Understanding an IEP

This is part two in a three-part series covering how to navigate the Individual Education Plan (IEP) process. The first article talks about the process of determining if your child is eligible for a IEP.

Article at a Glance

  • Learning the purpose of an IEP, and some of the common terms used can help parents feel more confident during an IEP meeting.
  • Always review your child’s IEP to make sure nothing was left out from the meeting.
  • Follow up on your child’s IEP during the school year by keeping in touch with your case manager and your child’s teachers.

Identifying a child’s needs for physical, emotional, or educational support is often the first step to ensuring a quality education for your child. After meeting with your child’s teacher and completing the necessary screenings and evaluations to determine eligibility for an Individual Education Program (IEP), you will need to meet with your child’s public school to draft an IEP for your child. Your child’s IEP will be an official document outlining and guaranteeing district-provided services to support education as well as track your child’s progress through pre-determined goals. This can be a very exciting and intimidating process. You may have questions about new and unfamiliar terms and vocabulary, concerns about the frequency of suggested services, or even apprehension with meeting with professionals to discuss the right path for your child.

Understanding a few basic terms and the purpose of the IEP may help you feel more confident when meeting with your team and reviewing the proposed draft after the meeting. Nearly twelve years ago, we had our first IEP meeting for our son, Joshua, and I felt a little overwhelmed by the whole experience. Over the years, I’ve come to understand the process better and the necessary language explaining the type of services and accommodations Joshua receives. Here is a list of some helpful things I’ve learned along the way. Always remember, good communication with your team will guarantee a successful approach for your child.

1. Eligibility

Eligibility refers to the results of a prior assessment identifying your child’s exceptional needs. A formal recognition of these prior assessments is necessary in continuing with an IEP. Since most children change and new considerations are often necessary, usually eligibility assessments are good for three years. If your team suspects that your child’s exceptional needs have changed and even improved substantially since the time of the last assessment, your child will most likely need to be reassessed.

2. Accommodations

Accommodations are modifications or support systems situated in your child’s learning environment allowing your child to learn and demonstrate acquired knowledge in the way that is best for them. These can include things like assistive technology (technology that allows your child to learn and process information better, such as closed captioning or electronic devices that help facilitate the child’s communication) or modifications to homework or tests. For example, our son Joshua has some visual-spatial processing issues, so wide-lined paper for writing assignments or large grid paper with pre-drawn and numbered graphs for math are essential to his success. Tests are often modified for Joshua to include more multiple choice options or fill in the blank answers since Joshua often has the learned knowledge but struggles with language in communicating that knowledge.

3. Special education and related services

It may be necessary for your child to receive additional educational opportunities and services in order to succeed academically. Sometimes, this means additional instruction through special education, where a student will receive instruction (either large group or individual) outside of and in addition to the classroom setting. Sometimes, your child will need special services to aid the learning process—whether it be special transportation or specific therapies. Through his IEP, Joshua is guaranteed not only separate individual and group educational support but services such as speech therapy that help build his communication abilities. Joshua also receives occupational therapy through the school district which helps him refine his gross and fine motor skills as well as desensitize him to the sensory integration issues that come with his autism.

4. Present level of educational performance

Before you meet with your team, your child’s teachers will write a summary of your child’s strengths and weaknesses based on their observations. This could include observations on both an educational and functional level. Since Joshua is in middle school and takes multiple classes, each teacher comes to the IEP meeting with their specific observations and shares them with the team. This includes where Joshua is succeeding and where he is struggling. The present level of performance can also include descriptions of communicative status, physical characteristics, emotional/social development, adaptive characteristics, and home life.

5. Annual goals

These refer to the goals created by you and the team to help your child meet academic or functional goals. These goals often include specific measurement requirements (such as percentages and frequency) to help determine if your child has met the goal set forth by the team. Annual goals are meant to be assessed at the end of the yearly IEP period and will include the start date and end date of the monitoring period. Often, your team will include baseline data (a point of reference of your child’s current performance) as well as the target for success. In my experience, teachers have been very open to parental input on what these goals should be. Since language and communication are so difficult for our son (at home and at school) our big push as parents is to have our goals centered on language improvement.

