What You Need to Know About IEPs

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Navigating the education system can be difficult for any parent, but sometimes more so for the millions of parents whose children receive special education services.

Fifteen percent of public school students received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2021-2022, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The law guarantees that children with disabilities have access to an appropriate and free public school education. As part of the law, Individualized Education Programs are required for any student receiving services. Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, are comprehensive educational guides designed to help a student meet their unique goals.

Exceptional Family Resource Center program specialist and special education advocate Moira Allbritton, also a local parent with multiple children receiving special education services, walked Voice of San Diego through the IEP process and shared her tips for getting the most appropriate outcome for your child.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How can parents know if their child is a possible candidate for special education?

A: “One is that a family had a youngster under 3 years of age that was enrolled in California Early Start services and had been identified as a person with a developmental delay or at risk of having a developmental delay. Those youngsters are supposed to receive an assessment from the school district before age 3 to determine eligibility for special education. Another is through something called Child Find. Every local education agency has an obligation to assess and identify students with suspected disabilities to make sure that they are providing the appropriate services and support for those youngsters. An example could be a student that comes to a public school and their teacher is concerned about the child’s development. The teacher can make that referral.The third source is parent referral or family referral.”

Q: What happens after a student is referred for special education?

A: “Upon a referral for special education, the school must provide an assessment plan to the parent or guardian for consent within 15 calendar days, with a disclaimer of whether they’re on vacation. The family has the opportunity to review the plan and must provide consent for the assessment to be conducted. One important point is that providing consent for assessment is not agreeing to put your child in special education or saying that your child is going to go to a different place or a different classroom. All it is is consenting to the assessment. Once the school receives a signed assessment plan, they have 60 calendar days, excluding vacations of greater than five days, to conduct an assessment in all areas of suspected disability.”

Q: What is involved in the assessment?

A: “The assessment is not just an eligibility determination. It’s also to figure out what the child’s present level of performance is, what kind of goals would be appropriate and to understand what schools need to know about this student and their strengths and interests. The strengths and interests aren’t just about whether they can or can’t do something. It is about where they are on their own personal learning curve and what the team needs to know in order to make an individualized program for the student to meet his or her goals.”

Q: Do you have any advice about successfully navigating the assessment process?

A: “When we think about a disability, we’re so accustomed to the medical model. ‘This is wrong, we’re going to apply this remedy or this fix, or give this prescription or therapy.’ Special education doesn’t quite work that way. You don’t need a name for what your child has to seek special education because the school district will need to conduct its own educational assessment.”

A box of crayons sit on a table in a classroom at Madison Elementary School in El Cajon on Nov. 9, 2023.
A box of crayons sit on a table in a classroom at Madison Elementary School in El Cajon on Nov. 9, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Q: How is eligibility determined from the assessment results?

A: “The school assembles a team of individuals and professionals that includes the family member or parent to determine whether the child is legally eligible for special education and related services. Many things have to be true to be found eligible, not just that you have a child with a specific federal disability category, but also that it is adversely affecting educational performance and that the child requires specially designed instruction. Helping families understand that their child could be exhibiting difficulty in one area of life but educationally not showing that need right now is important. It has to be currently happening and be in school. It cannot be somewhere else, like at home only. This is the first IEP meeting.”

Q: What advice do you have for parents attending the first IEP meeting?

A: “One of my biggest tips is to understand that this is not a debate scenario. It isn’t about getting the better arguments, because if it’s not written in an assessment and somebody who is a professional educator hasn’t seen the need, it is really hard to get an IEP. I encourage families to talk openly with the assessment team and ask if they are willing to share a draft copy of the assessment report before the meeting. Also, remember that it is a regular meeting and they are allowed to take breaks or schedule a follow-up meeting if they need to.”

Q: How would you define an IEP and what is the process for putting one in place?

A: “Some people would say it’s a contract between the family and the public school. I try to think of it more as a living document. This is a child, not a widget or a robot. Children surprise us all the time. It is not just about eligibility it is about what the child’s specific goals are going to look like. Those goals are determined by considering what the areas of need are and how the child is otherwise performing. Another required part of the IEP is considering something called the least restrictive environment, which makes sure the youngster has, to the maximum extent possible, an opportunity to participate in the general education environment and to have services and support brought to that environment. Families must give consent before an IEP is finalized.”

Q: When can an IEP be amended or reassessed?

A: “Every year the school will need to reconvene the IEP team to review progress on goals and tweak things. Then, at least every three years, they need to conduct another evaluation to determine eligibility and recalibrate where the student is at. A parent can also call an IEP meeting at any time, in which case the school needs to convene the team within 30 calendar days, excluding vacations greater than five days. When I say it’s a living document, I mean it is not going to stay the same, we’re not going to tie it up in a red bow and put it on the shelf. We want it to be working, we want to be referencing it, we want it to be implemented. If something about it isn’t working for the students, we need to go back and fix it.”

Q: You’ve shared that each student’s experience is different, but is there any general advice you would give to parents to make the IEP process easier?

A: “It’s important to know that your child is much more than that IEP document. You could write a perfectly ironclad IEP and your kid could still have a miserable year. You could also have a challenging IEP process and have a year where people go above and beyond. It’s not a guarantee. Communication, collaboration, cooperation and partnership really do matter.”

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