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The IEP Process: A Primer

Individual education programs (IEPs) can be intimidating for many administrators, teachers, and parents. Educators and families want the best for their students, but how do you know when it’s time for an IEP? How do you know which accommodations are best for each student? How do you know if they’re achieving their highest potential?

The Six Guiding Principles of IDEA

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the law that governs many of the processes and requirements surrounding IEPs. The full text of the act is more than 100 pages long, so here, we’ve summarized the law’s six guiding principles to give you an idea of the considerations behind IEPs:

  • Free and appropriate public education (FAPE): For general population students, the goal of K–12 education is to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. The goal should be the same for students who have disabilities, even if that means they require additional services.
  • Appropriate evaluation: If students are suspected of having a disability, schools should bring in trained professionals to evaluate them according to the appropriate standards and procedures. Educators should be careful not to put students through unnecessary assessments, and the goal of any evaluation should be to begin to create a plan for the appropriate educational accommodations.
  • Individualized education plan (IEP): An IEP is a written document that takes the findings of the evaluation and creates a plan to ensure the student receives FAPE. The IEP tracks the student’s progress and performance in the classroom and toward the goal of becoming an independent adult.
  • Least restrictive environment (LRE): IDEA recommends keeping students as involved in the general education classroom as possible. That means educators might make modifications to the classroom, introduce supplemental aids and services, or try alternative instructional methods before considering pulling a student out of the general education classroom.
  • Parent participation: Under IDEA, parents have a right to participate in any group that makes decisions about accommodations, evaluations, or other planning related to their child’s disability. That means parents should be part of IEP meetings and should have equal decision-making authority.
  • Procedural safeguards: The regulations surrounding special education can be as confusing and difficult to navigate for parents as they are for educators. That’s why IDEA has provisions allowing parents to access any information about their students at any time and request mediation in the case of a disagreement between a parent and the school.

IEP Process Standards

So what is the process for an IEP? How do you know when it’s time to start the process, and what are the proper procedures? Here are the basic steps, from the IRIS Center:

  • Pre-referral: Before beginning the IEP process, it’s important to determine whether a student’s difficulties are truly due to a disability or if typical teaching and behavioral interventions will solve the problem. If minor changes in classroom strategies don’t work, then educators should move to the first step in the IEP process.
  • Referral: If an educator or a parent suspects a student has a disability, he or she can refer the student for formal evaluation. Either way, parents must provide written consent to start the process. At this point, the IEP team begins to form, and it might include: the student’s parents, the student’s general education teacher, a special education professional from the school or district, a school or district administrator, and any outside professionals involved in the student’s care.
  • Evaluation: The evaluation is a comprehensive, individualized assessment in the area of concern. The evaluation might include tests, interviews, or observations, and the evaluator might be the school psychologist, a special education professional, or a medical specialist from the field of the suspected diagnosis.
  • Eligibility determination: To move forward in the process, the evaluator and IEP team must determine that the student (a) has a disability and (b) the disability affects the student’s academic or functional performance in a way that requires special education services.
  • IEP development: At this point, the IEP team develops the written plan, which might include: the student’s academic or functional needs, goals to monitor the student’s progress over the course of a year, what services and supports the student should receive (including which professionals will be involved, the frequency of the services, and where the services will take place), and how the team will measure and communicate the student’s progress.
  • IEP implementation: The team and other professionals execute what they determined in the IEP. If the student doesn’t make progress as expected, the team might adjust the IEP throughout the year.
  • Annual review: At least once a year, the IEP team should evaluate the student’s progress toward his or her IEP goals. At that point, the team can update the IEP to better fit the student’s current needs and performance.
  • Reevaluation: Every three years, the student should go through another evaluation to determine if he or she still requires special education services.

