Parent input in individualized education program (IEP) development is the clear expectation in U.S. education law. Every IEP team must include parents, and their input must be equally considered when developing IEPs. The present study used content analysis of 88 IEPs of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to explore team membership, concerns parents raised during IEP meetings, and evidence that parent concerns and priorities are reflected in IEP goals and supplementary aids and services. Findings reveal that although parents express a range of concerns and priorities, these are translated into goals or services only two thirds of the time. We provide implications of these findings for research and practice.
An Analysis of Parent Input in IEP Development
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004) mandates parent participation in individualized education program (IEP) teams and decisions (20 U.S.C. § 614 (e)). As members of IEP teams, parents are tasked with providing critical information about students receiving special education services, while partnering with schools to make decisions about those services and how they will be delivered, including goals, supports, and the placement in which the student will receive services (Sec. 300.306(c)(1)(i)). In fact, Congress noted that the education of children with disabilities improved by “strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home” (20 U.S.C. 1400 (c) (5) and (d)). The emphasis on parent participation in IDEA is also clear in the federal accountability system. Specifically, IDEA Part B Indicator 8 requires states document annually the percentage of parents who report schools facilitated their involvement in IEP teams and decisions (IDEA, 2004). Recent case law has further confirmed the critical role of parents in the IEP decision-making progress (e.g., Doug C. v. Hawaii Department of Education, 2012).
Parent and school collaboration may take many forms, including home-school communication notebooks (Kurth et al., 2018) and regular conversations (e.g., Haines, Gross, Blue-Banning, Francis, & Turnbull, 2015). Although these informal means may achieve on-going parent input in the implementation of the student's IEP, the “parent input” section of the IEP is the formal means of explicitly recording parent input in its development. In many IEPs, this is a separate section where parents are asked to report their questions, comments, and concerns. In some cases, parents may choose to attach documents outlining their goals, concerns, and other information about their child to be included with the IEP document.
Yet, research documents a persistent lack of parent input in IEP team decisions. Beginning in the early childhood years, decision making is controlled by professionals (e.g., Fish, 2008; Minke & Scott, 1995); and, evidence suggests professionals continue to dominate decision making throughout the school years (Love, Zagona, Kurth, & Miller, 2017). Parents report schools generally do not solicit or respond to their input, and are resistant to considering alternatives to plans or services recommended by school personnel (Elbaum, Blatz, & Rodriguez, 2016). Consequently, IEP team decisions are often characterized as unilateral decisions made by schools rather than shared decisions with families (Hancock, Beneke, & Cheatham, 2017). Preliminary research investigating talk during IEP team meetings bears this out: in a case study of an IEP meeting for a 5-year-old boy, parents spoke in only about 14% of all intervals, whereas professionals spoke in the remaining 86% of the intervals (Ruppar & Gaffney, 2011).
The consistency with which professionals control IEP decisions is important for a number of reasons. School professionals and parents do not typically share equal positions on IEP teams. Typically, school professionals are positioned as experts with parent knowledge marginalized and de-emphasized (e.g., Skrtic, 1995). In fact, professionals tend to request parents agree with strategies proposed by school professionals, rather than undergoing a truly collaborative process (Love et al., 2017). Ultimately, school professionals possess critical knowledge with which to make decisions whereas parents are disempowered (Blue-Banning, Summers, Frankland, Nelson, & Beegle, 2004). The readability levels of IEPs and procedural safeguard statements further lead to power and knowledge imbalance, with parents lacking access to important information about how to make decisions and navigate special education processes (Mandic, Rudd, Hehir, & Acevedo-Garcia, 2012). The resulting unequal positions of power and knowledge is further exacerbated in IEP meetings, where school personnel typically outnumber parents (Wakelin, 2008). Parent disempowerment can be interpreted by school professionals as parents being inarticulate and unable to participate in IEP team meetings as equal partners (Fish, 2006), which may perpetuate the cycle of school personnel possessing knowledge and being positioned as experts.
