Learning the meaning of IEP, what is an IEP plan, and what having an IEP means for your child.

For as much time as I spent talking and teaching parents about IEPs, I don’t think I’ve ever actually explained what an IEP and FAPE are. IEP meaning? What is an IEP plan?

If your child is struggling at school (and not just in academics!) then perhaps someone has suggested that you pursue an IEP for your child. So what is the meaning of an IEP?

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IEP Meaning: there’s a lot more to it than just a “written statement.”

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.

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Goals are one important component of IEPs.

You might feel overwhelmed, but pace yourself and you will learn IEPs.

IEP Meaning

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 the articles that I link to. 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 online chat group.

What does IEP stand for?

Short for Individualized Education Program, IEP is a printed document intended for every eligible child in public school for special education. A designated team develops the IEP.

It is reviewed once every year.

IEP meaning, what is an IEP

An IEP is necessary before a child can avail of special education. Evaluation is the first step to getting IEP. However, many parents are not aware of their roles and how the process works.

This post will guide you through the entire IEP journey. It provides basic information, as well as insights and more detailed information. Having a better grasp of IEP will allow you to get more involved in providing your kid with the best possible support.

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.’ The same thing, they’re just being redundant about the word plan.

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. It is a written plan that outlines the educational program and services that a student with a disability will receive to help them achieve their academic goals.

The IEP is developed by an IEP team of educators, parents/guardians, and other professionals, and is tailored to meet the specific needs of the student.

The IEP includes information about the student’s strengths and needs, annual goals, accommodations and modifications, and any other special education services or related services that the student requires.

What is an IEP Plan?

The main federal statute that regulates IEPs is IDEA or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In IDEA, they use the term IEP to mean Individualized Education Program.

Some states, mine included, use the word Plan instead of Program in their language. Casual speech or colloquialisms means that lots of people use the word Plan.

It doesn’t really matter, in my opinion. But also in my head, I think of the IEP-Program to be the all-encompassing program to address the student’s disabilities. And IEP-Plan, in my head, I think of Plan as being the actual paper document where the Program is written out.

But when someone asks What is an IEP Plan? it’s the same as an IEP. Some states may have further defined this in their special education regulations.

If your child gets an IEP, it is essential for you as a parent to learn both the federal and state regulations for IEPs, or you may get taken advantage of in IEP meetings.

What does it mean when a Student has an IEP?

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 that 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 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.

The key purposes of an IEP are:

  1. To identify the student’s strengths and needs: The IEP team, which includes parents/guardians, teachers, and other professionals, assesses the student’s current level of performance and identifies their strengths and needs.
  2. To set academic and functional goals: Based on the student’s strengths and needs, the IEP team sets measurable goals for the student to achieve in the academic and functional areas.
  3. To provide specialized instruction and related services: The IEP specifies the specialized instruction, accommodations, modifications, and related services (such as speech therapy or occupational therapy) that the student requires to achieve their goals.
  4. To ensure access to the general education curriculum: The IEP team determines how the student can participate in the general education curriculum with appropriate accommodations and modifications.
  5. To monitor progress and adjust goals: The IEP includes a plan to monitor the student’s progress and make adjustments to the goals and services provided as needed to ensure continued progress.

The IEP is designed to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for further education, employment, and independent living.

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.

Does IEP mean autism?

It can, but IEPs apply to all disabilities. To qualify, a student must qualify under one of the special education eligibility categories. Autism is one of them. But there are a dozen others.

Keep in mind that schools do not diagnose children. They find them eligible or ineligible for special education. You can have a medical diagnosis of autism and not qualify for an IEP. And vice versa.

You can be eligible for special education under the autism category and not have a medical diagnosis of autism.

This is why you often hear phrases like “medical vs educational autism.” I have written more about that in that article.

This is also why you may people say things like “different types of IEPs.” There are no different types of IEPs. There are different IEP eligibility categories.

IDEA defines IEPs, and covers American students ages 3-21.

IEPs are important documents for disabled students.

I should add, school students. IEPs only apply to students in public schools in the USA. Colleges and other postsecondary institutions are not required to provide FAPE or IEPs.

Why are IEPs important?

Without an IEP, a child is not guaranteed the specific or specially designed instruction that their disability requires.

An IEP guarantees disabled students an education. While the system is quite flawed, and outcomes for disabled students are terrible in this country, without it, you are not guaranteed anything.

Do you know what your IEP rights are?
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Without an IEP, a student would spend 100% of their time in the regular education classroom, without any support or services, or interventions.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are important because they provide a roadmap for students with disabilities to receive the support and accommodations they need to succeed in school.

IEPs are designed to address the unique needs of each student and ensure that they have access to the same educational opportunities as their peers.

