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The Importance of an Individual Education Program (IEP)

Cari Jean resides in North Dakota, where she works as a freelance writer and blogs at Faith's Mom's Blog.

Does Your Child Hav an IEP?

If you have a special needs child going to a public school*, you need to be aware of the importance of an individual education program (IEP).

What is an IEP?

The IEP stems from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 which was part of IDEA (the Individual with Disabilities Education Act). The IEP is a document that ensures your child will have an appropriate education based upon his/her individual needs.

Could your child benefit from an IEP? Photo by Cari Bousfield

Could your child benefit from an IEP? Photo by Cari Bousfield

Who Needs to Have an IEP?

Any child from ages 3-21 who requires special education and related services must have an IEP in place. The IEP is updated every year and helps your child's teachers, therapists, parents, and others how to best attain goals set for your child in the education system.

An update of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004 ensures that special needs children are able to stay in a regular classroom. However, when needs are best met in a special class, students might be placed in one. There are also instances where the child may need to leave the classroom for special services such as physical, occupational, or speech therapy.

Children diagnosed with the following should have an IEP:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Emotional disorders
  • Intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation or MR)
  • Autism
  • Hearing, speech, or visual impairment
  • Developmental delay

*services for special needs children cannot be guaranteed in a private school setting

The Referral Process

If you or your child's teacher notices your child not doing well in the classroom, the child can be tested for a learning disability or other impairment. After the appropriate data has been gathered, it will be determined for what type of special services your child qualifies.

To be eligible to receive these services, it must be proven that your child's disability is affecting how they function in school. Once this has been determined, a group of professionals will further individually evaluate your child. They will then come together and form a comprehensive evaluation report (CER). This report details your child's needs and the support he/she may need.

The parent has a chance to review this report and a special meeting is held to develop your child's IEP.

In some cases, when your child has been part of an early intervention program or it is already known that your child will need special services, the referral process takes place before your child begins preschool. Your early interventionist and/or case manager should be able to help you communicate with your child's school and get the ball rolling for the development of an IEP.

Who should be present at the IEP meeting?

Who should be present at the IEP meeting?

The Meeting

Every year before school, your child's IEP needs to be updated. Each child has a deadline for which their IEP needs to be set up. Most deadlines take place right before or at the beginning of the school year. Your child's special education teacher should know your child's IEP deadline. In order for the IEP to be most effective, a meeting is usually held.

For parents of a special needs child, an IEP meeting can be somewhat daunting. In most cases, there are several people who work with your child, and all of their input is valuable. However, you must remember that you know your child best and you're the one who needs to ensure all of your child's needs are being met.

Those present at this meeting usually include:

  • The parent(s), guardian, or family advocate
  • The special education teacher
  • The child's general education teacher
  • Physical and/or Occupational Therapist/Speech Pathologist
  • The school counselor
  • The school principal
  • Your child's disability case manager.
  • Your child may or may not be present

Remember, you can invite anyone you want to participate in this meeting. This may include your child's instructional aide at school, a close family friend who knows your child well, a friend to offer you support, a therapist who works with your child outside of the school setting, or simply anyone who would be able to offer advice in your child's best interest.

Sometimes, these meetings can be overwhelming so it is best for you to be as comfortable but as confident as possible. You don't need to agree with everyone and everything, instead, you need to be an advocate for your child.

Establishing Goals

The main point of the IEP is to set measurable long and short-term goals for your child. But how are these goals established? Who determines them?

You and the members of your child's IEP team try to determine what you think your child will accomplish during the school year, taking into account his/her special needs.

These goals need to be realistic. For instance, if the child has a severe learning disability, it might be an unrealistic goal for your child to be reading simple sentences by the end of kindergarten. A more acceptable goal might be for your child to be able to recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet.

Keep in mind that just because two students have the same disability, this does not mean they will have the same goals. That is why this is called an Individual program that is suited to your child, individually.

Goals set are academic and functional.

Academic Goals

  • Letter identification
  • Spelling
  • Counting
  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Any class subject including math, geography, history, etc.

Functional Goals

  • Tying shoes
  • Going to the bathroom
  • Knowing appropriate behavior
  • Self feeding
  • Using a computer
  • Any area that helps the child function as independently as possible

Usually, IEP's contain too many goals. Some of the goals are also unrealistic. This can cause frustration and confusion for all of those involved, especially your child. Remember your child does not have to conquer everything in one year. Sometimes, it may be more fitting for your child to focus on academic goals and then at other times on functional goals.

You can talk to your child's special education teacher anytime to discuss whether or not your child is attaining his/her goals. Usually, a progress report is given each quarter and is discussed at least twice a year during parent/teacher conferences.

The weather may pose a special circumstance for your child.

The weather may pose a special circumstance for your child.

Special Circumstances

Although the main objective of the IEP is to set goals for your child, it is also used as a tool for those in the school setting to know and understand all of your child's needs. In any given circumstance, it's important to include whether or not your child will need to follow other guidelines than those mandated by the school.