Parents' desire to provide meaningful input in the IEP is justified by research. Parent input in making IEP decisions is associated with positive outcomes for students. When parents participate in decision making, interventions are better aligned with child needs (Chen & Gregory, 2011). Further, when parents are equitable team members, their opportunities to provide valuable information about their child's strengths and needs improve (Tucker & Schwartz, 2013). Parent input is not only valuable during the school years, but is also essential for planning for the child's lifespan (Gaertner & McClarty, 2015). Parent input in making decisions is particularly necessary for students with the most significant support needs, defined as students who have extensive and pervasive support needs across domains (e.g., communication, cognition, mobility) who will need a myriad of supports to meet their existing support needs and to attain their educational and posteducational goals (Spooner, Knight, Browder, & Smith, 2012). Given the complexity of students' support needs, it is common for IEP teams for students with significant support needs to be comprised of a relatively large number of professional members. Although professionals on the IEP team possess specialized knowledge and skills that impact educational programming, it is essential that parents of children with significant support needs are made equitable partners in the development and execution of educational programs. Parents remain the greatest stakeholder in the long-term success of the student.
Together, existing research documents the critical role of parent input in developing IEPs for students with disabilities. However, research documenting parent input in actual IEP team meetings is scarce, particularly for students with the most significant support needs. Understanding the composition of IEP teams for students with significant support needs contributes an understanding to how team size and membership impacts parent input and least restrictive environment (LRE) decisions. In particular, it is important to understand how teams, consisting of a variety of professional members, take into account the needs and concerns of parents of students with significant support needs. In the current study, we address the following research questions: (1) Who are the team members present at IEP meetings for students with significant support needs? (2) What topics do parents of students with significant support needs mention when their input is solicited for the parent-input statement of the IEP? and (3) What evidence of parent input in IEP development is present in IEP goals and supplementary aids and services?
Following university institutional review board procedures, the IEPs of 88 students with significant support needs were obtained and analyzed. The IEPs in this analysis are part of a series of studies on IEP content for students with significant support needs (Kurth et al., 2018; Kurth et al., 2019). Teachers of students with significant support needs, working in a variety of states and across placement conditions (e.g., inclusive, self-contained, resource rooms) were contacted by the authors and asked to provide anonymized IEPs. Forty-one teachers provided two to three IEPs from students on their caseload, selected at random. The teachers first masked all identifying information, then provided IEPs to the research team for analysis. The following inclusion criteria were established: (1) the IEP was written for a student in Grade K-12 with a disability label of autism, intellectual disability, or multiple disabilities; and (2) the student had a significant support need, as evidenced by present levels of performance (PLAAFP) and/or eligibility for the alternate assessment. Students with “severe” disabilities including autism, intellectual disability, and multiple disabilities were considered to be potentially eligible for inclusion in the study. Because many students do not complete assessments at all grade levels, analysis of the PLAAFP was necessary to ensure participant eligibility for inclusion in the study. The PLAAFP was examined to determine the extent to which students had support needs across domains. Students who had documented support needs across cognitive, academic, and functional performance domains were included (e.g., performed significantly below grade level academically, obtained significantly low scores on measures of cognitive and functional performance, and/or required extensive supports across domains, such as self-care and communication).
Students in the sample ranged in age from 5 to 18 (M = 10.5), representing Grades K to 12; however, the exact ages of 10 students were obscured in the de-identification process and could not be determined. Statistical descriptions of ages of those students are not included. The IEPs were for 63 males and 25 females; students' primary disability labels included autism (n = 32), intellectual disability (n = 19), multiple disabilities (n = 7), orthopedic impairment (n = 6), other health impairment (n = 6), developmental delay (n = 5), speech language disorder (n = 3), emotional behavioral disorder (n = 2), hearing impairment (n = 1), and deaf-blindness (n = 1). In eight instances, the student's primary disability could not be determined, as this information was obscured in the de-identification process. Twenty-eight percent of students in the sample were taught primarily in general education settings (i.e., 80% or more of the school day in general education). Twenty-five percent of students were taught in “resource settings,” (i.e., between 40–79% of a typical school day was spent in general education). Most students, 45%, were taught in self-contained settings (i.e., less than 40% of a typical school day in general education settings). For two students in the sample (2%), the placement was unknown even after thorough review of the IEP.
