Updated: May 8
Most everyone has heard of the #IEP even if their own child hasn't required one. This is a legal document under United States law that is developed for each public school child who needs some level of special education. Private school's don't offer IEPs, but they may be able to get special education through what's known as a service plan.
This document outlines the special education experience for all eligible students with a disability. For some students this may mean having a nurse available to help with a catheter during school hours, or special education teachers to assist with reading challenges, or maybe allowance to have earphones or longer testing times to help manage distractions.
In my experience though, with my own children and with those within my practice, the school is not going to offer or even suggest an IEP unless you do as their parent, and even when you do, they are going to deny that request, at least initially. However, educators who are advocates for their students will share with parents that the squeaky wheel gets greased.
It is in fact, the school's responsibility to meet the academic needs of their students and that doesn't just mean tutors; it means meeting needs that would improve their academic success so for the child with ADHD or ASD, that might mean addressing emotional dysregulation issues, such as sensory integration support. Admittedly, and I hate to throw out words that may cause dissension, but every single experience I have had as a clinician and as a mother with regards to the IEP has been an utter disaster, an argument with parents against educators, and so my recommendation is to secure yourself an advocate because you don't know what you don't know and most always there is way more available for your child than you realize. Importantly as well, many kids are deemed disorderly and defiant so are handed disciplinary actions rather than resources for development.
Eligible students may be those with autism, emotional disturbance or dysregulation, health impairments, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, deafness, visual impairment, developmental delays, speech or language impairments, or even a traumatic brain injury.
The IEP describes the child's present level of performance, strengths and needs, and creates measurable goals based on this data. As the parent, you will need to have some level of evidence that your child is struggling in school so this may mean having your child evaluated for learning disabilities, social or emotional struggles, or a health condition that may impact their academics. Your primary care provider is a great resource here, although special testing may be offered otherwise. Profound findings aren't necessary. Seemingly overlooked issues such as fine motor delay or sensory integration disorder can have significant effects on your child.
These tests can take quite awhile to acquire and whether you do this work or not, the school will complete their own evaluation. We hired an attorney for one of our sons who only does this type of legal work, and he was adamant that the school pay for additional testing outside of their own evaluators, although don't expect this. If you do have private evaluations, they must consider them. He also assured us his legal fees would be covered by the school. This certainly will differ from state to state, but know your rights and don't trust the school to play that role unfortunately.
How Might the School Support Your Child?
Accommodations are really the key for parents and children, in my clinical opinion, the modifications and related services, but it seems the IEP team, particularly the educators are far more focused on the goals. These are important yes, but setting goals without giving sufficient attention to interventions and resources to impact those goals is exceedingly negligent and really limits the potential success of the child. These resources are also the burden of the school and cost money so they are not inclined to focus their efforts here.
A personal example to help you find perspective is my own son's IEP team admitting today they had no idea why he even had an IEP. He is in 7th grade, now in the middle school, and his IEP came only after expulsion just a few years ago, while in elementary school, and my hiring an attorney. I had asked for an IEP multiple times previously because he has both autism and dyslexia. This was denied. At ten years of age he was unable to read or write, tie his shoes, and wore gloves in public because he was concerned the government would grab his fingerprints. He needed to map out the school and identify all threats, including where the cameras were before he would even attend. His expulsion was reversed because his needs were not being met. They saw him as defiant, not autistic and in need of services.
His team today is much the same. They shared multiple times that they were unaware of his multiple diagnosis and learning disabilities, or even his prior expulsion, but felt it was unnecessary to understand these matters because they felt they already meeting all his needs. His behavior however, is worsening, which was the entire reason I asked for another IEP meeting yet the educators shared his behavior and his academia are not the same issues, even though his IEP includes emotional and social disabilities because again, he is autistic and at the core of that is emotional dysregulation.
Further, they refused to even consider any of my suggestions. When I shared I was a clinician and have a fairly significant pediatric population with IEPs and autism, they were quick to point I wasn't a real doctor - so don't assume school educators won't stoop to being condescending when they don't want to invest in your child's needs. You can know your rights and be an expert in your child's needs as both their parent and as a professional, and they still may oppose any effort to truly help your child. Let me repeat, know your rights, but also secure yourself an advocate that can really motivate the school do uphold their responsibility. If this isn't successful, as you have a right to disagree with the school's decision, then you can ask to meet with the school to reach an agreement with the help of a mediator. This is a due process hearing in which a hearing officer makes a decision.
