If your child attends a public school and has a learning disability, physical challenge, or condition that impedes her ability to succeed in the classroom, federal law requires her school to develop a plan to meet her educational needs. For students who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, that plan is known as an individualized education program.

Parents play an active role in developing IEPs, the terms of which are hammered out at meetings that include professionals of the parents’ choosing, the child’s teacher, special education professionals, and the principal or other administrator.

“Once your child’s present level of performance has been determined, the IEP team, with your input, will develop measurable annual goals for your child and describe how progress toward meeting those goals will be measured,” says Mary Beth Klotz, director of IDEA projects at the National Association of School Psychologists.

These goals are spelled out in the IEP document. In addition, the IEP states how the school will keep parents informed about their child’s progress toward the goals. After the IEP has been written, IEP teams meet at least once a year to discuss these goals and to update the document if needed.

During the initial IEP meeting, team members determine what types of remediation services, therapy, and accommodations the child will receive. For example, a child with a learning disability might get daily tutoring in math, weekly occupational therapy to help with fine motor skills, and unlimited time to take math tests. He also might get a copy of the teacher’s math textbook to keep at home, so his parents can help him.

Because the IEP document is so important, its creation and execution can be stressful for parents. Teachers and parents sometimes disagree over what the child needs or is entitled to under the law. If a disagreement arises, parents have several options, which are outlined in a document called a procedural safeguards notice. Schools are required to give parents a copy of this document, which outlines their rights in the IEP process.

The best approach is to view an IEP meeting as an opportunity to solve problems, says Chris Vance, an Atlanta special education attorney and mother of a son with special needs. She often arrives with snacks and bottled water to share. “Instead of being combative, I say, ‘We have intelligent people in the room. We have a problem to solve. Let’s find a way to solve it!’ ”

Tips for IEP Meetings

Klotz and Vance offer these tips for getting the best result from an IEP meeting:

Learn about the law. Before the meeting, read the basics about the IEP process and your rights as a parent. Klotz suggests parents visit websites for the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities and the Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers.

Be informed. Vance recommends parents get independent assessments from a psychologist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, or private education consultant. Work hard to identify the root cause of your child’s struggles and then learn all you can about that issue. Sometimes a child will appear to have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. But he could have an underlying disability, such as dyslexia, that causes him to behave in ways typical of kids with ADHD.

Be prepared. Ask for the school’s goals for your child prior to the meeting, Vance advises. You can review them and respond appropriately. Highlight portions of the law you think might be relevant and bring research you might want to share.

Share information. Share information with the IEP team about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, his academic, behavioral, and other developmental abilities, and results of independent evaluations, Klotz advises. Keep in mind that your job is to advocate for your child, so try not to get emotional, Vance says.

Work as a team. Let school employees know that you want to work together as a team. If things get combative, reiterate that you want to work with, not against, the school, Vance says.

Bring a tape recorder. Meetings can go quickly, sometimes with several people talking at once. A recording will help you process the meeting after it’s over and figure out whether your goals were accomplished. If you’re worried about insulting the educators, say you’re making the recording because a family member who wanted to attend was not able to, Vance advises.

Bring someone. Vance suggests bringing your spouse, your mother, your friend, a professional advocate, or an attorney. Having someone with you will keep you from feeling like the school administrators are ganging up on you, should a disagreement arise.

Be nice. Find a way to compliment your child’s teacher, even if things aren’t going well in the classroom. Instead of saying, “My daughter hasn’t made any progress in your class,” Vance suggests saying, “My daughter thinks you’re a really nice teacher.”

Be firm. Insist on accurate, measurable objectives to determine if progress is being made or if a program is succeeding, Vance says. If your child is referred to therapy, insist the IEP specify how many hours of therapy your child will get and whether your child will have one-on-one therapy or be part of a group. If the IEP just says “once a week,” your child could miss out when the therapist is out sick or at a conference.

Insist on specifics. If a teacher says your child has made progress, ask for specifics, Vance says. If the teacher says your child has learned 50 new words, ask how many words a regular-education student has learned. If the answer is 5,000, your child may not be making real progress after all.

Don’t be timid. It’s tempting to go along to get along, especially if you fear your child will be treated poorly if you disagree with the school. Don’t just go with the flow. If an administrator or teacher says the school can’t provide services, ask them to spell out exactly why they can’t do it, Vance recommends. Parent input is an important part of the IEP process, Klotz notes. “IDEA makes it clear that parents are full and equal members of the IEP team,” Klotz says.

Keep good records. Make a file for copies of your child’s IEPs and evaluations, Klotz recommends. High school students with IEPs will need them as they work to create transition plans for life after their senior year. “Copies of your child’s IEPs and evaluations will be helpful in documenting that your child has a disability and is in need of accommodation should your child request disability services in postsecondary settings such as college or vocational rehabilitation programs,” Klotz says.

Be an involved parent. By being active in the school’s PTA or PTO, you make valuable contacts with administrators and teachers, Vance says. You also make it clear that you are invested in the school and committed to your child’s education. A special-needs child requires a lot of time and attention, and it may be hard to find time to volunteer. Choose activities that are less time consuming but still visible. You don’t have to take on a leadership role.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.