Each child who is eligible for special education has his or her own unique set of educational needs, learning abilities, and dreams for the future.
Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are required by federal law for all students with disabilities. Written by a team that includes classroom teachers, special educators, and the student’s parents, an IEP documents the educational and related services a student needs to reach specified short-term and long-term goals.
All students with disabilities deserve access to an education that will best prepare them for independence, employment, and life after graduation. IEPs are designed to ensure these basic rights and help each child reach his or her full potential.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires all school districts to develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities.
Under the IDEA, when a child has a disability and is eligible for special education and related services, a team of people work together in determining what special instruction, accommodations, and services the child needs to excel in school as well as daily life.
This team includes classroom teachers, special educators, providers of specialized services related to the child’s disability, and the child’s parents. The unique knowledge and resources offered by the individual team members are united to provide greater support and subsequent success for the student.
IEPs serve three key objectives:
- Involvement and progress of each child with a disability in the general curriculum as well as addressing unique needs tied to the student’s disability.
- Involvement of parents, students, special educators and general educators in meeting the individualized educational needs of students with disabilities.
- The critical need to prepare students with disabilities for independence, employment, and other post-school activities.
The initial IEP process is broken up into three integrated steps:
- Eligibility determination: The Team must first determine whether a child is eligible for special education services. This step involves evaluations and assessments in all areas of suspected concern.
- Development of the IEP: Next, the elements of an IEP must be discussed, planned and captured in a written document.
- Placement decision. Based on the service needs and educational goals outlined in the IEP, the team decides on the most appropriate placement for the student.
Students Benefit from True Collaboration
Dorinda Rife is Superintendent of Perkins Educational Programs. Rife has a unique perspective on IEPs, having participated in various roles related to the process during 28 years in the field of special education.
Each team member, including the parent, must be treated as an equal partner in making important educational decisions for a student with disabilities, Rife said. When she was an itinerant teacher in public schools, Rife remembered IEP meetings for students with multiple disabilities where there would be up to 15 people sitting around the table including parents, classroom teachers, physical therapists, psychologists, and other specialists.
“I served as the child’s advocate. My role was to teach,” Rife explained. Rife would use aides, such as glasses to simulate low vision, to help other IEP team members understand the student’s disability and how it might impact learning.
As a teacher of students with visual impairments and other disabilities, Rife made sure students had training such as orientation and mobility to help them safely and independently cross the street written into the IEP.
“Some of the services don’t look like they relate to general education but they are services the student needs to be successful in life,” Rife said. "These are skills students won't learn incidentally as their peers do."
Members of the IEP team work together in assessing the student’s present level of performance and setting goals. Rife advised parents to familiarize themselves with IEP concepts and language before attending meetings. She also said parents should always “begin with the end in mind.”
“From the very beginning parents need to be thinking about what it is they want their child to be doing in two years to ten years from now and how they can work towards that,” Rife said. “Parents are with their child more than anybody else on the team and parents know the history. When they walk into an IEP meeting they need to know they are equal partners and the law provides for that.”
Setting Annual Goals: IEP as a Student-Driven Process
Annual goals in an IEP describe what the student will focus on and help guide instruction in the upcoming school year. Effective goals are specific, measurable, and easily broken down into manageable steps to track progress throughout the year.
Rife gave the example of an adaptive physical education goal for a student with mobility challenges to walk independently for 10 minutes around the track. This annual goal would be broken into smaller benchmarks, slowly building up the student’s endurance.
As an administrator, Rife has reviewed countless IEP documents to ensure compliance with federal law. She described the important connection between the paperwork and the work done every day in the classroom.
“Writing it down on paper helps with planning and accountability. It also helps the team understand what the student needs next and provides the teacher with a road map of what to be doing for the next year,” Rife said.
Rife explained how goals in the IEP are aligned with helping the student access the general curriculum and making sure they have access to the same educational material as other students.
“Blindness, deafness, and deafblindness are disabilities of access,” Rife said. “An interpreter in the classroom is needed for a student who is deaf to access the lesson, a student who is blind needs a braille instructor to read a textbook.”
Finding the Right Placement Based on an IEP
An IEP is used to determine the most appropriate setting for a student with disabilities to receive an education. A placement decision is based on goals outlined in the student's IEP and the services needed to reach those goals.
The law requires that the least restrictive setting, typically the student’s district school, should be considered first. The climate and accommodations should allow students to function at the highest level possible and to directly access services with support from a trained teacher of the visually impaired. If the district does not have the ability to adequately adapt the setting and provide the student with necessary support, a specialized school might be chosen.
“If you have to adapt every single thing in the child’s environment in order for him to learn, then it may be a good idea to consider a different environment,” Rife said.
Rife pointed out that for students with sensory impairments a campus setting at a specialized school can prove to be the least restrictive placement. For example, if a student who is deaf goes to a school where no one uses sign language the student may be isolated and miss out on communication skill building. A specialized school where the student can learn and practice sign language with others may be more inclusive, she explained.
Adjusting IEPs and Evaluating Progress
Parents are updated on the progress of students with disabilities as frequently as the school issues report cards for general education students. Rife said the IEP team should meet and evaluate how the student did with the previous year’s goals before deciding on priorities going forward. A student’s needs and level of functioning can change throughout the course of an IEP. For example, a child with progressive visual impairment might be able to read large print in elementary school but by middle school may need braille instruction to be added into the IEP.
Regular evaluation and assessment of the student’s progress and needs also helps fine tune teaching strategies as team members discover more about how the student learns.
“You’re re-evaluating all the time and making changes accordingly. If the student has achieved a goal, you write a new one or work harder on the other goals,” Rife said. “It’s a dynamic process."
Above all else, an Individualized Education Program must be tailored to fit the individual student. Developing an IEP is a complex and challenging endeavor. The process demands collaboration, flexibility, and commitment from parents, teachers, administrators, specialists and, of course, the student. The hard work, however, is well worth the priceless reward of greater independence and unlocked possibilities in the student’s future.