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Meeting with the school to plan your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be intimidating. This is true for any parent or guardian. But you may feel an extra layer of unease if you’re the only Black or brown person in the room.
Listen to this episode of The Opportunity Gap to get IEP meeting tips for parents of kids of color. Learn from Taína Coleman, a mom of two and an education specialist at the Child Mind Institute. See how she uses her experience in special education to explain:
Which documents you have the right to see before the meeting
How to ask if the IEP’s annual goals are aiming high enough
What to do if you don’t feel ready to sign the IEP
How to tell if your child’s IEP goals are SMART (Explainer with lots of examples)
IEP goal tracker (Printable worksheet)
10 tips for a better IEP meeting (Video)
How to organize your child’s IEP binder (Includes video and printable checklist)
Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences, often face a double stigma. But there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host.
Julian: Hey, listeners. Welcome back. Today, we're talking about how to prepare for an IEP meeting. We know how stressful annual IEPs can be, but these meetings are important opportunities to advocate for your child. And we have a really extra special guest today. Her name is Taína Coleman. Taína is an education specialist at the Child Mind Institute, where she works to bridge the gap between science of learning and teaching practice. Taína has over 15 years of experience in working in special education, literacy education, and education administration in New York City. She's also the mom to two small ones. Hey Taína. Thank you so much for being here.
Taína: Oh, thank you for having me.
Julian: So, Taína, we always try to ask our guests a quick question to get things going. So, what's giving you life right now?
Taína: What's given me life right now? All right. I grew up in Harlem, New York City. Winter was not my favorite season ever. But I'm starting to appreciate it a little more with my kids. You know, so we officially have a sled. Every day they try to finesse me out of a hot chocolate if it's under like 40 degrees, you know, it's a wonderful time of year. I'm learning to appreciate it more.
Julian: I already like your kids and I haven't even met them yet, but I already like them. All right, let's get to the business.
Taína: All right.
Julian: You have over 15 years working in special education, and you're also a parent of a child who receives related services. Can you tell us exactly what an IEP is for those of us who might not know?
Taína: Absolutely. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. Some people refer to it as individualized education plan. But what folks really need to know is that it's really just part of the pre-K to 12 public education system. It's a legal document. It tends to map out special education instruction for kids who need support to make progress so they could thrive at school. And in that document, there'll be a list of some annual goals and kinds of services that a school can provide to a child. We use it in all different school settings in many ways, but for me, it's a way to ground the conversation around a child who might have some learning needs or some needs, period. It gives us an opportunity to all touch base.
Julian: Taína, before we dive into specific tips on how to get ready for IEP meetings, is there anything in general you want to say about how or why these meetings might be particularly challenging for parents of kids of color? Well, you know, "The Opportunity Gap," on our show we really try to talk about that intersection between special education and services and race and class and cultural background. Now that you're here, thinking about your own background, thinking about your own experience as a teacher, educator, parent, what are some of the things that might be particularly challenging?
Taína: So, as a parent of color, raising children of color, an educator as well, I recognize that there, the opportunity gap that exists. There's some cultural implications right there, historical reasons for that. One thing I wanted to point out was how there's also a language gap, the ways in which families from different cultural backgrounds understand the language of education. And it could be really difficult for folks to get a handle of "What's happening? Why is it happening? What are you saying about my child?"
And I want to give some historical background on that because I think it's really important for parents to understand it, right? Because in 1975, Congress enacted an act, it was called Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Awful name. But point is, it was an act that really tried to focus in on protecting the individual needs of children with disabilities, right? Up till now, there weren't legal protections that would mandate a school to educate a child with various difficulties or disabilities, rather. So, in 1990, it was reauthorized, it was renamed to IDEA as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And so, it was an opportunity for children with disabilities to learn in a public setting. And that's really important for folks to know that this document was something that folks fought for. It's a legal mandate that disability activists have long discussed as being a powerful tool to really provide equity in the education system.
But the thing is, I grew up in Harlem. The word disability is really charged, right? And so, families had a real hard time wrapping their mind around that. They would sometimes prefer saying, learning differences. "My child has a learning difference." And what I want us to do at this point in time is to really consider that, yes, language could sometimes make one uncomfortable when you're thinking about your child. But when you say disability, we're talking about a legal protection and we're talking about diagnosis that's often done with great care from an evaluator. And when you're saying learning difference, it feels politically correct. It's a broader term, but it doesn't give me specifics about where a child may or may not be and it may not offer legal protections. And I want parents to understand the use of this language so they could better advocate for their child. But we are going to have a balanced, thoughtful, caring conversation about my child's full humanity in this classroom.