The federal mandate is clear that whether particular services are available in the district should not be considered when identifying the services a student needs to receive an appropriate education. One must therefore appreciate, that it is the burden of the parent to identify these resources and present them as options as the school is likely to only suggest those with which they can accommodate within their very limited budget. In my experience, there was no resource that was going to be accepted so knowing all of this made no difference for my son, which leaves only legal action and mediation. Yes, it can be this tough to get basic academic needs met. Keep in mind, if you transfer your child to a private school, the school district usually doesn't have to reimburse you. However, if your child needed services and the public school failed to provide them, it might have to pay for the tuition. You'll have to ask for this in a due process hearing.
The IEP Team
The IEP is created through a team of the child's parents and district personnel who are knowledgeable about the child's needs. The requirement is that the child be provided the accommodations, modifications, related services, and specialized academic instruction to ensure that every single eligible child receives a "Free Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE). The IEP must be reviewed every year to keep track of the child's educational progress.
The four components of an IEP are its need to address conditions, the learner, their behavior, and the criteria. All of this is to be tailored to the individual student's needs as identified by the IEP evaluation process, and must help teachers and related service providers understand the student's disability and how the disability affects their learning process. Keep in mind, when educators see autism as no more than being able to speak or dress themselves, or maybe just being awkward, and they aren't willing to better understand, it will be a significant fight to get your child's needs met. Sensory integration needs may cause what looks like defiance. Each of my children have this to some degree, in one sense or another. My youngest daughter has some tactile sensory needs, so that when she was little she was often in the personal space of her preschool classmates. They would bite her to get her to back off. Her very receptive teacher recognized this and shared this with me, and I was able to communicate this is because she needs more touch stimulation and so can violate these social barriers. In Kindergarten this presented with her wanting to tickle her classmates to their great dismay, and even spank their bums. She learned these boundaries, but she learned them with awareness of her sensory issues and not because she was reprimanded and scolded. Understanding these unique needs is integral to optimizing their educational experience and personal development.
My youngest son also has sensory integration issues, primarily tactile and he has no real sense of his own temperature regulation. He passes out in the heat and will wear thick hoodies in the summer. He will also swim in pools that are only 50 degrees, going under water and not recognizing this can cause hypothermia. He doesn't have the same pain perception as others, so his illnesses can be near life threatening before they are recognized. This can be deadly for him if his educators lack concern for understanding the unique nuances of autism and thus far, they have little to no interest.
The IEP is not just to ensure that students receive an appropriate placement for special education, but it is also designed to give the student a chance to participate in regular school culture and academics as much as is possible for that individual student. In this way, the student is able to have specialized assistance only when such assistance is absolutely necessary, and otherwise maintains the freedom to interact with and participate in activities to the same extent of their non-disabled/general education peers.
As long as a student qualifies for special education, the IEP is mandated to be regularly maintained and updated to the point of high school graduation or prior to their 21st or 22nd birthday. If a student in special education attends university upon graduation, they are no longer considered "children with disabilities" under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and are instead protected under Section 504, which is what my middle son's school refers to as an IEP (the 504). They can apply for and receive Section 504 accommodations, but the process is very different. The 504 plan can only give accommodations, not services.
When #accommodations are offered, these placements and resources are often provided within the general educational classrooms, or maybe they are offered a resource room, Special Day Class, Self Contained Class, Co-Teacher and specialized classes, or sub-specialities taught by a special education teacher. Students can also be removed from an IEP if it is determined the student is no longer eligible upon reevaluation.
Written According to the Needs of the Student
The IEP must meet state regulations and must be written according to the needs of the student, but it must also include these next specific points. The student's present levels of academic and functional performance and measurable annual goals must be identified clearly, including academic and functional goals. The IEP must also identify how the student's progress toward meeting annual goals is to be measured and reported to the parents, but from my perspective the aspects that receive far less attention are the requirements for services and supplementary aids to be identified and provided.
These resources are often few, many times just a single accommodation recommended by the school because again, they are working on a very limited budget and with an understanding that likely has little real knowledge about your child's needs or disability. Typically when an IEP is implemented, a far more complex issue is underlying these challenges which can and should be addressed through a variety of avenues that parents simply aren't aware.
