A Beginner’s Guide to the IEP

The background is a notebook page with two pencils. The words say “A Beginner’s Guide to the Individualized Education Program! An Overview of the IEP Process.”  Off to the side is a purple square that says “Just Keep Stimming, Autism Advocacy and Resources” with a flower inside.

If you’ve ever attended an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, you know how stressful they can be. I remember attending my own IEP meetings as a child, as well as looking over my brother’s to check for mistakes.

As part of my degree courses, I took a class this past semester on how to create and write an IEP. For my final project, I had to actually write one from scratch based on a fictional neuropsychological evaluation. I’ve put together a binder with information, but I think an online version would be helpful too. I’m not a professional, but I hope it helps some.

Note that this is more aimed towards parents as it deals with individuals under 21 in a public school system. However, if you are a student with a disability, this information is important for you to be aware of.
Contrary to popular belief, including the student in the IEP process is important and has several benefits – especially in the emphasis on self-determination and autonomy.

The Basics

The Individualized Education Program (or Plan, as it is often called both things) is actually part of an important law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – known as the IDEA. It’s the document that ties a lot of special education services together, and is incredibly important. The document is also called an IEP.

The IDEA is one of the most important laws for kids with disabilities, and it has several components. While it covers other things, we’ll focus on just the IEP – your rights, what’s in it, what they look like, and some helpful tips.

The IEP covers students in public schools from ages 3 to 21. Unfortunately, private schools aren’t required to accommodate students with disabilities by the IDEA. If your child is in private school, you may have to fight harder for supports.

There are aspects and concepts regarding special education that you (whether you’re the student, parent, guardian, etc) should be aware of.

Things You Need to Know:

  • Procedural Safeguards
  • Free and Appropriate Education
  • Least Restrictive Environment
  • The IEP Team
  • Prior Written Notice

Procedural Safeguards:
This is basically a guide to special education services. Every parent/guardian should receive a copy of these, as they detail all of your rights. I have a few links at the end of the post with resources.

Free and Appropriate Education:
This is what every child in special education is entitled to, and is often referred to as “FAPE.” Free means that the school has to provide the necessary resources for your child, and the resources must be “appropriate,” as in beneficial.

Least Restrictive Environment:

This is also referred to as “LRE,” and is an important stepping stone to inclusion and universal design. A child should be included with their peers as much as possible, while also receiving services that are necessary for them to thrive in a school setting.

The IEP Team:

This is the team that makes and provides input to create the IEP. The people who are absolutely necessary to be involved include: the parent, the student, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school district representative (often the Principal), and someone who is qualified to explain assessment and test results (sometimes the Special Education teacher, or a school counselor). If the family’s primary language is not English, they have a right to a translator as well.

Other members can include those who provide services in the school setting, such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, and even school nurses. You can also bring a friend for moral support, or even an advocate/expert in special education law.

Prior Written Notice:

This is something that IEP teams need to keep in mind. It basically means that all services and things discussed should be written down – whether they are accepted or rejected. It helps parents to know why a suggestion was rejected – and establishes a very helpful paper trail if there is any issues that arise.

Here is a page that discusses the PWN in much more detail. This can be extremely useful if you feel as if your requests are being ignored: http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/pwn.refusal.martin.htm

(Thank you to Bonnie for reminding me of the PWN in the comments; I knew I had forgotten something!)

The Document Itself

If you’ve never seen an IEP before, the entire process may seem extremely daunting. However, don’t worry! Let’s break down what is actually in it.

What’s In the IEP:

  • Present Levels of Performance
  • Measurable Annual Goals
  • Accommodations and Modifications
  • Testing Adaptations/Alternate Assessment
  • Individualized Instruction Methods
  • Progress Monitoring
  • Start/Frequency, Location, and Duration of Services
  • Statement of Special Education, Related Services & Supplemental Aids
  • Statement of the Extent of Non-participation in General Education Settings
  • If the child is 16, they should also have a transition plan.
    • This consists of post-secondary goals and transition services that will help them to be involved in their community and grow.

I know this seems like a lot of educational jargon (and it is, to be honest), but please don’t feel intimidated! I’ll go over each of these in detail.

Present Levels of Performance:
This is simply a summary of a child’s strengths and areas of concern. It details academic performance, current social skills and behavioral health, and other subjects relating to how the kid is currently doing in school.

Measurable Annual Goals:
This consists of goals that the IEP team creates together. In addition to academic goals, it can involve personal goals such as improving independence skills like tying shoes or buying lunch by themselves in the lunchroom without the help of an aide.

Accommodations and Modifications:
While these are often seen together, they are two separate aspects of the IEP. Accommodations are intended to increase access to the material, while modifications modify the curriculum. This is an important distinction to make, as school systems tend to be less willing to provide modifications than accommodations.
An accommodation would be having a note taker or preferential seating near the front of the classroom. Other accommodations could include sensory breaks or allowing for snacks. A modification, however, would be shortening the amount of math problems or offering a workbook intended at a lower grade level.

Testing Adaptations/Alternate Assessments:
This is especially important for state assessments. In Tennessee, we always had T-CAP testing when I was a child. The IEP will list any adaptation needed or if the student needs an alternative assessment instead.

Individualized Instructional Methods:
This simply means that the IEP document should be individualized and the education plans should be tailored to suit the child’s needs.

Progress Monitoring:
This relates back to the measurable annual goals, as it discusses where the child currently is in meeting their goals.

