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Q&A with Juliana Urtubey, host of new Understood Explains season on IEPs


Special education can help kids thrive with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. But there’s a lot that parents need to know to help meet their child’s needs. That’s why Season 3 of Understood Explains is all about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). 

Host Juliana Urtubey is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. Over 12 episodes, she explains key parts of the special education process. She also tailors IEP tips for parents of younger kids, older kids, and kids learning English. Episodes drop weekly in English and Spanish, starting March 21.

Understood Explains is part of the Understood Podcast Network. We developed this season in partnership with UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Gracias, Unidos! 

Read on to learn what Urtubey says about hosting Understood Explains IEPs. And listen wherever you get your podcasts, or watch on

1. The new season of Understood Explains helps parents understand the special education process and take an active role in shaping their child’s IEP. Are the tips geared mostly for parents who are new to IEPs? 

This podcast is geared for all families. It’s geared for families who may be starting to have some concerns about how their child is doing at school. But it’s also geared for families who’ve had an IEP for some time and want to review their rights and options. 

Some episodes about IEP meetings would be great to listen to every year so you can go into those meetings feeling really prepared and confident. 

One of my favorite things about the podcast is that it’s a springboard. We link to so many Understood resources that can continue to guide families through the IEP process. 

2. In your experience as a special education teacher, what is the hardest or most confusing part of the IEP process for parents?

Ooh, this is a tough question. One of the hardest parts can be understanding what counts as a disability. In Episode 3, we talk about myths that can impact how parents think about whether their child needs special education. And Episode 5 covers the disability categories in an IEP, which can be a really confusing part of the process.

There’s also so much paperwork that gets sent home. Parents get a printed copy of their rights, which can be 80 pages long. It’s very intimidating, but the podcast boils it down into one 20-minute episode.

Another part of the IEP process that often confuses parents is trying to help the team set annual goals that are realistic but ambitious. It can be really hard for parents to jump in. But a big part of what we try to do in this podcast is help parents feel more confident about asking questions during IEP meetings. 

3. You’re the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. You’ve also led the “pinning” ceremonies for over 200 teachers who have gotten their National Board Certification. What’s one thing you wish more teachers knew about IEPs? 

One of the things I love about National Board Certification is that it helps center the student’s strengths. I wish more teachers knew how to start with a student’s strengths and support students in advocating for their own needs. I also wish more teachers had the support they needed to start meeting the needs of students with diverse learning challenges right away. Often, many teachers think they have to wait for the child to to qualify for special education.

I’m teaching a class right now to teacher residents. It’s a special education methods class. But the way I’ve designed it is when you see a need, you build an intervention — whether that student has an IEP or not. We’re customizing learning in the classroom so everybody gets what they need. 

When we design for everybody, this might be more front-end work. But in the long run, our students’ learning and independence are going to far exceed our expectations. And for any teachers out there who are feeling overwhelmed, I would say: What’s one thing you can do? What’s one student need you can meet? Just start off with one thing.

4. You’re an expert in special education for multilingual learners. What was it like putting this season together in English and in Spanish? Did anything surprise you about hosting the show in both languages? 

For a very long time, I have hoped for a resource like this that clearly explains the special education process to Spanish-speaking families. There are tips woven throughout the season that can help families of multilingual learners. And the podcast can also help build bridges between families and teachers who don’t speak Spanish very well.

Putting this podcast together was also really fun. I also learned some new Spanish words. At my old school, I wasn’t allowed to translate my own IEP meetings because I could only have one role, as the case manager. So it was really great to dive into the technical terms in Spanish for this show. 

This experience also reminded me that no one ever fully learns a language, because language is always evolving. We’re all language learners. My Spanish isn’t perfect but I want everyone to know that our language skills do not have to be perfect to communicate with each other. 

5. What do you hope listeners take away from this season of Understood Explains?

I hope parents and caregivers take away the fact that there’s a real role for them on the IEP team. I really hope that the listeners understand that they’re experts in their children and that schools want to learn from them. 

I also hope this season helps IEP teams look to children as experts in their own learning. Even young kids can have helpful insights. That’s why the show keeps encouraging parents to ask your child what they think. Finding ways for students to be part of their IEPs is very important at all ages, and parents have a big role to play in that. 

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