By David DeMatthews, PhD, and Julie Means-Parker


The pandemic had a significant impact on students with disabilities and the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Researchers found that while many students struggled academically and socially, students with disabilities were at increased risk of struggling and falling behind their peers. Now, many schools are confronting shortages of special education teachers, related service providers, and school psychologists. Principals and assistant principals cannot afford to ignore families as key partners given these resource challenges.

IDEA mandates that families are meaningfully included in critical decisions about their child’s identification into special education and the development and implementation of an individualized educational program (IEP). Specifically, the law notes that schools should take steps to ensure families “are afforded the opportunity to participate” in IEP meetings (IDEA, 2004). Texas has historically struggled to implement IDEA with the state consistently being labeled by the U.S. Department of Education as “Needs Intervention”. Moreover, Texas has reported to the U.S. Department of Education (2017) a shortage of special educators for more than two decades. As of January 2023, Texas also had a school psychologist to student ratio of 1-to-2,338 (National Association of School Psychologists, 2023).

Under these difficult conditions, principals and assistant principals must proactively work to ensure families are meaningfully engaged in all aspects of the special education process. This includes pre-referral interventions, the referral and identification process, and the development and annual revision of the IEP. Yet, researchers have often found families are not adequately engaged in these processes—and are often shut out or shut down when they try to advocate or speak up. Recently, we have conducted research with a group of Texas parents of children with disabilities. To gain their perspective, we asked them about: (1) the degree to which schools meaningfully engaged them in important decisions; (2) the role principals or assistant principals played in formal special education meetings like initial evaluations and IEP meetings; and (3) what recommendations they have to strengthen the relationship and collaborative work between educators and families.

In our study we heard examples of both troubling behaviors as well as bright spots that can inform practice. For example, several parents noted that many principals and assistant principals were almost or completely silent in IEP meetings and often checking email on their phones or laptops. One parent noted, “I’ve been in [IEP meetings] where the principal starts to read the newspaper.” Silence or distraction communicates to parents a lack of investment and care. Yet, other parents noted the principal or assistant principal played an important role in helping to facilitate dialogue and ensuring everyone had an opportunity to voice their perspective and share information. One parent noted how important it was just to know the principal knew important details about their child and was ready to help or intervene.

These parent reflections highlight the important role principals and assistant principals play in supporting any struggling learner, including students with disabilities. In what follows, we highlight three key practices principals and assistant principals should take to comply with IDEA’s expectation that schools meaningfully engage with families. These recommendations are rooted in effective practices identified in research and illustrated through selected quotes from parents that participated in our study.

First, principals and assistant principals should be well-versed in IDEA, although many principal and teacher preparation programs lack adequate training in this area. Perhaps the most important part of the law is the expectation that families are meaningfully included in all key decisions in the special education process. Families know a lot about their child’s strengths and areas of growth which can help inform school decisions. While the district (or the district’s designee, typically the principal or assistant principal) has the final say in a formal special education meeting if a team cannot come to a consensus, all school staff should enter the meeting with a strong desire to reach consensus. More specifically, IDEA expects that families are meaningfully engaged, have opportunities to share input and ask questions, and have sufficient information to understand what is happening in the meeting.

Many parents in our study reported they didn’t understand their rights, especially when their child had just entered in the special education process. One parent said she did not get information about her rights or any information about potential revisions to an IEP until the meeting started and then was expected to participate. Feeling caught off guard often will not support parent participation. Each school should ensure parents have access to the procedural safeguards, explain the parents’ rights, and designate a meeting facilitator to ensure at each part of the meeting the parent has opportunities to speak and ask questions. Schools may consider offering a workshop on procedural safeguards at the beginning of each school year so parents can review content and ask questions in order to be fully prepared in meetings.

Second, consistent progress monitoring and a schedule for regular communication between teachers and the family are critical to ensuring everyone is fully prepared to engage in special education meetings. Unfortunately, many schools across the country have struggled to implement high-quality interventions and accurately progress monitor. Without progress monitoring data, educators cannot keep families updated on their child’s strengths and areas of growth. As a consequence, a family also may not fully understand the nature of their child’s academic, social, or emotional difficulties. A child’s challenges may worsen, but the parent may not be kept in the loop leading to them feel blindsided in an IEP meeting and afraid to contribute.

