Special Education What Every Parent Should Know About Their Child’s IEP

At this time of year, some parents find themselves thinking about the impending review of their child’s individualized education program (IEP) and what battles lie ahead. Others are wondering when they will receive the draft document and what the contents will be. For those parents who are knowledgeable about the process, the draft IEP may not contain many surprises. For those parents who are less knowledgeable about their child’s right to a free and public education (known as a FAPE) or are fairly new to the process, or don’t even know exactly what that means, this can be a time of frustration.

During this period, and until the IEP is accepted in totality, one of the most important points to remember is that parents and educators share the same goal: to maximize the child’s learning potential. The jousting comes in, however, because parents want to be proactive, while the schools don’t have the resources to be that way and instead prefer to deal with current issues, not future ones. Schools will propose the least-restrictive alternatives, i.e. shared aides instead of individual aides, two hours of speech instead of three, or other strategies to get your child to the level they should be at.

Finding common ground can be difficult, so it is of utmost importance that parents are familiar with all sections of the IEP and how to use the document to set true goals that can be reached by their child.

Assuming that the initial eligibility requirements have been met — your child has been identified as having a disability for which specially designed instruction is required in order to make effective progress in school — the first main component in the IEP is the Parent and Student Concerns section. This is the opportunity to discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t shy away from commenting about your child’s strengths, as recognition of them can assist the educators and other professionals in developing a plan to address weaknesses by using the strengths, thereby giving your child a sense of confidence and accomplishment. Discuss positive test results, educational and personal strengths and accomplishments, interests, personality traits, and whether your child exceeded or met current expectations.

In the concerns section, discuss issues with your child’s IEP as it currently stands and what you would like to see changed. In the vision statement, be creative; think long-term, meaning for the next several years. Anticipate how your child will change and grow, either positively or negatively, given his or her disability. Talk about your child’s hopes and dreams, and your hopes and dreams for him or her. While younger children will rely on their parents to complete this section, older children should, and in some situations are required to, participate in reviewing and writing the IEP.

The second component is educational performance, where each area of the curriculum is discussed and the specific needs of your child are assessed. Some children need help with reading, speech, or comprehension, while others struggle with math concepts, all of which depend on the nature of the deficiency — cognitive, emotional, behavioral, physical, or attention. The input of your child’s teachers will be important here in order to accurately identify progress made in each subject, if any, what instructional methods have and have not worked, and whether the prior goals have been reached.

Broken down into two smaller categories, General Curriculum and Other Educational Needs, desired or necessary accommodations and areas of required individual instruction are discussed here, both for the subjects being studied (English, math, history, science, etc.) and for your child’s general life at the school. For example, will they be more successful if they have more time to take tests? Should they sit in the front of the class? Are they having a difficult time focusing for a 40-minute period and need to take a hallway break halfway through?

The next component of the IEP is the Current Performance Levels/ Measurable Annual Goals section. This contains the most child-specific information. Examples of your child’s actual work and test results should be included, evidencing whether he or she met previous goals, how far away they are from accomplishment, and how they have developed over the course of a term or year. This will also help to identify the most-important focus areas for your child and their educators.

After looking at these performance levels, benchmarks and objectives can be laid out so that a game plan is designed that establishes future goals and midway points your child should reach. Benchmarks are the best way to measure whether he or she is on track to meet the goal, as they establish criteria by which to measure progress.

The last major component of the IEP is the Service Delivery section. This is where the actual services to be provided are specifically outlined, both in and out of the regular classroom. Each service will focus on a particular identified goal, name the type of educator or specialist who will work with your child, and state how often and for how long the service will occur. This section may also include recommendations for services such as family counseling, mental-health evaluations, and applied behavior analysis.

While each IEP should be tailored and drafted specifically with your child and his or her disabilities and strengths in mind, the remaining components may or may not apply or require as much focus as the others. These sections include:

  • Nonparticipation Justification, which identifies the number of times your child is not in the general classroom and the reasons why the separate setting is appropriate (which is, for the most part, already staged in the Service Delivery section);
  • Schedule Modification, which would address a change to the actual length of the school day and specifics thereof;
  • Transportation Services, if a child requires special means of getting to and from school;
  • State- or District-wide Assessment, which identifies any planned activities and/or testing (e.g. MCAS) during the IEP period, and what accommodations must therefore be made; and
  • Additional Information and Response, where you, as the parent, can accept the IEP, reject it in totality, or reject certain portions. If you reject the IEP, you should then request a meeting with educators and professionals to discuss the rejected portions, remembering that you must accept some part of the IEP in order to ensure that your child’s rights to a FAPE remain fully protected, and that the portion of the IEP not rejected is automatically accepted and implemented immediately.

The thought of reviewing your child’s individualized education program may seem overwhelming. Sometimes it’s preferable to have qualified legal representation to help you fight for what your child is entitled to. If that’s the case, be sure to call a special-needs lawyer who can guide you through the process. v

Melissa R. Gillis, Esq. is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. in the special-education, family, and real-

estate departments; (413) 781-0560; mgillis@baconwilson.com. Dennis G. Egan Jr. is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C, concentrating in special education, business and corporate law; (413) 781-0560; degan@baconwilson.com.

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