Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Psychology and Research

Major Professor

Trena M. Paulus

Committee Members

David F. Cihak, Melinda M. Gibbons, Gary J. Skolits


In response to federal and state special education mandates, there has been increasing focus on collaboration with caregivers and students in special education planning. Promising approaches include students making decisions about their future academic careers with educators and caregivers in Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. However, it is not clear from the research how the presence of the student contributes to decision making interactions. A discourse analysis of 63 middle school IEP meetings compared interactions with or without students present to explore how participants achieved decision making. Specifically analyzed, according to the Discursive Action Model (Edwards & Potter, 1993) and conversation analysis (Heritage, 1997; Sacks, 1992), were how speakers rhetorically constructed talk and managed accountability for reports.

Findings indicated that facilitators arrived to meetings with decisions already made and IEP documents largely completed. The overall structure of the IEP form and legal nature of the meeting accounted for differing modes of participation in decision making. Facilitators rhetorically arranged talk to handle sensitive issues with minimal challenges from participants. They did so by engaging in a presentation format that favored agreement from caregivers and students. Further, facilitators made the state accountable for the IEP procedures, and emphasized their own lack of agency in decision making.

Overall findings demonstrated that discursive constructions limited decision making interactions with and without students present. Contributions to the IEP occurred with some caregivers, and with eighth grade students invited to talk about their career choices and elective coursework for high school. Spontaneous shared decision making with changes to the IEP occurred in only nine meetings. However, where decision making lacked, constructions of hopeful attitudes toward the future prevailed in all meetings. Participants worked to present students as capable and growing, despite the need for special education services. This study contributes to understandings of how participants achieve shared decision making, and offers suggestions for improving discourse within IEP meetings.

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