Special Education Guide: 6 Steps For Navigating The IEP Process

Each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

An IEP is a document that is truly individualized for the student and creates the opportunity for parents, teachers, administrators and related personnel to work together to improve results for children with disabilities.

1. Preparation for the IEP meeting

After a formal evaluation is conducted, the educational team reviews the results and prepares a report. Parents are sent the Parent/Guardian Notification of Conference form inviting them to a meeting at their child’s school to discuss testing results and possible eligibility for special education services. Often that date is confirmed with the parents before the notification is sent. Along with this invitation, the district must also send a copy of the Procedural Safeguards, which informs parents of their rights and needs to be carefully reviewed before the meeting. If the parents are not able to attend they can contact the school and ask that the meeting be rescheduled. If the parents do not request a date change and do not attend the meeting, the meeting can proceed without the parents in attendance.

Note: Considering the amount of information to be discussed, many parents find it helpful to ask for a separate meeting before the IEP is held to review the evaluation results.

Parents can also request to see a copy of the evaluation results before the meeting date. Reviewing the results in advance, in a separate meeting, and/or in written form, provides an opportunity for parents to absorb the information in a non-stressful environment, ask questions, and prepare topics for more in-depth discussion well ahead of the IEP meeting.

Generally, the school professionals who have completed evaluations attend the meeting and present their findings. Parents are encouraged to contact any team members with whom they are unfamiliar ahead of time and discuss the role they had in their child’s education. If the meeting cannot be completed within the allotted time constraints, the parent and/or school can request that the meeting be reconvened at a later date. Students are encouraged to attend some or all portion of their IEP meeting to begin developing self-advocacy skills, especially by the time they reach upper elementary grades.

Note: Parents are also entitled to bring additional participants, including a friend, a relative, a private evaluator or an advocate.

2. Convening the meeting

Following an introduction of all in attendance, the Student Identification Information Parent/Guardian Information form is reviewed, which can be completed prior to the meeting. Parents are asked to check over this page carefully to make sure all the information is correct, i.e. address, telephone numbers, date of birth. On the bottom of this page is a place for participants to sign in.

Note: One’s signature in this location provides a record of attendance at the meeting and does not indicate agreement with any decisions made during the meeting.

Each of the evaluators reviews his/her results and generally prepares a written report documenting their findings. Written and oral reports from a private evaluator can be submitted at this time. An advocate or school representative can also participate in reviewing all information presented at this meeting. Any sections from a private evaluation that the school accepts can be entered on the Documentation of Evaluation Results form, along with evaluation data gathered by the school.

Note: The school has the right to accept or reject in part or in whole, the information presented from private evaluations.

3. Primary eligibility

Once all evaluators have presented their testing/screening results, the team (including the parents) reviews the Eligibility Determination (all disabilities other than the specific learning disability) form. The team determines if the child meets criteria for identification under the following disability categories:

  • Autism
  • Cognitive disability
  • Deaf/blindness
  • Deaf
  • Developmental delay
  • Emotional disability
  • Hearing impairment
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impaired
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment including blindness

The child will qualify for services if, after the team’s analysis of testing data, the team is able to identify one or more of these disabilities as the primary cause of the adverse affect on the child’s school performance.

Note: The reauthorization of IDEA 2004 and subsequent regulations by the State of Illinois has resulted in more stringent requirements for determining if a child qualifies for services under the Specific Learning Disability Classification.

If the child’s suspected disability is due to a lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math or limited English proficiency, he/she cannot be considered to have a specific learning disability. Additionally, a child cannot be considered to a have a specific learning disability if any of the following exclusionary criteria are the primary basis for the child’s difficulties:

  • Visual, hearing or motor disability
  • Cognitive disability
  • Emotional disability
  • Cultural factors
  • Environmental or economic disadvantages

Note: Next, the team determines if the child meets the following Inclusionary Criteria. There are 3 parts to this section, and each question must be answered by all members of the team:

  1. Is the child progressing at a significantly slower rate than expected or is the student currently making an acceptable rate of progress but only because of the intensity of the intervention that is being provided?
  2. Is the child’s performance significantly below the performance of peers or expected standards?
  3. Are the child’s needs in any areas of concern significantly different from the needs of typical peers and of an intensity or type that exceed general education resources?

Note: To be eligible under the categorization of a Specific Learning Disability, the team must be able to answer “yes” to each of these questions. They must also be able to identify the school performance areas that are affected by the Specific Learning Disability, i.e., reading decoding, math calculation. If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, the child does not have a Specific Learning Disability and cannot qualify for service under this designation. All present at the meeting must then sign to indicate the report reflects his/her conclusion regarding the designation of a specific learning disability.

4. Secondary eligibility

If a child meets the specific learning disability criteria, he/she may also have a secondary disability from the list presented on the Eligibility Determination (all disabilities other than the specific learning disability) form. For example, he/she may have a secondary speech or language impairment to be categorized as other health impairment due to ADD/ADHD. If the child does not meet the criteria of a Specific Learning Disability, one of these other categories can be reexamined to qualify the child for services. If no disability is found, the child is determined to be ineligible for service.