6. Benchmark goals

These are the stepping stones in measuring progress toward the annual goal. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) now only requires benchmark goals for students whose goals refer to alternate achievement standards (alternate achievement standards may be necessary for children with more severe cognitive delays). However, many states still include benchmark goals for children who do not need alternate achievement standards. Benchmark goals are helpful in that they break down the steps and strategies needed to get to the annual goal. For example, one of Joshua’s annual goals as a preschooler involved “increasing his engagement with classroom materials by imitating an adult model in building with manipulatives, drawing in imitation, and independently using scissors to cut on a line.” His benchmark goals for February 2007 included: cutting on a one-inch line, engaging in tasks with no more than 2 redirections on 3 consecutive days, and build a 3-block structure. By May 2007, Joshua was expected to increase his engagement by building a 5-block structure, drawing a circle in imitation, and independently using scissors to cut on a 2-inch line.

7. Progress reports

These help inform parents of the measured progress their child is making toward their annual goals. These reports are helpful because they show progress at various times throughout the school year. I find progress reports to be very helpful because I can see what progress Joshua is making toward his annual goal. Often these reports include graphs that help me visually track the progress and trajectory of the goal. If I suspect that the goal is too hard or too easy based on the measured results, I can contact Joshua’s case manager and see if we need to revise the annual goals.

8. Reviewing the IEP

Shortly after your child’s IEP meeting, you should receive a copy or draft of the new IEP. Review the IEP to make sure you agree with the observations, evaluations, and goals discussed and that they are clearly stated in the IEP document. For example, in Joshua’s last IEP meeting, the team suggested that Joshua’s indirect occupational therapy services move from a monthly basis to 4 times per year. This was a change in services from Joshua’s prior IEP, but the team, my husband, and I agreed that because of Joshua’s progress, the change in services was acceptable. However, sometimes there are breakdowns in communication during the IEP meeting and your requests might not have been honored. Reviewing the IEP is an important step in making sure you have your bases covered. If not, you will need to contact your case manager to revise the IEP.

9. The IEP throughout the school year

Your child’s IEP is a legal contract ensuring that your child’s public school provides the education and accommodations your child needs to have a quality education. Make sure you are in constant communication with your child’s teachers, not just your child’s case manager, about your child’s goals and the progress being made. This becomes a little tricky at the middle school and high school level because of the amount of teachers involved in your child’s education. I am often in contact with Joshua’s classroom teachers to make sure that the right adaptive paper is being used for assignments or tests and that Joshua has a clear outline for written assignments. Classroom teachers are often juggling multiple classes, including multiple IEPs for multiple students. Sometimes they may lose track of your child’s needs and accommodations. Make sure to check in with them often and help support or remind them of the special considerations your child may need.

10. Moving with an IEP

The IEP becomes a very useful document when moving your child to a different school. When moving to a new school within the same state or even outside of the state, the IDEA protects your child’s educational needs by ensuring that the new school honors your child’s current IEP until the school can assess your child’s needs and meet with you to construct a new IEP. We have moved to two different states throughout Joshua’s education, and his IEP was very important in ensuring he had the services he needed. Right before kindergarten, our family moved from Kansas to North Dakota. Our Kansas team was so helpful in checking that all the documentation (including copies of evaluations) were ready to go with his IEP when we moved and offered to communicate with our new North Dakota team over the phone. This support was so helpful in a time of transition that was already hard on our family. It was so nice to have old and new teachers ready to support us and the educational plan laid out for Joshua in his IEP.

It has taken us a few years to fully understand all of the aspects of Joshua’s IEP. Some of the vocabulary and terms were intuitive for us, some were not. Some of Joshua’s educational needs have changed and shifted over the years. We’ve learned through trial and error how to negotiate changes to his IEP. Overall, I feel that most teachers have the same goals and hopes for our son. We have had lots of discussions over the years on what the best way of achieving those goals looks like. There have been times where I have been frustrated with the resources (or lack thereof), but we have always been able to negotiate options that have allowed us to provide Joshua the education he needs. Just like most things in life, a successful IEP can be a lot of work, but the opportunities it can give to our children with special needs can be life changing.

Sarah Beck and familyAbout the writer:
Sarah Beck lives in Fargo, ND, and is a writer, blogger, wife, and mom of two great kids: an 11-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who has autism.

You can read about her autism-meets-middle school adventures and the challenges, victories, and learning curves that happen along the way at thisautismlife.com.









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