Start/Frequency, Location, and Duration of Services:
This is a detailed look at all the services provided to the student. It helps everyone on the team to understand exactly what the student will receive, as well as the where and how. This is also important, as you need to know how often the child is being pulled out of general education settings.

Statement of Special Education, Related Services & Supplemental Aids:
This describes the services, accommodations, modifications, and other aspects related to the student’s education.

Statement of the Extent of Non-participation in General Education Settings:
This is in relation to the policy of least restrictive environment and inclusion. This statement specifies the exact amount of time that the student is away from their non-disabled peers and general education setting.  This is extremely important, because while you want the student to receive the best supports available, children should never be pushed away “out of sight, out of mind” from the rest of their peers. Many disability advocates feel that to seclude students with disabilities is discrimination and segregation. This is one of the many reasons why I’m personally a huge fan of universal design.

Transition Plan:
This is often first implemented around the age of 14-16, and focuses on post-secondary goals. Employment and community involvement are the main two aspects that are usually focused on. This is a very important but often forgotten part of the IEP.

If you would like to see an example of an IEP, this is the one I created for class. Remember, it is definitely not perfect as I’m only a student. However, it may give you some idea of what an IEP would look like.

Written IEP Project

The Meeting

If there is anything a parent hates the most about the special education process, it tends to be the IEP meeting. In my experience, they tend to occur about once a year – although it’s necessary to note that you’re not isolated to just one meeting. You can request more than one if you feel that the student’s needs aren’t being met.

I recommend bringing a friend or an advocate with you. Many parents go into the meetings feeling as if they’re going to fight a war – and sometimes, they’re not wrong. However, having someone with you can give confidence and emotional support. And if this person is familiar with the IDEA and special education law, having them with you can be immensely beneficial. Many parents and guardians feel outnumbered when going to the meetings, especially if there are disagreements on handling the student’s case.

If you have any new paperwork regarding the student’s condition, make sure to bring it too. If the child’s doctor thinks that they should be getting counseling at school in addition to their speech therapy, the school will often want documentation. You’ll find that some people just really love paperwork, if we’re being honest.

Don’t be afraid of the meeting! Make sure to look at the Procedural Safeguards prior to the meeting, because it will help clarify things and make sure you’re not “out of the loop.” Try to be level-headed as much as possible and remain calm. While it might be tempting and satisfying to “go off” on the rest of the IEP team, it may not be as effective. Be prepared to negotiate, but think of it as a team effort. Essentially, that’s what the meeting is – a team putting everything together to help your child succeed.

All of that said, don’t be afraid to speak up. Sometimes, you may have to fight; in that case, “going off” on the school may be unavoidable. Be stern, but try to not yell at people when possible.

And of course, take it easy after the meeting. This applies to parents, caregivers, and students. As I’ve said before, self-care is necessary for your mental and physical health. This could range from having a bubble bath when you get home or ordering a pizza instead of cooking dinner. I also recommend a nap; you may find that you’re exhausted emotionally and mentally if it’s a particularly stressful meeting.

An Important Note

Sometimes, the school system may not cooperate or they may do something illegal. While it’s recommended to resolve this using mediation and resolution sessions, disputes can sometimes escalate.

This can end up leading to something called “due process,” which is basically a court hearing. When this happens, it’s not a good time – and can even go all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Here are several things that can cause schools to be held accountable for violating the IDEA:

  • Not following procedure (restricted parent involvement, not following FAPE, ignoring referrals, etc)
  • Telling parents a child would benefit from a service, but can’t afford it
  • Refusing to provide a service because “we never did it before and it was fine.”
  • Making decisions out of anger or to prove a point
  • Not acting quickly to provide services and programs for a child after implemented by the IEP team
  • Relying on cultural bias and prejudice when referring a child for special education services.

Another important thing to mention is the increased use of RTI – which is called Response to Intervention. RTI uses tiers to determine if a child can respond to class or school-wide implemented strategies, and has some aspects of universal design involved. It prevents kids from being placed in special education due to failed teaching instruction.  While it does have some improvements from the previous system, it has also caused some schools to think they can delay the IEP process – because they do not want to provide services. It has been referred to by some as the “Watch them fail” model, as opposed to the previously used “Wait to fail” model. Some schools will use RTI as an excuse to not provide services. If a child already has an IEP, that IEP should be followed – and RTI cannot be used to deny services and supports. That’s not how RTI is meant to be designed.

It is important to note that RTI cannot be used to delay/deny the provision of a full and individual evaluation. This was released in a memo in the Department of Education, and mentions regulations at 34 CFR 300.301(b), as well as 34 CFR 300.304 – 300.311.

Overall, the IEP can be quite daunting and stressful – especially if you have no background with special education or have not encountered the process before. For some, it can be emotionally draining, too.  It’s completely understandable to be overwhelmed or confused.

However, you’re definitely not alone.

Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.


There are resources and help available, and there are supports out there. I’ve dug around the internet a bit and compiled a few here. I’ll add more as I find them!

Procedural Safeguards

Prior Written Notice

Guides for Parents and Caregivers

Special Education Law

3 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to the IEP

  1. Please don’t forget the Prior Written Notice. IMHO it is the most important “part” of an IEP, especially when the parents request something during an IEP meeting and get denied by the school district. On in the school district must document what was requested and the reason(s) why the request was denied. Not only is it a paper trail for the denied request, but it will give the parents insight into how to regroup and reframe the request.

    Liked by 1 person

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