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What is an IEP and what is its purpose

what is an iep

What is an IEP and what is its purpose, components of an IEP, when and how an IEP should be created, and progress monitoring.
Read on to learn more!

What is an IEP?

An IEP, or an Individualized Education Plan (or Program), is a document developed by a student's special education team to ensure that the student with a disability receives free and appropriate specialized instruction and related services according to their needs through the public education system in the United States. The team is then responsible for meeting those needs and providing the services to the student to help them make agreed-upon progress towards annual goals to help them in their educational career from age 3 to 18 (or 21).

tl;dr: A team-created document with a student's current skills, goals for the next year, and how the team will meet those goal.

What is the purpose of an IEP?

What is an IEP in action comes down to the purpose behind it. I mean, we don't create a document just to check a box. We create it to help an entire team of educational professionals and the family who loves the student get on the same page and move forward as one. We attempt to do that with an IEP.

So the purpose of an IEP, I see, is two-fold. First, it is to create and agree upon measurable annual goals for the student; and second, to agree upon the special education and related services and supports that the school will provide to the student to meet those goals. 

What are the components of an IEP?

An IEP in your school district may look different than one from another district or state, but that really just comes down to the software the district may be using. IEPs across the states typically contain the same basic information, even if they are mixed and matched in different locations in the document. Your IEP may contain:

Boring (but important stuff)

Invitation to the meeting, contact attempts, who is invited to the meeting, Prior Written Notice (which is really AFTER written notice which just details what the meeting was about and any notes that needs to be shared), and receipt of the parent/guardian rights and protections.

Team considerations

Family input (parents should be contacted beforehand and asked to share what's on their mind!), student performance on state or district-wide assessments, communication needs (general statement), assistive technology needs, behavior needs (general information and if a behavior plan is needed or in place), English language proficiency, if the student has a visual impairment, etc.

Present Levels of Performance

Sometimes referred to PLOPs (I like this one) or PLEPs. Medical and physical considerations, general education teacher statement. Then what are the student's strengths and weaknesses? How is the student currently doing in each area of development? What is the student's current skill set on the goals the team expects to include in the goals section?

Annual Goals

Goals that directly relate to the present levels just reported. These goals should be 1) SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based), 2) agreed upon by the team (including parents!), 3) written in such a way as they can be understood by anyone who reads it, 4) transferrable, so if the family moves, they still make sense to a new team, and 5) socially significant! Goals that make the life of that student more able to access their general education peers and curriculum and make their day-to-day life more meaningful in the world around them.

Accommodations and Modifications

An accommodation is a support added to the material or environment to help the student, it's a HELP for the student. It is often used in terms of using the SAME material as everyone else but with extra help. Examples: a scribe to write for the student, extra time on tests, a quiet place to work, special seating. A modification is a CHANGE to the material to help the student. It is often used in terms of using the SAME material as everyone else but changed somehow OR DIFFERENT material. Examples: fewer problems on a worksheet, highlighted area to trace in lieu of writing, pass/no pass grading, written directions to reference. These should be individual to the student, appropriate to their needs, and include, if necessary, how the placement and staff will provide them (if specialized training is necessary, for example).

accommodations modifications

State or districtwide assessments

During certain grades, states are regulated to provide standardized assessments to their students to monitor progress and to evaluate teaching standards. These results are reported to the state education departments and impact school districts' funding and all sorts of stuff. Oftentimes, for students with disabilities, these assessments just simply aren't appropriate, but sometimes they are, even if they warrant accommodations. So, the IEP must spell out if and how the student will participate, if they be provided accommodations to participate and what they will be, and if they participate but in an alternative assessment.

Special Education and Related Services, Supplementary Aids and Services

Here should be a matrix of the number of minutes that the student will receive direct and indirect services in each content area down to the minutes. For example, the student may be given 30 minutes a week for OT, 30 minutes a week for speech therapy, 30 minutes a day in both Adaptive and Behavior, and 30 minutes a day for Reading and Math. Time may include a direct provider of the specialist or it may be with a delegated staff but monitored by the specialist. It should also say where the minutes are being served, whether they are in a special education setting (“pull-out” or self-contained setting) or in the general education setting. All sorts of ways this can play out. The amount of time should also be listed, added up, to show how much the student will participate with their non-disabled peers. This is often provided as a percentage of time in the general education setting.  
This section should also include Related Service and/or Supplementary Aids and Services. These can more “consult” minutes. For example, maybe the student's level of OT needs didn't really warrant a weekly 30 minutes with direct time with the therapist, but the OT feels like consulting with the teacher on the needs of the student in the classroom 20 minutes a month might be enough. Or maybe they have a behavior specialist at the district, and that specialist is going to check in on the student once a month and monitor their behavior points sheets. This may also include paraeducator support time if that's to be provided.

