An Intro Guide to Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

24th Apr 2024

In our last article -  Does Your Child Need Special Services at School? - we discussed the process and options for school interventions that lead up to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), from RTI and 504 Plans to requesting an evaluation for special services.  This article will cover what happens from there, diving into IEPs.

Once the evaluation is complete, some schools will call a meeting with the parent/guardian and members of the evaluation team to review the findings. Other schools will call or send a letter confirming or denying the need for special services.

If the school’s evaluation confirms that the student’s learning is significantly impaired, and that previous interventions (like Level 1-3 RTI, 504 Plan) have not helped the student meet learning goals, the parent/guardian will be asked to consent for the student to receive special education services in school. If the parent does not consent to special services, the process stops and the student will not receive special services.

If the parent does consent: The next step from here is for the school to form an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This plan will explain the exact special services the student will receive in school. From the day the parent/guardian consents, the Special Education teacher has 30 days to collect data, meet with other IEP team members (parents, teachers, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, psychologist, etc), develop a rough draft of goals for the student, and write the finalized Individualized Education Plan.

As a side note–if you have any therapy records, physician’s notes, or any letters from specialists providing the services you’re requesting from the school, it’s good to keep these on hand throughout the evaluation process. If you think the school has not done a thorough evaluation, or if your student was denied services and you would like to appeal, you can use this documentation for the appeals process, which should be outlined in the parent handbook provided by the school.

An Intro Guide to Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

Your Student's Individualized Education Plan Team:

Your student’s IEP should be developed by a team of people who know the student well, and/or are providing any school-based services to them. The goal of the team is to support your individual student, so not every student’s IEP team will have the same members.

The core members of the team are the student’s parent/guardian, the Special Education teacher, any other general education teachers, and a member of school administration, to represent the school district. Some other members of your student’s team may include a Speech/Language Pathologist (SLP), Occupational Therapist (OT), or Physical Therapist (PT).

What kind of data is needed?

Data is the foundation for the services that will be outlined in your student’s IEP. If your student needs speech therapy, then the Speech Language Pathologist will conduct their own evaluation to determine what your student’s goals for the year should be. The Special Education teacher might observe your student in class to evaluate for sensory needs, how your student is best able to learn, etc. The members of your student’s IEP team will work together to gather every bit of data that could help outline the services needed. Each school may gather their data differently, but federal law states that these goals should be tailored specifically to meet the needs of your student.

When the Special Education teacher and the IEP team are considering what kind of data they need, the parent/guardian has one of the most important voices in the discussion. Teachers can identify the child’s needs in the classroom, but only a parent/guardian can give anecdotal background to the behaviors that the teachers observe–this background is super helpful in this process. Parents can provide guidance for writing goals and choosing the most helpful accommodations.

For example, let’s say your student uses a  fidget or chew tool to help them focus. Some teachers may at first consider a fidget or a chew tool as a distraction in the classroom. By being an active member of your student’s IEP team, you can advocate for your student and explain why such a sensory tool is helpful.  For example, let’s say you noticed that when your child is supposed to be doing their homework, they get distracted and get up from their chair several times, resulting in not getting much homework done. But if they do homework while chewing on a chew necklace, it results in better focus, staying in their chair for longer, and getting more work done. After explaining the need for a chew tool, be open to hearing any concerns from the teacher. Having written expectations of safety/rules for using the chew tool is best practice, such as only chewing on the necklace pendant and not other objects, not sharing it with others, keeping it either around the neck or put away in the bookbag when not in use, etc. are easy ways to show the teacher that you hear their concerns and that they will be respected, while still advocating for your student to have this accommodation in the classroom.

Note: if chewies or other equipment is a part of your student's IEP, the school will supply those tools/equipment.

Remember that part of gathering data is comparing how your student does with and without the intervention (in this example, the chew tool). First the team will need to collect data on how your student learns without the chew tool, then they will compare that with data on how they learn while using the chew tool. This will give them a better understanding on what exactly works for your student.

Interpreting the Individualized Education Plan:

The process of getting an IEP for your student can be time-consuming, and difficult at times. Throughout this, your best resource is the parent handbook that every school is required to give to parents at the beginning of the process. This handbook lays out federal timelines, expectations, and any additional guidelines the school district has. If there is anything in the parent handbook that you need clarification on, do not hesitate to reach out to the school district. It is their responsibility to make sure parents/guardians understand their rights, their student’s rights, and the entire process.

