This year, some parents will learn their child needs an Individualized Education Program, commonly known as an IEP. It might be because they severely disrupted the classroom more than once. It could be that they aren’t keeping up academically, even with extra help. It could be a physical disability unknown to parents. The reasons are as varied as children are different.
Whatever the reason for an IEP, experts and advocates say parents will have to educate themselves and get their questions answered.
“The IEP process is so confusing for parents,” says Brendan Wolff, head of school at Achievement Unlocked, a school for children with unique learning needs in New York. “They don’t know what their rights are. They don’t know what the supports are. It’s not quite labyrinthine, but trying to do it properly can get that way.”
Understanding the IEP Process
Lawrence M. Siegel, author of “The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child,” describes the creation of an Individualized Education Program as a process. It starts with a meeting with school officials to determine whether a child is eligible for special education. If they qualify, parents and educators meet for an annual IEP meeting to develop a plan. The result of the meeting is a detailed written description of a child’s educational program.
The IEP process is based on eligibility requirements established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, commonly known as IDEA. To be eligible, a child must fit under at least one of 13 disability categories listed in the act. A disability must significantly and adversely affect a child’s ability to demonstrate academic achievement.
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In the 2019-20 school year, about 7.3 million students ages 3 through 21, or 14% of all public school students, received special education services under IDEA, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Among these students, roughly one in three suffered from specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Roughly one in five showed speech or language impairments. Less frequent disabilities included health impairments, such as heart conditions, epilepsy or diabetes (15%), autism (11%), developmental delays (7%), intellectual disabilities (6%), emotional disturbances (5%), multiple disabilities (2%), hearing impairments (1%) and orthopedic impairments (1%).
Understanding the Law
IDEA protects the rights of students with disabilities to receive a public education. The most important element of this law is the right students have to a “free and appropriate education” in the least restrictive environment. So, if a child can make academic progress in a general education setting with support, they can’t be forced into a special education classroom. Each state also has its own guidelines.
The part of the law that is often most confusing to parents is what makes education “appropriate.” The term is open to interpretation and does not always fit a parent’s definition of “best.”
“There’s a misconception out there that it’s the parents against the school,” says Kathleen Davis VanTol, a professor specializing in special education at Dordt University in Iowa. “But teachers are teaching because they want to help kids. (Teachers) find kids who are struggling and want to find ways to help them do better.”
Other important parts of IDEA, according to Siegel’s book, set out rules that govern monitoring students and giving parents rights. For example, all students are entitled to:
— A comprehensive evaluation of needs, which requires parental approval.
— A written IEP developed by an entire team every year that contains measurable goals.
— “Related services” that will help students benefit from special education.
— Placement in a private school, paid by the government if the school district cannot provide an appropriate placement.
— Education as close to home as possible.
Parents can ask for mediation and a hearing before an impartial third party if they don’t agree with any component of an IEP. This includes whether a child is eligible for special education. Also, school officials cannot change a student’s IEP without parental agreement.
Creating an IEP
The purpose of an IEP depends on a student’s needs. Experts in special-education diagnosis will typically test a child’s IQ as well as motor skills, language and behavior. When they have the diagnosis and more information, they can begin to put supports into place.
“Schools don’t wait for a kid to get way behind,” VanTol says. “We start to identify kids as soon as they are not meeting (academic and behavioral) benchmarks and put in place a plan to try teaching them in a different way. And that’s all before a kid gets an IEP.”
For students who are high functioning, an IEP’s purpose is to integrate — or reintegrate — the student into the general education classroom, Brianna Leonhard, a special education teacher in Georgia, wrote in an email. “What prevents them from being successful in a large group? Let’s target those skills and see if we can catch up, because we are always working towards the ‘least restrictive environment.'”
For students with more severe challenges, “an IEP should work to promote as much independence as possible,” Leonhard says. “When they age out of public school, they have a set of skills that can help them be in the least-restrictive care setting possible.”
As the document is being created, parents and teachers will discuss the child’s strengths, health and current performance. Goals will be established, as will any need for assistive technology or accommodations, including supports for teachers and assessments to track everything.
Accommodations are often an important part of the conversation, and there are many adjustments teachers can make to help students learn. They range from providing notes so students can skip notetaking and focus on the content to sending home curriculum maps so parents can provide more specific help.
Advocate, But Be Realistic
Experts recommend that parents prepare for a collaborative process and be realistic about their expectations, about both the content of the IEP and the results it will produce. They also say there is much that parents can do to ensure the best outcome. If the IEP document has been drafted by the school district, parents should try to read a copy before meeting with teachers to finalize the document. Siegel’s book recommends that parents create an IEP blueprint — that is as specific as possible — before meeting with school officials. For instance, it might include requests about class size, age range and staffing by a teacher and an aide. Ultimately, the IEP document is created by a team that includes school officials, teachers, parents and others who can speak about the student. This could include family, friends, a translator, advocate or specialist. “You’re allowed to bring whoever you want to that meeting, and that right is very rarely invoked,” Wolff says. “The better meetings I attend, it’s a team effort.” Experts also recommend bringing a framed photo of your child and putting it in the middle of the conference room table to keep the meeting focused on who matters most in the discussion.
Whatever accommodations are made because of an IEP, school officials caution that parents must have realistic expectations.
“An IEP is not a cure all,” says Michelle Person, former principal of Mills Lawn Elementary School in Ohio. “It is an extremely time-intensive document that is only created when other types of intervention have been attempted unsuccessfully.”
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