Extent of Nonparticipation

There should also be a rubric or statement of how the student is being served in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This doesn't always mean in general education. The least restrictive environment, I like to think of it, as the place where the student can be MOST independent while still being educated to the MOST extend possible with their non-disabled peers. If the student will not be spending their time in general education, there should be reasons included. I like to also see that there is a plan for moving towards more time with their peers if they're not ready, yet.

Extended School Year (ESY)

ESY services are a continuation of services over the summer break and are provided to a student who meets certain standards set by the state and district and in accordance with the federal law. There are many questions by families about who qualifies for ESY, when, what services are offered, and so forth. There is no easy answer because the federal law simply says you have to provide ESY “as necessary to provide FAPE” and “meet the standards of the SEA” (which is the state education association). So, if you want to know about ESY, you'll need to do a little research on your own to find out what YOUR state requires to qualify and what they provide. The only thing I'll say is, while most districts like to use the “they have to show regression” line, that is nowhere in the law. The only true qualification is that it's determined by the IEP team that the extra time is needed to meet those annual goals (thus the “free and appropriate public education). So, look up case law in your state and see what the courts have said about ESY. Wrightslaw is a FANTASTIC place to start for anything special ed law related. I highly recommend checking them out if you  have any education law questions.

Optional: FBA-BIP-ERP

In some situations, a student's behavior is significant enough to impede on their educational progress, and the team determined that a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is warranted. This is a whole process which can be explained in another post! but for now, the FBA is the analysis of the behavior which may then lead to a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) or Behavior Support Plan (BSP) which is the plan by which the IEP team needs to follow to address and support the student around those specific behaviors. In addition, if the behavior is significant enough and deemed unsafe, the plan may include an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) which is specific to safety and must always be included if the student's behavior may lead to any hands on or other restrictive responses by staff.

What are the timelines for developing an IEP?

Knowing WHAT an IEP is is one thing, understanding the timelines for getting one in place is something else! It's confusing! So I tried to put it all together in one place with a nice chart. You can find many charts like this on-line, but here is my take on it. 

Referral: Concerns raised by parent or school personnel in writing

–25 school days–

Consent to Evaluate: Within 25 school days, the school district decides (with parent input) whether or not to evaluate. Parent must provide informed consent to continue.

–35 school days–

Initial Evaluation Report: Within 35 school days, the IEP team (school and parents) meet to discuss results of evaluation and determine if student is eligible for special education services.

–30 calendar days–

IEP: Within 30 calendar days, the IEP team develops a plan and meets again to discuss the services, goals, placement, etc. This sometimes happens at the same meeting as the evaluation meeting if the family has already taken an active role in the decision for services.

A copy of the final IEP must be sent to the parent within 21 school days.

–30 calendar days–

Start services: Special education services begin as soon as possible after the IEP is developed and agreed upon but not less than 30 calendar days later. The only thing that might hold it up is arranging transportation or medical needs. Services should NOT be postponed for “not enough space” in a program or “lack of staffing.”

Progress monitoring: At least as often (if not more) than students receive report cards, parents should receive a progress report on the IEP goals. This report should include more information than “making progress” and so forth but have clear data and notes of the progress of their student on their annual goals.

Annual review: No less than once a year, before the annual due date, the IEP must be revisited, goals and services updated, and a new IEP team meeting held for continuation of services.

Tri-annual Re-evaluation: No less than once every 3 years, the full IEP team must reconvene, re-evaluate as agreed upon, and determine if the student is still eligible for special education services. 

***An IEP team meeting can be called at any time during a school year by any member of the team (including the parent).

iep timeline

So there you have it, a quick snapshot of the IEP process. You might also be interested in learning how to use an IEP goal bank, how to write an IEP progress report, or some ideas for student behavior management. You can also read more on what is autism and what are SMART IEP goals. 

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