13 Learning Difference Categories That Call for an IEP

There are many different types of learning differences that might call for an IEP. Here are different types of disorders or impairments to look out for in your classroom:

  1. Autism: A developmental disability that impacts verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and educational performance.
  2. Deaf-blindness: Some degree of loss in both vision and hearing at the same time, leading to severe communication and other developmental and educational needs.
  3. Deafness: A hearing impairment that hinders a child’s ability to comprehend verbal language.
  4. Emotional disturbance: A condition marked by an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors; an inability to maintain interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; persistent inappropriate behaviors or feelings; a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; and/or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
  5. Hearing impairment: A permanent or fluctuating impairment in hearing that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of deafness; a hearing loss below 90 decibels.
  6. Intellectual disability: Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning and deficits in adaptive behavior that adversely affect a child’s educational performance; formerly called mental retardation.
  7. Multiple disabilities: The existence of multiple impairments that cannot be accommodated in a special education program intended for one of the impairments (e.g., a student with a hearing impairment who also needs accommodations for an orthopedic impairment).
  8. Orthopedic impairment: Physical disability or impairment that could adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  9. Other health impairment: An umbrella term that encompasses any impairment that (a) is due to a chronic or acute health problem (e.g., ADHD, epilepsy, leukemia, Tourette syndrome) or (b) adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  10. Specific learning disability: Any disorder that affects a student’s ability to use language in any way or do mathematical calculations (e.g., dyslexia, developmental aphasia).
  11. Speech or language impairment: A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment.
  12. Traumatic brain injury: A brain injury caused by an external physical force that results in a functional disability or psychosocial impairment.
  13. Visual impairment: An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

COVID Considerations

When schools started closing down in March of 2020, there were a lot of questions about whether schools should suspend IEPs for the time. Putting off IEPs can result in significant regressions, and moreover, the U.S. Department of Education has directed schools to continue providing free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Now that social distancing and virtual learning are the “new normal,” it’s not a question of whether to do IEPs during the pandemic, but how.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. Every school district has different needs and different resources, and it’s going to require a lot of thought and creativity on the part of principals and classroom teachers to support students the way they need. EdWeek interviewed three special education legal experts about this topic and found three common themes to their advice:

  • Provide services as soon as possible. From Selene Almazan, legal director at COPAA: “The key is that school systems need to offer something to all students. We want cooperation and we know [that] schools [need] to offer equitable access if they’re offering distance learning to everybody else. They have to include students with disabilities in that mix as well.”
  • Value progress over following the letter of the law. Because there are so many regulations surrounding special education, it can be easy to get stuck trying to figure out how the regulations apply in these extreme circumstances. However, it’s important to remember that the spirit of these laws is to help special education students; so as long as helping students is your goal and you make a good-faith effort at doing so, you’re on the right track.
  • The law wasn’t written with online education in mind. No one, including the writers of special education law, ever imagined a pandemic upending schools like COVID-19 has. That’s why IDEA, Section 504, and other guiding legislation won’t necessarily provide short-term answers for the day-to-day issues we’re currently facing. Instead, the legal representatives in this article recommend reaching an agreement with families on the services you can provide, documenting those agreements, and moving forward. The law will catch up later.

Another great resource to check out is the Council of Administrators of Special Education’s Considerations for Special Education Administrators document. They’ve compiled CDC recommendations, lists of resources, and 12 valuable questions to ask to guide schools’ assistance for special education students during COVID-19.

Teaching Special Education Students in Stressful Times

The IEP process can feel overwhelming in the best of times. However, if you can focus on one step at a time and remember that the ultimate goal is to help your struggling learners, you’ll be well on your way to getting your students the supports they need.

For in-depth strategies and resources on teaching special education students online and in person, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • The Role of Technology in the Inclusive Classroom: Technology might be the solution you’re looking for to meet the diverse needs of all your students. Learn to use technology to differentiate instruction and help your students become more independent learners who are empowered to grow and succeed.
  • The General Educator’s Guide to Special Education: Design your classroom to be an inclusive, supportive space for students with disabilities. You’ll explore the 13 major disabilities, best practices for working with students and their families, and strategies to bolster their social and emotional development.
  • Take Control of RTI: Response to intervention is a multi-tier approach to identifying and supporting students with learning and behavior needs. Develop strategies for identifying struggling students, implementing appropriate interventions and differentiated instruction, and monitoring students’ progress to help them reach the next level of academic achievement.
  • High-Incidence Disabilities: Some of the most common disabilities you’ll see in your classroom include autism spectrum disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, specific learning disabilities, and emotional or behavior disorders. Explore resources and differentiated instructional strategies to help your students achieve their highest academic potential.
  • Teaching Students With High-Functioning Autism: Approximately 1 in every 68 children has autism spectrum disorder. Learn how to welcome students with high-functioning ASD into your general education classroom, including how to address their academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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