Why Engaging Students in the IEP Process Matters and Ways to Engage Students with Disabilities

By Jennifer Wolfsheimer, JD

All educators and school building administrators are responsible for implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and ensuring students with disabilities receive the services and supports they are entitled to. While the IDEA entitles students with disabilities to rights such as a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, implementation of a student’s individualized education program (IEP) may result in many students with disabilities receiving an inadequate education. Both general and special educators, and school building administrators have a direct impact on setting high expectations for students with disabilities and play a vital role in ensuring that the individualized needs of each student with a disability are consistent with their IEP.

Specifically, educators and school building administrators can demonstrate high expectations by believing in students, helping them reach their goals, raising their confidence, and listening to students. Having high expectations for students with disabilities starts with addressing our own misperceptions that students with disabilities are not as capable as their nondisabled peers and addressing systemic inequities or ableism. Ableism refers to discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Thomas Hehir, former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, defines the manifestation of ableism in education as “the devaluation of disability” that “results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids” (Hehir, 2005, p. 15). When we discuss ableism, it is critical that we do so through an intersectional lens that accounts for the ways in which marginalized students (e.g., Black male students with disabilities or second language learners with disabilities) may experience compounded inequities (ableism, racism, sexism, classism).

When educators confront ableism in schools, their actions also align to the legal requirements of IDEA. For instance, the IDEA requirement that the IEP team includes the child with a disability, “whenever appropriate” (34 C.F.R. § 300.321(a)(7)) is a prime example of how legal compliance is not enough to confront ableism and raise expectations for students with disabilities. The IEP team must invite students with disabilities to their IEP meeting if “a purpose of the meeting will be the consideration of the postsecondary goals…and the transition services needed to assist the child in reaching those goals” (34 C.F.R. § 300.321(b)(1)). If the child does not attend transition-related IEP meetings, the school is required to “take other steps to ensure that the child’s preferences and interests are considered” (34 C.F.R. § 300.321(b)(2)).

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSEP) has issued guidance stating that inviting students to IEP meetings is only a requirement “in the case of postsecondary goals and transition services and is not mandatory with respect to the child’s other IEP goals and special education and related services” (U.S. Dept. of Educ., 2017, p. 2). Therefore, when IEP meetings do not relate to transition, schools are not required to invite students with disabilities to IEP meetings, but schools may invite them. The IDEA emphasizes that it is critical for students with disabilities to be involved in determining their transition goals, as well as the services that will be used to reach those goals.

Inviting the student to their IEP meeting, when appropriate, is a relatively easy box to check. However, valuing students with disabilities as members of their IEP team’s decision-making process takes proactive, authentic engagement. Structuring the IEP team meeting so that the student’s voice is elevated and respected takes effort, but it also empowers the student to take ownership over their goals. To achieve this, students should be welcomed into a supportive environment where they feel comfortable sharing their unique strengths, identities, interests, and aspirations. Educators and administrators’ commitment to including students with disabilities in their IEP team meetings help to ensure it is a supportive and positive experience.

Typically, students with disabilities need explicit instruction to learn how to discuss the nature and impact of their disability, their strengths, challenges, and goals. They also need practice to understand the IEP process and learn about their rights. Special education teachers can use time with their students to work on these critical self-determination skills and prepare students to take an active role in their educational planning.

The following are additional concrete actions that IEP teams can take to meaningfully engage students in the IEP process:

  1. Encourage meaningful engagement. At the IEP meeting, invite students with disabilities to share their ideas and truly listen to them. Questions to consider include:
    1. Do you need to add more time to the IEP meeting to ensure that all aspects are thoroughly discussed?
    2. Do you want to send questions home with the student before the meeting, so they have time to reflect, too?
  2. Engage in equitable partnerships with families of students with disabilities in ways that value their contributions, knowledge, and experiences. For ideas on how to do this, read Meeting Families Where They Are: Building Equity Through Advocacy with Diverse Schools and Communities (Harry & Ocasio-Stoutenburg, 2020).
  3. Consider utilizing student-led IEP strategies to ensure students with disabilities have a leadership role in their IEP meetings. You can learn more about these strategies on the “I’m Determined” website.

Students with disabilities face ableism and discrimination in most spaces they enter, including the school setting. From being subjected to exclusionary disciplinary practices at disproportionate rates, being placed in segregated settings, and fighting against low expectations, the journey to true inclusion is challenging. When students are included in their IEP process, they can influence the decisions made and combat the exclusionary practices that limit their educational opportunities. It is up to school administrators and educators to prioritize student voices in their decision-making and advocate for students’ participation in their IEPs. Doing so will live up to the spirit of the IDEA and lead to more inclusive and just educational experiences.


Harry, B., & Ocasio-Stoutenburg, L. (2020). Meeting families where they are: Building equity through advocacy with diverse schools and communities. Teachers College Press.

U.S. Department of Education, (2017, February 27) Letter to anonymous. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. sites.ed.gov/idea/files/idea/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/osep-letter-to-anonymous-2-27-17.pdf

Virginia Department of Education, (2021). I’m Determined. https://www.imdetermined.org/


This product is prepared for the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center (WEEAC) at WestEd, which is authorized under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Equity Assistance Centers provide technical assistance and training to school districts, tribal, and state education agencies to promote equitable education resources and opportunities regardless of race, sex, national origin, or religion. The WEEAC at WestEd partners with Pacific Resources for Education and Learning and Attendance Works to assist Alaska, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Colorado, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaiʻi, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The contents of this product were developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.