The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires schools to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities. If your child is eligible for special education services, you’ll work with a school team to develop an IEP.
Other students qualify for a 504 Plan. This plan ensures that a child with a disability identified under the law receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment.
The entire IEP process is a way for you and the school to talk about your child’s needs and to create a plan to meet those needs. Let’s look at the process, starting with the IEP meeting.
The acronym IEP stands for Individualized Education Program.
This is a written document that describes the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education must have an IEP.
The IEP has two general purposes:
• to set learning goals for your child
• to state the supports and services that the school district will provide for your child.
An important responsibility of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability against students with disabilities. OCR receives numerous complaints and inquiries in the area of elementary and secondary education involving Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Section 504). Most of these concern identification of students who are protected by Section 504 and the means to obtain an appropriate education for such students.
Section 504 is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).
“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Children with disabilities may be eligible for special education and related services under Section 504. That’s because Section 504s definition of disability is broader than the IDEA’s definition.
You and the school agree on where and when to have the IEP meeting. Usually, meetings are held at school during regular staff time. This means the meeting can happen before, during, or after the regular school day. By law the school must tell you in writing:
• the purpose of the meeting;
• the time and place for the meeting;
• who will be there; and
• that you may invite other people who have knowledge or special expertise about your child to the meeting.
• The school must hold the meeting to develop your child’s IEP within 30 calendar days of when your child is found eligible for special education services.
• You must agree to the program, in writing, before the school may carry out your child’s first IEP.
• The IEP must be reviewed at least once every 12 months and revised as necessary.
You, as Parent(s), are the most important part of the team. ( “Parent” includes anyone who is legally responsible for the care and well-being of a child. This can be a guardian, grandparent, stepparent, surrogate parent, foster parent, or natural or adoptive parent. IDEA defines “parent” at 34 CFR §300.30 )
Your Child—if the IEP team will be talking about how to prepare your child for life after high school (called transition planning), your child must be invited to the meeting. Otherwise, deciding when and how your child will participate in the IEP meeting is a decision you and your child can make. Students are encouraged to take part in developing their own IEPs. Some students in elementary school come to the meeting just to learn a little about the process or to share information about themselves. As students get older, they take a more active role.
School Administrator—a member of the school district who knows about the general education curriculum (the same curriculum taught to children who do not have disabilities) and the resources available to the school. This person must also be qualified to provide or supervise special education services.
General Education Teacher—at least one general education teacher, if your child is (or may be) participating in the general education class.
Special Education Teacher—at least one of your child’s special education teachers or, if appropriate, at least one special education provider who works with your child
Evaluation Personnel—someone who knows about your child’s evaluation, what the evaluation results were, and what the results mean in terms of instruction. This could be a school psychologist, an administrator, or one of your child’s teachers.
Translators or interpreters—If English is not your first language, or if you communicate by using sign language or in another mode, the law says the school must provide an interpreter, if you ask for one.
Transition personnel—If the IEP meeting will include planning for your child’s life after high school, staff from outside agencies may be invited to attend with your consent. This is especially important if an outside agency may be responsible for providing or paying for transition services.
Others with knowledge or special expertise about your child—Many parents find it helpful to have a support person at the IEP meeting. This may be another parent, a friend, an advocate, or a consultant. Others could include student friends, specialists, tutors, educational consultants, or school staff. It can also include therapists or other related services personnel who work with your child. Both you and the school have the right to invite such individuals to join the team.
Before the IEP meeting, you should receive a copy of the Handbook on Parents’ Rights that explains your rights under the Preschool Program (which becomes effective on your child’s third birthday if your child qualifies)
• Determining eligibility, if this has not yet been completed
• Developing and signing the IEP before your child’s third birthday to become effective on your child’s third birthday
• Making placement decisions
• Completing required paperwork
Review the information on your child — from home, school, or private sources (such as doctors, therapists, or tutors). Ask yourself, “Do these records show the full picture?” Fill in any missing pieces, if you can. Bring your records to the meeting. You can also bring examples of your child’s work (on paper, audiotape, or videotape) to show specific concerns or insights you may have.