And so, that power of language is really important for us to embrace at this point in time. What I want us to do is to be able to hold that complicated language, put it in time in place as it relates to disability rights and ableism, and more importantly, understand that we're really talking about children who may benefit from support. And me as a parent, what I'm going to do to make sure they get it.
Julian: I think some of the things that you brought up, you know, people forget sometimes that these changes are relatively recent. Those of us speaking now, we have parents and grandparents that had very profound experiences with special education and even that word disability, it meant a completely different program than what we see today. And, you know, we've talked about it extensively on the podcast, but even the changes that you and I have seen in our teaching career from when we began to now just it's drastically altered the experience. So, you know, keeping up that fight because it is, it's a fight, right? It's a fight to provide what is appropriate for our students and the power of language, the power of owning what that language will provide for you and your family is incredibly important. So, I appreciate you bringing that up.
So, you know, now, knowing now that, again, we're hearing from an expert telling you parents that you need to know this language and you need to really embrace it because it can help your student access what they deserve. It's sometimes really challenging, right? Like sitting down and hearing IEP meeting, it's a challenging situation, right? Like it's heavy to hear that and to walk into that situation. So, you know, let's say that you are a parent, or a parenting adult and your child has qualified for an IEP. What are some specific things you should do to get ready for this IEP meeting?
Taína: I truly believe an IEP meeting is a part of a larger conversation. The first time I am hearing about my child's needs should not be an IEP meeting.
Julian: No, it should not.
Taína: There needs to have been communication and I think for parents of color, the systems of communication aren't often built around communities of color and some of the needs of communities of color, right? And so, we need to sometimes find ways in which to ensure the classroom teachers are communicating with us. Do we have to work with a parent coordinator? etc. So, the first thing I want to know is what lines of communication are there and how has it been used, so I understand my child's experience in the classroom? So, there's no one that's going to be shocked in that IEP meeting, right? Shouldn't be. And on the side of evaluations over here, it takes several assessments, several days, different interviews for us to conceptualize what we believe might be happening with a child.
And the reason why I'm illuminating that process is I want parents to understand that their voice matters in that conceptualization. If we're saying that maybe my child has a reading difficulty, I believe this to be the case and we're looking for services around that. Maybe there's going to be some testing around that. I've had conversations with the teachers about "How is my child presenting in the room? How are they presenting with, against other kids in the classroom?" Like what's happening at home beforehand? There were entire conversations about how we're understanding this child to be in this room. And if that is not happening, I encourage parents to reach out to people so that can happen so that they're entering these IEP meetings with a sense of stability, a sense of being able to best advocate for their child. And I think that that relieves some of that weight that we might feel, right? Because we've been part of the process.
And then once you're in that meeting, right? You should get the information that informs that document and that meeting several days beforehand, depending where you are in different states or, you know, different rules for that here in New York, about five days in advance. You should get copies of any evaluations that would explicitly describe the nature of the child's disability student performance level, their strengths or weaknesses. And then as a parent, you're now spending some time thinking about this. Does this evaluation accurately portray your child? And when you walk into that meeting, you're now, you have leveled footing, right? Because you've done some of this.
Julian: Now, should I be getting this in the mail, or should I be looking through email? Is like email sufficient or does this have to be in writing? And what kind of time should I be thinking of? You said a couple of states use five days, but a couple of days or sometime before the meeting occurs?
Taína: Every state's a bit different here, but I believe every parent can request it in print form.
Taína: All right. That's like an equity issue to ensure that it comes to you in print form. Then if you didn't receive this information in time for your meeting, you can let school officials know and so you can work with trusted people, right? So, you can even bring people into that IEP meeting, such as like a tutor, a therapist, a caseworker, an advocate, someone who understands the education system as well. And they could even tell you, "Hey, you should have these documents ahead of time." Maybe they can help explain some of that to you before that meeting.
