Education Law

What’s an IEP for Special Ed Students?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
If your child qualifies under the IDEA, you’re entitled to take part in developing an annual special ed program that’s tailored to your child’s unique needs and provides support for mainstreaming as much as possible.

A federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide free, appropriate special education and support services for children with disabilities. If you have a child who’s eligible for special ed under the IDEA, the school district must provide you with a yearly individualized education program (IEP).

The IEP Team

A full team of professionals will work with each other to develop the IEP. This team should include:

  • you, as the parent(s)
  • your child’s regular teacher and/or special ed teacher
  • a school administrator who’s responsible for special ed, and
  • any relevant specialists, such as a speech therapist or school psychologist.

Your child may also participate in the process, if it’s appropriate in light of age and disability.

IEP Meetings

At each meeting to develop or update the IEP, the team must consider a range of information, including:

  • the results of your child’s most recent evaluation
  • your own concerns as a parent
  • your child’s strengths and needs
  • strategies to address behavioral problems that are getting in the way of learning, and
  • special needs if your child is an English-language learner

(20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(3).)

What's In the IEP?

The IEP itself must contain descriptions of:

  • how your child is currently doing in school (including cognitive skills, linguistic ability, emotional behavior, social skills, and physical ability) and how the disability is affecting progress and participation in the regular academic subjects (or other appropriate activities for preschool kids)
  • annual goals (both academic and functional) that are specific, can be measured, and are tailored to your child’s specific needs
  • how the school will measure your child’s progress toward those goals, and when you’ll receive periodic reports on that progress
  • the special ed program for your child, including the specific classroom or alternative school (referred to as the “placement”), the course of study, and teaching methods to be used
  • why your child won’t be placed in a regular classroom, if that’s the case
  • the specific support services, technological devices, and other assistance that your child will receive
  • any accommodations for your child during standardized achievement testing for all students, and
  • transition services (if your child is 16 or older) to help meet appropriate goals for employment, education, vocational training, or living skills after secondary school.

(20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(A); 34 CFR § 300.320.)

If other students are bullying or harassing your child—an all-too-common problem for kids with disabilities—that could affect your child’s ability to benefit from and receive an appropriate education. In that case, the IEP should identify goals and methods for dealing with the problem.

Parents’ Participation in the IEP Process

As a parent of a child with disabilities, you are entitled to participate as an equal partner in the process of developing and revising your child’s IEP, including:

  • attending IEP meetings with the rest of the team
  • approving the IEP before it starts or changes
  • requesting an IEP meeting whenever you think it’s needed (for instance, if the placement doesn’t seem to be working or you’re concerned about your child’s lack of progress), and
  • filing an administrative complaint if the school isn’t providing everything included in the IEP (see our article on resolving disputes under the IDEA).

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • What if I can’t go to a scheduled IEP meeting because I work full time? Is there any way I can still participate and make my voice heard?
  • Can you come with me to the IEP meeting as my legal representative?
  • If I don’t agree with something in the IEP, how can I get the school to change it without going through the formal complaint process?
  • What can I do if the school says that the only appropriate placement for my child is in a residential facility that’s over 200 miles away?
Go to the main FAQ page on special education and the IDEA.
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