How to get the most from your child's IEP

IEP Meeting

Caring for a child with a developmental delay or disability can take a lot of energy, but the love a child gives makes it totally worth it. You want to do your best for your child, and you want to make sure they have the opportunities he or she needs to succeed. That includes making sure they get the education they need.

When it comes time to focus on education, something you will become very familiar with if you have a child with special needs is an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. It is a critical document that outlines the special education, support and services your child needs in a school setting. Essentially, this plan is a contract between you and the school.

Banner Academy is a nationally-accredited private school in Tempe, Ariz., that works with children who have autism spectrum disorders and those with emotional and learning disabilities. Shari Carlsted, Banner Academy principal, and Banner Academy teacher Tracy Bertlesman explain IEPs, what to expect during the process and how to get the most out of an IEP.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), established in 1990 when Congress reauthorized and expanded the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). The purpose of IDEA was to guarantee the same opportunities for children—regardless of disabilities.

“It is a document that helps to determine what a student needs inside the classroom to have appropriate access to the curriculum,” Carlsted said.

Think of it as the roadmap or blueprint for your child’s education, developed with your child’s school to ensure he or she gets the most out of their educational experience. Carlsted and Bertlesman said the IEP can be written for the academic, social or emotional needs of a student.

Who gets an IEP?

Public schools and charter schools are covered by IDEA, meaning they are required to work with you to develop an IEP. Private schools are not covered, but they may have alternatives. Colleges do not use IEPs, but they may have services available to help.

Any student who qualifies for special education after being approved by a multidisciplinary team’s evaluation can get an IEP. A multidisciplinary evaluation team, or MET, must determine the child meets the requirements.

Carlsted and Bertlesman explain that an initial IEP cannot be requested, but parents can request an evaluation to determine if their child qualifies for special education. If the child does, the education team will schedule an initial IEP meeting.

It’s important to note an IEP is very different from a 504 Plan. Carlsted and Bertlesman explain the IEP is used to help children with access to special education when they have a need, but the 504 is set up when a child needs access to education because of a health condition, such as diabetes or cancer. The 504 Plan is set up between the parents and the school’s or school district’s administration. It typically needs a doctor’s note with it.

The Initial IEP Meeting

A very important piece of an IEP is your initial meeting where you will develop your plan. It’s important that, as the parent, you actively participate in the meeting, and you need to understand what the education team is saying to make sure your child benefits as much as possible.

At the initial IEP meeting and annual IEP meetings, there will be 5 people present: You, your child, the special education teacher, a general education teacher and someone who can represent the school or the district to determine what the school or district can provide either itself or through an outside vendor.

Carlsted and Bertlesman note the initial IEP meetings are usually very involved and will have a great deal of information. During the meeting, you will review all the major components of an IEP, which should include:

  • The Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance, or PLAAFP
  • Considerations for additional factors
  • Goals
  • Accommodations
  • State, district and classroom assessment needs
  • Transition plans for students who are 14-years-old or older on the day of the IEP meeting
  • Service minutes, related services and supplementary needs of the student
  • Any additional information that is specifically needed for the student to be given reasonable access to the curriculum

After the meeting, you should have a document that everyone agrees on. The educational team will provide you with a prior written notice, which covers all the decisions made during the meeting and those that were rejected.

What you can do to prepare

IEP meetings are an involved process, and the initial meetings take between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on the needs of your child, and there are things you can do to prepare to help the process along, according to Carlsted and Bertlesman.

First, you can do a bit of research on IEPs and the acronyms used by the special education team. It can help speed the process up if you know what some of the acronyms are and how the meetings are structured.

Carlsted and Bertlesman say the second thing you can do is prepare to negotiate.

“Understand that not every want is a need and that the IEP will provide for the students’ needs as agreed upon by the whole team,” Carlsted said.

Carlsted and Bertlesman say parents should also be ready to ask questions—a lot of them, if necessary. If you hear terminology you do not understand, ask for clarification. You’ll also want to ask what you can do at home to help support the educational experience. Even if it is not at an initial IEP, often questions come up days or months later, and the case manager can help get those answers.

You and the team will need to revise the IEP every 364 days, and it doesn’t necessarily follow the school-year calendar. Each yearly meeting usually takes between 30 and 60 minutes.

During the annual meetings, you will discuss your child’s progress and revise the plan as needed. You also will get progress reports throughout the year, which may be timed with the school year’s terms, such as quarterly, trimester or semester. You or any member of the team can request an additional meeting throughout the year, too, according to Carlsted and Bertlesman.

Getting the most out of the IEP

To get the most out of the IEP, there are a few things you should do, according to Carlsted and Bertlesman. The most important piece is communication.

You can stay in continuous contact with the teachers via email, allowing you to check how your student is doing and so you can ask anything that comes to your mind.

Most importantly, you’ll want to stay in touch with the case manager throughout the year. The case manager will be your go-to person to ask questions of the rest of the team, if you are unsure about anything with the IEP or your child’s progress. You can voice concerns or want to address something through the case manager, too.

“Often, when concerns are given to the case manager with a little bit of time, they will be able to have some solutions for the team to discuss,” Carlsted said.

An IEP is an important piece to raising a child who a developmental disability. If you believe your child may benefit from an IEP, get the process started by requesting an evaluation of your child.

To learn more about Banner Academy, visit: bannerhealth.com/services/pediatrics/programs/banner-academy

Looking for more info on IEPs? Visit: autismspeaks.org/tool-kit/individualized-education-program-iep-summary-process-and-practical-tips

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