What is an IEP? FAPE, explained by a Special Education Advocate.


For as much time as I spending talking and teaching parents about IEPs, I don’t think I’ve ever actually explained what an IEP and FAPE is. If your child is struggling at school (and not just academics!) then perhaps someone has suggested that you pursue an IEP for your child.

The IEP process itself is complex and has a lot of different parts. If you are here because you are a parent new to Special Education and the concept of FAPE, congrats on finding me. But also, a word of caution. You might feel overwhelmed, but pace yourself and you will learn this.

a mom reviewing her IEP with a highlighter

If your child has an IEP, it is essential for the parent/caregiver to be an active participant in the entire process. Understanding the basics is a great first step in helping your child thrive in school.

Throughout this article, you will find many hyperlinks to other articles, further explaining that topic or concept. When you have time, visit those articles. This is not something that can be learned in a day or even a week, but you can learn this.

I have over 500 posts on this blog about IEPs and Special Education. Chances are, I have answered your question here. If not, please join my Facebook group by clicking the button below.

What does IEP stand for?

IEP stands for Individual Education Program or Plan. Sometimes when talking about them, you’ll hear people call it an ‘IEP plan.’ Same thing, they’re just being redundant about the word plan.

When a student has an IEP, it means they are eligible to receive special education. To receive Special Education, you must have an IEP. If you have an IEP, you are receiving Special Education.

IEP refers to the actual document that details what type and frequency of Special Education Supports and Related Services they will receive.

They are defined by a Federal statute called IDEA, or Individual with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA has been around since 1975. But it is your local school district who develops and implements an IEP.

The IEP age range is 3-21. Prior to age 3, children get an IFSP.

To get an IEP, your school team of evaluators must have evaluated your child, and found them to eligible under one of the IDEA 14 Categories of Disability.

Whether or not you refer to your child as ‘disabled’ is up to you and your child. I do not think ‘disabled’ is a derogatory term, nor does much of the disability community.

Purpose of an IEP

It’s a common myth that IEPs give students an advantage over students without one. This is not true. It is to level the playing field, and address any disabilities that are affecting your child’s ability to access and benefit from their education.

If your child has been evaluated and found eligible for an IEP, that means they have been identified as a child with a disability. And that disability is interfering with their education.

For the purposes of an IEP, there is General Education and Special Education. With an IEP, you can receive Special Education in the General Education setting. Receiving Special Education does not mean you forfeit regular education.

This concept is only for public education, including public charter schools. Charter schools often use misleading terms like “tuition free” which makes parents think they are in a private school. Charter Schools are Public Schools.

The exception is that some special education students get an “out of district placement” in which their child attends a private school at public expense (meaning the school district and state pay the tuition). However, that’s a more complex issue that you likely don’t need to know if this is your first time.

It’s important to note that IEPs are not just for academics. And, even if your child’s grades are fine, they may be eligible for an IEP.

What is FAPE?

In the world of Special Education, there are dozens of IEP acronyms you’ll be learning. While it might seem overwhelming, you’ll learn it.

FAPE stands for Free and Appropriate Education. It is a term first defined by a US Supreme Court case. I said earlier that this is all defined by the federal statute IDEA. It is also determined by case law. If a specific issue is not defined in IDEA or your state regulations, parents and schools have the option to go to court over it.

FAPE is basically the all-encompassing term for our kids. To be honest, I hate the word “appropriate” because it’s such a gray area of the laws. Often, what a parent thinks is appropriate and what a school thinks is appropriate are not the same thing.

But at the end of the day, the question you want to ask yourself is “Is my child receiving FAPE?”

Who writes an IEP?

It is developed by an IEP team.

Before an IEP can be written, your child must be eligible for special education. Per IDEA, a multidisciplinary team must determine that

  • your child is a child with a disability
  • your child requires special education and IEP related services to benefit from the general education program.

IDEA defines who must attend an IEP meeting (more on that in a bit) as:

  • A General Education Teacher
  • A Special Education Teacher
  • Parent/Guardian must be invited, but can refuse to attend.
  • LEA– The Person who represents the School District

However, the IEP document itself may have other individuals participating, such as school psychologists, therapists, other family members or a Special Education Advocate for the family.

While these folks may participate in the development and renewal of an IEP, IDEA does not require their attendance at an IEP meeting. Yes, it would be considered a ‘best practice’ to include them.

Parts of an IEP

Depending on your state and which website you visit, you may read that an IEP has anywhere from 7-10 components. IDEA defines the following 7:

  1. IEP Present Levels
  2. IEP Goals
  3. How Progress will be Monitored
  4. IEP Related Services
  5. IEP Placement/LRE (there we go, another acronym!)
  6. The list of SDIs (Specially Designed Instruction, the specific special education interventions your child will receive) as well as accommodations.
  7. Details on your child’s IEP–frequency and duration of services, etc.

There are other components of an IEP, such as Transition to Adulthood. What is important is not how the components are defined, but that they are all there.

IDEA requires certain information to be included in the IEP but doesn’t specify how the IEP should look. Because states and local school systems may include additional information, forms differ from state to state and may vary between school systems within a state. There are many different kinds of IEP-writing software out there, but as long as the required information is there, that’s what is important.

Having one gives students, families, and schools certain legal protections. An IEP is a legally binding agreement. IDEA calls for Parent Participation and guarantees parents meaningful participation in the process. It also gives students rights when it comes to school discipline.

Annual IEP Meeting

The annual meeting is something you’ll hear parents talk about a lot, if you are in this space.

Per IDEA, your child’s IEP should be reviewed and updated at least annually. As stated above, IDEA clearly defines who must attend an IEP meeting.

If you take nothing else away from this article, please heed this: You’ll hear many parents talk about the IEP meeting with disdain and dread. Yes, IEP meetings can be stressful. However, this is a year-long, every-day process. You do not want your team thinking about your child’s IEP only 1 day a year. And neither should you!

No, you don’t have to think about or communicate with your teachers daily. But if you only think about (or take action) on your child’s IEP once a year at renewal time, I can almost guarantee you that it will be a stressful experience.

Engage and stay involved all year long. (/lecture)

How do I get an IEP for my Child?

If you think your child is struggling in school, you actually do not ask for an IEP. You ask that your child receive evaluations for special education services.

One cannot be drawn up until evaluations take place.

iep process flow chart

IEP vs 504 vs RTII MTSS

When you request evaluations, or perhaps after they have taken place, you may hear the words, “We do not feel your child needs an IEP. We feel he needs a 504/RTI/MTSS.” I have written about those topics as well, so you’ll need to do a deeper dive on that.

Hopefully this gets you on the path to better understanding what an IEP is and how it may help your child. I could honestly go on for days about this, but I’ll stop now. Again, read the other articles or join the Facebook Group.

a mom reviewing her IEP with a highlighter
Share via
Copy link