Top Ten Things All Families Need to Know about IEP’s

by Stacey Hoaglund

Families living with children with disabilities are naturally given additional challenges in their everyday lives. Why compound those challenges with being utterly confused and stressed out over a child’s upcoming Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting? With just a few tools, parents will find that this process doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems.

Most parents of children with disabilities don’t realize just how much power they hold in their child’s education. In fact, the IEP is a “contract” that school districts must follow to educate children with disabilities. In order for rights to be exercised under this “contract”, parents and guardians should be aware that:

  • The IEP is a legally binding document:  Schools must follow what is written in the IEP, and should they fail to do so, parents can site the school as being “out of compliance” and hold the upper hand. School districts are required to provide parents with a copy of federal and state statutes and regulations that govern and guide special education.  This literature will let parents know how to exercise their rights beyond the IEP, should that become necessary.
  • Required members:  There are 5 required members of an IEP team.  According to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) the parent comes first in the list of participants.  The second in line is the general education teacher.  This is not by happenstance.  The regular education teacher must be there to share information about the regular education setting, as the goal for all students is for them to be educated in their least restrictive environment, with whatever supports and services are necessary. Next is the special education teacher or provider, a representative from the local education agency, and finally an “individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results” (IDEA 2004), such as speech pathologists, occupational, physical therapists, etc.
  • Excusals from the Meeting: Members of the IEP team may be excused from attending IF the parent or guardian agrees.  An example could be if the Occupational Therapist has met with the parent in advance of the meeting to share with them how the student is doing in regard to fine motor skills, but cannot make the meeting due to extenuating circumstances.   I do not recommend that a parent allow a therapist to be excused from a meeting where a reduction in services is being proposed.
  • According to IDEA 2004, changes to the IEP can take place without an actual IEP meeting, if both parent and school district agree.  IEPs can also take place via video conference or conference call, rather than in person (if the parent agrees).  However, I do not suggest that parents attend IEP meetings via telephone unless impossible to be there otherwise.  It has been said that communication is 80% body language, gestures and expressions.  If parents aren’t physically at the IEP meeting, they will miss out on what could truly be transpiring without their knowledge and input.
  • Present Level of Performance – The PLP contains the meat and potatoes of the IEP.  Who the child is, what his/her strengths and weaknesses are, how they learn best, what has proven successful, and other pertinent information should be indicated in this section.  The PLP should be an objective statement from several sources such as assessments, parent input, observations, etc, and must be based on data.
  • Goals and Objectives:  Goals must have certain key components.
  • Address priority educational needs found in the PLP;
  • Have a time period of one year for mastery;
  • Be realistic and appropriate to the age; cognitive, social/emotional, and physical abilities; rate of learning; and interests of the child;
  • Tell what the child will DO
  • Describe the condition under which performance will be expected (in a small or large group; with a certain type of prompt; etc);
  • Have clearly defined criteria
  • Include who will be responsible for the implementation and mastery of the goal.
  • Accommodations versus Modifications: It is vitally important that parents are aware of the difference between these two supports. Accommodations are allowances in how a student is taught or evaluated, but do not change what the student is expected to know. Examples could be extra time, enlarged print, small group, etc.; Modifications, however, isa change in what is being taught and what is expected.  Caution must be given when providing modifications, as they typically have impacts on placement and diploma options.  If a child is not exposed and required to meet state curriculum requirements, chances are good that they will not “catch up” at a later time.
  • Training for staff:  “Supports for School Personnel” is a section found on most IEPs to include any specialized training that the staff should have in order to best meet the needs of the student.  For a child with autism, this section may say “Staff to be trained in autism teaching strategies.” For a child with a behavior plan, it could say “Staff to be trained in the implementation of the Positive Behavior Intervention Plan.” etc
  • Parent Input: A parent’s input is vitally important to the IEP process. Parents should prepare their notes in advance of the meeting. Parents can become overwhelmed during the course of the IEP meeting, and forget what they wanted to discuss, unless it is written down.  There are a variety of things that can be noted in this section including concerns, desire for change, the type and amount of private therapies the student is receiving, etc.
  • Prior Written Notice: IDEA states, that notice must be given to a parent or guardian whenever the school proposes to initiate a change or refuses to make a change related to identification, evaluation or educational placement, or the provision of a free appropriate public education of a child with a disability.  This notice must include a description of the action being proposed or refused by the school; an explanation of why the proposal and/or refusal is being made; and a description of each evaluation procedure, test, record, or report upon which the school is basing its proposal or refusal.

In addition to the “Top 10” noted above, schools often tell parents that finances prevent them from providing certain services or supports necessary for their child.  Budgetary issues should NEVER be a reason for a service to be denied.  Remember that if your child has a specific need, and that need is described in the PLP, then services and supports must be given to meet those needs, regardless of the school district’s financial status.  Parents who know their rights and the process that has been put in place to protect them, will have a greater ability to successfully advocate for the needs of their child.

Stacey Hoaglund is a parent of a young man with a disability, an advocate, editor of The Autism Notebook Magazine, and author of Go for the Goal: A Parent’s Guide to Creating Meaningful IEP Goals.