I Before E, Then Comes a P: A Primer on IEPs

Hello readers,

For most of us, school is out for the holidays or will be soon (teachers, I can feel the “amens” coming through the screen). 🙂 I’m sure it’ll be nice not to think about school for awhile, especially the meetings and plans that might come with having a student with a disability.

However, the more you know about what goes into those plans, the better equipped you are to make sure your student gets the education to which he or she is entitled. With that in mind, we’re going to talk about IEPs today–what they are, how they work, and how they can help, not hurt, your student.

What Are IEPs?

IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. On the surface, it’s exactly what it sounds like–an education plan tailored to a specific person with a disability so that he or she can get the most out of school and be educated alongside TAB peers as much as possible. It lists the education and services the student needs, as well as specific goals for that student, and helps measure progress toward those goals.

Now as we know, sometimes IEPs are used to stunt education, not further it. For example, if the IEP team does not make relevant and meaningful goals, it’s detrimental to the student. Sometimes teachers and administrators ignore the IEP or change it without parental consent so that they can do what’s convenient for them. Ideally though, IEPs are meant to be a helpful tool, so we’ll focus mostly on that today.

What Goes in an IEP?

How exactly does one write an IEP? Well, that’s up to the IEP team–the student’s parent (s) or guardian (s), plus school personnel. However, there are a few key components that must be in an IEP so it meets federal requirements.

-A statement of the student’s academic and functional performance. This is often made after formal assessments, but remember, formal assessments are not the be all, end all. Parents, you know your student. If an expert tells you he or she will never function above a third-grade level, fine. But you should also apprise the IEP team of strengths and real-life academic and functional capabilities. If you disagree with an assessment or a statement, it is your right to voice that and have proper changes made.

-A statement of the education and services the student needs. This can be anything from special education (hopefully in an inclusive environment) to learning aids like a sign language interpreter for someone who’s deaf. Again, it is the parent or guardian’s right to seek and insist on services even if the school balks.

-Statements of modifications to the school’s educational program (for example: the school will provide Gabby with age-appropriate modified PE, the teacher will reduce Hakim’s math homework load due to dyscalculia).

-If the student cannot participate in a “regular” formal assessment such as a standardized test: Statement of why this is the case and the assessment the student will take instead.

-Statement of when, how, and how much the student will participate in school with TAB peers (remember, IDEA states that by law, the least restrictive environment must be used at all times).

-Measurable annual goals (see below) and statement of progress toward those goals.

What is an IEP Goal–And What Isn’t?

I had an IEP in school, and I’ve even written a mock one for university classes. Goals are often where the IEP team runs afoul of IDEA and lowers the bar too much. Often, IEP goals look like this:

“Sammy will understand the basics of multiplication.”

TWEET! That’s my whistle. That’s not a goal, because it’s not measurable. Is Sammy expected to perform on grade level? With what percent accuracy? When will we know he “understands?” Right–you can guess, but you can’t really know.

How about this one?

“Ivy will improve her behavior in physical and occupational therapy.”

TWEET! How? By what measure? And, why is Ivy “misbehaving?” Is she really being noncompliant and stubborn or is there a reason she’s unhappy? Does she really need this therapy–and if the team says she does, can we make it better and easier/more enjoyable for her?

One more:

“Manuel will complete X number of geometry problems, with X percent accuracy, 3 out of 5 times.”

This is often what’s considered an acceptable goal. It’s measurable, and it gives Manuel a reasonable standard to work toward. However, remember that even these goals have pitfalls. For example, if Manuel is visually impaired, such that he only completes half those problems, yet is able to verbalize and prove on a reduced-load test that he understands geometry, maybe the goal needs to be modified.

Here’s a bonus:

“Delaney will read a fourth grade level book with 90% accuracy, recognizing and correctly defining X number of vocabulary words 70% of the time.”

Again, okay as far as the numbers go. But if Delaney is never allowed to choose her own reading material, or if fourth grade level is actually below where she is chronologically and academically, the goal is not relevant. If Delaney has no say–if any student has no say–the goal is also not meaningful. Now, I’m not saying that if Molly really needs to learn to tie her shoes, she should refuse to do it. But the IEP team’s real focus should be, “What skills or goals will help Molly in the real world? Will tying shoes help her get a job? Should we expect that of her when her fingers are so stiff from CP, and when every other student in this blinking school wears loafers?”

Final Tips for Making the IEP and its Team–And Your Student–Successful

  1. If it’s written, is it done? If your student was promised certain modifications, services, and etc., it is to be done by federal law. Period, end of discussion.
  2. Know your student’s rights. Your student can not be educated in a special ed classroom all day if it is not the least restrictive environment. The IEP team cannot make goals that over- or underestimate his or her abilities and then enact them, or change the IEP, without parental or guardian consent. If you disagree with what the school is doing, you can fight it. Familiarize yourself with disability law; get assistance where needed.
  3. Make sure the IEP team includes people that know your student’s strengths and abilities. A general education teacher was always on my team, and it was nothing short of a relief to have that person there, because I knew that the disability service workers, therapists, whoever, mainly talked about what was “wrong” with me. Whether it’s a teacher, a therapist, a relative, whoever–get that person involved.
  4. Know that you, the parent or guardian, are the one with the power. Don’t misuse it. You are your student’s voice.
  5. When your student reaches majority: Apprise him or her of rights, and help prepare for the first IEP meeting where he or she will have a lot more say and pull. Reassure him or her that you’re still there, but for backup.



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