What’s an IEP?

Children with delayed skills or other disabilities might be eligible for special services that provide individualized education programs in public schools, free of charge to families. Understanding how to access these services can help parents be effective advocates for their children.

The passage of the updated version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) made parents of kids with special needs even more crucial members of their child’s education team. Parents can now work with educators to develop a plan — the individualized education plan (IEP) — to help children succeed in school. The IEP describes the goals the team sets for a child during the school year, as well as any special support needed to help achieve them.

Who Needs an IEP?

A child who has difficulty learning and functioning and has been identified as a special needs student is the perfect candidate for an IEP. Children  struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to be taught in a special way.

How Are Services Delivered?

In most cases, the services and goals outlined in an IEP can be provided in a standard school environment. This can be done in the regular classroom (for example, a reading teacher helping a small group of children who need extra assistance while the other kids in the class work on reading with the regular teacher) or in a special resource room in the regular school. The resource room can serve a group of kids with similar needs who are brought together for help.

However, children who need intense intervention may be taught in a special school environment. These classes have fewer students per teacher, allowing for more individualized attention. In addition, the teacher usually has specific training in helping kids with special educational needs. The children spend most of their day in a special classroom and join the regular classes for nonacademic activities (like music and gym) or in academic activities in which they don’t need extra help.

Because the goal of IDEA is to ensure that each child is educated in the least restrictive environment possible, effort is made to help kids stay in a regular classroom. However, when needs are best met in a special class, then kids might be placed in one. These decisions must be accepted in full by the parent of the child. As the parent, you DO have a voice as to what YOU feel is the best environment for your child to learn and function in.

Who’s On the Team?

The professionals on the evaluation team can include:

  • a psychologist
  • a physical therapist
  • an occupational therapist
  • a speech therapist
  • a special educator
  • a vision or hearing specialist
  • others, depending on the child’s specific needs

As a parent, you can decide whether to have your child assessed. If you choose to do so, you’ll be asked to sign a permission form that will detail who is involved in the process and the types of tests they use. These tests might include measures of specific school skills, such as reading or math, as well as more general developmental skills, such as speech and language. Testing does not necessarily mean that a child will receive services.

Once the team members complete their individual assessments, they develop a comprehensive evaluation report (CER) that compiles their findings, offers an educational classification, and outlines the skills and support the child will need. The parents then have a chance to review the report before the IEP is developed. Some parents will disagree with the report, but they will have the opportunity to work together with the school to come up with a plan that best meets the child’s needs.

Developing an IEP

The next step is an IEP meeting at which the team and parents decide what will go into the plan. In addition to the evaluation team, a regular teacher should be present to offer suggestions about how the plan can help the child’s progress in the standard education curriculum.

At the meeting, the team will discuss your child’s educational needs — as described in the CER — and come up with specific, measurable short-term and annual goals for each of those needs. If you attend this meeting, you can take an active role in developing the goals and determining which skills or areas will receive the most attention.

The cover page of the IEP outlines the support services your child will receive and how often they will be provided (for example, occupational therapy twice a week). Support services might include special education, speech therapy, occupational or physical therapy, counseling, audiology, medical services, nursing, vision or hearing therapy, and many others.

If the team recommends several services, the amount of time they take in the child’s school schedule can seem overwhelming. To ease that load, some services may be provided on a consultative basis. In these cases, the professional consults with the teacher to come up with strategies to help the child but doesn’t offer any hands-on instruction. For instance, an occupational therapist may suggest accommodations for a child with fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the classroom teacher would incorporate these suggestions into the handwriting lessons taught to the entire class.

Other services can be delivered right in the classroom, so the child’s day isn’t interrupted by therapy. The child who has difficulty with handwriting might work one on one with an occupational therapist while everyone else practices their handwriting skills. When deciding how and where services are offered, the child’s comfort and dignity should be a top priority.

The IEP will be reviewed annually to update the goals and make sure the levels of service meet your child’s needs. However, IEPs can be changed at any time on an as-needed basis. If you think your child needs more, fewer, or different services, you can request a meeting and bring the team together to discuss your concerns.

Specific time lines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to providing services as quickly as possible. Be sure to ask about this time frame and get a copy of your parents’ rights when your child is referred. These guidelines (sometimes called procedural safeguards) outline your rights as a parent to control what happens to your child during each step of the process.

The parents’ rights also describe how you can proceed if you disagree with any part of the CER or the IEP — mediation and hearings both are options. You can get information about low-cost or free legal representation from the school district or, if your child is in Early Intervention (for kids ages 3 to 5), through that program. Attorneys and paid advocates familiar with the IEP process will provide representation if you need it. You also may invite anyone who knows or works with your child whose input you feel would be helpful to join the IEP team.

Final Thought

Always remember, you are your child’s strongest advocate. In my experiences with IEP meetings and the development of my daughter’s educational plan, I have found that quite often many of the goals outlined in the IEP, I believed my child had already mastered. Some of these involved vocal and communicative skills. However, her shy personality at school often did not afford the teachers the opportunity to hear or witness these accomplishments in action. It is in these instances where you must decide to consider the goal mastered and voice that request or continue on in the educational plans and goals established and not yet considered mastered by the teacher.

Be strong, be kind, be confident, and continue to be your child’s strongest advocate.

The Nemours Foundation copyright 1995-2011

Donna Powell (in part) copyright 2011

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