Understanding an IEP for Your Child

Mother and daughter (4-6) with mature female teacher in classroom

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IEP stands for Individualized Education Program or Individualized Education Plan. You may also hear it called some permutation of those, like "Individualized Educational Plan" or "Individual Education Program." They all mean the same thing—a legally binding document that spells out exactly what special education services your child will receive and why.

The plan will include your child's classification, placement, services such as a one-on-one aide and therapies, academic and behavioral goals, a behavior plan if needed, percentage of time in mainstream education, and progress reports from teachers and therapists. The IEP is planned at an IEP meeting.

The individualized part of IEP means that the plan has to be tailored specifically to your child's needs—not to the needs of the teacher, or the school, or the district. Goals, modifications, accommodations, personnel, and placement should all be selected, enforced, and maintained with the particular needs of your child in mind. "We don't do that," for example, is not an individualized response. If your school has never had a child like yours (and since your child is an individual, they haven't), and now they do, and a service is appropriate to their needs, then they do do that now.

Who Attends an IEP Meeting?

The IEP meeting is attended by members of the Child Study Team, which usually includes a social worker, a psychologist, a learning specialist, and your child's teachers and therapists. Parents and guardians are always to be included in IEP meetings. You have a right to be notified in advance and to change the date if necessary. Although IEP meetings are rarely pleasant, do not be tempted to skip them.

You are more of an expert on your child and your child's best advocate, and are therefore the most essential member of the team.

What Happens at an IEP Meeting?

IEP meetings can be some of the most emotionally difficult experiences parents of children with disabilities can endure.

Early in your child's special education experience, IEP meetings will focus on arranging for testing, giving a classification, and assessing needs. These are hard mostly because you will hear how very far your child is from the "norm," and begin to realize how their educational experience will differ from the one you had or that your other children have. You may feel that the professionals at the table are only looking at your child as their disability—or, equally difficult, you may feel that they are not giving enough attention to the depth and intensity of your child's needs.

As your child moves through the special education system, annual IEP meetings will involve assessments of progress and the planning of the following year's program. Your child's teacher and therapists will read their reports, and the case manager will propose changes to the program or keeping things as is. There may be discussion of changing classifications, adding or subtracting services, moving the child into a different type of classroom, behavior plans, and academic goals. 

If your child is doing well and you feel everything appropriate is being done, these meetings can actually be a pleasant opportunity to interact with school staff. But if there are issues—if you feel your child needs something different than the team is offering, if you are surprised by reports of problems you have not been previously notified of, if you want more services or fewer services, if you want a different classroom or a different school, if you feel goals are not being met and are not being written appropriately—meetings can get very ugly very quickly.

Your child is entitled to a reevaluation every three years, and you will be invited to a meeting whose purpose is mostly to decide whether or not to do that reevaluation. 

If the school feels all is going well, they may suggest that you skip the evaluation. There may be reasons to go along with that—but they should be your reasons, not the school's. Generally, it is a good idea to have the evaluation take place, to have some statistical evidence of your child's progress or lack thereof and to hold the school accountable for that. You will especially want to have the reevaluation at times when a change of placement will definitely occur—such as moving from special-ed pre-K to a special-ed elementary track, going from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school.

Where Do IEP Meetings Take Place?

Generally, IEP meetings will take place at the school where your Child Study Team is based. This may or may not be your child’s school, depending on the size of your district and where your child is placed.

How to Prepare

There may be meetings where you’ll feel that you should have prepared more than expected. But in general, you should prepare the way you would for any important meeting: make notes on what you want to say, do some research if necessary, and know what you want to get out of it. It might be helpful to talk with other parents – whether in your school district or on an internet bulletin board, e-mail, or social media group – to find out what services they have received for children with similar needs to yours.

You will be in a stronger position to make requests if you can back it up with proof that other schools and other districts do indeed offer those services.

It’s also immensely helpful if you can go into a meeting knowing what you want. As a good team member, you will still listen to and consider the opinions of other members of the team, and you will consider compromises and concessions. But the more you rely on the professionals to tell you what you think, the more likely you are to agree to things that are not really in your child’s best interests. Put your solution or suggestions out there, and let the burden be on them to tell you why or why not, and to offer alternatives.

To mentally prepare for what can sometimes be a challenging and emotionally wrenching discussion, it may help to do a lot of reading about your rights and successful strategies. One excellent website for this is Wrightslaw, a treasure trove of information about special education rights and advocacy. A source of IEP-girding inspiration is an essay called "Play Hearts, Not Poker" which outlines the sort of collaborative but assertive attitude that offers the best chance of IEP success.

Should Your Child Come to Meetings?

Your child is entitled to come to IEP meetings, but whether it’s a good idea will depend entirely on your child. At younger ages, caring for your child during the meeting can be a distraction from the serious business at hand, to which you will need to give your full attention. Older kids may have something to offer but may be disturbed to hear all their weaknesses spelled out.

Some kids may feel they have something they want to say, and others may not want to be pulled out of class. If your child does have an interest in attending, suggest that they come for the beginning of the meeting and make their contribution, then leave.

IEP Sample Templates and Suggested Accommodations

Wondering what an IEP (Individualized Education Program) should look like? These sample templates, goals, and accommodations put on the web by school districts, disability organizations, and sites on disability can give you an idea of what to look at and look for when working with the school to put together a plan for your child.

IEP Forms and Information

Check these indexes of downloadable forms and handouts to find out how other school districts handle IEP planning. They include blank IEP templates, as well as sample IEPs and information for parents and staff.

IEPs for Specific Disabilities

The following links lead to sample IEPs for the disabilities indicated.

Lists of Sample Goals

Lists of Sample Accommodations

1 Source
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with disabilities education act. Sec. 300.320 Definition of individualized education program.

By Terri Mauro
Terri Mauro is the author of "50 Ways to Support Your Child's Special Education" and contributor to the Parenting Roundabout podcast.