Why we cry in IEP meetings
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Anyone who’s ever sat in on an IEP meeting can confirm: When parents and teachers meet to discuss the needs of a child who’s struggling in school, emotions tend to run high.
On this first episode of In It, hosts Amanda Morin and Lexi Walters Wright dig into why. They talk with comedian Dena Blizzard about her (very) public reaction to a disappointing IEP meeting. They also connect with expert Mark Griffin, PhD, about what’s at stake during these meetings.
Plus, we hear from other families who’ve cried out of frustration and relief. And Amanda shares why all IEP meeting tables should be round.
Amanda Morin: Hi. I'm Amanda Morin, a writer, recovering teacher, and parent advocate.
Lexi Walters Wright: And I'm Lexi Walters Wright, Community Manager for Understood, and we are "In It." "In It" is a podcast from Understood for Parents. On this show, we offer support and some practical advice for families whose kids are struggling with reading, math, focus, and other learning and thinking differences. And today, we're talking about IEP meetings and how they can bring up a lot of emotions.
Dena Blizzard: I'm sitting here and the teachers are sitting here, and we're all trying to put all of our feedback on the table. And find the best way to teach this one kid, who's different than everybody else.
Lexi: First up we're going to hear from Dena Blizzard. Dena is a comedian, a mom, and the creator of the One Funny Mother video series. A few of those videos have gone viral.
Dena: For a fun way to spice up your Easter egg hunt, try an Easter wine hunt!
Amanda: But one of the One Funny Mother videos that went viral was not funny. You may have seen it on Facebook. It's been viewed half a million times now. Dena shot it from the driver's seat of her car. She tells us she is in the parking lot of a CBS.
Dena: I said "Isn't this what we should be doing? We should be trying." And she looked at me, and she said, "I am not going to be making any changes to her IEP. That is the high school's job, and if the high school wants to make changes because they think that that is best, then that's what the high school can do." And then my head exploded.
Lexi: Amanda, we're going to talk to Dena in a minute. But first, what is an IEP meeting?
Amanda: Well, IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. And an IEP meeting is where you as a parent sit down with all of the educators who are working with your child to talk about that program which provides all of the special education services and other services your child needs to be really successful in school.
Lexi: Got it. So back to Dena Blizzard. We wanted to talk to her about her infamous post-IEP meeting meltdown. And appropriately we reached her, or technically she reached us, from her car between errands and appointments. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Dena: Sure! I'm a mother of three. My kids are 18, 16, and 14 now. And many, many years ago when they were very young and I wanted to get away from them, I started doing standup. And everything I wrote about was my kids and my husband. And somehow that kind of flourished into an off-Broadway show that we wrote.
So we were off-Broadway in 2016. Now we travel around the country with that show. And then in between we started making videos. Most of the videos are funny. But one of our other big videos was the one you were talking about which is after an IEP meeting for my daughter. And it didn't go well.
Amanda: And that's the moments that you said, it's not always funny, right?
Dena: No, and it was interesting because, you know, up until that point I had never gone live upset before. But I remember thinking, "Why am I always crying after an IEP meeting?" Like it was just ridiculous, and thinking, "I can't be the only person crying in a parking lot, you know, after an IEP meeting." Like I've done it too many times. And that's I think the very lonesome part of the whole process. You think, "I'm the only one."
Lexi: Of course, Dena is not the only one. So we put out a call to the Understood Community to hear about your experiences with getting emotional in IEP meetings. Here's what you shared.
Jennifer: Hi, this is Jennifer in Seattle. Yes, I've gotten emotional at IEP meetings. It would probably be faster to ask when I had not gotten emotional. What's tough is how negative these meetings feel. It often seems like I'm the only one in the room who likes my kid and wants him to succeed.
And then there's the constant focus on what is wrong that drives me nuts. I know we can't fix it if we don't know what's broken. But why don't we ever get what he's achieved? That often seems glossed over at the end. And then I'm being pressured to sign and run out the door as if I agree that my beautiful child is broken when he is not.
Parent: We recently had an IEP for my son, and when the teacher was told that he has an ASD diagnosis, she said, "I don't teach those kind of kids, and I don't know how to teach those kinds of kids. And isn't there a special classroom he should be put in?" And that made me really upset, and tears came to my eyes. It's very humiliating to cry in an IEP. But when you hear something like that, you can see a long fight ahead, and know that in the end, your child's probably going to lose that fight.
Lexi: Dena, will you set the scene for us? So where were you, when was this, and will you describe a little bit of what happened?
Dena: Sure. So, my daughter, I knew in like second or third grade that something was kind of going on. My older two kids are. you know. what we consider to be typical learners. But very early on I could tell that there was just something different. But now fast-forward and it has been six years. She was in eighth grade and anxiety plays a really big role in her journey. And I was being told all the time that anxiety was the problem and that there wasn't a learning disability.
So we had finally gotten her anxiety under control, and I was really then focused on trying to get a really good read on, you know, does she have a learning disability? I really think that she did, but she hadn't been assessed in the three years. And so I went in and I asked for a meeting and I said, "You know, I really want to talk about how she keeps failing these tests. But yet she can verbally tell me what she understands. And so that was my general question.
