Seattle's Child

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It’s my IEP meeting and I’ll cry if I want to

This Seattle special-needs mom has been advised, "Don't cry in your IEP meeting." But with all of the injustice in special education in our state, can you blame her?

I recently read a blog post by a special-needs mom admonishing other moms for crying in IEP meetings.*

Crying is not going to help get your kids’ needs met, the author argues. We should treat IEP meetings like business negotiations and keep it professional.

This assumes that everyone else is keeping it professional, too, and that all parties are acting in the child’s best interest. It assumes an equal playing field where parental input is given as much weight as the opinions of teachers and administrators.

It assumes, above all else, sufficient resources available so that decisions regarding a child’s special education services are being determined primarily by need, not cost.

The author acknowledges this isn’t always the case. Still, she advises, the best strategy for parents is to remain emotionally neutral and negotiate the best one can.

I have cried in IEP meetings. I have lost my cool. Once, my husband and I became so frustrated with the process that we walked out.

Did my reaction help get my son’s educational needs met?

Probably not.

Did it make me feel better?

Not really.

Do I regret my actions?

I’m not proud of them, but I’m also not apologetic.

Sometimes the appropriate reaction to a system that is inherently unfair is to get upset.

I have my own grief and anger around my child’s disability. Those emotions are mine to deal with. If, on occasion, they crack through the surface during discussions about my child, so be it. I’m human.

But rather than focusing on what an emotional wreck I am, perhaps more attention needs to be paid to what’s making all these moms cry in the first place.

When I shed tears in an IEP meeting, it’s not because I’m grieving my child’s disability or I’m just overwrought by nature. I cry because I feel powerless. It’s the sense of powerlessness any parent feels when they see clearly what their child needs and yet are unable to get it for them.

In most IEP meetings, parents are outnumbered, sometimes by a ratio of five or 10 professionals to one parent. Often the IEP is already written and the parent is simply handed a copy and asked to sign it.

Although everyone present is purportedly on the same team, the professionals hold all the cards: the data, the resources, and, ultimately, the ability to say no to reasonable parent requests.

“No” to a one-on-one aide.

“No” to more time in general education.

“No” to more specialized instruction.

The stated reason for “No” is that the child doesn’t really need the services requested.

The unspoken truth probably has more to do with money.

Special education is chronically and knowingly underfunded both in Washington state and nationwide. Congress never delivered on its promise to foot 80 percent of the special-education costs.

Here in Washington, we came up with a solution for basic education funding that effectively left special education out. That’s large-scale, government-sanctioned discrimination against students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, our state ranks among the lowest in outcomes for special-education students. Only just over half graduate from high school. More than a third drop out of school altogether.

That, to me, is a crying shame.

The author of the blog might be right that getting emotional doesn’t help my son’s cause. From my experience, not getting emotional doesn’t help either.

In truth, what’s going to help my son’s cause has nothing to do with me or my emotions.

It has to do with prioritizing and funding special education at a level that meets students’ actual needs. It has to do with shifting power dynamics in IEP meetings so that parents have more say in the process.

Until that happens, parents will continue to be told “No” in IEP meetings.  Some of us might even cry.

You would cry too if it happened to you.


*IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. It’s a legally binding document outlining what special education services a child will receive as part of the “free and appropriate education” guaranteed to all students with disabilities. The IEP meeting is the annual meeting of parents, teachers, specialists and administrators to determine what services will be provided and how they will be delivered.  Most parents dread them. 


Lynn Dixon lives in Ballard with her husband and two engaging boys.  Her family’s favorite place is anywhere they can spread out, make noise and whack things.  She believes there’s no such thing as typical, that every child is gifted and our vulnerabilities are our biggest asset because they connect us to one another. Read more of Lynn Dixon’s work on her Somewhere Over the Spectrum blog and her Facebook page.


More from Lynn Dixon on Seattle’s Child:

What this autism mom learned from the mother of Ferdinand the bull

Our son has special needs, but his most important need is for happiness

How to throw a birthday party for a child with autism or sensory sensitivity


About the Author

Lynn Dixon