Individualized Education Plan

Karen in front of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County—a favorite stop for her and her Mama.

What is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

An IEP is a written plan that describes educational and developmental goals for an individual child with a disability. The plan serves several purposes. It assures that educators, parents and the child are agree on the actions each of them commits to. It also gives them something to refer back to, to see if they have reached these goals and followed the program outlined in the IEP. Most importantly, it gives them an action plan for helping the child reach reasonable goals. Each IEP is written for a specific child, to meet that child’s needs during a limited period of time (no more than one year), so the content varies from one child to another. These are individualized plans, so the plan for your child may be very different from the plan for another parent’s child. Over time, a child’s IEPs will also change to meet the child’s needs.

Who Attends the IEP Meeting?

IEP meetings include both family members and professionals. The professionals are members of the Child Study Team, which includes social workers, psychologists, learning specialists, teachers and therapists. On the family side, parents, grandparents and other family members who are involved with the child may attend. Parents must be notified in advance of the intended time of the meeting, and the professionals must reschedule it to meet the needs of the parents. Parents are the most important people at the IEP meeting—only they know their child through and through—only they can speak from the heart for the child’s best interests.

Preparing for your IEP Meeting

Before each IEP meeting, educators and parents all evaluate the child’s progress. Educators use formal evaluations administered by experts. Parents usually rely on their personal observations.

Anxiety related to academic performance is often the single biggest barrier between a child and success—a bigger barrier than any disability. Yet, according to federal law, each child’s academic performance must be compared with that of other students of the same age. Other federal requirements include setting goals for the next year and defining who will be responsible for helping the child meet them. The special education services section of the IEP details the academic instruction and other services that the school will provide, and how much of the student’s day will be spent in mainstreamed classes with non-disabled peers in contrast with time spent in special education classes. As the child approaches high school and graduation, the plan must have a transition portion into adulthood.

Dealing with these issues is usually stressful both for parents and for the child. It is best to be prepared by figuring out in advance what is best for your child. Start preparing for each IEP meeting at least several weeks in advance. You need to know what the Child Study Team intends to recommend for your child. Contact your child’s case manager. Ask about recommendations that the Child Study Team is likely to make. Request and read copies of relevant documents, such as draft IEPs, test results, and reports that may be reviewed during the meeting. You need to read them in advance so you know what they say, and so you can respond to them in an intelligent way.

Next, prioritize your goals for the meeting. Ask yourself, what would you like to happen at the meeting? What goals would you like to see set for your child? Who would you like to see in charge of reaching them? Keep in mind that federal legislation requires schools to develop an appropriate educational program for your child. This is not the same as implementing the best program possible, as you envision it. The school has limited resources to help your child. You need to decide what is most important for your child, and you need to prepare to compromise because the school may not be able to give you everything you want for your child.

What to Bring to the IEP Meeting

  • Bring a list of everything you want to discuss. Don’t assume that the Child Study Team is thinking along the same lines that you are. If you can email your list of topics to the leader of the team, then they can include it in the agenda for the meeting. They will all appreciate knowing what your concerns are before the meeting, so they can prepare to address them.
  • Bring specialist reports, medical records, tutor’s reports and anything else that will help decide on the best program for your child.
  • Bring copies of any news articles or web pages that are relevant. Bring enough copies so that everyone at the meeting can have a copy.
  • Bring a notepad to take notes, so you have your own documentation of promises made. As a last-ditch measure, if the Child Study Team has failed to keep its commitments, you might bring a recording device, but this will make the atmosphere more tense and adversarial.
  • Bring copies of your child’s previous IEPs. Don’t assume that the school will provide them, or that the Child Study Team members have seen them. Remember that you will be the only person in the room who knows your child’s background right back to birth. The Child Study Team needs your input.
  • Bring classroom papers and report cards. Again, the members of the team may not have access to these.
  • Bring photos of your child, and put them onto the table. If you have an iPad or Android tablet, you may be able to run a slideshow of pictures from your child’s life. This will help everyone in the room remember that they are planning for a living human being, and that the meeting is not about statistics and filling out forms. In some school districts, not all members of the team will have met your child. For instance, the psychologist may be working entirely from written reports and have no idea what your child is really like.
  • Bring treats. Cookies, candy or bags of chips can help put everyone into a positive mood. Most of these meetings are at the end of the work day, so you and everyone else will be tired and not at their best. Snacks can help everyone feel better, and they can go a long way toward showing that you appreciate what the Child Study Team does for your child, and that you value them as human beings. You don’t have to bake them yourself. Anything you bring will be appreciated.

Making IEP Meetings Work for Your Child

The law says that your child’s school must provide every child with a free and appropriate public education. It does not say that the school must provide the education that you want for your child. However, if you phrase your requests correctly, so that they include the magic word “appropriate” then you are more likely to get what your child needs. The law says, “appropriate,” so that is the language you need to use. For instance, if your child needs tutoring you can say that tutoring is appropriate for a child with your child’s special needs. This actually makes it easier for the school to provide the education you want for your child.

Tips for Achieving an Effective IEP Meeting

  • During the meeting
    • Stay cool and think things over.
    • Do not agree to anything or sign anything unless you feel that you understand it fully.
    • Ask for time to think over the options if you are in doubt. If you can’t agree to the new IEP, say that you will get back to them.
  • After the meeting, make following up a priority!
    • Email the Child Study Team leader a thank-you and statement that you will promptly follow up on any remaining issues.
    • Consult with friends, family and professionals for guidance.
    • Avoid procrastination.
    • Get back to the Child Study Team with your decisions.
    • Be prepared to go through multiple rounds of negotiation.
    • If you feel you need help from your state’s department of education, you can find the right officials by clicking here:

Parents often find these meetings extremely unpleasant and feel that the professionals do not know their child or their child’s needs well enough to make informed decisions. In spite of this unpleasantness, parents must summon courage and take part in the meetings. Without your input, there is little chance that the educators, even with the best intentions, will be able to write the best plan for your child.