Diet - if your child has a special diet or is fed via g-tube, it is important to include this in your child's IEP.

Weather - some special needs children cannot tolerate hot or very cold weather. If you want your child indoors when it is above or below a certain temperature, you should have that written in your child's IEP.

Illness - Some children with disabilities are more prone to get sick or may take longer to recover. Since most schools have an attendance policy, it is important to include this in the IEP since they may need to miss more school due to being sick and taking longer to recover.

If a special circumstance comes up during the middle of the school year, the IEP can always be amended.

Be An Advocate

As you can see, developing and maintaining an Individual Education Program for your special needs child is of utmost importance. Remember, your purpose is not to merely agree or to please everyone, your purpose is to be an advocate for your child. If you feel certain goals are not attainable by your child, you need to speak up. If set up well, your child's IEP can ensure that all of your child's needs will be met and he/she will have a great school year!

© 2010 Cari Jean


Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on May 28, 2019:

Sharman, Thank you for the correction.

Sharman W Dennis on May 26, 2019:


Adaobi on December 07, 2017:

Please if is possible to send down equipment or facilities that are not in use to Nigeria( Africa) to help kids with disabilities(CP).

It will mean a lot to us the parents

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on April 20, 2015:

wordswithlove - Thank you so much for your comment, I'm glad you found this information useful. I agree some districts do it better than others; I've heard some real IEP horror stories!

Neetu M from USA on April 20, 2015:

Very useful article, Cari Jean. I have never needed IEP for my children, but I have several friends who have relied heavily on the programs provided based on IEP, their own assessments of their special needs child, and some districts do it better than others. I have a friend with 3 special needs children and I know what an ordeal it can be if the right help cannot be found. Thank you for this post.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on April 09, 2015:

Joseph - thanks for your comment. I didn't know adults with developmental disabilities needed an ISP! Although I do know that with my daughter her case manager reviews her case on an annual basis and helps us to set goals outside of her educational setting. So I imagine it's similar for adults.

Joseph f Bailey jr on April 08, 2015:

This was a very interesting article I never new this process takes place I work with adults with development mental disabilities and when they become An adult we have to do an ISP( indivdual service plan) every year when the individual birthday comes around I will be writing some articles on this process on funding through medicaid and etc.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on April 26, 2012:

susiwo abigael - thanks for your comment. Having an IEP makes it easier for kids with special needs trying to get through the school system.

usiwo abigael. on April 20, 2012:

without i.e.p, special needs child cannot cope. thanks

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on February 01, 2011:

Singlemom624 - I am so sorry for what you went through just so that your son could receive an education. I'm not sure why your road was so rough - maybe due to the timing, your state or you just didn't have very good people working with you on your son's behalf.

Thankfully, we have had an excellent support staff beginning when our daughter was just a baby with Early Intervention. I pray as she continues on through the school system, it will continue to stay this way.

The IEP is very important, though no matter how good you think your support team is. You know your child best and even though they are professionals, they can't possible know what is best for your child in every situation.

Thanks so much for your comment.

Singlemom624 on January 29, 2011:

We live in Maryland. My adoptive/special needs son is now 21 years old. I do remember many years ago how frustrating it was dealing with the public school system to get him placed in the correct class setting. If it had not been for another parent who told me to ask for an IEP meeting -- I would have never known such a thing existed. Schools are not forthcoming with this info.

Although it took many years of going through the politics of the public school system and even bringing in an attorney & an education specialist when he was 7 years old to advocate on his behalf for a private school placement (which was denied), having him misdiagnosed by a school psychologist & placed in an inappropriate Emotional Adjustment Classroom -- finally by 10th grade the public school system deemed that they had exhausted all of their resources and could not provide him the least restrictive classroom environment for his disabilities. Consequently, he was referred to an out of county private school placement which has many more supports. I could only think -- So many years were wasted for him.

I urge parents who have a special needs child to advocate immediately for them once they enter the public school system. It's all about the money for them because they have to pay for a child to attend a private school and believe you me -- they will prolong it as long as possible -- even at the expense of your child. :(

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on December 20, 2010:

Reynold Jay - Thank you so much for your comment, it means a lot coming from an special ed teacher. I truly admire you and anyone else in that particular profession. I look forward to your hub.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on December 19, 2010:

You've written a great basic information article here. I've been a speecial ed teacher for 33 years, done hundreds of IEP's and will post a faction piece about and IEP called A Conversation with Mrs. Hausley later this week that you might enjoy. A much need article. RJ

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on August 31, 2010:

prasetio30 - thanks so much for your comment. I would love to know how they educate children with special needs in your country and in others. I feel blessed to be in the U.S. where there is so much available for those with special needs.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on August 27, 2010:

Although I am a teacher, but individual education plan is new for me. I thought my place in Indonesia. But I learn much from you. Good work, my friend.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on August 19, 2010:

Pamela - thanks so much - I always appreciate hearing from you. You are always so positive and encouraging.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2010:

Cari, It sounds like you work hard at doing all the best things for your child. This is a very interesting hub.