Taking Parent Fear and Anxiety out of the Evaluation and IEP Process

by John Peterson

Talking with numerous educators over the years, I have heard many colleagues express significant concern regarding how anxiety- and fear-provoking the initial special education evaluation and IEP development process can be for parents and caregivers, especially when the area of autism is being considered. Instead of focusing on the hope that comes with the collaboration between home and school and improving specific communicative skills, educators often feel like they are walking on eggshells around parents and caregivers when it comes to the initial evaluation process and IEP development for autism.

According to Rethink Ed, even though students with autism make up only 9% of all students with disabilities, they account for 25% of all due process hearings in special education. With this statistic in mind, it is no wonder that educators run into parents and caregivers who are experiencing a variety of negative emotions when they first hear the word autism. In some cases, the emotions are so intense that I’ve even heard educators question, “Should I even bring up the ‘A-word’ to the parents?”

What is amazing is the stark contrast in how educators view these same students being evaluated for autism. Educators see:

  • Strengths that the students possess and how the IEP team can build upon these strengths
  • Unlocked potential that they cannot wait to tap in to
  • And, most of all, hope for a promising future

So as educational leaders, how can we flip the script and take parents’ and caregivers’ focus away from fear and anxiety and guide them towards strengths, untapped potential, and hope for a promising future? Simply put, the answer lies within how we assess our students with autism and how we interact with their families throughout the evaluation and IEP process.

Avoid Subjectivity

When parents and caregivers are first learning about autism or even hear an educator refer to autism, they may see their child in a much different light than other members of the IEP team. The key in the evaluation process for educators is to take the subjectivity out of the eligibility determination and take the focus off the differences in perception between home and school. If the differences between home and school become the focus, the natural result more often than not is an adversarial relationship. In other words, if the parents emotions are already running high and they are not 100% trusting the educators evaluating their child, then any differences in perception of their child will only exacerbate the relationship between home and school.

Instead of falling into this trap of perceptions, educators should focus on providing objective data that compares the student with autism to his or her same age peers. Rating scales and models such as Social Communication Emotional Regulation Transactional Supports (SCERTS) yield objective data that compare students’ communicative skills to those of other students their age. This takes the subjectivity out of the conversation and supplies parents and guardians with a better understanding of what communicative strengths their child has and what areas call for specially-designed instruction. This shift naturally takes IEP teams away from the “us versus them” mentality and places the focus on skill development and goal attainment.

Communication is Key

Not only should educators focus on objective rating scales and data to compare students to their peers, but educators should also open the lines of communication with parents at the beginning of the evaluation process and continue that communication all the way through the initial IEP meeting. It often helps to know the “why” behind parents’ and caregivers’ reservations and concerns. Sometimes a listening and available ear can go a long way in reducing these concerns. On a regular basis, it also strengthens the relationship between home and school.

Strategies to help improve communication between home and school while navigating the initial evaluation for autism could include:

  1. Asking parents and caregivers if you could either stop by their home or meet them for coffee at a local cafe – this shows that their concerns matter to you and that you are willing to meet them in a location that they are comfortable with to hear about them.
  2. Offering to connect the parents and caregivers to other parents and caregivers who have gone through the initial evaluation process for autism (make sure you obtain consent of the other family before offering this up) – this shows that you are acknowledging the challenges and the variety of emotions that they are experiencing, and that they are not alone in this journey.
  3. Giving parents and caregivers an opportunity to talk with both general and special education teachers about their expectations for a student who receives special education services in the area of autism – this shows parents and caregivers that educators focus more on a student’s disability area needs and goals and NOT on labels.
  4. Remind parents and caregivers that the emotions that they are experiencing are common and that it may be beneficial to bring in either a family friend and/or parent advocate to help them separate the emotions from the issues – this shows that you are willing to work with them no matter who is at the table.
  5. Encourage the parents and caregivers to meet with the IEP team after three or four weeks of services being delivered – this shows parents that you value their feedback and are open to making adjustments to programming based on this feedback.

What is a common theme throughout all of the aforementioned recommendations is that parents and caregivers see you and the IEP team members as having a vested interest in the relationship and wanting to work with them for the benefit of their child. In the end, parents and caregivers want to know that their child is receiving the assistance that they need and are being supported by educators who truly care for them. Hopefully these recommendations and talking points help your IEP teams reduce fear and anxiety and create a strong foundation for your relationship with them for years to come.

John Peterson serves as the Director of Special Education for the Hamilton School District in Sussex, Wisconsin and has served as a special education administrator for a total of 15 years. John has previously served as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS) and has been in leadership roles on their board of directors since 2006. John also helps mentor aspiring special education administrators by serving as a University Supervisor for Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI) and has presented on a variety of special education-related topics at both state and national conferences.