Upon receipt of de-identified IEPs, the research team first located the eligibility section of each IEP, along with the present levels of academic and functional performance statements, to verify the participating student was a student with significant support needs. Eligibility and demographic information, including age, gender, and disability label were entered into an MS Excel document. Next, the parent input statement of each IEP was located. The statement was usually in response to a prompt such as “Describe the student's strengths and the concerns of the parents about the student's education” or “Concerns of the parent/guardian for enhancing the education of the child.” The text provided in response to this prompt was copied verbatim into a MS Excel document. In some instances, documentation of parent input was missing, either because the parent did not attend or could not be reached. In other instances, parent input statements were not solicited; instead, checkboxes were used to note simply that parents were in attendance and provided input (without specifying the nature of that input). The research team noted the number of each of these instances. The research team then located the IEP meeting attendance sign-in to determine who attended the IEP meeting. Because a goal or service must be provided in the IEP for every area of need identified by the IEP team (IDEA Section 300.347(a)(3)), we also examined the extent to which IEP goals and supplementary aids and services (SAS) corresponded with parent concerns.
A conventional content analysis was used to analyze parent input statements (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). First, parent input statements were located and transcribed into an MS Excel document. Next, the authors read the statements and used content analysis to generate preliminary themes. As themes emerged in reading the parent input statements, a codebook was developed. This codebook guided our subsequent analysis of the IEPs. We applied a dichotomous rating for each parent input statement code, so that a 0 was entered for factors that were not present in the statement, and a 1 was entered for factors that were present in the statement. Because many parent input statements contained more than one factor in a single statement, the total number of factors exceeds the number of parent input statements.
To determine the extent to which parent input corresponded with IEP goals and SAS, the team used a similar process. Key content for each parent input statement was determined (see Table 1); this content was then compared to IEP goals and SAS. The research team marked a 1 if a goal and/or service corresponded to the parent concern (e.g., a parent expressed concern about communication, and the student had a goal to improve communication or an SAS related to communication tools or supports). Similarly, a 0 was marked if no goal or SAS was present for the concern.
To determine reliability, point-by-point interobserver analysis was completed. The first and second author initially rated 100% of the parent input statements to inductively develop the codebook. They then met to discuss emerging codes and to come to consensus on codes and their definitions. Another set of analyses was then completed with an additional 30% of the IEPs to ensure consistency of coding. Interobserver agreement was calculated by dividing the number of agreements by the sum of the number of ratings in agreement and disagreement (total ratings), multiplied by 100 to obtain a percentage. Interobserver agreement was 88.4%. Disagreements centered on codebook definitions. When there was a disagreement, the raters reviewed the codebook and discussed the rating until agreement was reached. We reached consensus on all instances of disagreement prior to analysis.
IEP Team Membership
The members who attended IEP team meetings could be identified in most IEPs (n = 66; 75%). However, in the remaining 22 IEP team attendance could not be determined, either because the information was obscured in the de-identification process or because a page recording that information was not found. The average team size across all students was 7.24 members. In 13 of the 66 team meetings, two or more family members (including parents and grandparents) attended. In six cases, no general education teacher was recorded as attending the meeting. Overall, of the 66 IEPs included in the analysis, 453 people attended meetings, with IEP teams composed of related services providers (e.g., occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, and nurses; n = 133; 29%), special education teachers (n = 79; 17%), family members (n = 72; 16%), general education teachers (n = 61; 13%), school administrators (e.g., principals, vice principals, and special education directors; n = 59; 13%), school psychologists (n = 32; 7%), students (n = 14; 3%), and family friends or advocates (n = 3; 1%).
Parent Input in IEP Development
The words attributed to parents were analyzed, resulting in six codes: parent identified current concerns, school services, parent input was lacking, vision for the future, information about home, and child strengths and interests.