Julian: So, should I be, again, if I'm thinking if I'm a parent or a parenting adult, I know the meeting is coming up. I know the communication has been somewhat strong. I know that I've gotten my documents in hand. Is there somebody I should talk to before the meeting starts? Like outside of a parent advocate or somebody like, should I talk to one of their classroom teachers or a case manager maybe? Or should I just let it be?
Taína: I'm of the school of thought where it's like I speak to just about everybody because my child will present differently in different situations and different settings, much like all of us, right? So, I talk to their classroom teacher, perhaps I would go talk with, if they see a guidance counselor, because once again, like I'm trying to get an understanding of my child, I recognize that could be overwhelming to learn information that you might not see at home. There's a lot of paperwork, a lot of new language that's coming at parents. It's a moment to pause, partner, and plan.
Julian: Pause, partner, and plan.
Taína: That's it. We're going to pause right now and look at my child's education or their approach to education up close from afar, from different angles. Who are my partners? Who in here is going to ensure that my child's goals are being met? How could I support them? Right? Do they see my child? And what is our plan for progress?
Julian: I love the idea of partnership.
Julian: Again, Taína, you're a parent, right? I'm a parent. We are in the mix right now as we speak. Your child receives speech therapy. Which, one, thank you for being willing to share that. How did you yourself emotionally prepare for that?
Taína: It's an interesting story. My partner, she comes home, she looks at me one day and she's like, "You don't notice that your eldest has a whole speech thing going on. She can't say a single R to save her life." And I was like, "What do you mean? She's just cute. That's how she talks. What you're talking...?"
Julian: Was it the accent?
Taína: I was like, right? So, my partner is from Arizona, right? So, I'm over here like, "That's how we talk in New York. What's wrong? That's how we talk." And then I had a minute where I was like, "Wait, let me actually listen for a minute and look at the bigger picture." And I was like, "Oh, whoa." Actually, my kid's been struggling to articulate certain sounds, and that's a humbling experience considering that I'm an educator and I've been in the game for a while. And what it taught me was, children reveal themselves to us as parents over and over. I don't know who my child is going to be. I'm putting some things in place, some values in place, some structures in place. I'm trying to explain the world to her in a way that I could support her, but I know she has to reveal herself to me.
Taína: And I need to understand her, pivot, and shift to meet her needs. Who she was at three when she had that little speech thing that was adorable. I was like, "Oh my God. I put her in front of a camera. Let's go. Let's put her in commercials. This is adorable." Right? But at eight years old, it was a little harder. Maybe she didn't want to raise her hand in class so much because people didn't really understand what she was saying. That kind of shifts. And it's not an embarrassment to have missed that.
Julian: So, we're prepped for the meeting. We've done the emotional preparation for it. We have our binder full of materials. Now you get there, you show up to the meeting. What should a parent expect when they arrive for this meeting?
Taína: All right. So, I think what a parent should expect is they're going to be multiple voices, multiple people in this meeting talking about their child. But generally, the parent will be in that room, special education teacher, a gen ed teacher, if the child's participating in a gen ed class. Usually, there's a district representative who's familiar with the resources in that district and potentially someone who can interpret student evaluations, like a psychologist, perhaps. And there could be a plus or minus a few folks. So, it's a team. And that could be intimidating because it's a big old room of people. They're using education jargon, right? That you may or may not be familiar with.
Julian: I mean, that's, when we talk about families of color, in many instances, you may or may not share the same cultural background as the group of people that you're walking in with, the people that are talking about your baby. And we've all been there. We've all walked into rooms that don't look like us. So, I would also recommend, like thinking about as I'm walking into the room, what is that thing that's going to help you stay focused on what's most important?
Taína: Absolutely. I think any time I've entered a meeting about my child or in any setting, I'm very plain with folks that I'm likely going to ask a lot of questions so I could best understand what's happening here, and that's unapologetic. I'm going to ask the questions if I do not understand the term that's being used, it is more important for me to have an understanding of my child and potentially be able to advocate for them than whatever administrative inconvenience it's going to be because I've asked that question. I really tell parents, "Be prepared to take room in that room, take some space," right? "Ask some questions.
So, prepare to be an active member of the team. You do not need to be a teacher or an educator to be an active member of your child's learning team." My role as a parent is important because I'm in charge of the long-term gain. Now, as a parent, I have rights. I want parents to know that you can disagree with the outcome of an IEP meeting. You can ask for a new IEP meeting to modify something. You can request mediation to resolve a disagreement if still it hasn't been resolved or issues have not been resolved. There's even possibilities of a due process hearing that can come from there. Signing an attendance sheet does not mean you agree with everything in that document. Some parents are very worried about that.
