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What is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

IEP is an acronym for Individualized Education Plan. It is a document required for any child over the age of three years old who qualifies as a student with a disability. Prior to three-years-old, a child with a disability will have an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The main difference between an IEP and an IFSP is that the latter has a family-centered focus whereas an IEP is school-focused. There is also a distinct difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan. A 504 plan, describes accommodations that will help the student succeed in the classroom and follow the curriculum – but without changing the curriculum itself. So let’s focus on an IEP…

How is an IEP Created?

A child must first be evaluated and if developmental delays are identified, then an IEP will be written. The IEP will have an appropriate section for each team member, such as: speech pathologist, occupational therapist, special education teacher, and so forth.  A multidisciplinary team works together to create the IEP. This team may include: educators, school psychologists, developmental professionals, counselors, and most importantly parents/guardians. The IEP is created to support a child as a student and member of the classroom, therefore, the goals will have a strong focus on academic improvement and the school environment.

After a parent/guardian meeting and approval, the IEP will then be finalized by the team, with signatures from all parties including the parent/guardian, and put into action. Once the parent/guardian grants written permission in agreement with the contents of the IEP, it becomes a legally binding document and the child is deemed eligible for special education services as outlined in the document.

It is incredibly important for parents/guardians, as the child’s biggest advocate, to be in full agreement with the content of an IEP before signing.

What does a good IEP look like?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is just that: individualized. No two children’s IEP’s should look alike. It is a unique set of goals designed specifically to aid in the development of a particular child.

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public law 101-476) is a federal special education law enacted in the 1970s that provides students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). IDEA was amended in 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act, public law 114-95.

The format and content of an IEP can vary from state to state and district to district however, IDEA mandates that the following components be included:

  • Present Levels of Academic Achievement/Performance: Summarizes all aspects of a child’s present levels of performance and provides the foundation upon which all other decisions in the IEP are made. It includes scores on standardized exams and assessments, reading levels, teacher observations, etc. This section identifies a child’s current academic achievement and functional performance thereby identifying and prioritizing the specific needs of the child.
  • Related Services:Based on the child’s evaluation, any recommendations for related services such as speech therapy, PT/OT, counseling, or other services will be outlined.
  • Measurable Annual Goals: These are goals for each subject or content area that the child is anticipated to meet by year-end. Annual goals are the larger stated goals specific to discipline or skill such as speech and language, fine motor, gross motor, cognitive, or social-emotional development. The goals listed under “Benchmarks/Objectives” are achieved through service delivery, which is represented in a clearly marked section of the IEP. The benchmarks are the smaller goals that will build-up to the larger annual goal.
  • Modifications: These can include extended time on tests, preferential classroom seating, testing in smaller groups, transportation needs, etc.
  • Participation with Children without Disabilities: This is where it would be explained if there are any circumstances where the child will not participate with typically developing children in classes and activities. Remember: the goal is for the child to be in the least restrictive environment (LRE). For some children that is a special education classroom and for others it is a general education classroom with an aide, among many other options. Never forget the IEP is individualized and tailored to meet each child’s specific needs.
  • Additional Individual Accommodations: This can include other accommodations that do not fall into the aforementioned categories including medical needs, use of assistive technology, etc.

TIP: Keep in mind that measurable goals are academic goals for your child which allow the parent/guardian, the school, and all others involved to speak the same language and to move forward together as a team. The goals must be specific and measurable to be effective.

Sometimes there are goals that benefit multiple children and educators might re-use goals. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the goals on your child’s IEP reflect your child. Be cautious of typos such as misuse of pronouns, it can be indicator that the specialist has copy and pasted an already created goal into your child’s IEP. Again, if the goal applies to your child there is no reason why it can’t be used, however, proceed with caution and review the document carefully.

An IEP meeting is held annually with all members of the child’s team. Goals are reviewed, and modifications or amendment possibilities are explored. Student progress, growth, data, and anticipated needs for the following school year are considered. A new IEP will be drafted for the next calendar year, and the process repeats itself each year until a child no longer qualifies for or needs services.

What are the child’s and parent’s rights?

Due Process refers to procedures that, by law, are used to ensure your child with a disability’s rights to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and your rights to be involved and have a full understanding of that process.

You have the right to be fully informed. You must be notified in your preferred language or mode of communication of your rights in the decision-making process.

You have the right to participate. This includes your right to: bring other people to meetings who have the knowledge or special expertise regarding your child, have meetings scheduled at a time that works for you, and have an interpreter if you need one.

You have the right to request a certified Parent Member attend the IEP meeting. You must request a certified Parent Member at least 72 hours before the scheduled date of the IEP Meeting. This person is your advocate and can help you better understand the content of the IEP and can support you throughout the meeting.

You will be asked to provide consent to the content of the IEP. Consent is voluntary. Providing consent means that you understand and agree, in writing, to the actions outlined in the IEP. Once signed, the IEP becomes a legally binding document. Do not sign the IEP if you do not understand or agree with its contents.

If you do not agree to the contents of the IEP, you have the right to challenge the school’s decisions and recommendations regarding your child. If you refuse to sign the IEP then it will go to mediation. A mediator helps you work with the school to come to an agreement about your child’s education plan. If an agreement cannot be met, there will be an impartial hearing. An impartial hearing officer listens to both sides of the disagreement and decides what, if anything, went wrong and how to fix it.

You have the right to an appeal. You can appeal the decision of an Impartial Hearing Officer. You can ask for the court to review the decision. You can also oppose appeals made by the Department of Education.

IEP meetings occur annually, however, you have the right to request one at any time.

Another helpful resource to help navigate the IEP process is the U.S. Department of Education’s Guide to the Individualized Education Program. Which can be accessed here.

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