The 1-2-3s of IEP

Individual Education Plans Deciphered


Parents of children with special needs face worry over many issues, but perhaps the most prevalent worry is education. Where to send their children to school and whether schools can adequately handle and educate them is a near-constant concern for many, if not most, parents of disabled students. Prior to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, enacted in 1975, only about 20% of students with special needs were educated in public schools in the United States. Children who were blind or deaf or who had emotional or intelligence issues were specifically prohibited from attending public schools. They either stayed home or were put in institutions with no education or rehabilitation programs. So, while there are still many problems in special education, much progress has been made in the last four decades.

Students with disabilities now have a right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). In order to help facilitate this, each student is given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP lays out what school employees need to know about a student and a systemized plan in order to best facilitate a successful school experience. Baseline information about a student’s abilities and deficits is obtained via formal evaluations and through a review of the student’s current performance in school or in the home environment. Any issues that impact a student’s ability to learn or to participate in the school environment should be considered. This information is then used to put together services and goals that will support the student.

Evaluation and Placement
Many people have the misconception that an IEP deals only with academic issues. Rather, the IEP addresses life skills, physical functioning, and social and behavioral abilities in addition to the core academic subjects. There are 13 specific diagnoses, including autism, specific learning disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, deafness, and visual impairment, that qualify a student to receive an IEP. Often these disabilities have an academic impact, but such an impact is not a requirement of receiving an IEP.

After laying out the child’s primary and secondary disabilities, the IEP will indicate the school placement for that student. School placement always considers whether the student is in the Least Restrictive Environment possible. To the greatest extent achievable, a disabled student should be included with typically developing peers accessing the same general education that they receive. In other words, the ideal is for special education students to be placed in a general education classroom with support provided within that classroom. An IEP should also include support for extracurricular and nonacademic activities such as field trips, lunch, and recess. Commonly, students are educated within the general education environment with a combination of in-class support and pull-out sessions for additional support outside of the classroom. Other options for placement include a special classroom within a general education school and placement at a school devoted solely to special education students.

The IEP then outlines what special assistance will be given to educate the student. This assistance can include individualized instruction, a special education teacher assisting the student either within or outside of the general education classroom. Related services such as Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT), Speech Therapy, or Behavioral Support can also be assigned. Again, these services can be delivered both within the general population and as a pull-out service. The frequency and duration of any special education or related services is spelled out precisely in the IEP.

Some students require a more intensive level of support either within the general education classroom or in a self-contained (special education only) classroom or school. If a student qualifies for a dedicated aide–a person who spends the day with the student to support his or her success in the school environment–that assignment is indicated on the IEP. The IEP also states whether the child qualifies for transportation services to and from school and for ESY, Extended School Year, summer school for special education students. ESY is intended to lessen the negative impact of the long summer break on the progress made during the school year.

Supports such as accommodations and assistive technology are also included. Accommodations can include additional time for tests, reduced homework, preferential seating, and breaks from the classroom. Assistive technology can include things such as using a keyboard rather than writing, audio books, and talking calculators. Any program modifications needed to enable the child to reach goals, participate in extracurricular and nonacademic activities, and be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children is dictated on the IEP.

Accommodations for statewide and districtwide testing are spelled out on the IEP. If a student requires assistance such a scribe (someone to write the answers), dictation (someone to read out the questions), small group testing (testing in a separate room with a smaller group of students), or other accommodation, this is indicated in the IEP. Some students, unable to take the general version of the standardized testing, have the provision of alternative testing. This often includes a portfolio review, assessment via a collection of permanent products that the students has created.

The IEP will have annual goals that are set to give a target for areas in which the student struggles. These include academic topics such as writing, reading, and math and also areas such as social and emotional behavior. These goals must be measurable and are set for the calendar year starting at the time the IEP is developed. They are updated yearly. Goals are based on the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance of the student at school. They also outline how the disability impacts the student’s involvement in the general educational curriculum. The criteria for monitoring and reporting on goal progress is also outlined.

Parental Input
The IEP is developed by a team of people including teachers and staff and the child’s parents. This team meets at least once a year to develop a new IEP, but can meet other times when the current IEP has not proven satisfactory to adequately support the student. Developing an IEP can often be a contentious process with the parents pushing the school to do more while the school often seems unwilling to do enough. Parent education about their child’s needs and the special education process is essential in fully participating in IEP meetings. Establishing an IEP with your child’s school is a long process, but it will be worth it in the end.

Students with a disability who do not qualify for an IEP may qualify to receive a 504 Plan. This provision falls under Section 504, a civil rights law, which requires schools and other public institutions to provide appropriate, reasonable adaptations to eligible students. Section 504 defines disabilities in broader terms. In order to qualify for a 504 Plan, a student must have a mental or physical disability that limits at least one life activity such as walking, speaking, or breathing. A good way of thinking about the differentiation between a 504 Plan and an IEP is that a 504 Plan provides for access to the institution for a child with a disability whereas an IEP is concerned with the success of the student.

Happily the vast majority of school employees, and the law, are on the side of students with special needs and their parents. Crafting a strong IEP can result in a successful school experience for most. The IEP should be seen as a legal contract between the school and the student/parents for the successful education and development of that student. Understanding the makeup of that contract should go a long way toward developing a strong one.


E.V. Downey is an educational consultant based on Capitol Hill. She helps families navigate the public, charter, private, and special education school systems. After spending more than a decade navigating special education for her own two children, she enjoys helping other families with similar challenges. E.V. also works as a behavior therapist with kids on the autistic spectrum. 

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