And there's, and that's why I go back to that to IDEA in the fact that this is a legal proceeding and the term disability and some of these like legal terms that don't always feel the best is really important because there's a procedural safeguard around the entire process, right? So, parents should be even given they can ask for if it's not been given in writing a notice that explains if there's going to be changes to a child's educational services. So, you shouldn't be surprised walking in that meeting. If you even say that you challenge a child's placement, you don't want your child to be placed in a certain place or you don't want certain services or you do want services and the school says no, they actually have to provide a description in writing to you with their rationale. That kind of slows down the process a little bit so you can process things. It gives you an opportunity to respond before changes are made.
And then if you're in a situation down the line where perhaps you need mediation or you're going to kick this up to talk to other people in a district about what your child needs, that documentation becomes even more important.
Julian: And I love that you said that this is a partnership, right? Understanding that there's a partner involved. And on the podcast, we advocate a lot for that, like, finding that trusted adult at the school level and within the school that really understands all the jargon and understands all of the verbiage that might be used so that you just have somebody that's familiar to you. So, finding that person or persons that you have that relationship already built with, so that when you do go into these meetings as a parenting adult, you're not looking at people you don't know. There's already a relationship built.
And this really is a team where we're sitting down formally and there's a lot of formalized things that go with it. But in an ideal situation, you know each other already. And this is really about brainstorming and hashing out what are the things that all of us from all vantage points that we have, what do we all think, together, is going to help our child be the most successful?
Taína: Absolutely. So, I'm going to start asking them questions. And I think it's really important for parents to do so. And some of the questions I might ask in that IEP meeting that would help a grown-up kind of navigate that space sounds like, you know, "What's a good time to have informal conversations about my child's progress after this? What type of progress can I expect to see? And what will it look like? What can I do at home to support some of our goals? Which of these goals are top priority?" Right? "Are we really going to focus on attentional needs? Reading needs? Both? How?" Right? Like their priorities, the teacher can't do everything at the same time. So, "What are our priorities right now?" Knowing that they're going to be several things we might need, you know, to focus on.
Julian: And the how, the how. "What is this actually going to look like?" Like, do not leave this meeting, not understanding what is this actually going to look like in real time?
Taína: Yeah. Like "What is my child's day going to look like on a daily basis?" Like, "What do these supports look like?" That's really important information.
Julian: All right. So, one of the trickier parts of IEP meetings is setting annual goals. Annual goals. How can I, as a parent, make sure the goals are high enough? For example, if my child is two grade levels behind in reading, what's an ambitious but realistic annual goal? And are there any tradeoffs in aiming high like that? So, do I need to agree that my child will always miss recess or enrichment classes like music or our PE? So, here she can work on the specialized reading program with a specialized reading instructor.
Taína: Yeah, that's a great question. It could be difficult to find that balance, right? So, a school day is but so many hours long and there are different enrichment classes throughout the day. And if a child is going to have small group instruction or individual instruction, it kind of has, they have to be pulled from something in many schools. They don't necessarily have standing periods in which kids could be pulled out. And sometimes that that could impact a child's attendance of some of these enrichment classes.
But I tend to ask schools about some creative scheduling. I tend to look at scheduling even in semesters. So, maybe if my kid is missing music and art for one semester, does it have to be year-long? And it is important if we're considering a strength-based approach, an instruction for a child that they actually have access to things that they enjoy in a school day so they could feel enriched, right? So, music, art, etc., sports, gym. That that rounds out a child. So, that's part of the conversation when we talk about supports.
And the idea of goals, it's a good conversation to have where we need to understand that IEP goals are not based on diagnosis, it's based on child need. So, my child could be diagnosed with attention difficulty, or they could be diagnosed with speech impairment. But those goals are specific. They're not just cookie-cutter goals. They're based on where my child is right now and compared to the curriculum. So, it should be specific. A lot of teachers, a lot of special educators, and administrators, we tend to use an acronym that's called SMART, like are the goals SMART goals, and I'll explain what the acronym means. It stands for specific. Is it a specific goal? Is it measurable? Is it attainable within an academic year? Is it results-oriented and is it time-bound?