Parent identified current concerns about current skills and development
The most frequently identified theme was related to parent concerns about their child's current skills and development (n = 94). Subthemes included behavior (n = 24), academics (n = 24), communication (n = 18), social skills and friendship (n = 14), medical and safety (n = 14), explanations of student needs (n = 6), and motor and self-care (n = 5).
Parent concerns about behavior were multifaceted. Externalizing and internalizing behavior concerns were noted, such as
[Student's] aggressive behavior at school is also causing [Parent] some concern. This behavior includes hitting, kicking, spitting, and saying unkind words. She says that he never spits at home but has demonstrated some refusals, dramatic language and responses to situations (e.g., “nobody likes me” or “I'm stupid”), rigidity, and difficulty with transitions.
Other parents expressed concern about work avoidance and task completion, such as “Concern about his ability to focus and finish tasks [without] prompts.” Similarly, the ability to “pay attention” was noted as a concern. Finally, student ability to follow directions and comply with adult expectations were noted, such as “Parents would like [Student] to learn to follow directions.”
Parent concerns about academic skill development were identified in 24 instances. These primarily focused on literacy (n = 6) and math (n = 5). The remaining statements referenced concerns about homework (n = 2) and overall learning (n = 11). Literacy concerns tended to be broad, such as “Mom would like for him to work on and improve his reading skills” and “[Parent] has expressed concerns about [Student] academics – reading skills in particular.” Concerns about math were somewhat more specific, centering on applied math, such as “using money in real world settings” and “math skills related to money and how she would deal with it in a work setting.” Homework, particularly the student's ability to complete homework, was noted in two statements. Finally, general concerns about overall learning were numerous. These included a focus on progress, such as “Mom is also concerned that [student] has been at the same academic level for multiple years” and “slow academic progress.” Others refer to learning in general, such as the following statements: “[Student's] mother is concerned about his learning” and “building academic skills.”
Concerns expressed by parents about communication included general language development (e.g., “Parents are concerned [about] his lack of communication”), articulation and intelligibility (e.g., “The parents want [Student] to continue working on assertiveness and speaking clearly…They noted that articulate (sic) is sometimes a struggle for [Student] with “ch” and “sh” words”). Other parents expressed concern about their child's ability to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices: “Speech is extremely important. Novachat is key. It should be front and center in learning experience. It's the language he speaks; take this seriously.”
Social and friendship
Fourteen references to parent concerns about friendship and social skills were identified in the IEPs. The primary focus within these was related to developing friendships and capitalizing on social opportunities. For example, parents cited their desire for their children to “be around peers and build relationships with others” and to “enjoy life with family and friends” in nine of the 14 concerns in this area. The remaining concerns in friendship and social area related to bullying (n = 3), including “[Student's] mom is concerned of him being bullied or taken advantage of.” The final concern within the social theme was related to play skills (n = 2), such as “[Parent] also expressed concerns with [Student's] social growth…although he loves to play with other children, he engages in play that is typical for a much younger student.”
Medical, physical health, and safety
The medical and safety subtheme of parent concerns consisted of 14 statements. These included general concerns about safety, such as
[Student's] mom is very concerned for his safety. She is concerned that he is not with an adult at all times and is able to wander the school. She is worried that he might get into bad situations within the school or being (sic) able to leave the school.
Other concerns for safety were related to allergies (e.g., “allergies are bad…eyes get really puffy”), sleeping and waking (e.g., “mom says [Student] has a hard time getting up in the morning and out the door”), and eating (e.g., “parent priorities include…independent eating”).
In six instances, parents acknowledged or explained their child's difficulties rather than expressed concerns. These statements appeared to be intended to provide contextual information for school staff and referenced topics such as academic progress, behavior, and child learning preferences. For example, the statement “Mom knows that [Student] struggles academically, but she is also proud of the small progress that has been made” exemplifies this theme. As another example,
[Student's] mom believes [Student] … always wants to do his work, but unfortunately it is usually not his best work… [Student] has some very specific things that are difficult for him. His mom stated that most change is difficult, especially once a routine is in place.
