Teacher asking her students a question at the elementary school

The IEP Process

For new special education teachers, creating an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) might seem like a daunting task. It’s a long and detailed document that has multiple requirements, and no two IEPs are the same. That can feel like an overwhelming amount of work, but don’t fret! It is truly a collaborative process, and it’s meant to help your students realize their full potential.

Step One: Meeting the Qualifications

Before you even begin the IEP process, a student must first meet one of the 13 disability categories detailed under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Parents usually request an evaluation if they think their child may qualify for special education, but teachers can also refer students for an evaluation. The latter typically occurs after numerous attempts to help the child without specialized education have failed.

A Response to Intervention (RTI) can be initiated if a student continues to struggle after their teacher tries to help them. After the intervention, the student is evaluated again; if they continually show no progress, the school’s student support team (SST) can refer that student for an evaluation.

From there, the team works together to decide what kinds of tests and data they need to perform and collect to determine a child’s eligibility for special education services. In order to begin any testing, however, a parent must provide their written consent for evaluation. To be eligible for special education services, there must be a clear impact on the student’s education caused by the disability and a need for individualized instruction.

To be eligible for special education services, there must be a clear impact on the student’s education caused by the disability and a need for individualized instruction.

Step Two: Creating the IEP

If the student meets the requirements of one of the disability categories listed under IDEA, then an IEP can be developed. The IEP process begins with an initial meeting to lay the framework for a plan that best addresses the unique needs of the student. That IEP is then reviewed in an annual meeting, although it can be reviewed at any time during the school year.

There are a few people required to attend an IEP meeting, such as the director of special education and a general education teacher, though more can attend if that specific IEP calls for it. Arguably, the child’s special education teacher is one of the most important and influential people in attendance, as they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the student’s progress. Parents are not required to attend an IEP meeting, but it is incredibly helpful for all involved to have their input and unique understanding of the student.

Arguably, the child’s special education teacher is one of the most important and influential people in attendance, as they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the student’s progress.

Certain roles need to be filled in order to develop an effective IEP. Someone on the team needs to know what form of specially designed education can be executed successfully, the general education curriculum of the grade the student is currently in, how to interpret the data from any tests, and that the IEP is legally compliant and all of the conditions can be put into practice.

Step Three: IEP Details

Before you can move on with the IEP process, you need to understand that there are certain parts you can expect to see in every IEP:

  • Present levels of educational performance – information about who the student is, their strengths and weaknesses, classroom performance, and measurable data from which annual goals can be created
  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) – legally binding section that specifies the services the student will be provided, how often they will receive that service, and the duration of the service
  • Annual goals – should be achievable and measurable, and they can be academic, behavioral, social, or transition-based
  • Special education and related services – any changes that may be necessary to assist the student and any needed accommodations or modifications
  • Transition plan – students who are 16 and older must have a transition goal and plan for life after school
  • Signature page and meeting notes – each member of the IEP team signs off to prove they were in attendance and approve the notes from the meeting

The parent must also consent in order for the initial IEP to be implemented.

Step Four: Continual Follow-Ups

As previously mentioned, there is an annual review to update the IEP team on the student’s needs and performance. This is a time to discuss any changes that might need to be made to the document or address any new concerns. Every three years, there is a meeting to discuss the student’s continuing eligibility for special education services. It is important to keep the communication open between team members. An IEP is a working document, which means that it can be altered as needed at any time during the school year, not just at an annual review.

An IEP is a working document, which means that it can be altered as needed at any time during the school year, not just at an annual review.

As the student’s educator, your opinion should be regarded very highly. If you notice that a certain goal isn’t going the way you thought it would, communicate that to the child’s parent. An alteration of that goal may be necessary.

Similarly, if your student’s parent is expressing a specific concern, be sure to listen. They know their child in ways you don’t, and if they bring up an area of need, you should address it. It can be beneficial to contact your student’s parent prior to any scheduled IEP meeting. Find out about their concerns, input, and goals for their child ahead of time to really maximize the time you have in the meeting.

Lastly, do your best to stay positive and hopeful when setting goals for a student, but make sure they are realistic. Each child learns in their own way at their own pace. If you need to modify a previous goal, so be it! As long as the plan will best help your student succeed and prepare for their future, that’s all that matters. The IEP process may be long and full of details, but it will help each student personalize their education goals.