Making Room at the Table: How to Create Student Voice During IEP Meetings

Andelee Espinosa

Andelee is a special education teacher and has been supporting students in high school regular education classrooms for 20 years. She has a passion for personalized learning and teaching students to use their voice. She currently supports in Physics and Biology classrooms at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, WI. You can connect with her on Twitter: @AndeleeEspinosa.

Student led IEP meetings are meaningful opportunities for students to develop agency, self-advocacy skills and be powerful members of their team. Yet, many educators, families, and students become overwhelmed in how to begin to cultivate this as part of regular practice. How do we make room at the table for students to become self-advocates in the design of their own learning?

Early in my teaching career, I was setting up an IEP meeting, collecting some dates and times that would work for the parents on the team, and the conversation wasn’t going well. Setting up an IEP meeting with a variety of participants is always a challenge while negotiating multiple schedules. This particular parent wasn’t being adversarial, she just couldn’t wrap her head around why I was planning when the student could attend. It became apparent that her child’s attendance at the IEP meeting was something that hadn’t happened in the past. It was at that moment that my interest in including students at the table in a meaningful way was propelled into a professional passion. The process has evolved and looks a little different for each student, but I think it is critical to building ownership, agency and self-advocacy skills in the student.

How to Create Student Voice During IEP Meetings

My Approach to Personalizing Learning with Students in Special Education

As I continued to design and fine tune my approach over the years, I have come up with a structure and tools that have helped students move from a meeting that is done on their behalf to something they lead. The conversation is based on what they continue to discover about themselves and how they are looking to the attendees for feedback and guidance.

Step 1: Getting started

Today, I start the process of engaging students in reflection and IEP prep with the Me as a Learner checklist created by Barbara Bray (@bbray27). Initially, the student and I fill this checklist out together, often as an interview before school even starts. For my freshman, it’s a powerful way for me to get to know them and start building trust. This activity communicates that I care about them and that they matter.


Once the checklist is completed, we populate a chart that organizes the information according to Universal Design for Learning principles. The idea for the chart originally came from the book How to Personalize Learning, by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, and has been modified for my own purposes. This document is completed or updated before I even begin writing their annual IEP, and it’s where real conversations about hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, and what helps them learn take place.

Aligning my IEP writing to UDL principles allows students to have a greater voice during their meetings and therefore become better advocates for themselves in the classroom. This advocacy piece is so important and helps prepare them for life after public school when they are completely on their own.

Learner Profile Grid – _Joey_


Step 2: Give students the support they need to lead

Each student requires a different amount of preparation to lead the meeting. Some are able to walk in with minimal preparation and others are terrified to even be in the room. This is why it’s critical to gain the trust of the student and transfer confidence from me to them. I teach positive self-talk strategies and assist in writing scripts if it boosts confidence. Younger students should be asked to share what they like best about school and complete All About Me visuals that they can explain during their meetings and attend as much of the meeting as is appropriate. Older students should be leading and facilitating as much as they are able.

Flipgrid has been an important tool for infusing voice into the presentation for my students with intellectual disabilities and autism. During the IEP preparation, I have a series of questions about hopes, dreams, learning preferences, helpful supports and goals. My student records one video for each question and then during the meeting, plays the videos for the team during specific times. The students feel empowered and are full of pride.

Take a look at an example.


Step 3: The day of the meeting

IEP meetings start with the student introducing the team. After receiving feedback from a parent that meetings are often overwhelming because of the number of people, I implemented name placards. The student creates them, often just using laminated card stock and dry erase markers. Each student creates a Google slide deck that takes the team through the parts of the IEP, but we begin with hopes and dreams first: specifically, the student’s post-secondary goal. The student and I take the team through the Post-Secondary Transition Plan (PTP) which defines the goal. As the highlight of the meeting, we move into the Learner Profile which is projected on a screen at the front of the conference room, and team members are given hard copies.

As students mature and experience the process multiple times, they sometimes personalize their presentation style via sketchnoting, videos or other mediums they enjoy. By the time the student is done explaining their Learner Profile, many of their strengths, challenges, present level of performance and supplementary aids and services have been addressed in an engaging manner. The team discusses progress towards IEP goals — but within the context of how those goals support the hopes and dreams of the student. This format creates engaging meetings that are positive in nature and truly child-centered.

Creating a space for students to articulate hopes, dreams, goals and who they are as learners supports developing student agency. This leads to strong advocacy skills both in the classroom and in life and ownership of learning. It’s important for all students to have an active place at the table during IEP meetings. After all, it’s a meeting about them and their voice is critical to the team.

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