Motor and self-care
The motor and self-care theme appeared five times. Most referenced gross motor skills (n = 4), including walking. For example, “[Student's] parents along with her teachers expressed concerns regarding [Student's] gross motor development; it was decided as a team that a re-evaluation for physical therapy would be in [Student's] best interest.” Notably, this was the only statement in which a parent (or in this case, team) concern was directly related to an action item. Other concerns were also general, such as “some goals [parents] have for [Student] are…better walking in his walker.” Finally, in one instance use of the restroom was noted: “Mom would also like him to work on toileting skills.”
Parent concerns about school services were identified 35 times, with directions to school staff (n = 15), parent satisfaction with school services (n = 10), and placement concerns (n = 10) populating this theme.
Directions to school staff
Parent directions to school staff focused on instructional strategies and activities. For example, one parent appeared to provide a prewritten input statement that was copied into the IEP. This statement included a vision statement of their child's future, as well as directives to school staff, including
3) The emphasis on written schedules/instructions to build skills and to explore and assess interests and strengths. [Student] should be challenged with some more complicated longer tasks so that an employment model such as [Place] is a viable option for some of [Student's] jobs.
Other statements were vague, such as “make sure that [Student] is successful and has the appropriate strategies and assistance in place for him to be as successful as possible.” Finally, five statements made home-school communication directives, such as “mom will receive copies of his daily behavior charts at the end of each school day.”
Parent satisfaction with services
Ten statements reflected parent satisfaction with school services. These included satisfaction with supports provided by schools (n = 6) and student learning progress (n = 4). The nature of the supports parents appreciated remained unclear, such as “[Student's] mom reported that [Student] enjoys his teachers and school and she expressed gratitude towards our efforts to help her and her son” and “Mother feels comfortable with the way things are going at school. No new concerns.” The remaining instances in this subtheme reflected parent satisfaction with their child's learning progress; again, these statements were nonspecific, such as: “[Student's] mom…is happy about the progress that he has made over the course of this year.”
The final subtheme in the school services theme relates to placement. Ten statements referred to placement, including 18 to 21-year-old transition programs (n = 5), transitioning to new schools (n = 3), and remaining in a current placement (n = 2). Statements about 18 to 21-year old transition programs centered on obtaining transition services in general, such as
After [Student] leaves school, [Parent] believes that [Student] will need to engage in some kind of work where he will engage in repetitive labor with his hands. [Student's] parents would like him to participate in the Transition Program after his senior year in high school.
Other concerns in this subtheme were related to their child's move to a new school:
Dad is concerned how regular edu[cation] peers in high school will treat [Student]. Parents were told about the Adapted PE class at [High School], and how being a part of this class helps set the tone for the whole building on how special needs students are treated by peers.
Finally, two parents expressed their desire for their children to retain existing placements and services, such as: “Mother wants [Student] to stay in special education and continue working on life skills.”
Parent input lacking
In 33 IEPs, no parent input statements were located. In two instances, this was because the school team met without the parent. In seven instances, no statement could be located after thorough review of the IEP. Finally, in 24 cases a checkbox was used to indicate parent participation and input. These checkboxes were nondescriptive, including statements such as “parent attended, gave input,” “parent has participated in the IEP meeting,” and “the IEP team has requested and considered the concerns of Parents(s)/Educational decision maker.” In no instance did these checkbox items describe parent concerns, preferences, or priorities.
Vision for the future
Parents expressed concerns related to their vision of their child's future in 25 instances. These included postschool outcomes, functional skills, and happiness. Postschool outcomes included concerns about living, college, and career activities (n = 13). For example, “[Student's] dad sees him possibly being an aide in a hospital. Parents say he will live at home after graduation.” Another parent expressed, “Our vision of [Student's] adult life remains almost unchanged from last year: [Student] will be happily working in a paid, integrated, supported setting for at least 20 hours a week.” In 10 instances, parents expressed a concern about the development of skills for daily living to prepare their child for the future. For example, “[Parent] would like to see [Student] become more independent and focus on functional life skills.” Finally, two parent input statements referenced postschool social and leisure activities. As an example,
[Student] will have 2–3 leisure activities scheduled each week, including movies, bowling, trips to book stores and other activities of interest. In addition, [Student] will participate in physical activities such as walking, swimming, or biking riding at least several times each week.