She was transitioning to high school and I was like, it was around April, and I felt like we had the time to really try different testing methods so that when she got to high school, we were going to get an accurate understanding of what she knew. And so I had gone in and I was just like, let's do this together, let's work on it. But it wasn't until the case manager just put her hands on the table, and I just remember seeing her hands going on the table and her saying, "Let me be very clear. We will be making no changes to the IEP."
Dena: So, she said, "I'm not making any changes to the IEP. You can deal with that at the high school." And I said, "What are you talking about? We have three months left. Why wouldn't we make changes to the IEP now? Why wouldn't we try everything?" I'm just, I'm sorry.
Amanda: So Dena shared that Facebook Live video on a Monday. By Thursday, 100,000 people had watched it. And in that time she got more than 3,000 comments.
Dena: You know, besides the comments that you see on the video, you know, just thousands probably of emails, private emails, of people just kind of telling their stories. And even emails from people that I've seen their kids grow up and I've known them for years. I never knew that their kids had any issues, and it really struck me because I thought, you know, people just don't talk about it. You know, it wasn't until I was like having a complete breakdown that people were reaching out. And I just felt and I still feel like, you know, the more that people talk about it, the more it's not a thing, you know, it shouldn't be that hard. And there was a lot of actual school districts and training facilities for special ed that reached out and said, you know, would you mind if we use your video for training purposes? We're training people to work in special ed. And, you know, we want them to see what it looks like on the other side.
Amanda: Mark, how many IEP meetings do you think you've attended in your life?
Mark Griffin: Oh, hundreds.
Lexi: Mark Griffin is a psychologist, a special educator, and a founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for kids with learning and thinking differences. And over the course of his four decades there, he attended many, many IEP meetings.
Amanda: I want to know from your experience as an educator, why do you think these meetings tend to be so emotional for parents?
Mark: Well, I think what happens to parents, even though you get a smile and a nod all the time and they're, you know, they're excited about it and they've done their homework, that as you go through the process there's just so much at stake. And that this is the chance that they are hoping is going to be the difference between this youngster having an opportunity over time to be successful or having an opportunity, unfortunately, not to be successful and slipping through the cracks.
So, I do think that there's a sense of fear. There's a sense that this school is sort of viewing this from the standpoint of what they have to do. And so unless everything happens to go very smoothly, and I have to say that the number and number and number of these things that we attended, there were very few where there wasn't at some point some kind of contention about the school's ability to provide those resources.
Lexi: Mark says he understands why these meetings can get so heated, especially for parents.
Mark: I think parents get to the point where, in their own sort of need to be sure that they are advocating as well as they possibly can, that there's bound to be a time during that meeting where they are going to feel very emotional about it. I've seen parents, you know, openly weep in an IEP meeting, when they honestly feel that they're just not going to get what their child needs.
I've seen parents who threaten the school with lawsuits. They're going to lawyer up and make sure that the school will do these things that they're supposed to do. I've seen parents who have been very frustrated with the entire process and wonder out loud whether the school really has the best interest of their child at heart. And sometimes they're emotionally happy. It went just the way that they wanted to.
And at the end of the meeting, both of the parents are weeping because they got what they needed, or they got what they felt that their child needed. But very rarely do they end up being stoic kinds of, very easy to get the consensus, "thank you very much for this program and that's wonderful."
Lexi: So Mark, here's what I want to know about. There's about 15 minutes after the IEP meeting is over. What do you do as an educator, and what do you wish parents would do after that really high-stakes, really emotional experience to make the whole thing feel like it's come full circle for them?
Mark: For parents, it seems to make the most sense and, if you can gather yourself and sort of reflect on what your hopes had been when it ran into reality, when reality moved closer to your hopes, what you ended up with as a final thing. And then I think that it's always important for us as educators who happen to have been at that meeting, but it's certainly most important for parents to sort of take a deep breath and back up.
And then it's important to remember, even early on, that this is not etched in stone. That this is the beginnings of a journey and a process, and you need to look at the long term and the long haul even though you've just finished the very beginning part of it.
Melissa: My name is Melissa. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have an 11-year-old son with ADHD and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. He's been on an IEP since first grade, and I've felt every emotion on the scale during IEP meetings.
At first it was anger and frustration, because even though he was being suspended from class and excluded from field trips because he was considered a danger to himself in kindergarten, we could not get an IEP even started. It finally got in place in first grade. He ended up finishing third grade in the hospital. But one of the positive things that came out of that was that the school really started to take seriously his mental health concerns.
And they switched up his IEP by fifth grade and he thrived. I had IEP meetings after that where I cried because I was happy. And recently, after a really tough first month of middle school, we had an IEP meeting where I cried because they were giving me so many examples of just how well he was able to figure things out now. They would tell us about simple social interactions he would have that probably every other parent takes for granted, but that he had never pulled off successfully. So hearing about these responses he was having to other kids was so amazing that I couldn't not cry at that point.