Rethink Ed’s Skills Success platform supports educators in developing and delivering quality IEPs, addressing many of the instructional challenges currently present in special education including. Find out more.

3 Tips for Increasing Parental Engagement This School Year

It’s September and schools are back in session!  For educators, it is that magical time of year when anything seems possible.  You’re refreshed and ready to make this year the best ever.  You want all your students to have a successful year!  And you know that a key component to any educational program is parental engagement, especially for children with special needs.  But with the demands of today’s parents, getting appropriate parental engagement can be a challenge, and this is compounded for the parents of children with special needs.

Before we discuss ways to encourage parental engagement, let’s first look at what we mean by parental engagement. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines parental engagement in schools as parents and school staff working together to support and improve the learning, development, and health of children and adolescents. Schools and parents have the responsibility for educating our children (retrieved from CDC)

There are many benefits to parental engagement across the board, but particularly for students with special needs including:

  • Increased parental involvement and collaboration in the development of their child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP)
  • Greater confidence and ability on the part of the parent to educate their own child
  • Better understanding on the part of the educator as to the special needs of each student
  • Higher student success due to the generalization of skills and consistency between home and school

Unfortunately, barriers to parental engagement do exist.  Some of these barriers are due to: cultural or language differences, special education law that can be difficult to understand, lack of time, past negative experiences, and lack of training on the part of the educator to effectively facilitate engagement.

What can you do to eliminate the barriers and make it easier for parents to engage? Here are three keys to increasing parental engagement.

Treat Parents as Partners.

Do you respect the role the parent has in the education of their child with special needs?  Do you actively invite parents to meet ahead of the IEP to set goals together?  Do you accommodate their schedules and consider their cultural contributions or differences?  Do you think about how to improve parent participation in the decision-making process?  These are just a few questions that can help you think about parents as partners in their child’s education.

Here are a few ways to help your parents’ partner with you:

  • Consider your message before the IEP happens. Did you invite them to listen to you and others tell them about their child or did you invite them to participatein the meeting and share their knowledge of their child?
  • Wait for the parents outside the meeting room prior to the IEP and walk in together as a team. That will be much less intimidating for the parents than walking into a room full of “experts” sitting and staring.
  • Understand that some cultures interact with educators and other school professionals differently. A parent may be agreeing with the proposed goals because they want to be polite and respectful.
  • Invite parents to ask questions and give them a platform to suggest goals they have for their child.
  • Take time toeducate the parents. Explain any special education jargon, provide them with resources, and connect them with other support programs such as translation services, if needed.
  • Let the parents know you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
  • Create tool kits that provide parents with activities and resources to extend the learning into the home. The tool kits may also include tips and strategies for teaching their child or websites they can go to for additional activities or information.
  • Work with the parents to set realistic parent participation goals. They are the parent, not the teacher. Remember, the goal is quality, not quantity of involvement.

Create an Effective Communication System.

The goal of an effective communication system is to bridge the gap between home and school by providing a way to share concerns, successes, behavioral challenges, stressors, and changes.

There are many ways to implement such a system.  Choose the method that is simple and works best for you and the parent. The easier the system, the more it will be used.  And again, remember, quality of communication is more important than the quantity of communication.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Connect at the beginning of the year and ask parents what information they want. Perhaps you can come up with a checklist together, that’s easy to use and sends home meaningful information. The same goes the other way too. For example, create a checklist for things you want to know from home such as changes in sleep patterns, nutrition, or family relations.
  • Use a notebook that goes back and forth from home to school in the child’s backpack. You can report IEP progress or write anecdotes about the child’s day, etc. and the parent can write back questions or concerns. This can happen on a daily basis.
  • Many teachers use texts or email to communicate (check with the parents first for the most preferred method). They may find this less intrusive and intimidating than a phone call and allows the parents to think and respond on their schedule. If a phone call is necessary, perhaps send a text to say, “Can we set up a time to chat on the phone?”  This allows the parent to choose a time that works for them.
  • Schedule home visits, if appropriate.  This may help parents who lack transportation or have other circumstances that keep them from coming to school.

Create a Welcoming Climate.

Welcome your parents into your classroom in many ways and for many purposes.  The more you know your parents, the easier it is to work with them as partners.  Inviting parents into your classroom also provides an opportunity for family networking, bringing families together with other parents to share resources, empathy, and support.