Talk with your child about the upcoming IEP and ask about school. “What things are hard? What things are easy? What’s important for you to focus on this year?” Your child may have a lot to say about his or her needs and interests. Students are often much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses than parents realize. Make notes on what your child says.
Think about your child’s involvement in general education classes. Consider his or her learning style, special education needs, and social needs. How can these needs be addressed in the IEP? What kinds of supports or services might your child need in order to be successful in the general education class? Ask your child what he or she needs or doesn’t need in the way of support.
If your child will be attending all or part of the IEP meeting, explain how the meeting works in a way that he or she can understand. Let your child know how important the meeting is and that his or her opinions and input are valuable. You may need to prepare your child to speak up at the meeting. Talk with your son or daughter about how to share his or her feelings about what is being proposed.
Do a Positive Student Profile to share with the team. To do this profile, answer questions about your child, which will help you organize your thoughts and focus clearly on your child’s strengths, needs, and goals.
Know your rights. Review the IDEA regulations and accurate summaries. Take the regulations with you to the meeting in case you need them.
Consider whether you’d like to invite another person to go with you to the IEP meeting. This person should have special knowledge or expertise about your child or with respect to your child (a related service provider, for example, a past teacher, a specialist in your child’s disability, or a friend). Another person may think of things during the meeting that you do not. As a courtesy, let the school know if someone will be attending the meeting with you.
In each state or school district the IEP form can look different. Under IDEA, the items below must be in every IEP.
Use your notes to keep yourself and the team on track. Keep the focus on your child’s individual needs and in creating a plan that will lead to success. Remember your child’s social and emotional needs, including the need to be with peers that do not have disabilities. Encourage the other members of the IEP team to use simple language, so that anyone reading the IEP can understand and carry it out.
If a team member says something you don’t understand, ask the person to explain. If someone says something about your child you don’t agree with or have a question about, ask for more details. What backup information supports the person’s statement (teacher notes, checklists, evaluations)? If you have different information, be sure to share it.
Make sure you don’t accept or reject a goal for your child based on incomplete information. If a present levels statement is appropriate, there should be data to support it. If a goal is appropriate, there should be documentation to back up the need. You want to make sure that decisions are not made based upon a single event or random observations.
Make sure you agree with the language in the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance before you finalize annual goals for your child. Try not to move away from one area until you are confident that it adequately addresses your child’s needs. If you find that needed information is not available at the meeting, have the team make a note of what is missing, who will get the information, and when they will get it by. Then you can agree to move on and come back to discuss the issue when the needed information is received.
By age 16 (or younger, if the IEP team so decides), postsecondary goals and the transition services (including courses of study) that your child will need to reach those goals.
Beginning at least one year before your child reaches the age of adulthood (usually 18-21, depending on your state law), the IEP must include a statement that your child has been informed of any rights that will transfer to him or her upon reaching this age. Reaching the age of adulthood is called the “age of majority” in IDEA. Not all states transfer rights upon reaching adulthood. Refer to your state’s special education regulations to find out how this issue is handled.
If the team cannot agree on a particular item after several minutes of discussion, add it to the team’s “parking lot” of concerns and suggest coming back to it later. Avoid getting stuck debating a particular point over and over, especially if it feels like you are not getting anywhere. You need to be clear in your mind on where you can and cannot compromise. Communicate this in a reasonable and calm way. Sometimes, the following words can help the team resolve an issue.
“What will it take for us to reach an agreement on this issue?”
“Why don’t we just try this for 6 weeks and see how it works?”
“I understand that you can’t say yes to this request. Can you tell me who does have the authority? How do we get that person here?”
“We can all agree that this is not an easy issue. But we need to find a solution that will work for (your child) that we can all live with.”
“I just don’t see this as being appropriate for (your child). There have to be other options we haven’t looked at.”