What is an IEP?
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written legal document that lays out the educational plan for a child with learning disabilities, attention issues, or other disabilities (1). This document examines the child’s own goals and desires, as well as what types of help the child will need to be given by the educational institution to achieve them. It takes into account the child’s current abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, as well as educational, functional, and social goals for the future. The IEP has been referred to by the U.S. Department of Education as the “cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability” (2).
IEPs are given to eligible children enrolled in public schools. IEPs are used for children with all types of disabilities, and they are tailored to the severity of the disability (1). For some students, the IEP focuses on helping children through general education (also known as “mainstream”) classrooms, while others may focus on programs developed specifically for special needs students. If a student has multiple severe disabilities, the IEP may take a different approach and focus on key therapy needs and functional education outcomes rather than curriculum-based educational guidelines. Regardless, an IEP helps to ensure that a student is equitably educated in the least restrictive environment possible.
What are the Steps Involved in Getting an IEP?
A child in the public school system who is between the ages of three and 21 and has a disability is eligible for an IEP (2). The steps to getting an IEP are included as a part of the special education process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as follows (2, 3):
- Child is identified: The state needs to identify children who possibly need special education through a process called “Child Find.” A teacher may refer a child to Child Find or parents may call the Child Find system and request an evaluation for their child.
- Evaluation: Parents must give consent for their child to be evaluated. The evaluation will assess the child in areas related to their suspected disability.
- Eligibility decided: A group of professionals will look at the evaluation with the parents and together they will decide if the child falls under the IDEA definition of a “child with a disability.”
- Child is determined eligible for special education.
- IEP team (including the parents) must have an IEP meeting.
- IEP team writes the IEP.
- Special education services are provided: The school makes sure that the IEP is being carried out as written.
- Progress is measured using progress reports.
- IEP is reviewed: At least once a year, the IEP is reviewed by the IEP team.
- Reevaluation: The child is reevaluated every three years.
Who is eligible for an IEP?
Any child whose school determines they are in need of special education based on an evaluation will receive an IEP. Such conditions as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), cerebral palsy (CP), epilepsy, and others carry with them some physical, intellectual, and cognitive disabilities. This can impact educational goals for students with these conditions and require a modified educational plan to allow them to complete coursework according to their abilities. Children with CP usually begin early intervention plans soon after being diagnosed (4). Educators and parents collaborate throughout the child’s schooling to make improvements to these plans, adjust, or add a new type of plan (see the list below).
What Factors Does an Individualized Education Program Consider?
Individualized education programs take into account a number of factors in order to get a holistic and realistic view of a child’s potential. These include a child’s (2):
- Strengths (physical/motor, cognitive, intellectual, and social)
- Challenges (physical/motor, cognitive, intellectual, and social)
- Successes (physical/motor, cognitive, intellectual, and social)
- Goals (educational, academic, social, emotional, behavioral, communication-related, goals relating to the Activities of Daily Living)
- For older children, goals for transitioning into adulthood
- Available support and Assistive Technology resources, including personnel support, equipment, communication devices, teacher instructions, and supplementary materials
- Participation with nondisabled children
- Participation in state and district-wide tests
Who Participates in Making the IEP?
IEPs are made, revised, and reviewed collaboratively, using input from an IEP Team. New laws have been passed mandating the kinds of people who make up this team. These include (5):
- The student (usually only if the student is 16 years of age or older and will be involved in the discussion of transition planning)
- The student’s caregivers or parents
- One of the student’s general education teachers
- Anyone who the student’s caregivers or parents deem helpful to be present, including a relative or special education advocate
- At least one of the student’s special education teachers or providers
- A school principal/administrator
- An individual skilled in interpreting results (a school psychologist or special education specialist). This individual may already be a present member of the group.
- Any other people with special knowledge or expertise about the student
How Does an IEP Help Measure Progress?
By law, Individualized Education Programs for all students (including those with cerebral palsy) must have a statement of measurable goals. The goals must link the student’s current abilities with future goals over a specific time frame, and state what knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviors the student should demonstrate within that time frame. This allows the IEP team to very concretely evaluate whether or not the student is meeting set goals.
Are IEPs Required?
Individualized Education Programs are required by law (IDEA 2004) for those who are using special education services. Because of this, it is important to start developing an IEP in early childhood, because students aren’t placed in public education special needs programs until an IEP has been developed and approved.
Early Intervention Programs and Early Learning as a Precursor to an IEP
In order to have the best outcomes, it is important to begin planning for a child’s education early. Children under the age of three, while not eligible for IEPs, do have access to early intervention systems. For these early intervention programs, parents develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) with the program’s staff members to outline a summary of the child’s needs, along with the services the child will receive to address those needs. This plan also takes into account the needs of the family, allowing the plan to be customized in order to provide optimal care for the child.