What I want to make clear is that you are your child's best advocate here. You best understand your child's needs and I want you to think outside the box about how you might best help your child succeed. Maybe they need more time taking a test, more visual aids, or need to wear a headset to minimize distractions, but maybe they need direct feedback and alternatives for completing assignments, or even the abolishment of late assignment penalties? Maybe they need facilitated social groups or opportunity to self-advocate? Knowing these options isn't quite enough though. Not one was allowed for my middle school child in spite of being informed. You might need to retain legal support.
The IEP must have a schedule of services to be provided, including when the services are to begin, the frequency, duration, and location for the provision of services. How their program will be modified and the supports provided to school personnel on behalf of the student must also be identified. IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requires that the IEP is completed before placement decisions so that the student's educational needs drive the IEP development process. Schools may not develop a child's IEP to fit into a pre-existing program for a particular classification of disability. The placement fits the IEP, more so it fits the needs of the student, not vice versa - no compromise, but they will try.
The IEP must identify the least restrictive environment (LRE) data which includes calculations of the amount of time to be spent each day by the student in general-education settings compared to special-education settings. Of course, the more the student remains within the standard classroom, the better and any curriculum adjustments must be made by the special education teacher.
If another environment is thought to be better, for any amount of time, the IEP should have explanation of any time the student will not participate along with non-disabled children. Most children are spending at least 80 percent of their school time in this setting with their peers which is supported by the research with regards to the child with challenges. Typically this means the classroom is made up of mostly #neurotypical children and several children who have IEPs. This setting is thought to help them model the behavior of neurotypical children, which many individuals with autism for example, may say is a bit righteous.
The resource class is where the special education teacher works with small groups of students using techniques that work more efficiently with the students. This setting is available for students who spend between 40 and 79 percent of their time in the general education classroom. The term "resource" in this context refers to the amount of time spent outside general education, not the form of instruction. Another setting option is a separate classroom. When students spend less than 40 percent of their day in the general education class, they are said to be placed in a separate class.
When these measurements are done by the school, or the evaluations for the student's needs, the accommodations provided to measure the student's academic and functional performance must also be identified. For example, if a calculator is provided and they do well, then this is the minimum standard for all future calculations.
The student should attend when appropriate. And parents always have the right to attend and to request meetings. If the student is over fourteen, they should be invited to become a part of the IEP team. Additionally, when the student is sixteen years old, a statement of post-secondary goals and a plan for providing what the student needs to make a successful transition is required. The IEP may also include a health plan or a behavioral plan.
Determining Eligibility for Special Education
Many of the children I work with are either autistic or have some level of emotional dysregulation. They may have issues with discipline, appear not to respect authority, may be fighting or threatening others. This isn't always just about poor choices. Sometimes this is about being a weak communicator or not being able to articulate needs. It may be about not having flexible thinking or about struggling with transitions. It may even be about being over stimulated or simply not understanding social rules. When their autism is higher on the spectrum, these kids are often misunderstood and thought to be defiant rather than struggling to communicate.
My son for example is often told he is rude, but when he explains the scenario, his perspective is often clear. Many don't care to understand. He certainly can be rude, but more often, he is simply responding without awareness of social rules. We allow this when autism seems apparent in others, but when it isn't as apparent, we simply assume these individuals are inappropriate. This has caused him detentions, even expulsion, which were later overturned and his needs identified as not being met when professionals became involved in his IEP. I have witnessed my son with autism be adored by those that don't take offense to his unique way of processing information and communication because they value his genuine curiosity and brilliance, but those who have expectations that he work within the unwritten, social norms feel offended and annoyed. For example, he simply won't respond to "because I said so." He is far too logical for that. Rules must make sense to him. This isn't a matter of will, but a matter of information processing.
These nuances are difficult to identify though, and once parents have worked with their practitioners to gain diagnosis, which is an extreme challenge in itself, the school must also conduct a full evaluation of the child in all areas of suspected disability. Based in part on the results of the evaluation, the school along with the parents determine whether special education services are needed and if so, what resources could improve their experience. Keep in mine, many students go undiagnosed because of strong visual memories or oral skills, so they mask symptoms of having impairment.
If the child is found to be eligible though, the IEP team must be developed and a plan created for the child, as soon as possible after the child is determined eligible. As outlined by IDEA, students can receive free appropriate education under special education law if they fall within any one of these categories: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, developmental delay, emotional and behavioral disorders, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, or visual impairment including blindness.
