An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a document that describes a student’s special education plan.  Every student who receives special education services has an IEP.  Like children with autism, no two IEPs are exactly the same.  The content of an IEP varies from child to child depending on his or her unique needs.  An IEP is intended to be a “living, breathing” document that changes as students make progress towards their goals and as their needs change. 

What kind of information is included in an IEP?

An IEP includes information about a student’s current ability levels, goals in various areas, and the types of services the student receives at school. For example, services for students with autism spectrum disorders might include speech therapy, occupational therapy, social skills training, organizational support, and/or academic support. Which services a particular student receives depends on his or her specific needs.  For each service provided, the IEP documents how many minutes per week the student receives that service (for example, 60 minutes per week of speech therapy).  The IEP also outlines what type of classroom the student attends, such as a self-contained classroom for children with significant disabilities, a “resource room” for children with less severe disabilities, the general education classroom alongside typically-developing peers, or a combination of these settings.  Additionally, the IEP includes information about whether or not the student qualifies for summer school (known as “Extended School Year”, or ESY), and/or special transportation such as a smaller bus.  The IEP also lists any accommodations and modifications to the curriculum that the student receives, such as picture schedules, advance warnings for transitions, extra time on tests, or special seating near the front of the classroom.  For students who are 16 and older, the IEP also includes a section about “transition planning” for adulthood, which refers to the student’s goals related to education, employment, and independent living skills for after high school.

What happens at an IEP meeting?

An IEP is updated annually at an IEP meeting.  The student’s entire IEP team is invited to attend this meeting.  The IEP team includes the parents, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a district representative such as a principal or director of special education, and, when appropriate, the student.  Any specialists involved in the child’s education, such as speech or occupational therapists, are also invited to the meeting.  At the middle and high school level, the student may have multiple teachers, and all are invited to attend.  Additionally, parents and school personnel may invite other participants who can provide input into the development of the student’s IEP, such as a private therapist or a PE teacher who knows the student well.  Parents and school personnel should communicate in advance of the meeting to know who will be in attendance.  At this meeting, which typically lasts from one to several hours, the IEP team discusses the student’s current performance, progress, and areas of concern.  The team also decides on placement and services, and develops goals for the student for the coming year.  If your child has recently had his or her 3-year re-evaluation at school, the results of that evaluation are provided by the school psychologist and/or other school personnel who completed the evaluation, such as the speech therapist or occupational therapist.  The re-evaluation results are utilized in the development of the student’s goals.

What is my role as a parent on the IEP team?

Parents are strongly encouraged to be active participants on the IEP team.  To do this, come prepared with a list of questions or ideas you have, much as you would for a medical appointment.   Also, bring along any information or documentation that may be helpful to the IEP team, such as information about any outside (i.e., private) services the child is receiving, including individual therapy or counseling, speech therapy, occupational therapy, or social skills groups.  Describe to the school team what progress you have seen your child make from these services and what your current concerns are.  Additionally, share with the school team any out-of-school assessment results or diagnoses that your child has received, such as from psychologists, medical providers, speech language therapists, or occupational therapists.  This information can be very helpful to the IEP team in developing goals, determining appropriate services, and updating the special education category under which to serve the child, if needed (e.g.,  autism, health impairment, specific learning disability, etc.).  Also, be aware that everyone who attends the IEP meeting, including parents, will be asked to sign the IEP each year.  On the first IEP, parental signature indicates an agreement to place the child in special education.  On subsequent IEPs, signatures indicate each team member’s attendance and participation.

What happens if the IEP team cannot come to an agreement?

Everyone on the IEP team – parents, teachers, and other school personnel included – most likely has the child’s best interests in mind. Typically, the IEP team experience is a positive and collaborative one, in which parents work together with the school team in the development of the child’s IEP.  Nonetheless, there are occasional situations in which the parents and the school team cannot come to an agreement.  For example, perhaps your child has significant speech/language delays but has not qualified to receive speech/language therapy at school.  In these cases, it is important to be familiar with your options, which can be found in state laws and on the Wrightslaw website, which provides information about special education law and advocacy.  When parents and the school team cannot come to an agreement, they may, for example, request what’s called an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), may request an advocate, file a complaint, or initiate mediation.  In Washington State, the Special Education Ombudsman is available through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to help families and educators understand and navigate the rules and laws related to special education.  Additionally, if concerns, questions, or changes arise, parents may always request an additional IEP meeting at any time, even if the student has already had an IEP meeting within the past year.

What else should parents know about their role on the IEP team?

Parents are an integral part of the IEP team because they know their child best and are able to provide valuable input about their child’s current abilities, concerns, and goals.  The role of parents as their child’s best advocate on the IEP team cannot be overstated.  The IEP team is most successful when parents and school personnel have the child’s best interests in mind and work collaboratively as a team.