Note: Parent’s have the right to disagree with the school’s decision and the law has established a due process hearing system to address parent objections. Prior to a formal hearing, parents are encourage to agree to mediation through the Illinois State Board of Education to informally help both parties resolve the disagreement.

5. Writing goals

If eligibility in one or more disability categories has been determined, the meeting moves to the formal writing of the Individualized Education Plan. The IEP should include the child’s strengths, present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance Form). This information can be obtained from the current evaluations, statewide assessments and/or input of the classroom teachers. Any parental concerns should also be noted. The effects of the child’s disability on involvement and progress in the general education curriculum must be detailed as well.

The team then writes “Annual Goals,” which must be specific, measurable and address the deficits identified in the test results in all pertinent domain areas. “Illinois Learning Standards” should be used as one of the criteria when writing goals. For each goal, the child’s current level of academic performance must be stated and individual benchmarks be developed. The benchmarks are the steps toward reaching the annual goal. For each benchmark an evaluation criteria, evaluation procedures and schedule for determining progress must be determined. Goals are reviewed according to each grading, usually three or four times a year. Progress is recorded and discussed at a parent-teacher conference, at an IEP meeting or is mailed to the home. Once a goal is met it must be rewritten to reflect continued growth. A child may have only one goal or may have many goals, depending on his/her areas of need.

6. Accommodations and supports

The Educational Accommodations and Supports form describes the specific supplementary aids, accommodations and modifications to which the child is entitled. Accommodations are specific adjustments made to the regular school curriculum, based on the student’s learning difficulties. The Assessment form lists the testing and other accommodations the child requires for class-based, district-wide and state-academic-assessments. Some common accommodations include:

  • Extended time
  • Test read to student
  • Books on tape
  • Use of word processor for note-taking
  • Templates and other graphic organizers provided to help structure assignments and notes Use of a word bank for vocabulary assistance
  • Shortened assignments and/or tests

Modifications are made when the regular curriculum is determined to be unsuitable for the student and a mostly different curriculum is substituted. Some common modifications include:

  • Shortened assignments and tests based on a substitute curriculum
  • Restructured assignments or tests
  • Construction of a separate and parallel curriculum
  • Use of an off-grade-level curriculum

The Educational Services and Placement form explains in what areas the child will participate in the general education curriculum (with and without supplementary aids) and the amount of special education and related services the child will be receiving. The specific number of minutes for each special education and related service must also be listed.

Based on the IEP goals, Education Placement is determined and can be in the general education classroom with resource support provided either:

  • In the classroom (push-in)
  • Outside of the classroom (pull-out)
  • In a self-contained special education classroom
  • In a special education or therapeutic school

Note: Parents have the right to have their child attend—to the maximum extent appropriate and with modifications and accommodations—classes with other students who are not special education students, i.e., the “least restrictive environment.” Placement considerations must always consider the “least restrictive environment,” which is the general education classroom the child would attend if not disabled. Only after the regular classroom is ruled out because it does not meet the child’s needs can a more restrictive environment be considered. Regardless of placement, your child also has equal opportunity rights to participate in nonacademic services and extracurricular activities with supplementary aids and services.

The final IEP form, Parent Notification of Conference Recommendations is a review of the decisions made at the meeting. It records whether the child qualifies for an IEP and, if eligible, the type of special education services for which he/she is eligible.

Note: Before services can begin, the parent(s) is required to sign the Notification of Conference Recommendations form and in doing so indicates that he/she is in agreement with the decisions.

Legal considerations

An IEP is a legal document. It is governed under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which assures that services meet state and federal requirements. A school district is obligated to provide the services, supports, accommodations and number of minutes documented in the IEP. Progress is to be monitored on a consistent basis through data collection. If a child is not making gains on his/her goals, these goals need to be reevaluated and possibly revised. Although IEPs are written for one year, a parent does not have to wait for the Annual Review meeting to share concerns. IEP Review meeting can be called at any time and changes can be accomplished through IEP revisions.

504 Plan eligibility

A child, who does not qualify for an IEP, may be entitled to a 504 Plan. A 504 Plan is written in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and details the accommodations and modifications a child needs to gain equal access to programs and education. A 504 Plan is monitored through regular education. Goals are not written and a special education case manager does not support the child in a regular education class or in a resource room. A 504 Plan might be appropriate for a child with ADD/ADHD who is performing at the expected level, but needs extended time and preferential seating to access the curriculum. 504 Plans are reviewed and modified on a yearly basis. As in an IEP, parents can request a 504 review at any time.

This article originally appeared in The Rush Neurobehavioral Center’s Summer Newsletter and is the second in a three-part series of articles designed to educate and assist parents as they work with their child’s school.