In our analysis of IEPs, 18 instances of the parent reporting information about home life appeared in the parent input statements. The reports included information about what happens at home (n = 13), what the student does at home (n = 3), and sharing what works well at home (n = 2). As noted, the most common theme relates to reports of what occurs at home. These reports include information about preferences and activities (e.g., “[Student] likes to help mom cook;” “[Student] enjoys playing with a ball of tape at home”), behavior (e.g., “Mom sees that [Student] head butts when he is thirsty or is in need of a diaper change”), and general activities (e.g., “Mom stated that she has noticed [Student] doing a lot more independent play”). Three parents also reported discrepancies between what the student does at home and at school. For example, “His family speaks Hindi at home…[Parent] wonders if some of [Student's] confusion at school is due to these language barriers.” Finally, two parents shared strategies that work well at home. For example,
At home [Student] responds to repetition of directions and clear directions to sit and do academic work. They use hand-over-hand assistance to help [Student] work on writing at home. If he does not seem ready to work at home they try to engage him in play first and get him to do academic work for shorter periods of time.
Child strengths and interests
Finally, when parents were asked to share their concerns about their child, 16 parents expressed their child's strengths and interests. This included statements of their child's strengths, interests, and preferences (n = 11) and successes (n = 5). Parents spoke enthusiastically about their child's strengths, such as “he has a great memory and is passionate about the topics he loves” and “[Student's] mom reported that she is getting more and more verbal which is great progress! Her mom also reported that [Student] loves music and learns a lot by singing. At the moment, she is very interested in all things associated with the movie Frozen.” Parents also shared their child's successes, including “Parents state that currently, [Student] seems to be much more confident and her vocabulary is definitely increasing” and that a student “signs money for watching the show Deal or No Deal (on YouTube). Also likes to watch sports. Big milestones physically—getting in and out of the tub by himself now!”
Evidence of Parent Input in IEP Content
We sought to identify the extent to which parent concerns translated into the content of student IEPs—specifically in IEP goals and SAS. Eighty-three (67%) of parent concerns had either a goal or SAS corresponding to the concern.
A total of 124 individual parent concerns (i.e., areas of need) were provided by parents in the 88 IEPs. Because some of the parent input statements were vague (e.g., “improve learning”), any goal related to “learning” (e.g., academics, speech, motor) was counted as a corresponding goal. Of those 124 concerns, 55 goals (53%) corresponded with parent concerns. For example, a parent concern was related to use of AAC, and a corresponding goal to “use his assistive technology device at work, school, and community settings to communicate and complete tasks” was determined to correlate with this concern. As another example, a parent concern was for the student to “follow directions.” A corresponding goal was that the student would “independently follow two- step directions using a visual cue if needed.”
Supplementary aids and services
We found 28 instances (23%) in which a SAS addressed a parent concern. For example, a parent expressed concern that their child would eat independently, and a SAS was developed for the student to use “sensory supports such as a sectioned plate, nosey cup, Dycem under plate, built up feeding utensils, etc.” to eat. As another example, a parent expressed concern about home-school communication, and this was addressed in a home-school communication notebook in the SAS section.
Concerns not addressed
Although a corresponding goal or SAS was located for 67% of parent concerns, 41 concerns (33%) had no corresponding goals or SAS. These unaddressed parent concerns covered a range of skills, including communication, social, and academic skills. For example, a parent expressed concern that the student have “increase[d] expectations.” In this case, although the student had goals in all academic areas (i.e., reading, writing, math), the criterion ranged from 20% to 30% accuracy in each area, suggesting low expectations despite the parent concern. In several instances, parents expressed concern about bullying at school. In two of these cases, the school staff appeared to dismiss the concern through text in the parent input section, rather than developing supports or teaching advocacy skills. For example, in response to a parent concern about bullying, one school team member stated “Parents were told about the Adapted PE class at [Name of High School], and how being a part of this class helps set the tone for the whole building on how special needs students are treated by peers.” Other instances appeared to contradict parent concerns. For example, one parent stated her wish that her teen daughter learn to set her own goals; however, no IEP goals addressed this concern, and one of her daughter's goals stated the student would comply with adult directions.
