What Is An IEP?
An Individual Education Plan/Program (IEP) is a specific program that identifies the instruction, support, and services a student needs to make progress based on results from an evaluation process. An IEP is developed to suit the unique educational needs of an individual student.
Technically, the IEP itself is a legal document which outlines exactly how the public school system is going to provide appropriate education to a student with disabilities. Federal and state laws are in place to guide the process and ensure each child receives equitable support services. Working closely with the school district, parents play an important role in helping shape the IEP, ensuring your student gets the best support possible.
How Did IEPs Start?
The concept of Individual Education Plans began in 1975 as a part of the Education of All Handicapped Children’s Act (EHA). This law mandates that public schools provide students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” in the least restrictive environment. Since 1975, EHA has been expanded and renamed several times.
- In 1990, the EHA was amended and renamed the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA). This change requires schools to include children ages 3-5, and that parents have the right to participate in the development of IEPs for their special needs children.
- In 2004 the law was again modified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) and it was further expanded to include new regulations regarding the criteria used to determine if a child has specific learning disabilities
Today, IDEA is a detailed statute comprising 8 subparts and more than 800 subsections which dictate precisely what is required of the public education system when it comes to serving students with disabilities. Understanding what the law requires is important for parents who are new to the world of special education.
The Difference Between IEPs and 504 Plans
Often an IEP is confused with a “504 Plan”. While these two plans can be similar in many ways, it is important to know there are key differences between them. One difference is that IEPs fall under the IDEA statute, which is an education law. 504 plans fall under the Rehabilitation Act, which is an anti-discrimination law. IEPs are intended to address special education needs, while 504 plans are intended to provide services, accommodations, and changes to the learning environment to allow students to remain in general education classrooms.
Qualifying for and acquiring an IEP is often a more involved process than acquiring a 504 plan. Developing an IEP is a collaborative and ongoing process. Successful IEPs are the result of strong working partnerships between parents and school district administrations to identify the best possible supports for the student.
What Qualifies My Student for an IEP?
A thorough evaluation of a student’s progress or academic abilities must be assessed before an effective IEP can be developed so a student can receive special education and related services. Parents, a teacher, an administrator, or even a doctor can request a special needs evaluation through the public school district, free of charge. It is often a teacher who first notices the signs of a learning disability and initiates the process.
Based on the results of a child’s evaluation, an eligibility determination will be made. If your student is eligible for additional supports, the IEP process will begin. The school district, the parent, and the student are important team members in the developing of the IEP. Depending on the district or school system, specialized service providers like ChanceLight Education may provide expert consultants or special education professionals who specialize in IEP services.
The objective of the IEP process is to help the student maximize their learning potential. When conducted as intended, the IEP process leads to establishing and documenting a plan that facilitates effective teaching, learning, and the best possible results for the individual student.
How is an IEP Developed?
Creating an Individual Education Plan is a fairly formal process. To begin an IEP Team is formed. The team must consist of the child’s parents or legal guardian(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator, and any individuals having knowledge or expertise regarding the child who are invited by the parents.
Next, within 30 days of the formal determination of special education needs, an IEP meeting will be held. The meeting usually takes place at school during regular school hours. The school is required to provide parents with written notice regarding; the time and place for the meeting, the purpose of the meeting, and who will attend. Again, parents do have the right to invite any other individuals who are knowledgeable about the child to the meeting, such as therapists or caregivers.
During the IEP meeting, the team is required to take into consideration: the child’s strengths, the parents’ feedback, the child’s most recent evaluation, the specific needs of the child, and any special factors. With these considerations in mind, the child’s IEP is formally put into writing.
The written plan should include:
- Present level of performance – describes the child’s abilities, skills, challenges, and strengths,
- Annual Goals – describes academic and functional skills that can be accomplished this year, broken down into short-term objectives
- Progress reporting – describes how the IEP team will track progress toward annual goals
- Services – describes what special education services and for how long, services outside of the school year, and any transition plan
- Supplementary Aids & Services – describes specific accommodations, assistive technology, and modifications to curriculum
- Participation – describes the extent to which the child will be included in general education or other activities, including state tests
- Consent – describes the level of permission given by a child’s parents to implement the IEP, including any portions of the IEP that the parents want excluded
Parents are usually asked to sign the IEP document. In some states, signing the IEP constitutes consent for the plan, while in other states it simply acknowledges that the parents were present for the IEP meeting. Either way, parents are not required to sign unless they choose to do so.
