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.

IEP Defined

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.

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.’ 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.

IEP Process

To avoid confusion on 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 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.

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 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.

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:
    • Assistive technology services or devices needed to receive FAPE
    • Needed classroom accommodations in general education

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, 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.

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 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.

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