This exploratory study used traditional content analysis of IEPs to describe the nature of parent input in IEP development. Existing studies have used parent (e.g., Love et al., 2017) or teacher report (e.g., Haines et al., 2015) to uncover parent participation in IEP team meetings; the findings of these studies consistently demonstrate significant barriers to parent input and participation. The present study instead relied on IEP documents themselves for evidence of parent input; next we consider three key findings from the study in detail.
IEP team membership
Parents are naturally outnumbered on IEP teams for students with significant support needs, which are made up of numerous school profssionals. However, their meager status on the team in terms of numbers is compounded by a clear lack of opportunity to provide meaningful input (e.g., Blackwell & Rossetti, 2014; Ruppar & Gaffney, 2011; Wakelin, 2008).
Analysis of IEP team membership revealed other concerns. First, general education teachers were not present in about 10% of IEP meetings. Although IDEA requires at least one general education teacher to participate in all IEP meetings, the law does allow teams to dismiss IEP team members with parent permission (IDEA, 2004). Yet the absence of general education teachers presents significant challenges to discussions of how students with significant support needs will access, and make progress in, the general education curriculum. As experts on the general education curriculum, general education teacher input is necessary to discuss the scope and content of the curriculum and determine how students with disabilities will access, and make progress, in it (Etscheidt, 2007). Their absence, then, poses obstacles to the provision of a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment (e.g., M. L. v. Federal Way School District, 2004).
A second concern relates to the limited participation of students in their own IEP meetings. Participation in IEP meetings not only allows students to practice and learn critical self-determination skills to prepare for the transition to adulthood (Diegelmann & Test, 2018), but also strongly reflects the requirements of IEP development in IDEA. Specifically, IDEA requires student participation whenever appropriate; and importantly, the IEP must reflect student needs and interests (Martin et al., 2006). We assert students themselves are best positioned to report their needs and interests, and thus must play a critical role on all IEP teams.
A final concern related to membership is the wording of a subset of IEPs, suggesting to readers that the IEP team is composed of school personnel. For example, the phrase “the IEP team has requested and considered the concerns of Parents(s)/Educational decision maker” suggests the parent is not a member of the IEP team; rather, they are individuals from whom the IEP team gathers information. Presumably, then, the school team then uses this information to develop the IEP itself. Although perhaps unintentional, this type of wording suggests the limited nature of parent membership on IEP teams. Yet IDEA (2004) continues to center parents as key members of the IEP team, and research confirms their critical role in IEP development (Elbaum et al., 2016; Francis, Hill, Blue-Banning, Turnbull, & Haines, 2016).
IEP forms and content
Other key findings from our analysis of parent input statements reflected IEP forms themselves. Parent input sections represent a small portion of the IEP, and in our analysis, parent input statements were summarized in a cursory manner. Some IEP forms limited parent input to an attendance checklist, whereas others provided a designated space for written input. Limiting opportunities for parent input is a barrier to effective parent-school collaboration (Tucker & Schwartz, 2013); because such collaboration is necessary to facilitate student success (Engelbrecht, Oswald, Swart, & Eloff, 2003), efforts to secure parent-input in IEP development is critical. Further, most IEP forms in our analysis prompted parents to express their concerns, which presumably guided their responses towards concerns rather than, for example, a strengths-based discussion of their children. As such, parents discussed a variety of topics, including concerns about their child's present and future. Yet, many parents successfully reframed the conversation from “concerns” to expressions of their children's strengths, preferences, and interests, as well as sharing insights from home. Strengths-based information assists in IEP development (Geltner & Leibforth, 2008), enabling teams to identify student competencies that can be leveraged to guide supports and planning (Niemiec, Shogren, & Wehmeyer, 2017).