IEPs are important because they help to level the playing field for students with disabilities. Without an IEP, students with disabilities may struggle to keep up with their classmates and may not receive the support they need to succeed.

IEPs can help to identify areas where a student may need additional support, such as in reading, writing, or math, and provide strategies and accommodations to help them succeed.

IEPs are also important because they help to ensure that students with disabilities are not discriminated against in the classroom. Under federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), and an IEP helps to ensure that this right is upheld.

IEPs can also help to ensure that students with disabilities are not subject to disciplinary action for behavior that is related to their disability.

IEPs are important because they provide a roadmap for students with disabilities to receive the support and accommodations they need to succeed in school, level the playing field for students with disabilities, and help to ensure that students with disabilities are not discriminated against in the classroom.

What are the most important parts of an IEP?

I suppose different IEP professionals have different opinions on this.

My opinion as a Special Education Advocate for over a decade, is that the IEP Present Levels section is the most important part of the IEP. This is the section that “drives” the goals, supports and services in the rest of the IEP.

What do you do if an IEP isn't working?

IEP Process

To avoid confusion in the process, you must know what and when things happen. First, there must be an assessment for special education. The school then decides whether the child is eligible for supports and services.

Now, how does the school decide? What if the school finds your child ineligible?

Before an IEP is developed, as mentioned, your child must be qualified. Federal law mandates that a multidisciplinary team should determine that:

  1. The child has a disability.
  2. He/She needs special education and services to enjoy the benefits of the general education program.

The IDEA (Individuals w/ Disabilities Education Act) is a federal law that requires the inclusion of specific information in the IEP.

However, it doesn’t say how the IEP must look. Thus, it might differ from one state to another or among different school systems in a particular state.

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 law. 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.

IEP teams also frequently include:

  • Parents – As a parent, you have valuable information and insights about your child’s needs and strengths, as well as ideas to enhance his education.
  • General Education Teacher/s – They share information on your child’s performance versus the expectations in the classroom.
  • Special Education Teacher/s – The teacher has the experience and training in educating kids with disabilities. They also work with other teachers in planning accommodations.
  • Results Interpreter – The person who interprets your child’s evaluation results that can help in planning for the appropriate instructional program.
  • School System Representative/LEA – The school system representative knows special education services well and is authorized to commit resources.
  • Knowledgeable Experts – people with special expertise or knowledge about your kid invited by the school district or by you.
  • Transition Service Agency Representative – When related services are discussed, representatives from transition service agencies may be invited.
  • The Child – When discussing transition, and whenever appropriate, the child may also be invited.

Yes, it is considered a ‘best practice’ to include them.

Most Important 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.

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.

IEP Contents

The IEP document is intended to address the unique educational needs of your child. While it is not a contract, it guarantees the necessary services and supports agreed upon and developed for your child.

Minimum IEP Content

  • Current Educational Performance Level – Parents, teachers, and school staff tasked to evaluate the child present information on the child’s needs and strengths. It also includes comments on how the child is faring in the classroom.

Aside from the academic needs, other identified areas of concern like behavior, social skills, or language development, must also be discussed.

  • Goals – Measurable goals (for one year) are written by the team. The goals are based on the discussions and documentation in the current educational performance levels. The focus is on the child’s needs resulting from the disability. The goals are intended to help him get involved and gain improvements in the general curriculum. It may be academic, behavioral, self-help, social, or meeting other educational needs. The goals are not meant to help the child achieve above grade level or to maintain skills.
  • Special Education and IEP Related Services – Upon completion of the IEP, the team decides on the implementation. The school district must provide the FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) under an LRE (Least Restrictive Environment. The IEP team will consider the most appropriate for both in educating your kid together with children without disability.

The team identifies the services your kid requires to reach the objectives and goals, as well as the delivery. General classroom education is preferable for most kids. However, there are various options available. These include special day classes.

In addition to the above-mentioned, an IEP includes:

  • The limit of your child’s participation with kids without disability in regular school and class activities.
  • When will the services be given, where, how often, and for how long?
  • The necessary transition services (by age 14/16 or the initial IEP to take effect on the child’s 14/16th birthday).

The IEP considers and addresses these special factors, depending on the needs of your child:

  • Strategies and supports for behavioral management if the behavior affects the child’s or other children’s learning
  • Language requirements concerning the IEP in case the child has limited English proficiency or mastery
  • Communication needs:

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, a child’s IEP is 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, everyday 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) 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 do not ask for an IEP. You ask that your child receive evaluations for special education services.

Evaluations must precede an IEP.

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 into that.

Hopefully, this gets you on the path to a better understanding of 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 our chat forums.

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