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The ABCs of IEPs: Drafting the IEP

by Patrick J. Hoover, Special Education Attorney, Rockville, MD
So your school has now agreed to qualify your child for her own Individualized Education Plan (IEP). What's next? Sorry, but this is no time to relax. Not yet. Now is the time to get down to the nitty gritty. You will need to determine exactly what your child's special needs are and what her school will need to provide in order for her to have a successful education. As a parent, your challenge is making certain that the IEP team does its work and has completed a well-researched, thorough IEP which clearly spells out all the critical details that will make it possible for your student to receive a real and meaningful education.

Now, the IEP team must determine exactly what services, accommodations and placement and programming choices are necessary for your child to succeed in school. The answer to that vital question should be found within the finished IEP. Of course, the IEP will only be formally written after its many parts are thoroughly discussed by the entire IEP team.

You will hold a meeting, either immediately following the determination of eligibility for special education services, or at a later date — the more likely option. I'll say it again, as difficult as it may have been to carry your child through the formal special education evaluation process and the preliminary IEP meetings, unfortunately you're work is only now really begun. If you have not yet done so, you should consider advantage in securing the help and guidance of a professional. Having an experienced ally at the IEP meeting, like a skilled advocate or special education attorney, will help bring big returns to both your immediate stress level and to the final IEP product.

Hopefully, you have by now come to know the school members of the IEP team. Those preliminary meetings should have left you with an idea of where each of the team members stands. The team will assemble again but this time to draft your child's IEP. That same IEP team will remain in place as your IEP team for the remainder of your child's special education career. It's worth remembering that your child's IEP team must be made up of certain members in order for the meeting to take effect. The IEP members include you and anyone else you choose to bring — either for moral support or better yet, for expertise. In addition, the law requires the IEP team to consist of a general education teacher from your child's school, a special education teacher, a school administrator authorized to make binding decisions on behalf of the school district and other specialists that may be of assistance.

Despite what many schools mistakenly but routinely dictate to parents as the law, your child need not and I believe, should not, be present in the conference room for any part of the formal IEP meeting. It is only where you have an older teen, at least 18 years old, that the student may decide to what degree, if any, they wish to participate in the IEP process. Where appropriate, I sometimes have students come in to meet the team at the very beginning of the meeting and then leave the meeting room. It can be helpful to the school's team members to hear a few words from your child about their concerns in school. I almost never think it wise for any, but the most mature student, to take part in the full meeting of the IEP team. A kid is hardly benefitted by sitting through an often lengthy meeting and hearing a room full of adults discuss their most personal characteristics. Bad idea.

The IEP template
The job ahead for you and your IEP team is to fill out the IEP form; to draft your child's IEP documentation. The typical IEP document is in reality an extensive form of anywhere from 25 to 50 pages in length depending on the special circumstances of your child/student. I frequently see completed IEPs that rival a moderately complex IRS tax return. Virtually every state school system has a copy of its blank IEP form available on its official Web Site. You should take a look at it. You'll be using this format in subsequent meetings with your child's IEP team, at least annually, if not more often, for potentially years to come.

The individual designated chair of the IEP team is responsible for taking you through every page of the IEP form and process and should address all issues specific to your child. If not, it will be up to you as the parent to bring these issues to the attention of the IEP team as they come up during the meeting. The word “Individualized” appears first in the IEP acronym. That was not accident. When the IEP process operates as designed, there is little that can be more unique and personalized in your child's education than the finalized IEP. It will quite literally serve as the roadmap for the rest of his/her educational career. Remember, the well drafted and fully completed IEP will serve to provide your child with the real tools she will need to actually learn and progress each year. The basic idea in Special Education is that each teacher who comes in contact with your child is fully aware and has closely read your child's IEP.

The first page of the IEP form states basic information about the child, parent and the primary disability. Frequently there are children that have multiple disabilities, but the federal form requires that the IEP identify the one primary disability if there is more than one problem with your child. The next part of the IEP form asks about your child's present level of ability. Present levels refer to your child's recent evaluation and findings of experts, usually psychologists, in identifying the special needs of your child. The disability found on page one and the present levels which appear in the following pages can run the gamut from dyslexia and other well studied learning disabilities to autism and other profound mental disorders. Other children may qualify for special education due to emotional disabilities or mental illness, but the main requirement for special education services is that the disability is permanent.

