What is an Individualized Education Plan? This crucial document, sometimes referred to as an IEP, is an in-depth outline of special needs and educational goals for a child with development delays or other disabilities. It is an essential tool for helping children meet educational and life challenges.

Young children who participate in early intervention programs are sometimes identified and referred for evaluation in preschool and school- age children. School-age children may be referred when a teacher notices them struggling in the classroom. Parents need to understand and participate in this process to help ensure their child has the supports she needs to reach her academic goals and meaningfully participate in the school experience.

How do I get my child an IEP?

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, all children with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE). Appropriate means what is appropriate for a particular child. Parents can work with educators to develop the individualized education program to help their child succeed in school. The IEP describes the goals the team sets for a child during the school year, as well as any special support needed to help achieve them.

The first step in the process is identification/referral. This can originate with the parents or with the school personnel.

Collecting data on whatever academic and/or social difficulties a child faces is part of this first step. To qualify for an IEP, the disability must interfere with functioning at school. Assembling the information needed to begin the IEP process can include:

  • Parent-teacher conferences.
  • Interviewing the child.
  • Observation of the student by a psychologist, learning specialist or other experts.
  • Reviewing homework, tests, assignments and behavior.

At this point, the school might want to first explore ways to support a child that don’t involve an IEP. These may include specialized help with reading or math or behavioral supports. If these programs are unsuccessful, a comprehensive assessment is the next step.

Who are all these people?

Multidisciplinary teams make assessments. They may involve professionals like:

  • A psychologist
  • A social worker
  • Learning consultant
  • Speech and language therapist
  • Physical or Occupational Therapist
  • Others specializing in your child’s disability

A parent or guardian needs to give written permission for any tests a child is given. When the testing is completed, and professionals have put together a comprehensive evaluation report (CER), parents are invited to an IEP meeting.

IEP meetings require a big table. Participants may include teachers, therapists, case managers, a school counselor and the child’s parents
or guardians. Parents may also invite anyone they wish for support or advice. Parents may want to write down their thoughts in advance to make sure they present all the issues necessary for their child.

How do you put together a plan?

The team will discuss a child’s educational needs, as outlined in the CER. Parents do not have to agree with everything that is said; they can serve as advisers to make sure the recommendations make sense for their child. The plan revolves around goals.

Goals fall into two categories: academic and functional. Parents must ensure these goals fit their child’s developmental level and needs.

Educational goals can include any school subject which is based on standardized testing and teacher evaluation. Functional goals involve the mastery of life skills from the simple to the complex. Some examples are:

  • Behavior management
  • Working in groups
  • Handwriting
  • Conflict resolution
  • Sensory integration
  • Adaptive Physical education
  • Adaptive technology

An IEP will include long- and short-term goals. The plan will also address inclusion and, when students are older, transition to employment.

Getting real

Sometimes parents will recognize that goals may not be realistic. They are free to say so and explain why they will cause confusion or frustration. The team may agree on goals a child cannot achieve immediately or entirely. Others may seem too simple, and parents can weigh in on these as well. Most importantly, parents are equal partners in the development of the IEP.

What services will my child receive?

To meet the goals that have been written into the IEP, the child may need special accommodations or the delivery of specific services. A classroom teacher can provide some of these. Others professionals that provide specialized services include a speech therapist, occupational therapist or learning specialist. Medical services can include nursing, audiology and physical therapy. Sometimes, the accommodation is a smaller classroom setting.

What are my child’s rights?

Schools may try to drag their feet in the development of an IEP or its implementation. The law includes timelines for the process. Parents are entitled to receive a statement of legal rights. They should receive information about what to do if they disagree with what’s in a CER or IEP. Parents can also hire a lawyer if they feel the school is not meeting its legal obligation.

Finding support

All the aspects of the IEP process can be daunting! There are resources available to help parents. Some schools have parent advocacy organizations specifically for parents of children with special needs. There are also advocacy organizations such as SPAN (https://spanadvocacy.org) and The Arc of New Jersey (https://www.arcnj.org).