Principals and assistant principals should be working together with teachers to ensure the school is effectively implementing multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). MTSS has been defined as an “overarching system of support providing three tiers of instructional intensity directed to academic, behavioral, social, and emotional indicators of whole child components of learning” (Sailor et al., 2021, p. 25). This is a comprehensive schoolwide approach to detecting academic difficulties in real time and early so that the school can quickly intervene. MTSS is comprised of four essential components: (1) validated universal screening at the beginning and middle of the school year (Gersten et al., 2009); (2) multi-tiered system of evidenced-based, culturally responsive instructional and intervention supports; (3) regular and appropriate use of valid tools to progress monitor; and (4) a team approach to data analysis and decision-making about instruction and intervention.

When principals and educators work together to implement MTSS, they can easily keep families updated with critical information. When teams meet to determine special education eligibility, they will have sufficient data to ensure the right decisions are made. A lack of data from MTSS can lead to another problem that can seriously undermine the relationship between families and the school. We have heard from many parents that special education decisions were often made unilaterally by an educational diagnostician or special educator interpreting results from one assessment tool. Yet, IDEA clearly states an evaluation must include a “variety of assessment tools” and cannot “use any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion for determining an appropriate educational program for the child” (IDEA, 2004).

Third, educators who know the child and can speak to her or his strengths and areas of growth should not be shuffled in and out of IEP meetings because of scheduling conflicts. IDEA makes clear all members of the IEP should be present for the entire meeting and the parent has the right to be notified in writing if any member will miss the meeting or is to be present for only a portion of the meeting. Researchers have also found many general education teachers rarely speak during IEP meetings despite having important information to share. We heard several parents report how IEP meetings had very little talking from anyone but the facilitator. For example, one parent noted the IEP team facilitator “controlled what every person said.”

Often, the meeting facilitator, usually an educational diagnostician or special education teacher tries to stick to a strict agenda, which can intimidate educators and parents, discouraging them from speaking up. IEP team facilitators may fear questioning their recommendations may cause the meeting to run over on time or empower the parents to make unreasonable requests the school or district cannot meet. Regardless of these fears, having IEP members shuffle in and out and having educators feeling afraid to speak does not create a trusting environment for families. If families do not see teachers or principals engaged, it is likely they will not engage as well. Thus, facilitators should think carefully about the scheduling of IEP meetings to ensure there is sufficient time, work with administrators to ensure teachers have adequate classroom coverage, and expectations are made clear that general educators are expected to be fully engaged throughout the meeting.

Families must be viewed as partners and be empowered by principals and assistant principals. Together, administrators, educators, and families can overcome tremendous obstacles and ensure students with disabilities and any other struggling learners can fully benefit from the school’s resources and opportunities. Our study’s findings clearly indicate schools with strong principal and assistant principal leadership in the special education process leads to positive relationships and outcomes. One parent said it best, “Having leadership with special education [knowledge] helps us get the most out of the available resources.” Parents understand principals and teachers must know the law, ensure meetings are well-facilitated and inclusive, and be proactively working to identify, intervene, and make data informed decisions when any student is struggling. Now is the time for principals and assistant principals to ensure families are meaningfully engaged. For more information, consider the following websites:

Dr. David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

Julie Means-Parker is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin’s Educational Leadership and Policy master’s program and team member of the Texas Education Policy Lab.

Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., & Witzel, B. (2009). Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for elementary and middle schools (NCEE 2009-4060). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, Pub. L. No. 108-446. (2004).

National Association of School Psychologists. (2023). Student to school psychologist ratio 2021-22. Author. Retrieved from

Sailor, W., Skrtic, T. M., Cohn, M., & Olmstead, C. (2021). Preparing teacher educators for statewide scale-up of multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). Teacher Education and Special Education, 44(1), 24-41.

U.S. Department of Education. (2017). Teacher shortage areas nationwide listing 1990-1991 through 2017-2018. Author. Retrieved from

TEPSA Leader, Winter 2024, Vol 37, No 1

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