Some ways to help parents to feel welcome in the classroom include:

  • Volunteering for special events and holiday parties, field trips, family and friends’ breakfasts, guest speakers, photo shares, parent presentations, etc.
  • Providing ways for parents to volunteer without having to come into the classroom, such as organizing and preparing materials that require cutting, collating, or stapling.
  • Volunteering to read to or with students or provide one-on-one assistance to students in the library or media center.
  • Inviting parents to attend presentations or view displays by the students or to school assemblies when appropriate.

So, as you set up for another successful school year, I encourage you to think about your parents as partners. You are the educator! You’re good at it! But reaching out to your students’ parents as partners will help you help your students and make your job a little bit easier!

3 Tips for Back to School: Teacher’s Edition 2018

Back to School often means entering a new school, meeting new parents, and learning new school year expectations- an intimidating process for everyone. Here are three meaningful ways that teachers can get ready for back to school 2018.

  1. Presume Positive Intentions: Parents want to work with you. They also want what is best for their child at school, at home, and in the future. So often, parents have had negative previous experiences with IEP meetings or team members and that leaves a bad taste for future experiences. Combative attitudes, accusatory words, and cloak and dagger communication are toxic to the team and are often the result of misinformation or unsavory experiences. Keeping in mind the parent’s point of view is instrumental in resetting the relationship and starting everyone off on a positive note.A great technique is for parents to share their vision of the future for their child or if possible, have the student share his hopes and dreams with the IEP team. It will remind everyone why they are there and part of the team.
  2. Address Conflicts and Disagreements:Recognizing that there is always the possibility of disagreements as part of a team is an important fact of the team-based approach. There are a variety of legal protections as part of the IEP process that protect both the student and his/her family and school teams. However, before any formal conflict resolution takes place, teams should commit to informal problem-solving protocols. For instance, a mutually agreed-upon facilitator can listen to both sides and bring clarity to the issue. Again, at the heart of the conflict are the best interests of the student which sometimes requires all team members to take a step backwards and adjust their perspectives.
  3. Involve Early and Often: Going back to Chief Justice Robert’s statement that the IEP is not a form, serves as a great reminder that the IEP is not a “one and done” deal.At the start of the school year, teams should collaborate to determine how to best involve all members, including parents. Communication should always be priority and should include language and interpretation, with ample opportunity to connect via email, phone, or text. Schools need to ask parents their opinions, share student successes, and partner with them to support student through their learning experiences (both good and challenging). Special education team members share a lot of power in the student’s future therefore it is important that everyone is on the same page to ensure the best and most meaningful outcomes for the student.

Rethink Ed Spotlight Educator: Jean Lawson, Truman Elementary School (Springfield, MO)

Mrs. Jean Lawson

Ms. Lawson is a special education teacher at Truman Elementary School in Springfield, MO. Truman Elementary is a part of the Springfield Public School District, which is Missouri’s largest school district. Over 25,000 students attend 36 elementary schools, an intermediate school (grades 5 – 6), nine middle schools, five high schools, Phelps Center for Gifted Education, and 2 early childhood centers! Out of all the teachers at those schools, Ms. Lawson has been awarded Springfield’s Teacher of The Year 2018-19!

Classroom Cafe Cart

We are honored to celebrate with Ms. Lawson and feature her as a Rethink Ed Spotlight Educator. Ms. Lawson has successfully implemented Rethink Ed into her daily classroom activities. For example, she uses Rethink resources and data tracking to help her students meet their goals. These resources help create obtainable targets because she can break down a student’s goal into smaller, more achievable tasks.

“Skills we learn are practiced through authentic experiences. I believe in providing authentic experiences to bring learning into the real world. Math and social skills are used in cooking and selling snacks to teachers on our Rolling Café.”

Ms. Lawson also loves using the Rethink motivation boards from the resources section. In the photo below, you can see some of her students making pizza. When a student meets a goal or completes an assignment, they receive another pizza topping until they have made a finished pie! Ms. Lawson has seen great progress and success using these motivation boards. She found that many students,

Baking Pizza and cookies!

“who have been reluctant to do nonpreferred work, willingly work. The positive association with the table work has crossed over to other times where they will willingly work and not use the motivation boards. That’s success!”

With the ability to record, track, and analyze student data, Rethink helps Ms. Lawson promote the success of her students. We are honored to partner with Ms. Lawson and Springfield Public School District and we look forward to continuing to inspire hope and power potential.

Mrs. Lawson and her staff (along with Santa and an elf). This includes Mrs. Lawson and her other autism teacher (in the green on the right), Phoebe Ezell; and our 6 paras. A couple of them also work with students on their goals, collect and enter data on Rethink.

