There’s something about hearing the words IEP meeting that gets parents and caregivers of special needs children into an emotional tizzy. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been one of those parents. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a document that allows a special education student to get a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible.

Determining a child’s needs is where it gets tricky, and probably where the IEP meeting gets its bad reputation. But it doesn’t have to be scary! Yes, there’s a lot of work involved. No, you don’t always get what you want. You can, however, learn from my mistakes. My son is 13 and has had an IEP for the past ten years. That’s a whole lot of paperwork, laughter and tears around the IEP table, along with a bunch of lessons learned. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

School is not the enemy.

It’s really easy to view teachers and administrators as such, but it’s not the case. Think about it: Would you really in good conscience send your darling child, the light of your life, off to the arms of the enemy every day? No! Of course not. So it’s really important to remember that walking into an IEP meeting. Maybe it’s because some of the stuff is hard to hear. Maybe it’s because in the past you didn’t get what you requested 

for your kid. Maybe you’ve heard one too many IEP horror stories from other parents.

It’s important to remember that the professionals sitting around that table are all there for the same reason you are: your kid! I know it can be intimidating walking into a conference room surrounded by multiple school staff members. At one meeting, we had 14 people around a tiny table all looking at my husband and me. I had to remind myself that they were merely a part of my son’s entourage, just like me, and I walked to the head of that table and sat right on down. I’m part of that team, too. I’ll take my seat at that table because I belong there.

IEPs aren’t just about academic goals.

The coolest thing about an IEP is what the “I” stands for: individual. You can address all sorts of issues like life skills, basic hygiene and even social skill development. Does your child need help with toilet training? Well, guess what? You can add that to an IEP. Yes, you absolutely can. What better way to address challenging issues than to make sure everyone involved with your child is doing the exact same things you are? I’ve even had teachers add goals like trying new foods and cooking simple meals to promote independence. Even though it’s about what your child is going to work on learning this year, it doesn’t have to be confined to what he’ll learn from a textbook.

The best question you can ask at an IEP meeting is, “Why?”

Why, you may ask? (See what I did there?) It’s a simple stepping-off point to start a conversation. “Why are these behaviors happening in the classroom?” “Why haven’t previous solutions worked?” I find that asking lots of “Why?” questions gets the information on the table. Like, “Why can’t my kid have more speech or occupational therapy?” Once there’s a conversation going, you can work as a team to come up with a solution that makes everyone happy, or at least willing to live with it for a little until revising.

You can call for an IEP review meeting as many times as you wish.

It isn’t just once a year and that’s it. If you feel there are issues that need to be addressed or changes in your child’s behaviors that might impede her progress, by all means, call for a team meeting. Chances are your child’s teacher has observed these behaviors, too. They want to hear from you. They may have your kids until 3 o’clock, but they know who has them all the hours in between.

You should bring whomever you like to your child’s IEP meeting.

There’s so much information to cover at these meetings. Having another pair of eyes and ears with you will help ensure nothing is missed. It can be your spouse, a family friend or even an IEP advocate. What’s an IEP advocate, you ask? Well, that person can be a teacher, therapist or parent of an older kid with many years of IEP experience. Ask other parents in your child’s class for recommendations or inquire at special needs support groups.

Make your child part of the process.

When your child is older (around 13), start having him attend the meeting, or at least a portion of it. It’s a good reminder to everyone at that table of why you’re all there in the first place. It’s also an excellent opportunity to teach self-advocacy to your child.

Even if everything sounds wonderful at the meeting, don’t sign the IEP right away. Take it home. If you have questions, call your case manager. Be aware that in New Jersey, an IEP goes into effect after 14 school days, so there’s still plenty of time to answer questions you may have or tweak it.

Autism is a trip New Jersey mom Eileen Shaklee didn't plan on, but she sure does love her tour guide. Join her adventures with a side of sarcasm (and fries) at Autism With a Side of Fries or on Facebook and Twitter.