The IEP process can be confusing and overwhelming. It's important to remember that you have rights as a parent or guardian, including the right to participate in developing your child's Individual Education Plan (IEP) and the right to appeal any decisions made by your child's school district. Your child's IEP is their individualized education plan or program. All IEPs are covered by the federal special education law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Remember, you are your child's biggest advocate, and your child needs you to advocate for them during every step of the process.
What is an IEP?
An IEP is a written formal document that describes your child’s accommodations and steps that must be followed to meet your child’s unique needs. The IEP sets learning goals for your child. In addition, it explains the accommodations, supports, and services that will be provided to your child.
The IEP Process can be time consuming and overwhelming. If your child is struggling, your child needs help now. During the pre-referral process, you can reach out to your child's teachers to work together to observe and gather information about your child's needs before your child's IEP is implemented. This step in the process can also help you work with your child's teachers to try out different interventions and supports to see if they are effective. It can also help ensure that your child's IEP is developed based on a comprehensive understanding of their needs.
The most important step in the IEP process is the referral where you request that your child be evaluated for special education services. The school has 90 calendar days, not school days, to act on your request. The 90-day timeline is a strict timeline that cannot be extended. Your child’s school must evaluate your child, hold an IEP meeting, and determine if your child is eligible for an IEP within 90 days.
I recommend sending your written request to your child’s school principal and your child’s school district’s special education director. It’s important to include any documentation that you have to show why your child needs special education including an existing diagnosis, input from your child’s health care and mental health providers, report cards, test results, input from their teachers, or schoolwork to show that your child can benefit from special education.
It's important to understand your rights as a parent or guardian. You must sign the informed consent form to give your child's school permission to provide special education services outlined in the IEP. You can withdraw your informed consent at any time. If you have concerns or questions about informed consent, don't hesitate to request a meeting with your child's school.
The evaluation must assess your child in all areas of your child’s suspected disability. During the evaluations specialists from various fields assess your child's academic abilities, social and emotional development, and physical functioning. It's also important for you to request your child to be evaluated for special education services and any social or emotional challenges, speech and language problems, and behavioral issues that interfere with your child's learning. It’s important to keep copies of your communications with your child’s school. I recommend keeping all your documentation in an IEP binder to help you stay organized.
Your child’s school will refer your child for a formal evaluation at no cost after receiving your written consent. Therefore, sign the consent form as soon as you receive it to start the clock. The school has 60 calendar days or within your state-established guidelines from the date you sign the consent form to determine if your child is eligible for special education services.
Eligibility Determination IEP Meeting
Your child’s school will schedule an eligibility meeting to discuss your child’s evaluation. During the meeting, you will discuss your child's academic progress and needs, as well as create personalized goals. The IEP team will discuss the evaluation and whether your child has a disability. The team will also discuss if your child’s disability affects their academic or functional performance to an extent requiring special education services. If the answer to these questions is yes, your child is considered eligible for special education. Once the IEP team determines that your child is eligible for special education, the IEP team will create your child’s IEP.
It's important for you to play an active role in the IEP process. It's also important for you to advocate for what your child needs during this meeting. If you get pushback from the IEP team, don't hesitate to speak up and provide insights about your child's strengths and challenges.
What if I Disagree with the School’s Evaluation?
If your child is found ineligible for special education, don't give up because you still have options. If you disagree with your child’s school evaluation results, you can request an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at no expense. If your child’s school still determines that your child is ineligible, you can dispute the school’s findings through mediation or a due process complaint. You can also request a 504 plan for your child. A 504 plan can provide additional support and accommodations.
After your child is determined to be eligible for special education services, the school has 30 calendar days to develop and write your child’s IEP. Your child’s school must contact you to schedule your child’s IEP meeting. Your child’s school will inform you who will attend the IEP meeting. The IEP team includes you as the parent, at least one regular education teacher, at least one special education teacher, a representative of the school system, an individual who can interpret the results such as the school psychologist, and your child. You are also allowed to invite others to attend the meeting with you such as a special education advocate or someone with knowledge and experience such as your child’s health care or mental health provider.
Your child is allowed to attend IEP meetings. Attending their IEP meeting gives your child an opportunity to provide their strengths, needs, and what accommodations they believe will help them best. It’s important to consider your child’s age when determining if they will attend. I allowed my son to attend all of his IEP meetings. However, I discreetly asked him to sit outside when we discussed his teacher's feedback. I didn’t want him to see the candid feedback from his teachers that described his behavioral issues. I did this because I didn’t want him to perceive their input as unfavorable. Again, I recommend using your best judgement. You know your child best.
You are required to consent to services before your child’s IEP is implemented. Your child’s IEP starts after you consent to the IEP. Your child’s teachers and all of your child’s service providers such as your child's special education teacher are given a copy of your child’s IEP. Your child’s teacher will also start tracking your child’s progress to determine if any adjustments need to be made.
Annual Review and Reevaluation
Your child’s IEP is reviewed by the IEP team annually or more often if you or your child’s teacher request a review sooner. You will review child’s current performance, progress, needs, and placement at the annual review. The IEP will be then get adjusted or modified as needed depending on any changes. Your child’s school is also required to reevaluate your child every three years to determine if they are still eligible for special education.
Your child's IEP is fluid and can be changed as needed. It's a living document. You can request modifications and changes to your child's IEP when it's necessary. Your child's needs may change after they start receiving accommodations and services, after changing their medications, and for various other reasons. You will meet with your child's IEP team to discuss why you're requesting a revision.
Remember that your child is the I in their IEP. You play a vital role in advocating for your child throughout the entire IEP process. I know it’s exhausting, but don’t give up because your child needs you in their corner. They’re struggling without an IEP. Your child needs you to help advocate for services that will help them thrive.