Lexi: So Amanda, you're the parent of two kids with learning and thinking differences. So you know what IEP meetings are like from that perspective. But before that, I know you were also a teacher for many years. How many IEP meetings did you attend as an educator?
Amanda: I've probably attended over 100 IEP meetings as an educator.
Lexi: Do you wear a different hat now that you're on the other side of the table?
Amanda: I like to think they're all roundtables instead of...
Lexi: Yeah, that's really interesting. Will you say more about that?
Amanda: Well, I think that if we look at it as one side of the table or the other side of the table, we fail to realize that in the middle of that table is the kid that we're all trying to help. So I love all IEP tables to be roundtables.
Lexi: Dena, do you have any advice for parents going into IEP meetings?
Dena: You know, I really, really never wanted to feel like I was fighting the school. And so many times it just ended that way. I just remember one meeting sitting on my side of the table and then like 13 administrators on the other side. And you know, I was just thinking even the seating arrangement feels very uncomfortable. And so trying to constantly just use words like "we."
And I do feel like the more people that are on board in to kind of helping you find a resolution, find a solution, the more the better. And I think that that's why that video was so upsetting, is that that was the moment where I realized, you know, that we weren't on the same page. And so you know I just had to take a step back and just, you know, I was like, she is not a good match for me. She is not my people. I'm a big fan of finding your people. And she was not a good person for my team.
And so we just had to re-evaluate the team and get a different team, you know, and even making Brooke feel like she was part of that team and trying to get her to understand, you know, the things that she struggles with and the things that she's great at, and for her to come up with some of her own solutions.
Dena: And so, you know, I think that, you know, I tell her all the time, like, you have so many people in your corner that are trying to help you manage all of this for you to learn what you need to learn, and so, you know, a lot of times it's a struggle. You know, even when we got her set up at this new school. I had done all this work and really fought to kind of get this to happen.
And then we started the school, and then she said, "You know, I really don't think that it's going well in my history class." And I said, "OK." I said, "Why is that?" "Well, I'm not learning anything. You know, all we do is worksheets." And I said, "OK so what are you learning about?" She goes, "The Enlightenment." And I said, "OK. Well what do you know about the Enlightenment?" She was like, "Well, it was a period of time when people realized that they could just learn anything if they just open a book."
And she just went on and on. Right. And the she just stopped. She goes, "Wait a minute. I guess I did learn something." I go, "Yeah, that's the most I've ever heard you say about anything."
Amanda: Did your daughter watch the video?
Dena: She didn't for a long time and then, I don't know, maybe two months later, just out of the blue, even the kids have... and she just looked at me. She was kind of sad. And she was like, "I saw your video."
Lexi: Was that like for you?
Dena: You know, I think she knows how hard that I fight for her. And I think she appreciates it. You know, I think she is just such a unique case and so self-aware that she gets it. She was like, "Thank you."
Amanda: Dena, thank you so much for talking to us.
Dena: Thanks, ladies.
Lexi: Amanda, do these meetings ever get easier?
Amanda: I think they get a little bit easier. I don't know if they're always easy, but it can get a little bit easier. And you get a little bit more comfortable. But sometimes they blindside you, and they aren't easy. I had an IEP meeting the other day, and I came out and cried, and it wasn't even a tough one.
Lexi: Is it just so emotional to have a bunch of potential strangers talking about your kid and what they think he needs?
Amanda: I think so. I also think that there's just this piece of it where you're ready for anything, and then there's just sort of either a letdown or an anger or an overload or just this emotional wellspring.
Lexi: What did you do right afterwards?
Amanda: I ate lots of chocolate.
Lexi: Yeah, I thought that might be what you would say.
Lexi: You've been listening to "In It," a podcast from Understood for Parents. Our website is Understood.org, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids with learning and thinking differences. We also want to hear what you think of this podcast. "In It" is for you.
We want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/podcast to share your thoughts and also to see show notes from this episode and find more resources. That's the letter U, as in U, u.org/podcast.
Amanda: And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it. Share it with the parents at your bus stop. Tell your special education support group. Or you can send a link to your child's pediatrician. You can also go to Apple podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about "In It.".
Lexi: You can subscribe to "In It" on Apple podcasts. Follow us on Spotify, or keep up with us however you listen to podcasts. Between episodes, you can find understood on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, or visit our website: U.org/podcast. That's the letter U, dot org, slash podcast. And come back next episode when we'll be talking about what happens when somebody asks you, "Is ADHD real?"
Parent: The most clueless thing that somebody said to me about ADHD is basically that it is just an excuse. It's just an excuse to medicate kids. It's just an excuse for lazy kids that don't want to do homework.
Lexi: "In It" is a production Understood for Parents. Our show is produced by Blake Eskin of Noun and Verb Rodeo and Julie Subrin. We record at Argot Studios. Mike Errico wrote our theme music and Laura Kusnyer is the director of editorial content at Understood for Parents.
Amanda: We appreciate you all being in it with us. And thanks for listening. Talk to you next time.
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.
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