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Facilitated IEP meetings help special education students

Sponsor: Spectrum K12 School Solutions.

When parents of students with special needs meet with school representatives to discuss their children's Individual Education Plans, they may find themselves negotiating with a team of teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, and any number of specialists. With so much at stake, emotions can run high. While parents may want a full roster of resources devoted to their child's education, the school team might have very different ideas about what's appropriate for the child. Voices may become raised. Tempers may flare. Just ask Marc Hayes.

As the coordinator of the Special Education Department for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Hayes has sat through hundreds of IEP meetings, many of them quite contentious. But for Hayes, the tenor of those meetings took a dramatic turn for the better after he attended a Spectrum K12 workshop on facilitating IEP meetings. The three-day workshops teach educators how to facilitate meetings by improving communication and to resolve conflicts by reconciling differences between all parties. Hayes credits the training with helping parents and educators reach agreements more quickly and amicably-while saving the district money by reducing the frequency of legal action. In districts across the nation, the Spectrum K12 training has turned adversaries into allies.

"I learned skills on how to build consensus and how to bring in other participants to IEP meetings so that they feel valued."

Workshop attendees learn to get agreement on some basic ground rules: everyone will communicate clearly, listen carefully, respect the views of others, and honor time limits. The goal of facilitation is nothing less than to change the culture of the traditional IEP meeting. "I learned skills on how to build consensus and how to bring in other participants to IEP meetings so that they feel valued," Hayes says.

For Trina Montgomery of Nashville, the mother of a child with autism, the training proved especially timely. One recent summer Montgomery and her husband, Kevin, sat through a series of rancorous-and unproductive- meetings with Nashville school officials over the proper IEP for their son Landon, who was then seven and about to enter second grade.

The school team wanted to remove Landon from the regular classrooms he had been attending and transfer him to another school, where he would be placed with other students with special education needs. When the Montgomerys resisted, a standoff ensued. "They refused to budge and we refused to budge," Trina Montgomery recalls. "There was angry stuff from both sides."

Eventually a state official ruled in favor of the Montgomerys. But the damage was done. The family had lost trust in the IEP process. That's when Marc Hayes was called in. With other educators from Nashville, Hayes had recently completed the Spectrum K12 workshop. He set out to apply his training in a tense, real-world scenario.

He began by talking to all stakeholders, including the Montgomerys and members of the school team weeks before the annual IEP meeting, to gather ideas on what each side had in mind regarding Landon's education. The idea, he says, was to make sure all participants felt they had a stake in the process. When parents feel that their voices are not being heard, Hayes says, fear sets in. "They are less likely to come to terms of agreement or mutual understanding when they have fear," he says.

For Trina Montgomery, the facilitated IEP meetings made all the difference. "It was a process rather than an argument," she says. "It always went more smoothly."