High Quality IEP Goals

By Christine Penington, MA, BCBA

A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) provides critical information for parents and educational team members related to understanding a student’s disability and how this disability may impact the student’s progress related to academic and functional living skills. IEP goals describe a plan of action to address individualized areas of need to aid students in progressing in the academic curriculum and developing appropriate functional living skills. Selecting meaningful IEP goals and writing these goals in specific, measurable terms is critical to ensure all team members are working together to address and monitor student progress on these goals in a consistent manner.

Step 1: Conduct an Assessment

The first step when creating quality IEP goals is to conduct an assessment to identify the student’s present levels of academic achievement (math, social studies, ELA) and functional performance (activities of daily living, social skills, communication skills, employment skills). In addition to conducting appropriate assessments, it is critical during this phase to get input from parents on areas of need for their student, particularly with skills that may be difficult to assess in a traditional classroom setting (e.g., independence with toileting skills, social skills with peers, independence level with dressing skills). Conducting this assessment will yield information about the student’s strengths and needs, which will be used to select appropriate academic and functional goals for the school year.

Step 2: Select Meaningful Goals

A thorough assessment will often provide team members with a lot of information regarding possible areas of need for a student. This phase of the IEP process can be overwhelming, so to select the most critical and meaningful goals to be targeted as IEP goals, it is important to ask several questions regarding the assessment results. For example, which skills will help this learner function as independently as possible? Which skills will help this learner build meaningful relationships with peers? Which skills will allow this learner to access desired items or activities from other people in his or her environment? Which skills are necessary for this learner to develop appropriate employment skills? Which academic skills are critical building blocks when working towards access to the general education curriculum? By asking and answering these questions, the team can start to formulate appropriate, meaningful, and individualized academic and functional living skills goals.

Step 3: Make it Specific

Clearly defining each goal in observable terms is the next step in building a quality IEP goal. Creating and implementing IEP goals is a collaborative process with multiple stakeholders often involved in this process; parents, teachers, administrations, speech language pathologists, and occupational therapists are a few examples. For this reason, it is critical to define the skill or behavior targeted for improvement in specific, observable, and objective terms to ensure there is agreement across all team members on the exact skill being worked on. Team members can create specific goals by avoiding vague and subjective descriptions such as, “John will listen attentively on 3/4 trials”, or “John will be flexible on 4/5 trials”. Using action words such as “John will read”, “John will state”, “John will name”, John will write”, and “John will point to,” helps to make sure we are describing observable behaviors that can be measured. In addition to using action words, a specific definition can be created by replacing broad labels such as “John will be attentive” or “John will be flexible” with specific behaviors.

A good place to start breaking down broad terms like “attentive” is to start by describing what attentive behavior looks like. For example, attentive behavior in the classroom may be attending to the smartboard or teacher when she is speaking, complying with instructions when presented to the group, raising your hand to answer questions, or following along with the group while reading an informational text passage out loud. After describing what it looks like to be attentive, think about your learner; do any of these behaviors apply to your student? Would one of these behaviors apply to skill deficits in your student’s current repertoire? Will working on this skill help your student access a less restrictive/ more inclusive environment? If so, this is likely a great place to start!

Step 4: Make it Measurable

After selecting and describing a specific skill or behavior, it is important to include information about how this skill or behavior will be measured, where it will be measured, how often it will be measured, what the mastery criteria for this goal will be, and when you anticipate your learner will meet mastery criteria for this goal. There are many ways we can measure progress towards a specific goal; for example, we can collect data on duration, percentage correct, a task analysis, or frequency of occurrence. The type of data being collected should be specified in the IEP goal. How often will data be collected (e.g., will it be every day, once a week, or once a month)? Where will data be collected (e.g., in the occupational therapy room, in the lunch room, outside during recess, or in the classroom)? How will team members know when the goal is mastered? What is a reasonable amount of time to master this goal? Including these details in the IEP goal, increases the likelihood that there will be consistency among team members on what skill or behavior is being taught, how data is being collected, and how often data is being collected.

Examples of Subjective vs. Objective and Measurable IEP goals:

Subjective: John will increase attending on 3/4 trials

Objective and measurable: By the end of the school year, John will raise his hand, wait to be addressed, and answer a question related to the current lesson a minimum of 3 times during English class. Data will be collected on this goal 1 time per week using a frequency measure.

By clearly defining the behavior being targeted, how the behavior will be measured, where it will be measured, and how often it will be measured, all team members will have the information they need to target this specific behavior, monitor this behavior, and discuss student progress on this goal in an objective manner.

