We all want our children to succeed in school but some students need extra support. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a plan developed to ensure that children with disabilities receive the specialized instruction and services they need.
As a school psychologist who’s advocated for both parents and children in special education for 20 years, there are some things parents should understand about IEPs.
Here are six things that every parent needs to know about an IEP:
1. You are not alone
It’s estimated that 10-20% of children ages 3-22 have some type of disability (including speech and language impairment, specific learning disability, other health impairments, intellectual disability or autism).
2. The IEP process involves multiple steps and participants
The IEP document outlines special education support for the upcoming school year⏤including current performance, goals, and services. Then there is an IEP meeting to discuss the proposed IEP document and make changes as needed.
An IEP team is the group of people who help develop, review and finalize the IEP⏤including the parent, special education teacher, general education teacher, administrator, as well as any additional participants, such as assessors or service providers.
Anyone can refer a student for a special education evaluation but typically teachers or school teams will suggest it in order to determine why a student is struggling.
As a parent, you have the right to ask for your child to be evaluated to see if they qualify for special education. However, there are laws to ensure interventions have been attempted and exhausted, so it’s best to work with your school team about your concerns.
3. Your agreement is required for an IEP evaluation
An evaluation can only be completed with parent permission. An assessment plan will be provided along with a copy of Procedural Safeguards, the rights that parents have with respect to special education.
You can agree to the assessment or you can refuse the assessment. If you agree and return the signed consent form to the school, a comprehensive evaluation will be completed and reviewed with the IEP team within a few months.
Any person who evaluated your child should provide you with a detailed report that they will review at the IEP meeting.
Special education eligibility is a team decision that happens during the IEP meeting, so ask questions and if you disagree, it’s OK to speak up.
If your child is not found eligible for special education, the IEP you receive at that meeting will be your child’s first and only IEP. Be sure the assessors explain why they think your child is struggling and what can be done to help support your child through general education or if a 504 plan should be considered.
If your child is found eligible for special education, and you agree to the IEP, then you can expect to have future IEP meetings at least once a year and a re-evaluation should be discussed (at minimum) once every 3 years.
4. The IEP should be written specifically for your child’s needs
Special education is a continuum of services. Schools are required to provide support in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), meaning that they need to provide as much specialized support as your child needs in order to make progress while remaining in general education as much as possible, if appropriate.
Some students will get support for English or math within their general education classroom. Others will receive services, such as speech therapy. And others may have classes taught by a special education teacher.
Some students require specialized programs at other schools, and transportation will also be offered. The services being proposed should be made very clear to you.
Models vary dramatically across schools, districts and states, so ask questions to make sure you understand the offer of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for your child.
5. You can call an IEP meeting at any time
As a parent of a child with a disability, you should feel confident in your child’s progress and program. If you have questions, ask for an IEP meeting. If your child begins to struggle or you are worried about their lack of progress, call an IEP meeting.
You can also notify your IEP team if you want to bring other people with you to the meeting such as a friend or family member (again, you’re not alone).
6. It’s OK to take your time
IEP teams will ask you to sign once for attendance and sign again indicating agreement to the IEP and what was discussed. It’s OK to just sign for attendance only at the meeting. Take the IEP with you, review it as many times as needed, and sign it later. You can sign partial agreement or disagree with the IEP.
You have the right to revoke your consent for special education services, should you ever choose to do so.
You should never feel pressured or rushed to make decisions that will impact your child’s education for the upcoming year. If your child already has a signed and agreed-upon IEP, it will simply continue until there is a new agreed-upon IEP.
If your child is not yet in special education, the school cannot implement the IEP until you sign and agree to it, so speak up if you have questions or concerns.
As their parent, nobody knows your child better than you. Your child’s IEP team should have school professionals who also want your child to succeed. Working together, we can help students get the individual support and foundation for success that they need and deserve.