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10 Strategies to Help You Survive Your Next Difficult IEP Meeting

Like myself, most occupational therapists will experience a difficult IEP meeting where IEP team members disagree with each other. A parent or teacher may not agree with your recommendations for the student or maybe you feel that an educational goal is just not at the “just right challenge.”

Through my experienced challenges, I have learned that oftentimes the best way to resolve these situations is to pay attention to those things that I can control. When a meeting starts to develop into a contentious situation I try to practice some strategies to maintain my cool.

I’ve compiled a list of ten things that may help us OTs get through difficult meetings and disagreements. Hopefully, this will help us to foster good relationships with the IEP team and can lead to better outcomes for our students.

1. Be aware of your own feelings and behaviors.

When I say “be aware” what I mean is check in with yourself before, during, and after the meeting. Are you feeling anxious? Are you feeling defensive? You may not realize it, but when you are experiencing these feelings it can come out in body language, tone of voice, and it can impact our ability to hear the concerns of the IEP Team members.

When you are clear about how you’re feeling you can see an opportunity to ask questions, clarify, and address the concerns of the parent or other IEP team member. Often times it can be beneficial to recognize why you’re feeling that way. Am I anxious because I feel my report is inadequate? Or defensive because I feel my character is being called into question?

If you can be aware of your own defensiveness or nerves you can better respond to the situation that’s causing them and hopefully this will allow to make better recommendations to the team.

2. Prepare as best you can

If you’re an occupational therapist like myself working in the public school system, you might have an impacted schedule with more students and work than you are even able to handle in a school day, so DO YOUR BEST!

Showing up for IEP meetings prepared whether it is a triennial or an annual will help you to field unexpected questions and concerns. If you are unaware of the concerns it’s time to go searching for what they might be. Call the teacher or the parent at the very least and if you are able get in there and observed them in action!

Having a clear understanding of what is impacting the student’s occupational performance in the classroom will better lead the IEP team to interventions and solutions.

3. Maintain transparency

Whenever I’ve felt anxious or defensive in or out of an IEP meeting my first instinct is to close off and try to protect myself. It may seem counterintuitive to share your mistakes or difficulties, but it is necessary in developing a plan and fostering trust with the IEP team and parents.

I’m not saying you should disclose every little mistake, but if you are needing to make up missed visits due to a heavy caseload or a student has not met their goal it is best to address the situation in the most open and honest way possible.

In a perfect world I’d be able to get all students to meet and exceed their goals and maintain a regular therapy schedule without interruption. I don’t live in that world. Most of us do not live there actually, so let’s try to maintain transparency when it comes to communicating with the IEP Team.

This may feel uncomfortable, but it will lead to trust and better outcomes for the students you serve!

4. Address the parent’s concerns and ask them for questions

This is so very important. It is surprising how many times this is overlooked in an IEP. IEP meetings are often intimidating and can be long in length. If you feel that they are long think of how long our parents feel these meetings can be.

I am for sure an OT nerd. I know I can go off on tangents if I’m excited to have figured out an intervention or treatment strategy. Checking in with the parent keeps me grounded and allows me to see what I need to better explain in regards to OT or whether I can move forward as the parent is already familiar.

Most parents I work with want to support their child at home and in school. Not to mention they are an invaluable member of the IEP team so forgetting to check in with their concerns can leave off valuable information that the team needs to make the best decisions.

Addressing the parents concerns serves a secondary function of fostering trust and communication between the parent and the other members of the IEP team. I have heard parents state how intimidating their first IEP meetings had been. Including them for more than their signature on the final draft of the IEP will help to prevent unaddressed concerns from ballooning into major disagreements down the road.

5. Pay attention to your tone of voice and body language

I have found that keeping engaged during meetings is important. Convey this through your tone of voice and body language. Try to keep side conversations to a minimum as to not alienate the parent or other team members. I have been guilty of trying to work out potential ideas with a side conversation in the past as well as have glanced at my phone on more than one occasion.

Avoid doing this! Put your phone on silent and hide it deeply in your bag if you have to. It is very important to stay engaged throughout the meeting and convey your engagement through eye contact, body language and tone of voice.

6. Remember you’re the occupational therapist

Not everyone in the room will know what “OT” is and most people do not understand school-based occupational therapy.

Most people see occupational therapy as working with the small muscles, sensory activities, teaching handwriting, and fine motor skills so it is important to explain what it is OTs actually do. It can help to use more language around occupational performance in your reports and assessments.

The fine motor, visual motor, sensory, handwriting, etc… is one tiny piece of your recommendations and it is important to Occupational therapy is so much more involved than to only look at these performance areas. Clearly defining occupational therapy will help the parents and team members during difficult IEP meetings to view OT services more accurately.

7. Apologize for your mistakes when you need to

A school psychologist I once worked with told me once “I can’t un-ring a bell”. When you have messed up I find that it is best to own it and move forward. There’s no need to be defensive if you own it and apologize.

Avoid blaming other team members, explaining about the caseload, or trying to redirect the conversation. Owning your mistakes and apologizing will help you to build trust and credibility. Mistakes can only be corrected when addressed head on the IEP team and your student will thank you for it!

8. Always return to the needs and best interests of the student

When a meeting or conversation begins to get heated it is very important to redirect yourself to the point of the meeting and that is the individual needs of the student.

By keeping the best interests of the student in the forefront of each meeting and you will be able to clearly relate each recommendation and strategy to the child’s access to the educational program. This seems obvious; however when we get into difficult meetings it can be tempting to talk about outside influences (i.e. caseload, teacher, other students).

Outside influences will always be a part of the student’s life so better to explain them from a student first point of view. For example if a student’s behavior is described as disrupting another student’s learning or the classroom it can be better to explain how the child’s behavior is limiting his or her access to their current program or socialization and develop a strategy or goal from that point of view.

9. Take a break if you have to

If a meeting is getting heated or you’re unable to articulate your point clearly take a deep breath or even request to be excused (use the bathroom as an excuse). I have sat in three hour meetings where I had to review and defend my assessment report findings for the full length of that time. In retrospect it may have been better to request to reconvene the meeting or to have looked into the alternative dispute resolution process my district offers.

I have found that during heated or contentious meetings taking a break allows the whole team to return to the table with a clear head and get things accomplished.

10. Show you care

Most occupational therapists got into this field because we identify and enjoy with helping people. I personally love the challenge of working in a school-based setting. I enjoy seeing when a student has made progress or achieved a goal.

Human beings have a negativity bias and it is important to bring up the strengths of the student even more so than the child’s weaknesses. We need to be reminded ten times how “good” we are for one criticism we receive. Children and parents need to be reminded sincerely of the good things and achievements as much as if not more than the weaknesses.

IEP meetings are a great opportunity to show empathy, leverage a child’s strengths, and gain face to face time with the influencers in that student’s life. Practice empathy during IEPs and do not be afraid of showing how much you care about the work you do.


So tell us what strategies are you using to get through difficult IEP meetings? Did you find these strategies helpful? Please comment and share on Facebook to keep the conversation going. Being an occupational therapist is amazing but it can be challenging. The more we share and support each other the better will we become!

Thanks for stopping by and come back soon!

Abby :-)


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