Also found within the first few pages of the child's IEP is a section on parental concerns. Here is your opportunity to present the IEP team with a concise run down of the issues as you see them. But hold your arguments about your child's placement until later, since that issue is not brought up until the end of the meeting.

IEPs are all about Annual Goals. So the next big piece you will encounter in this document is your Child's Annual Goals and Objectives. It may help to have a list of goals for your child prepared and furnished to the team in advance.

It's probably worth stating at this point that many states including Maryland have gone to a system of online IEP creation. This project is mandated from the federal government but the practical difference to you is very real. In order to do a thorough preparation and analysis prior to your child's IEP meeting you should not only get a copy of the IEP form, but you should also explore the online service. The Web Site is overflowing with information and suggestions that can be incorporated in your child's IEP. I encourage you to access this so you may become familiar with what's out there.

At the end of the year it's these Annual Goals and Objectives that will be measured by you and the IEP team in order to evaluate whether your child is receiving adequate services under the law. These may include basic things such as learning to count to 50 or learning to pronounce the alphabet, in cases of younger children. These may also call for academic mastery in higher forms of study, assertiveness training, socialization goals, organization and much more.

Always remember that you're entitled to ask for an IEP meeting at any time during the school year if you have reason to meet. At a minimum, the school should require that there be at least an annual IEP meeting in which the team discusses the prior year and the coming year. And it's right now that special education lawyers become busiest. When parents realize they are either dissatisfied with the education provided or the proposed plans for the coming school year, that's when they will bring in an education advocate.

Be prepared
Unfortunately, just as you may have experienced in the preliminary meetings, disagreements may occur between you and the IEP team. Decisions as to what goes into the IEP are supposed to be made by consensus of the IEP team, but things do not always go that way. Federal law requires that the parent receive 10-day written notice prior to the IEP meeting. This notice is very important if only to prevent parents from being unprepared for the meeting.

Say what you will about the state of the world and involving lawyers in public education, but the fact of the matter is there is a reason school systems have their own lawyers on staff who are experts in special education. Be warned, if you walk into this IEP meeting by yourself, unprepared, without any knowledge in place you can expect to be mowed over. Alone, the education-speak and alphabet soup talk amongst the adults at this table is overwhelming to the average person. It is only someone educated in this process, the IDEA and the state and federal laws that govern IEPs that can be truly helpful.

If you want to ensure that your child's interests are heard loud and clear bring an advocate, bring an educator, bring a friend, or if appropriate bring an attorney who is experienced in the field of special education law.

On a final note, here are a few things to remember as you are walking into the IEP meeting to draft the IEP for the first time:

  • Be certain you have read all recent evaluations and you've carefully reviewed these along with your child's report cards and other records.
  • Be certain you have copies, as does the school, of all recent evaluations.
  • Be certain you have gotten a copy of the draft IEP (most schools prepare a draft which they circulate among themselves before the meeting) and make sure you understand it.
  • Consider drafting proposed Annual Goals and Objectives and share a copy of your draft with the school several days in advance of the meeting.
  • Be prepared to spend at least two hours at the meeting and don't be afraid to ask that the meeting be continued to another day if it's not complete in one sitting.
  • Do not sign the IEP until you have had time to review it. Politely explain that you want to see a completed draft of the proposed IEP and review it for a few days. Be aware schools often threaten to withhold services, but don't believe it. You have at least a day or two to consider it. But understand if you don't sign the IEP at some point soon after, then by law the school system is prohibited from providing any of the services proposed for your child in the IEP.
  • Consider asking the team to schedule a follow-up meeting to review your child's progress under the newly drafted IEP document. That way you can more quickly answer the question if the IEP is working, should be tweaked in any way, or is perfect as is.

Good luck!

Patrick Hoover is a special education attorney in Rockville, MD. He advocates for an appropriate education for children with special needs. See his site at: See her site at: or contact him by phone at:(301) 424-5777.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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