Step 5: Add Objectives

While the annual IEP goal gives us information about what we anticipate our students will master by the end of the school year, short term objectives give us specific information about how we plan to break down this goal in specific, sequenced steps. For example, if the annual goal is, “John will identify pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, by pointing to specified targets within a larger set,” the short-term objectives may be, “1. John will identify penny and nickel, 2. John will identify dime and quarter, 3. John will identify a random rotation of all four coins.” Breaking the IEP goal down into short term objectives ensures team members are working towards the broader, annual IEP goal in a logical and consistent manner and that prerequisite steps are mastered prior to working on new material.

Step 6: Remove Prompts from the Annual Goal

If you are a parent of a child receiving special education services, or have worked in the field of special education for any amount of time, there is a good chance you have read a goal that looks something like this, “John will wash his hands with less than two physical prompts.”  If this goal can be mastered with prompts given, is it a truly functional skill? Will the student be truly independent? While utilizing systemic prompting and prompt fading techniques often assists our learners with acquiring new or difficult skills, including prompts in the annual IEP goal may allow our learners to master goals prior to being truly independent. If we anticipate a learner may need careful and systemic prompt and prompt fading procedures, the short-term objectives, which outline how we plan to reach the annual goal, may be a more appropriate place to specify how we plan to teach this goal, while the annual goal will provide a description of what this behavior will look like once the student is able to independently demonstrate the skill or task.

Creating high quality IEP goals takes time and anyone working in the field of education knows this is in short supply! Investing time at the beginning of the year in creating individualized, appropriate, observable, and measurable IEP goals it will decrease the likelihood that team members will need to spend time throughout the school year providing clarity on what the student is working on and how the goals are being monitored. Investing the time to create high quality goals ensures that all team members working with the student will be on the same page when working together to address areas of need and provide the foundation for consistent and seamless progress monitoring throughout the school year.


  • Use action words (student will read, write, state, identify) to create specific, measurable goals
  • Replace broad terms such as “Tom will be attentive” with specific, observable behaviors such as “Tom will raise his hand to answer questions related to current academic lesson”
  • Have a peer read the goal to check if it is specific, observable, and measurable. Would they be able to teach this skill by reading the goal? Will they know how to collect data and how often to collect data? Will they know when the goal is mastered?
  • Consider removing prompts given by adults from the annual goal to promote student independence

Developing Standards-Based IEP Goals and Objectives

The practice of aligning IEP goals for students with disabilities with grade-level state standards is considered a best practice in special education. The process of reviewing the grade-level standards and aligning goals that would allow progress towards these standards, supports the practice of creating high expectations for students. This practice stems from the federal requirement of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2004), which outlines that students with disabilities should be allowed to access general education curriculum. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Enders F. v. Douglas County School District also indicates that schools must provide “merely more than de minimis” education for students with disabilities. This ruling also emphasized the emphasis for schools to provide an education for the students that is “appropriately ambitious” in terms of progress and access to the general education curriculum. This ruling further clarifies the responsibility of districts to support students accessing the general education curriculum. This would start with accessing the grade-level standards. Below we will discuss how to write IEP goals based on grade-level state standards.

Steps to Create a State Standards-Based IEP

Step 1: Look at the grade-level content standards for the student’s current or upcoming grade level and consider what the student should know and demonstrate. This step is important in making sure the teacher is familiar with the content that needs to be covered and ensuring adequate progress is made each year in accessing the general education curriculum.

Step 2: Gather student data or complete assessments to determine where the student is at in comparison to these standards and what knowledge they need to be able to access these standards. The teacher may outline several grade level standards that are important for the student to make adequate progress in the upcoming school year as well.

Step 3: Develop a measurable annual goal that is aligned with grade-level academic content standards. The goal should look at what the student can achieve in the given year, as well as consider what accommodations and evidence-based instructional strategies that the teacher should utilize to support the student accessing this goal. Determining how the goal can be measured will help determine if the student is making adequate progress.

There are resources and online tools that help support teachers in the process of writing IEP goals that take into consideration the grade-level standard. Rethink Ed provides wonderful support to educators on how to access grade-level standards that align with evidence-based strategies, which would support the student in accessing the standard.

First, the teacher can browse the Lesson Library and view which Lessons are aligned with that student’s grade level based on the acronym for the state-standard that the student currently resides in. For the purpose of this example, the student is in a state that utilizes the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Next, the teacher can explore the standards by clicking on the details of this lesson and viewing the standard(s) that align with that lesson.

The teacher can then view the Lesson Plan that has an evidence-based strategy for teaching the specific skill, as well as walk through guidelines for assisting the teacher in writing the IEP goals.