You asked to have your child evaluated for special education services. Now it’s time for the IEP meeting, but you’re not sure what to expect. What’s in an IEP? How can you prepare for the meeting?

What is an IEP?

The IEP, Individualized Education Program, is a written document that’s developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education. The IEP is created through a team effort and reviewed at least once a year.

Before an IEP can be written, your child must be eligible for special education. By federal law, a multidisciplinary team must determine that (1) she’s a child with a disability and (2) she requires special education and related services to benefit from the general education program.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law, requires certain information to be included in the IEP but doesn’t specify how the IEP should look. Because states and local school systems may include additional information, forms differ from state to state and may vary between school systems within a state. 

IEP team members

The members of the multidisciplinary team who write your child’s IEP include:

  • You, the parents, who have valuable insights and information about his strengths and needs and ideas for enhancing his education
  • General education teacher(s) who can share information about classroom expectations and your child’s performance
  • A special education teacher who has training and experience in educating children with disabilities and in working with other educators to plan accommodations
  • An individual who can interpret the results of your child’s evaluation and use results to help plan an appropriate instructional program
  • A representative of the school system who knows about special education services and has the authority to commit resources
  • Individuals with knowledge or special expertise about your child that are invited by you and/or the school district
  • Representatives from transition services agencies, when such services are being discussed
  • Your child, when appropriate, and whenever transition is discussed

Contents of the IEP

The IEP is a document that is designed to meet your child’s unique educational needs. It’s not a contract, but it does guarantee the necessary supports and services that are agreed upon and written for your child.

At the least, the IEP must contain these pieces of information:

Present levels of educational performance

Information about your child’s strengths and needs is presented by teachers, parents, and the school staff who evaluated her. Comments will be made about how your child is doing in the classroom. Observations and results of state and district-wide tests and the special education evaluation, including individually administered standardized tests, are reviewed. Besides academic needs, any other areas of concern that have been identified, such as language development, behavior, or social skills, should be discussed, as well.

Goals

The next step is to write measurable goals that he can reasonably accomplish in one year. Goals are based on what was discussed and documented in present levels of educational performance and focus on his needs that result from the disability. Goals should help him be involved and progress in the general curriculum and may be academic, social, behavioral, self-help, or address other educational needs. Goals are not written to maintain skills or help him achieve above grade level.

The requirement for objectives and benchmarks — with which to measure progress toward goals — was eliminated from IEP requirements with the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA. However, the law now states that the child’s IEP must include “a description of how the child’s progress toward the annual goals … will be measured and when periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward annual goals will be provided” — for example, at the same time report cards are issued for all students.

Special education and related services

Once the IEP is written, the team has to decide how to put it into action. The school district is obligated to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). So the IEP team considers the way — to the maximum extent appropriate for both — to educate your child alongside kids without a disability. Special education is a set of services, rather than a specific place for your child to go. The services your child needs to reach the goals and objectives and how they’ll be delivered are identified. For most kids, the general education classroom will be the preferred setting, but a range of options is available, including special day classes. In addition to the above, the following are part of the IEP:

  • The extent, if any, to which your child will not participate with nondisabled kids in the regular class and other school activities
  • When services will begin, where and how often they’ll be provided, and how long they’ll last
  • Necessary transition services (age 16 or the first IEP that will be in effect when the child turns 16)

These special factors will be considered and addressed in the IEP, depending on your child’s needs:

  • Supports and strategies for behavior management, if behavior interferes with her learning or the learning of others
  • Language needs as related to the IEP if he has limited mastery, or proficiency, in English
  • Communication needs
  • Assistive technology devices or services required in order to receive FAPE
  • Necessary accommodations in the general education classroom

Your role at the meeting

Parents often feel overwhelmed when they attend an IEP meeting because so many people are there. The time goes by quickly, and you may feel rushed. Education jargon can be hard to understand, yet you’re supposed to be a full participant in the meeting. Here are some ideas that may help to reduce your anxiety, increase your participation, and facilitate the process.

  • Communicate regularly with school staff so that you’ll have an idea of what the teachers may say at the meeting.
  • Prepare your thoughts before the meeting by writing down the important points you want to make about your child. If you’d like, ask to have your information included in your child’s IEP.
  • Take someone with you to serve as your support system. If a spouse or family member can’t attend, ask a trusted friend to go with you. If you decide to bring a friend or advocate, you should inform the school so they are aware of whom you’re bringing. Be prepared for them to question who the person is and why you have decided to include them in the meeting. The school should tell you if they have a specific policy on other attendees at the IEP meeting.
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand the terms being used. If necessary, arrange to meet with individuals after the meeting to review their statements or reports.
  • Try to stay focused and positive. If anyone becomes frustrated or angry, ask to have the meeting continued at another date. It’s hard to develop an IEP when emotions have taken over the process.
  • Remember that you can sign to show you participated in the meeting, but you don’t have to agree to the goals or services at the meeting. You can take the IEP home to review, get input, and return later.

What happens next

Written parent permission is necessary before the IEP can go into effect. If you agree with only parts of the IEP, let the school know so services can begin for your child. Once you sign the first IEP, you have granted your permission for the school to provide ongoing special education services for your child.

Although you may change your mind after signing the IEP and withdraw your permission, you should be aware that this action may have legal implications. (Consult with an advocate before taking this action.) Write a letter to the school that tells why you’ve changed your mind and which parts of the IEP you disagree with. Most likely, the school will want to hold another IEP meeting to discuss your concerns.

The IEP is reviewed at least once a year. However, if you or the teacher believe that your child isn’t learning or making progress or has achieved the goals sooner than expected, a meeting may be scheduled to revise the IEP. If you feel that an IEP review meeting is needed, put your request in writing and send it to the school and/or district administrator.

Work collaboratively with the staff responsible for your child’s IEP. Ask what you can do to reinforce skills at home.

Reviewed February 2010