focus
Take the action steps of building trust and integrity on your IEP team and decide what you should continue doing, stop doing, and start doing to meet every child’s unique needs. Choosing to build trust and have integrity means deciding that you always want to be getting better at your role in the IEP process. Trust and integrity within an IEP team demands personnel connection, constructive feedback, and a big-picture perspective of helping a child be prepared for their future.
Take credit for your contributions
When establishing trust and integrity, results matter! Being humble or acknowledging someone else’s wins or ideas doesn’t mean that you shrink the extraordinary outcomes of your own work on the IEP team. You must share your role in helping students achieve in the past, what you are doing currently, and how you are working toward even bigger goals in the future. When you share your successes, you become a dependable, trustworthy team member.
Imagine, next time when you walk into your IEP meeting you’re filled with hope, possibilities, and strength. Not because you’ve prepared for your role at the IEP meeting, but because you’re surrounded by a team of trustworthy, knowledgeable individuals who stick to their word, give grace when things go wrong, and believe in you and your abilities to help students reach their potential. Positive feelings and remarkable outcomes are possible when you’ve been intentional about building trust and integrity year-round throughout your entire IEP team.
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