Educators and school psychologists have the ability to initiate evaluations for special education and determine service eligibility, but they are not qualified to make medical diagnoses. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and physical and developmental delays must be diagnosed by a clinician, whether nurse-practitioner or physician. Although many will already have diagnosis before the IEP is established, if not, a medical professional should be part of this evaluation process.
Members of the IEP Team
The IEP team includes the student, the students parents or guardians, a special education teacher, at least one general-education teacher, a representative of the school or of the school district who is knowledgeable about the availability of the school resources, and an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of the results of the student's evaluation such as a school psychologist.
Parents, as well as the school, can invite others who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child. For example, the school may invite related service providers, such as speech and occupational therapists. The parent may invite professionals who have worked with the child in the past, or maybe an advocate for the child, such as an attorney. If appropriate, the child may participate in the IEP team meetings (often occurs during middle school).
Parents are considered full and equal members of the IEP team along with school personnel. Parents have a right to be involved in meetings that discuss the identification, evaluation, IEP development, and educational placement of their children. They also have the right to ask questions, dispute points, and request modifications to the plan, as do all members of the IEP team. Schools will not typically though, include an advocate for the parents, someone knowledgeable to help guide them through the IEP process. Parents must do this research themselves and understand their child's rights and what options are available. This is a policy failure that needs to be addressed.
As the child is evaluated for their IEP, multiple tests are provided by the school to determine if the child will need additional resources and parents are not allowed to decide which test will be conducted on their child, although they do need to give consent to have the school test the child. This evaluation must be done in 60 days after consent is obtained. Based on these tests then, the IEP plan is created in a meeting with all parties in order to assure the child's needs are being met by the school.
What I have learned more recently though, is that under IDEA Part D, the United States Department of Education funds at least one parent training and information center in each state and most territories to provide parents the information they need to advocate effectively for their child. Some centers may also provide a knowledgeable person to accompany a parent to IEP meetings to assist the parent in the process.
The school is mandated to make an effort to ensure that at least one parent is present at each IEP team meeting. If they do not attend, the school is required to show that due diligence was made to enable them to attend, including notifying the parents early enough that they have an opportunity to attend, scheduling the meeting at a mutually agreed upon time and place, offering alternative means of participation, such as a phone conference.
Implementing All Educational Services
After the IEP is developed and placement is determined, the student's teachers are responsible for implementing all educational services, program modifications, or supports as indicated by the individual education plan. Schools are required to have an IEP in effect at the beginning of the school year and then initial IEPs need to be developed within 30 days after eligibility. Services specified within the child's IEP are required to be provided as soon as possible after the IEP is developed.
Keep in mind though, accommodations do not involve modifying the educational content but rather allows students to receive information or to demonstrate what they have learned in ways that work around their impairment, thereby minimizing the likelihood of a significant disability. It may be that completing fewer or different parts of a the homework assignment than the other students is deemed appropriate, or writing shorter papers to be given different projects and assignments in replacement of the original task. Accommodations may also include provisions such as preferential seating, providing photocopies of teacher notes, giving oral rather than written quizzes, extended time for tests and assignments, use of a word processor or laptop, taking tests in a quiet room, prompts and reminders for focus breaks for sensory needs, and assistance with specific subject areas.
Modifications can also be made for students who need to learn material that the rest of the class has already moved on from, like working on exponents while the class is moving on to applying them in the order of operations. They also may occur in grading rubrics, where a student with an IEP may be assessed on different standards than other students.
The IEP team is responsible for conducting an annual review to ensure that the student is meeting goals and/or making progress on the benchmarks specified for each objective. If an IEP is not helping the student in the classroom, an immediate revision is to occur. The student will stay in special education unless their parents or legal guardians request removal or if the child met all their IEP goals and tests out. Some programs will slowly test the child out to assure they will succeed without need of the special education program. If the child can be successful then there is no more need for the child to be in special education.
The school's special educational program is funded by the federal government. The funding is based on the overall student attendance. This means that the school's reaction is to automatically deny a child who is believed to need the special education program due to funding. They will also not often, if ever, suggest resources that could make a profound difference for your child if it means additional funds are spent to obtain these resources.
As a parent, you have a right to examine records, the right to engage in mediation, to change the educational program, and a right to an impartial due process hearing. You also have a right to have an advocate, whether specialist or legal representation, at your IEP meetings.