IEP rights, laws, and regulations can differ widely from state to state. Reading the most up-to-date information for your state on IEPs will help you know what to expect and how to prepare for the process.
What Happens Once My Student has an IEP?
When the meeting(s) is finished, your child’s IEP will decide their “placement,” which is the implementation of the program of instruction. Placement is expected to maximize the student’s interaction with nondisabled peers in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). IDEA requires that the district offer a continuum of alternative placement options in order to ensure students receive services in an appropriate LRE setting.
The written IEP and the student’s initial placement are not the end of the IEP process. Each student’s IEP is a living document. The school is required to review each child’s IEP periodically, no less than once per school year, in order to determine whether the annual goals are being achieved.
If revisions are needed, they are made at an IEP Team meeting or by formally amending the written IEP document. Parents must be informed of intended changes and be allowed to participate in the decision-making process.
Many school districts may choose to partner with organizations who have elevated expertise in IEP services, in order to ensure they remain in IEP compliance. ChanceLight Education is a trusted provider of specialized services such as these, and partners with over 200 districts annually.
How Can an IEP Affect Life after Graduation?
When a student’s time in the public education system approaches its end, forethought and planning are necessary to assist students with disabilities though a successful transition.
The 1990 amendment, which changed the EHA to the IDEA, added the requirement that each IEP include an Individual Transition Plan (ITP), to help students engage in post-secondary life. The purpose of an ITP is “to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment, continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation”.
Any time the IEP Team discusses a transition plans the student must be invited to the meeting. The student’s transition plan considers his or her strengths, preferences, and interests. Daily living skills may be included in ITP so the student can more easily care for themselves when special services are no longer being provided through the public education system. Additionally, a functional vocational evaluation may be provided to determine what line of employment may be suitable for the child as they reach adulthood.
Often the IEP is developed early in the student’s education plan, allowing educators time to help the child develop the skills needed to transition into adult life. IDEA requires transition services be included in a student’s IEP no later than their 16th birthday . The law also states the ITP must include:
- The student’s personal goals after finishing school
- IEP goals outlining steps the student needs to take while in school to achieve postsecondary goals
- A detailed explanation of transition services the student will receive to support achievement of IEP goals as they relate to life after school
The National Technical Assistance Center for Transition provides resources for identifying and setting goals. Regardless of your student’s postsecondary goals, the ITP will outline steps to prepare.
If you as a parent are seeing signs that your student might be struggling in school, do not wait to ask for help. School districts across the nation are provided the resources to assist your student. Many districts have partnered with special education and services experts, such as ChanceLight Education, to bolster their schools’ ability to meet your student’s needs.
About ChanceLight Education:
ChanceLight Education operates programs nationwide to teach, inspire and prepare students to reach their full potential in a positive, reinforcing environment. Through innovative programs, ChanceLight partners with school districts and families nationwide to provide special education, emotional/behavior and mental health supports services, alternative education and dropout prevention and recovery to students in grades K-12.
 https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?node=pt34.2.300&rgn=div5#se34.2.300_1321 – “Evaluations and Reevaluations”, IDEA Subpart D Subsection 300.321
 https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?node=pt34.2.300&rgn=div5 – Part 300 – Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities
 https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?node=pt34.2.300&rgn=div5#se34.2.300_1324 – “Development, review, and revision of IEP” – IDEA Subpart D sub-section 300.324
 https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?node=pt34.2.300&rgn=div5#se34.2.300_143 – “Transition services” – IDEA Subpart D subsection 300.43 (a)(1)
 https://www.parentcenterhub.org/transitionadult/#when – “Transition to Adulthood”, Center for Parent Information & Resources, June 21, 2017