IEP Meetings are held throughout the year for children with educational disabilities. IEP is an acronym for Individual Education Program. Each child who is determined to have a disability according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must have an IEP created just for them. The IEP should include several different components that are critical to your child’s success. It has been my experience, with both parents who are new to the IEP process and parents who have been in the system for years that many do not fully understand the complex document that dictates what their child will learn each year. I believe that most school districts need to do a better job of fully explaining the different components of the document to parents.
In my opinion, there are many different reasons for misunderstandings between parents and school districts regarding the IEP and/or the IEP process. One reason is that the federal law, IDEA, which governs everything regarding IEPs is very long, complex and cumbersome and each state has some leeway for interpretation of the law. Another reason is that parents assume that school personnel fully understand the educational laws. Another reason is that school districts often do not allow adequate time for IEP meetings. Another reason is that parents trust that school personnel are experts in working with children with disabilities and so they leave everything related to IEP up to the school personnel. These reasons for misunderstandings, along with others, I haven’t mentioned lead some parents and school districts to end up in long, drawn out battles over the education of a child with an IEP.
In the best of all possible worlds, parents and educators should be willing and able to work out their differences of opinion in order to assist the child with a disability to experience as much success as possible. Sometimes this does happen and other times is does not. In some cases, either the parent or the school district files for mediation and/or a due process hearing. The scope of this article is not to talk about due process hearings but to discuss things that you, as the parent, need to know about the IEP document in hopes of avoiding due process. This is not to say that, at times, this will be a necessary course for you to get what you believe your child is entitled to.
I encourage every parent to read the entire IEP document before signing it. This is not a simple task, as the document is usually between 15-60 pages long. It is rare, in this age that the facilitator of the IEP meeting will go page by page through the IEP at the IEP meeting because meeting lengths are often limited. Early in my career, it was not uncommon for IEP meetings to last for two hours but more recently, I have been surprised if there was even an hour scheduled for the meeting. An hour usually seems insufficient for me as the teacher, so I can just imagine that it is often insufficient for the parent. This shift has happened for many reasons-the primary one being limited available time for both parents and professionals. It seems that it has become more difficult for parents to get time off work to attend school meetings and it has become more costly and complicated for schools to release the school personnel from their regular duties to attend IEP meetings.
The document that is presented at the IEP meeting, whether it is an initial meeting, an annual review or a triennial meeting, is a “draft” document. This means that the school district personnel have put together an IEP based on your child’s assessments and needs into a working document. This means that the document presented at the IEP meeting is not a finalized document. Information can be added, deleted, amended or extended based on the discussion during the IEP Team meeting, of which you as the parent are an equal member. Due to the time constraints that are often put into place for meetings, I suggest that you tell the case manager that you would like a copy of the drafted IEP at least 2 days prior to the meeting. It is important to give this information to the case manager as soon as possible, as he/she will have to assure that all of the school personnel have input their information into the draft document by the date you have requested to pick it up from the case manager.
Let’s take some time to briefly dissect the different components of the IEP so you can fully understand the importance of each section.
Assessment: Both informal and formal assessments are completed with your child for the initial IEP, the Triennial (every 3 years) IEP, anytime an addition or deletion of a service is being considered and/or if a placement change is being considered. Annual IEP’s often include informal assessment results conducted over the course of the year. These assessments are completed to determine if your child is eligible or remains eligible for special education services. Formal standardized assessments compare your child with other children of their same age and/or grade level to get a statistical look at their abilities. Informal assessments may include, but are not limited to, teacher notes, observations by staff members, student work samples, pre and posttests and therapists notes from sessions. All of this data is compiled to create a profile of your child that helps determine if they are a child with a disability who is entitled to receive special education services.
Present Levels of Functional and Educational Performance: Every IEP should have a section completed by the service providers who either assessed and/or worked with your child since the previous IEP meeting. This section of the IEP should clearly describe your child’s performance in all areas of their educational program. It should include growth and skills your child has as well as educational needs and concerns to be addressed in the IEP. You should see present levels for academics with specific areas of disability addressed (i.e. if your child has a reading disability this should be discussed in detail), social, emotional & behavioral , motor, speech and language , cognitive/memory, transition and any other specialized area that your child receives services in, such as audiologist services, Braille services, augmentative communication services, etc.
Goals and Objectives: Goals and objectives should be written based on the areas of need indicated in the present levels section of the IEP. Goals are broad areas that your child needs to gain skills in. Goals are usually written based on State or Core Content Standards so they tend to be wordy and long. The objectives are the meat of the IEP. The objectives are the specific skills your child will be taught over the course of the IEP. Each objective should be specific and measurable which means it must have a current baseline.
Programming & Service Delivery: This section should clearly delineate what services your child will receive, what type of professional will deliver the services, what environment the service will be delivered in and the frequency and duration of the services. If your child is being placed into a certain program this is where it should be written and explained (i.e. resource room, self-contained, out-of-district, special school, etc).
Statement of LRE: This may or may not be connected to the service delivery page. There should be a statement that explains that the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) was discussed and considered in making the IEP and the percentage of time that your child will be educated away from his/her nondisabled peers should be indicated.
Accommodations and Modifications: This section of the IEP discusses the interventions and strategies that your child is entitled to in both the general education environment and the special education environment. Accommodations and modifications help your child to have more success in their educational program. They are often referred to as factors that help to “level the playing field” for children with disabilities.
Specialized Plans: If your child needs a specialized plan such as a behavior plan or an augmentative communication plan or health plan these documents should also be included in the IEP.
I have several articles either on my blog or on ezine articles that explain each of these components in more detail. I just wanted to give you a quick run-down of what you are looking for. If you receive the draft document before the meeting and take the time to read it you will make better use of your time during your meeting because you will know where you need to ask for clarifications and explanations, where items are missing, items you do not feel are appropriate and where you want changes made. This arms you with the information you need and empowers you to be the best advocate for your child’s education.
Please share your stories about your experiences at IEP meetings and your experiences with getting draft copies of the IEP prior to an IEP meeting.