And I consider that for every IEP goal on that document, because for my child to make progress and for them to employ their best skills within the school day, the goals have to be tailored to where they are and where we want them to be. Like, part of the opportunity gap is that sometimes you might have students who are not given the, and we know through literature and research over and over, kids of color deserve high expectations and they also deserve top-quality teaching. And we have to take into consideration all the social things and all the types of biases, intentional or not, that could take place when setting goals for kids.
As parents of color, I want to make sure that goal is attainable, yet ambitious enough that I know it's what my child's next right step is. I don't want it to be too far out of reach where they're going to feel some type of anxiety or feel like they can't meet it. But it is a high-quality goal, right?
Julian: Is there anything that parents can do to make sure that these goals are not only high enough but also are meeting that SMART goal criteria?
Taína: Absolutely. Understood.org has this document that I've used plenty of time and I've given it to parents as an educator. So, they have this IEP goal tracker that I love, right? And it's a little chart that a parent can fill out where you write down the goal that your child might have. So, Shadi, let's say, needs to increase her reading comprehension or will increase her reading comprehension from 70% to 90% at this grade level passage, like at the second-grade level. And then it says, "Where is the child functioning?" So, it says the goal and it says where she is. So, maybe she's at 80% at an early second-grade level or maybe she's half a grade level behind. And then it should list a benchmark of what are the small steps that are going to get her there. Is an adult going to prompt her while she's reading? Like, what are those little benchmarks? And the chart is really easy to use. I highly recommend it.
But the part that's most powerful for parents is the question part of that chart, which once you understand that this goal of increasing her reading comprehension is related to vocabulary, then you could start to ask questions like, "Why can't my child remember vocabulary words with great ease? What can I do to improve her vocabulary since she's in third grade and she's reading on a second-grade level? When can I expect some of this progress to take place, or what are going to be some of the signs that I know that maybe we're not meeting some of these goals and we need to have another conversation?" And once you understand that, then you could start asking critical questions about your child's performance and their learning profile.
Julian: All right, Taína. So, at this point, you have the IEP. You signed it. So, what happens next? What should parents follow up on?
Taína: All right. You should ask questions like, when are you going to receive that IEP? That's different from state to state, how much time they have to produce it. Ask questions about when is that new IEP going to be implemented? What types of forms you need to fill out to enroll your child in any given program that you may have decided upon. And then you get this document and I always recommend that parents confirm that they've received the IEP and that they are in fact reviewing it. Sometimes I'll put it in email, just have a little paper trail.
You want to double-check that document that your understanding of what you discussed is in fact represented on that document. As an educator, I'm going to tell you there are mistakes on those documents, right? We're all human. So, please look at that over. And it's also critical to compare, for your understanding of your child, last year's goals to this year's goals, because now this document can really illuminate some of that space in between.
Julian: So, what actionable steps do you have for parents, like any specific tips moving forward that you would have for parents?
Taína: Something I'm very aware of as a parent now, but also as an educator is that my child is their own person. They're different from me. It's hard for some parents to see that. "Well, I was really good at math. I don't understand why this child may have difficulties in math or my child may have difficulties," right? It's just simply this child is going to reveal themselves to you over time.
And so, learn about their area of need and that it has nothing to do with your ability or skill as a parent. It is simply neurodiversity. We know better now. We understand the research. We understand that everyone's brain is hardwired in different ways. It's important for parents to remember how important they are in this entire process. You are your child's advocate. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Take up space in that room, and then check throughout the year about your child's progress. This is one of many conversations that can benefit your child.
Julian: Taína. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for joining us. It's been such a pleasure. Taína is part of the great team at the Child Mind Institute. Child Mind Institute and Understood have a long history together. CMI was one of the founding partners that helped launch Understood all the way back in 2014. Two great organizations with great missions that are helping neurodivergent kids thrive. I also want listeners to check out all of our show notes. That's where we'll include links to Understood's IEP Goal Tracker. Trust me, it is great. That Taína mentioned and also to an article that explains how to tell if your child's IEP goals are SMART.
Julian: You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at OpportunityGap@understood.org.
If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Julie Rawe and edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
is a school administrator who has spent the last 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, experiential learning, and educational empowerment.