Parent input and partnership
Despite parent identification of their concerns for, and the strengths of, their children with disabilities, this input was not always successfully translated into actual IEP goals and supports and services. In fact, about one third of parent identified concerns and priorities had no corresponding goals and services. Other times, the goals and services appeared to directly contradict parent statements. These findings suggest significant barriers to parent partnership in IEP development, and confirm other parent reports of their limited involvement in developing IEPs for their children (e.g., Fish, 2006).
Limitations of the Study
The limitations of the present study offer implications for research and practice. Although we collected IEPs for students across the United States, the relatively small sample size limits generalization of our findings. Thus, future research is needed that closely examines IEPs for evidence of parent input, documenting the types and frequencies of parent concerns and priorities. The present study is also limited to a single IEP for a child with significant support needs. Further analysis of changes in parent concerns and priorities over the school years would likely inform practice, as would differences in parent input on the basis of disability label, gender, and the setting in which special education services are delivered (e.g., general or special education settings). This research should use methods in which IEP documents, parent, and teacher reports are triangulated, as well as observation of actual IEP meetings. Because the present study relied on IEP documents that had been anonymized prior to analysis, and because additional IEP sections such as meeting notes or prior written notice pages were not included, it is possible further evidence of parent input in IEPs was not uncovered. For example, it is possible meetings notes pages would reveal fuller discussions of parents concerns, and how those were considered by the entire IEP team. Our inability to gather this information is an important limitation, and future research should seek to gather additional points of data for analysis, including IEP and parent-teacher conference meeting notes to more fully consider how parents provide input, as well as how school teams act on parent input. Finally, the present study was limited to parent input. Future research is needed that centers on student voice; because no evidence of student input was obtained in the current analysis, research focusing on student input on the IEP development is needed.
Implications for Practice
We focus on two key implications of our findings practitioners should consider. First, both current and preservice teachers should consider the needs and wishes of a parent and family as an integral part of the IEP team. IDEA (2004) ensures parent participation in an IEP meeting, but meaningful participation and simply having a signature on a form are two very different things. Practitioners should consider parents and students as equal participants on an IEP team. Their concerns, preferences, and priorities should be present throughout the entire IEP document—not just a checkbox or signature indicating they were present. Parent input could be structured so that input is solicited throughout the IEP, with parent priorities documented in all sections, including goals, supplementary aides and services, and location of services. As described in our findings, linking parent concerns with goals and services is too often missing.
Similarly, school teams could request parents prepare an input statement to be included in the IEP. This statement could outline desires and priorities, as well as strengths and other characteristics of the student that could be useful in designing supports, goals, and building relationships. In addition to obtaining a more comprehensive parental input statement, it is critical that current and preservice teachers are aware of the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships with families. Creating an open line of communication at the outset of the school year can facilitate these collaborative relationships. Additionally, for educators who are new to a school it is recommended they solicit information from families specific to their preferred method(s) of communication (i.e., e-mail, written correspondence). Furthermore, when educators come from different cultural backgrounds from the families of the students whom they support, it is their responsibility to become aware of cultural considerations which may influence the collaborative process.
Second, involving students in their own IEP can be a powerful tool for educators. Much research supports including students with disabilities in their own IEP meeting (i.e. Test et al., 2004), as it allows the student to share their goals and advocate for their own needs. For younger students, this may involve the child simply discussing what they like, dislike, and their goals for the future. As students become older, this may include students leading their own IEP meeting by creating a slideshow presentation and sharing their goals for the future. Allowing students to be part of their IEP meeting is important and is encouraged within IDEA (2004). Educators can not only encourage meaningful participation from parents, but also from students.
This study provides information on parent input in IEP development, using the IEP itself as evidence of parent participation while describing the nature and content of this input. Our findings suggest parents have limited opportunities to provide input in IEP development, yet use their role on IEP teams to influence the content of IEPs in terms of goals and supports, while often reframing discussions of their children from a deficit- to a strengths-based perspective. Further research is needed to continue to investigate how parents shape the content of IEPs, as well as how school personnel can better include families in this process.