IEPs contain a lot of information–while all parts of the IEP are there to fulfill specific federal requirements, not all of the information is necessary for parents/guardians to understand the services being provided to their student. The three main sections that parents/guardians should be aware of are the goals, accommodations, and least restrictive environment (LRE).

1. Goals:

Goals are the descriptions of the skill, and level of mastery, that the student is expected to reach within one calendar year. Goals in an IEP have specific wording that clearly explains:

  1. The skill
  2. What tool will be used to evaluate their progress
  3. How teachers, and parents/guardians, will know when the goal has been reached
  4. A timeline for meeting the goal

For example: "By March 2025, Johnny will read a 2nd grade level text at 90 WPM with 80% accuracy on 3 of 4 attempts given by the Special Education teacher.”

In the above example, we see:

  1. The skill = Reading
  2. The tool used = A 2nd grade level text
  3. How we’ll know the goal has been met = Reading at 90 WPM with 80% accuracy on 3 of 4 attempts
  4. The timeline = One calendar year

2. Accommodations/Modifications:

Accommodations are provided to the student in the classroom. Some states have rules around the type of accommodations they can provide the student in the classroom. An example of an accommodation could be the school providing the student with a  chew tool to increase their concentration and seat time and self-regulation. Accommodations can be very specific, or general, depending on the student’s needs.

Modifications are changes to the curriculum, or changes in the expectations of the student in school. For example, the expectations of the student may be modified to pass/fail grading only, assigning alternative books that are below grade level, or modifying questions on assessments to be simpler.

3. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE):

When you think about special education services, you may picture special education students in a separate classroom with different teachers. Least Restrictive Environment is a section of the IEP in which the main principle is for students who use special education services to be in the same classroom as students without services as often as possible. 

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding LRE that make this section of the IEP a very important section for the student and parent to understand.

Students who are on track to graduate high school with a high school diploma (called “diploma track”), typically spend around 75% or more of their school day in the general education environment. Students on a non-diploma track typically spend less than 50% of their school day in the general education environment. As a general guideline–the less time a student spends in the general education classroom, the less they are required to complete standardized classwork, and the less of a chance they have to graduate high school with a diploma.

If your student’s IEP adds modifications to standard classwork, or removes requirements for meeting state learning standards, then in most cases, the student will not earn a high school diploma.

Asking Questions:

It is the school’s job to explain the contents of the Individualized Education Plan to the parent/guardian–asking as many questions as you need to clearly understand the IEP will help you and your student further down the road. IEPs can be information overload–the key things you should understand are:

  • The special services being offered to your student
  • The reason services are being offered
  • The goals of the services
  • What classroom accommodations will be made
  • How intensive the services will be

In your student’s IEP, there is a section for parent/guardian comments–be sure to take advantage of this and voice any concerns you may have. If there is any question about whether your student will be earning a high school diploma, be sure to ask for clarification. If there is a goal you don’t fully understand, you can ask to see the IEP team’s data and discuss what it means for your student.

In your IEP meetings, the general education teacher should have examples of your student’s work available to show how your student’s work correlates to the IEP goals. Be sure to ask the teacher for clarification about classroom work or behaviors if needed.

An important question that rarely gets asked is, “How does my student respond to services given by the Special Education teacher?” This can give you more insight on how your student is utilizing their special services, and can allow you to have a conversation with your student about why they need special services. Having this discussion, along with helping them work through the social aspects of receiving special services, will make their experience more positive.

Wrapping Up:

We hope any parents or guardians reading this article now feel more informed and empowered to take on the process of requesting special services for their student. The journey to getting an IEP can feel long, complicated, and sometimes just plain confusing. Learning about the options leading up to special services, like RTI (Levels 1-3) and 504 Plans are great first steps for a student who may not need more intensive special services, or can act as a type of “pre-evaluation” documentation for those who are needing to start the evaluation process.

As a final note, IEPs are meant to be fluid documents. This means that it can change and grow along with the needs of your student–if at any point, you feel like the goals, accommodations, or environment aren’t supporting your student’s needs fully, reach out to your school and IEP team and ask questions. The IEP team is there to support your student, so no question is too small!

Note: this article was written by a special education teacher and represents their best knowledge of current practices at the time that it was written. Please feel free to check with your child's school / their parent handbook to learn more.