Can an IEP Help Me Get Related Services?
The Individualized Education Program is a holistic plan, so it takes into account more than just education-related help. Related services, such as physical and occupational therapy and speech-language pathology, are also provided (at no cost to parents) if deemed necessary by a medical professional. The IEP can also indicate that the child needs accommodations, or assistive/adaptive technology (such as communication devices or computer technology). Schools can provide some resources for other services and equipment, though this may vary by school district.
How Old Does My Child Have to Be to Take Advantage of an IEP?
IDEA takes into account a very broad range of ages. As mentioned above, it mandates services for children under the age of three, but also for children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21.
What Kinds of Classes or Educational Experiences Does My Child Get if They Have an IEP?
Students with disabilities (including intellectual disabilities) should be involved in (and progress in) the general education curriculum as much as possible. Current laws don’t allow students to be completely removed from education in their age-appropriate general education classes simply because the student needs some curriculum modifications. This means that they can be exposed to the same curriculum as their peer group in the least restrictive environment possible.
Children with intellectual disabilities should have appropriate accommodations (or “supplementary aids and services”) specified in their IEP. This enables children with disabilities to be educated alongside their nondisabled counterparts as much as possible (1). Examples of accommodations provided to students with Individualized Education Programs include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Help with transcribing notes in class
- Modifications in the way students are graded (shorter assignments, different grading criteria, or extended deadlines)
- Preferential seating
Children with intellectual disabilities can also sometimes require help with adaptive skills (skills needed to carry out the tasks of daily living). These include communication, personal care and hygiene, health and safety, home living, social skills, reading, writing, and basic math, and (as they get older) workplace skills. Some programs (known as ‘supportive vocational programs’ or ‘supported employment’ programs) assist children with intellectual disabilities in learning these skills, helping them to better adapt to interacting within a larger community.
Finally, as students begin to age, it is crucial that plans be put in place for the transition into adulthood. IEP teams must include transition planning information no later than the first IEP that is in effect when a child is 16. Generally, it is recommended that transitional planning occurs much earlier than this.
An IEP is Only One Type of Plan to Foster a Child’s Development. What Other Plans Work with IEPs?
An IEP looks only at the educational components of the development of a child with disabilities. There are multiple plans that work in conjunction with the IEP to provide a comprehensive plan for their growth. These plans can be laid out roughly sequentially in the order below. These brief summaries are overviews; more detailed information can be found at the links below.
- Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP): An early-intervention program for children 0-3 designed to prepare students for school (6). This plan takes into account the home environment, family dynamics, access to recreation, and other resources that help maintain a healthy environment.
- Independent Education Evaluation (IEE): The IEE occurs if a child is suspected to have a learning disability (7). This evaluation helps identify difficulties with learning and provides a basis for developing solutions that will address these issues. Teachers often ask for these, but they should be a tandem effort between educator and parent. This evaluation is done by qualified school district personnel.
- Individualized Health Plan (IHP): Individualized Health Plans outline how school staff can assist students with disabilities in handling their health or physical impairments (8). This should happen 2-3 months before the start of kindergarten.
- 504 Plans: 504 plans are formal plans that educational facilities have to prevent discrimination against children with disabilities (9). They are different from IEPs because they focus on accommodations to help all children have the same learning experience.
- Individualized Transition Plan (ITP): These are plans designed to help transition a child smoothly from childhood to adulthood and allow them to live as independently as possible. It is mandated by law that a plan is in place by age 14-16, but it is recommended that these be implemented earlier. These plans take into account abilities and aptitude for employment/further education, transportation, housing, and life skills (self-care, cooking, finances) that allow individuals to support themselves to the greatest extent possible.
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- Team, U. (n.d.). Understanding IEPs. Retrieved May 28, 2019, from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/understanding-individualized-education-programs
- Guide to the Individualized Education Program. (2007, March 23). Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html
- About IDEA. (n.d.). Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/
- Types of Special Education Plans. (n.d.). Retrieved July 6, 2019, from https://www.cerebralpalsy.org/information/education/plan-types
- Team, U. (n.d.). Navigating IEP Meetings. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/navigating-iep-meetings
- Writing the IFSP for Your Child. (2017, October). Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ifsp/
- Thurston, R. C. (2013, October 24). When is it Time to Request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)? Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.specialeducationguide.com/blog/when-is-it-time-to-request-an-independent-educational-evaluation-iee/
- Individualized Healthcare Plans: The Role of the School Nurse. (n.d.). Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.nasn.org/advocacy/professional-practice-documents/position-statements/ps-ihps
- Team, U. (n.d.). Understanding 504 Plans. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/504-plan/understanding-504-plans