As our children head back to school this fall, many of our families may be participating in their annual, or even their first, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for their child. If you are new to the IEP process, it can seem overwhelming on where to start and what your rights and the rights of your child are.

Before a student can receive special education services, they must be evaluated for eligibility and must meet one or more of the categories established under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), our nation’s special education law. If your child is already participating in an early intervention program, your child’s teacher or the district may reach out to you regarding an evaluation. As a parent, if you think your child may qualify for special education services you may request an evaluation from your school district at any time. Any and all decisions regarding evaluation require the school district to invite and inform the parent to be a participant. By law, an IEP meeting must be held within 30 calendar days after it is determined, through a full evaluation, that a child has one of the disabilities listed in IDEA and needs special education services. 

Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP. An IEP is a written statement of the educational program that has been designed by the IEP team to meet the student’s individual needs. The IEP has two general purposes – to set reasonable learning goals for that particular student and to state the services and adaptations that the school district will provide for the student. Each child’s IEP must contain specific information as detailed within IDEA. This information will include, but is not limited to, the child’s present levels of academic achievement; how the child’s disability affects his/her progress; annual academic goals; aids and services (such as speech therapy, support personnel, or a communication device); how and if the child can participate in state and district-wide assessments, including modifications to tests that the child needs; and how school personnel will measure the child’s progress to goals annually.

Every IEP meeting is required to have in attendance the special education teacher, an administrator or other district representative, someone to interpret test data, a general education teacher, and the parent(s). It is common in IEP meetings to have additional attendees such as a school psychologist, adaptive physical education teacher, and service providers (such as a speech therapist and/or an occupational therapist.) While at first you may be unsure what your role as a parent is in the IEP process, two things are important to remember. (1) By law, parents are equal partners in their child’s IEP team. IDEA, lists parents first on the list of required members of a student’s IEP team. (2) Your input is invaluable at these meetings because you are the expert when it comes to your child. You know best what your child’s strengths and struggles are, and can represent he/she in a very personal way. Your participation matters throughout the IEP process, from their first evaluation through to the transition plan for high school. 

The IEP team will review assessment information on your child and then design an educational program to meet your child’s special educational needs that result from having Dravet syndrome. The IEP will be based on something called, “the present level of academic achievement and functional performance” (PLAAFP). During the development of the IEP, it is important for you to give input on how your child functions at home, as well as any unique needs in relation to your child’s medical condition. For instance, you might share with the IEP team if your child is prone to behavioral issues when they feel overwhelmed, or about their known seizure triggers such as light, patterns, or over-excitement. By knowing the child’s weaknesses, strengths, and medical limitations – in addition to academic skills – an appropriate program can be tailored. The IEP team will come up with measurable goals annually (for as long as services are needed), so that your child and his/her teachers have concrete objectives to work towards. These goals also hold the school accountable for providing the optimal educational experience for your child that have been tailored to meet his/her specific needs.

A good IEP should be very specific. It will include such things as:

  • A present snapshot of the child and how he/she is doing right now, including eligibility information along with a summary of current work, as well as the child’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Offer of Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Also known as the child’s “placement” or “services”, this is where the district offers classroom and/or additional services such as speech therapy or adaptive physical education and states how often these services will take place. This is a binding part of the contract and the district is required to comply.
  • Goals to measure progress. Goals can be academic, behavioral, or social and should be based on recognized areas of need for that particular child.
  • Accommodations and modifications. If changes are needed in the classroom environment to assist and/or keep the student safe (for example a 1:1 support worker or aid) they should be noted. 
  • A transition plan. For students who will turn 16 within the life of their IEP, they must have a transition goal and plan by law.
  • Signature page and meeting notes. Each member of the team will sign, indicating that they were present at the meeting and that they approve the meeting notes. In addition, the parent must consent to any accommodations, modifications, and placement offered by the school district to implement the initial IEP.

Every year, your child’s IEP team will convene for an annual review. This is an opportunity to update one another on the child’s needs and performance by reviewing progress. This is also an opportunity for parents to update the team on any changes to their child’s medical condition that may be impacting their progress and participation at school. Every three years, the team will also meet to discuss the child’s continuing need and eligibility for services. This meeting is typically combined with the annual review.

Having an IEP in place allows you and the IEP team to keep an eye on your child’s progress and appropriate needs for services and supports. In next week’s blog, I will talk about your rights, and what to do if you are concerned that promised services and support are not being provided.