When a student qualifies for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) the school will develop an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”). An IEP is a document that contains information about a student’s present levels, identifies areas of educational need, the school’s plan to meet those needs, and the services and placement that is necessary to carry out the plan. Each year a school must conduct a meeting to develop, review, and revise the IEP. Parents often find the IEP process and document itself confusing. Different schools use different IEP forms, which may vary in formatting and order of the contents. A brief overview of what goes into an IEP can go a long way in demystifying the document and the process of developing it.
An IEP team must meet at least once a year to develop the annual IEP and make an offer of a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) in the Least Restrictive Environment. At the most basic level, FAPE is “what” the school is offering to do to meet the student’s educational needs and LRE is “where” the team believes the IEP should be implemented. In California, where the information is written into the IEP is not important as long as all the required information is included in the document. For example, a school may indicate that an aide will be provided in the meeting notes rather than on the services page. A parent that stays focused on the bigger picture can help avoid unnecessary disagreements with the school and stay focused on the student’s needs.
The first page of an IEP includes information that a parent should check for accuracy, such as dates, names, addresses, and student’s age, grade, a description of the disability, and eligibility categories. This “cover page” can seem confusing because it often contains multiple dates, including the current date, initial eligibility date, last and next IEP meeting dates, and when the upcoming triennial reevaluation is due. Like the student’s age and grade, contact information may change from year to year. Checking the accuracy of dates, contact information, and other identifying information can help avoid problems like missed meetings, assessments, and communications. The wrong dates on a past IEPs can confuse a parent who is trying to get organized or remember when previous meetings took place.
Every IEP includes a student’s present levels of performance which are the starting point in determining a student’s needs. Present levels of Performance (“PLOP”) typically include strengths and interests and categories of performance such as academics (reading, writing, and math), communication, and social, emotional, and behavioral. The purpose of present levels is to establish a “snapshot” of the student at the time the IEP is being developed. PLOPs identify areas of need and establish a starting point to measure annual progress. PLOPs may also be incorporated into other parts of the IEP like the baselines in specific goals. If information pertaining to a specific area of concern is left out of the PLOPs, then the IEP team may not plan for the related areas of need.
Schools are required to document a parent’s concerns in the IEP, which are often included in the present levels or the meeting notes. A parent may want to prepare their concerns before a meeting, to help reduce the chance of missing a concern while developing the IEP. The concerns may be broad like progress in reading or specific to a particular class or behavioral incident. Providing parental concerns is also a way to document requests for assessments or program changes. If a parent is unsure what to include in the parent concerns during a meeting, or realizes something else later, a parent can always follow up in writing to document their concerns. Depending on those concerns, the school may call another IEP meeting to discuss them further.
Accommodations and modifications serve an important function in an IEP. If a student can access the general education curriculum with the support of accommodations or modifications, then goals in those areas may not be necessary. A student may also need accommodations or modifications to access the goals and other aspects of the IEP. Some examples of accommodations are the use of a calculator for math, or increased font size for reading materials for a student with visual impairments. Modifications change the curriculum materials or expectations for demonstrating proficiency.
An IEP must contain measurable goals. Goals address the areas of need that the school will work on throughout the year. Goals should reflect what IEP team believes is reasonable for the student to obtain over a 12-month period. A goal should identify the area of need being addressed, the anticipated end point, and who will be responsible for implementing the goal. Goals should be tied to a present level in that area of need, often referred to as a baseline, so that progress can be measured. If the student is taking alternative assessments, aligned to alternative achievement standards, then goals should contain short-term objects.
The services section includes the special education and related services the school will provide. Examples of these types of services include specialized academic instruction, speech and language, occupational therapy, and mental health counseling. An IEP should include a brief explanation of the type of service and a description of the frequency, duration, and location of the service. For example, a student might receive 30 minutes per week of speech and language, provided in group, and in a separate setting outside of general education. Determining the level of services a student requires depends on the needs identified in the PLOPs and the goals to be worked on.
Placement is usually the last step in the decision-making process because it is where the team believes the IEP should be implemented in order to obtain the planned educational benefits. A student must be placed in the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”) that is appropriate to meet their needs. In California, an IEP team should determine a student’s LRE by balancing the benefits of placement in the general education classroom, the non-academic benefits of interacting with non-disabled peers, and the impact of a student’s behaviors on themselves and others. This section of the IEP should also discuss the possible positive and negative effects of removing a student from general education and identify other placement options that the team considered.
Team meeting notes are not required by law but can become a valuable part of the IEP document. The information contained in notes can help clarify what was discussed at the meeting or information found in other parts of the IEP itself. While team meeting notes, sometimes called team action section, are helpful they cannot accurately include or reflect everything that occurs during an IEP meeting. A parent may want to audio record an IEP meeting to have something to refer back to in the event of a disagreement over what was agreed on or intended. In California, a parent may record an IEP meeting if they provide at least 24-hours written notice in advance of the meeting.
An IEP will also include signature pages for participation and for parental consent. Signature pages are typically the last section of the IEP. Signing in attendance only indicates the individual attended the meeting. A parent may want to ensure that the list of people who attended the meeting is clearly written into the team meeting notes or legibly written where the individual signed in attendance. It is also good practice to make sure that each person’s signature includes the date the individual attended the meeting. Sometimes meetings span multiple dates and understanding who and what happened at each meeting can be difficult to piece together if the records are not clear.
Consent is the final part of an IEP. Once the school has made the offer of a FAPE in the LRE, the IEP cannot be implemented without parental consent. A parent does not need to consent to the IEP at the meeting and may take some time review and consider the offer. Before signing in consent, a parent may want to compare the new IEP to the previous one to see if the services and supports have changed. Changes may be subtle or inadvertent. For example, failing to check “yes” for extended school year may mean it is not being offered in the new IEP even though it was included last year. A parent may consent to some or all of the IEP. While there is no specific time limit before a parent is required to consent to an IEP, waiting to consent may delay necessary services and support.