What is an IEP?

Deacon Riccardi, 7, is a first-grader at McKee Road Elementary School. Diagnosed with autism at 2, Deacon has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that helps the school and his parents track his progress and set academic goals.

Every child identified as a student with special needs, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), must have an IEP. This written plan describes the educational program the school provides each year to build upon the student’s strengths and address his or her educational needs.

“An IEP allows school staff, parents and therapists to be on the same page,” says Julie Riccari, Deacon’s mom. “It’s very important, and it helps academic goals and what kids are working toward in the classroom (developmentally, physically and socially) to be carried over into the home.”

Parents Play a Vital Role
An IEP includes special-education services and, when necessary, related services, such as speech-language therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. For students who are 14 and older, an IEP also includes information about services to help the student transition to post secondary education or work environments.

An IEP is a legal document, and every school a child attends must make a good-faith effort to implement it. An IEP also is a confidential document and can be shared only with a limited number of people.

Jan Miller, an exceptional children’s teacher at Ardrey Kell High School, has seen how an IEP helps prepare students for future success.

“With the development and implementation of an appropriate IEP, high school students with disabilities receive the support needed to access the curriculum, improve skills, demonstrate their knowledge and prepare for future learning in college,” she says.

Based on a student’s most recent evaluation results and/or academic progress data collected in the general education and special education classrooms, an IEP is developed by a team: the parent, a special education teacher, a general education teacher and a local education agency representative, who typically is a school administrator. Individuals may serve dual roles on the team and other individuals can be added to the team at the discretion of the school and the parent.

“Many parents can get overwhelmed and intimidated — they think they don’t have a lot of input,” says Riccardi. “But it’s a team, and everyone works together.”

An IEP is developed/updated annually and only can be changed by the team or through a written agreement with the parent. It is a fluid document and can be changed whenever the team deems necessary.

A parent can request an IEP meeting at any time. “Parents can bring anyone they want to an IEP meeting, including private occupational or physical therapists,” adds Riccardi. “In the beginning with Deacon, it was a difficult process. But along the way, I’ve learned a lot”

Other parents of special needs children often offer support for IEP meetings. Riccardi advises parents, who may feel intimidated, to reach out to the IEP team for help.

Be an Advocate, Be on the Team
An IEP is developed during a team meeting, and the school sends a letter to the parent seven to 10 days prior to the meeting. The parent can choose to attend or not to attend, and he or she also can request the meeting be rescheduled to a more convenient time. If the parent does not respond, a second invitation is sent. Under law, the IEP team can hold the meeting without the parent.

Here’s what happens during a one- to two-hour IEP meeting: A draft of the IEP is reviewed and discussed, and after any changes are made and agreed upon, the IEP is finalized and the team signs it. Then, copies of the IEP are distributed to all school personnel, as well as those at the district level, who are responsible for implementing any part of the IEP.

Schools and parents can work together in a number of ways to make the IEP process successful. The draft of the IEP can be shared with parents prior to the meeting, so the parent and teacher(s) can discuss it and work out any misunderstandings beforehand.

Parents also can give their child’s teacher a list of things they would like to discuss at the IEP meeting. The IEP meeting is a professional meeting; all members should work calmly and respectfully together.

Riccardi touts the productive benefits of the IEP meeting from first-hand experience.

“I have seen how an IEP works, as well as the importance of ‘the team,’” she says. “A year ago, I knew the start of kindergarten would be a big change for Deacon, and it was.”

An incident happened the first week of school, and Deacon’s parents requested an IEP meeting. “We talked everything out, and the school made a few adjustments to better suit his needs,” Riccardi says.

She encourages parents to view their child’s school as an ally and get on board with the IEP team.

“Parents know their child best, so they must be their child’s best advocate.”