For parents who are new to the world of special education, pursuing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be quite intimidating!

Learning how the special education system works, becoming familiar with your parental rights, special education laws, and understanding how an IEP is developed will empower you and lead to better outcomes for your child.

In this article we’ll cover what an IEP is, its benefits, what qualifies a child for an IEP, and finally share some IEP navigation tips for parents.

First, what is an IEP?

An IEP is a legal document that is developed for any child in a public school who needs special education services and/or accommodations and meets eligibility.

The IEP must meet the unique needs of your individual student and is created by a team of parents and therapists, as well as school district staff who are familiar with your child’s educational needs and challenges. Children as young as age 3 can qualify for an IEP through their local school district.

Once you make a request for special education assessments, the school district is obligated to respond to you within 15 calendar days with a proposed assessment plan (or a “prior written notice” which explains why the school district is denying your request).

It is important to put your assessment request in writing; an email to the special education department works well. An assessment request template can be found here (courtesy of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund).

After you consent to the assessment plan proposed, a 60-day timeline is triggered, during which the school district must complete their assessments and reports and hold the initial IEP meeting.

The assessments can involve testing, observation of your child, parent questionnaires, teacher reports and/or outside report findings and considerations. If your student is found eligible, then an initial IEP is developed.

Benefits of an IEP

The process outlined above may seem a little daunting, but there are many benefits to developing an IEP for your child including:

  1. Improved academic performance: An IEP can help to identify a child’s specific needs and provide personalized and individualized support that can lead to better academic, behavioral and social outcomes.
  2. Access to specialized services: Specialized services, such as speech therapy, one-to-one or small group academic instruction from a resource specialist teacher, or occupational therapy, which can be included in an IEP. 
  3. Increased participation and engagement: With the right support, students with disabilities can be more engaged in their learning and more active participants in the classroom.
  4. Enhanced social and emotional development: An IEP can address social and emotional needs, which can improve overall well-being and help to develop important life skills.
  5. Long-term success: With the right support in place, students with disabilities can develop the skills they need to succeed in school and beyond.
  6. Parental/Caretaker involvement: Bringing in the parents or caretakers are to be equal members of the IEP team and should be key decision makers alongside the school staff.

What Qualifies a Child for an IEP?

In order for a child to qualify for an IEP, they must meet the following criteria (please note that the process and timelines listed are those followed in the California public school system and may vary in other states): 

  1. The child must have a disability that falls under one of the 13 categories outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These categories include autism, intellectual disability, specific learning disability, emotional disturbance, and others. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is included in the Other Health Impaired (OHI) category.
  2. The disability must adversely affect the child’s educational performance.
  3. The child must need special education and related services in order to receive an appropriate education. This means that the child requires additional support and services beyond what is provided in the general education classroom in order to access the curriculum and make progress.

The process of evaluating a child’s eligibility for an IEP typically involves several steps, including assessments, observations, and input from parents and teachers. These steps include:

  1. Referral: The process usually begins with a referral from a teacher, parent, or other concerned individual who believes that a child may need additional support and services to succeed in school. 
  2. Pre-referral interventions: Before conducting a formal evaluation, the school may try various strategies to help the child succeed in the general education classroom. This may include additional academic support, behavior management strategies, or a student study team. 
  3. Evaluation plan: If the child does not make progress with pre-referral interventions, the school will develop an evaluation plan. The plan will outline the assessments that will be used to evaluate the child’s strengths and weaknesses and determine eligibility for special education services.
  4. Assessments: The school will conduct a variety of assessments to evaluate the child’s cognitive, academic, and behavioral functioning. These assessments may include standardized tests, observations, interviews, and other measures. Assessments may also include impressions, findings and/or reports from outside (private or insurance funded) providers. An example of an assessment form used by school districts in California can be found here.
  5. Observations: The child’s teacher, special educators, school psychologists, therapists and other school staff may observe the child in various settings, including the classroom, playground, and other parts of the school. This can help identify areas of difficulty and strengths.
  6. Input from parents and teachers: Parents and teachers are key sources of information during the evaluation process. They may be asked to complete questionnaires or provide input during meetings with the evaluation team.
  7. Eligibility determination: Based on the results of the assessments, observations, and input from parents and teachers, the evaluation team will determine whether the child is eligible for special education services. This decision is made based on whether the child meets the criteria outlined above. Be aware that if a school recommends a 504 plan, this is not the same thing as an IEP. A 504 plan does not provide individualized instruction and related services, but may provide accommodations such as additional time to complete tests. Often times, children diagnosed with ADHD may be assigned to a 504 plan instead of an IEP, unless their ADHD causes major learning impairment or they have a co-existing learning disability such as severe dyslexia. It is important to understand the distinction between what services your child will be offered under a 504 plan versus an IEP, which is why we recommend a consultation with one of our experts prior to agreeing to any plan offered by your school district.
  8. IEP development: If the child is found eligible for special education services, the school will develop an IEP that outlines the child’s educational goals, the special services and accommodations needed to achieve those goals, and how progress will be measured. Parents are an important part of the IEP team and play a key role in the decision-making process.
  9. Annual review: The IEP must be reviewed and updated annually to ensure that it continues to meet the child’s needs and goals. The evaluation process may be repeated periodically to determine if the child’s needs have changed and if additional services or accommodations are needed.
  10. Triennial IEP assessment: In addition to the annual review, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to reevaluate children with IEPs at least once every three years. The purpose of the triennial reevaluation is to see if a student’s needs have changed. It’s also to see if they still qualify for special education services. In California, it is recommended that the school district start the triennial assessment process at least 60 days before the triennial review. Triennial reviews can occur more frequently than every 3 calendar years, if the parent (or teacher) requests a meeting sooner. Parents should be active participants in the IEP team and Triennials (in particular) in both understanding and articulating their child’s changing educational needs and advocating for appropriate goals and services. Parents can make requests for the procedures to include in triennial assessments, depending on what is more appropriate and accurate for their child. These procedures can include: formal testing, class observations, parent questionnaire reporting and interviews, data collection on progress or lack thereof towards IEP goals, collaborating with outside/private providers, and analysis of teacher feedback.

Overall, parents play a critical role in the IEP process, and your input and participation are essential for developing an educational plan that meets your child’s needs. You have the right to be informed, participate, access records, provide consent, dispute decisions, and receive translation and interpretation services if needed.

10 tips to help you advocate for your child during the IEP process:

  1. Make sure your child is assessed “in all areas of suspected disability.” You are entitled to this.
  2. If you disagree with your child’s eligibility and/or the assessment results, let the school district know politely in writing. In a collaborative way, provide justification. Seek a private, outside assessment report or ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) which is at the school district’s expense.
  3. Ask your school district representative to write an agenda for the IEP meeting, that begins with time for you to calmly state your concerns about your child at school. Be assertive but diplomatic about what services and accommodations you are requesting.
  4. Ask to record the IEP meeting. You must give the school district at least 24 hours notice. With IEP meetings now being held on Zoom, it is easy for the school district to record it and send you the recording. Recording this meeting keeps everyone accountable.
  5. Parents can ask for an IEP meeting, whenever needed, and the school district must hold the IEP meeting within 30 days. At the IEP meeting, discuss how your child’s behaviors and/or special needs are interfering with their learning process.
  6. Mention “least restrictive environment” at the IEP meeting and reference how your child needs to receive an education “to the maximum extent appropriate with children who do not have disabilities.”
  7. Save time at the IEP meeting to discuss, as a team, related services that your child may need for Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), i.e., counseling at school, school nurse, extended school year (over the summer), bus/transportation.
  8. As the parent(s), ensure that you are treated as equal members of the IEP team. Your input and requests must be considered. Also, don’t go alone to the meeting. If possible, both parents should attend, as IEPs meetings tend to be more successful if both parents participate and are on the same page with their advocacy efforts and requests (even with parents who are separated/divorced). Ideally, you should bring at least one expert on your child, an advocate, or even just a personal friend for support.
  9. Sign “in attendance only” at the IEP meeting and take the IEP paperwork home with you to read carefully before deciding if you agree or not. You also have the option to sign with exceptions.
  10. Always maintain a respectful, collaborative relationship with the school district staff. Express your appreciation for their efforts and success with your child, when appropriate.

Ensuring Your Child Gets the Support They Need with an IEP

It is normal to feel stress as you begin the special education process and come to terms with your child’s special needs.

Learning how to navigate the system and act as an effective advocate for your child can make a world of difference. You can get your child the school support services they deserve while also maintaining a cooperative, collaborative relationship with your child’s school and school district.

Diana Blank, LCSW specializes is supporting and guiding families who have special needs children. Diana, along with other CCY Parent Consultants, is available for private consultations and participation/guidance in your child’s IEP meeting.

Contact us online or call us at 1-888-927-0839 to learn more.