Back-to-school IEP Tips

It’s only the middle of August, but your mind is firmly on September. If your child receives special education services, you don’t have the luxury of worrying about ordinary back-to-school stuff like school supplies and new backpacks. Instead, you’re wondering if the services your child is entitled to will be enough this year and, if so, if they will be offered appropriately.

Your child will likely need to contend with a new team of teachers, a new mix of classmates, and a possible turnover of crucial special ed staff members. Will these changes be an opportunity for success, or put your child at risk for regression? To increase your child’s odds of success this year, it’s important that you fully understand her IEP. To do that, take time to familiarize yourself with these important items:

Understand what an IEP is. Here’s a fun game: how many special ed-related acronyms can you think of in 10 seconds? The experienced among you can rattle off at least a dozen, maybe more. For our narrow purposes here, we only care about three: IDEA, IEP and FAPE. IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that children with disabilities have access to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). In addition to mandating FAPE, IDEA also contains a bunch of requirements on how IEPs should be implemented and reviewed.

The IEP is your child’s individualized education program. More specifically, an IEP is a “written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised” in accordance with IDEA[1]. In reality, the IEP is a packet of papers that tells you what your child’s disability “classification” is (there are 13), what her current level of functioning is, what programs, services, and classroom modifications she is entitled to, what her annual goals are, and the standards for measuring whether your child is meeting those goals.

Review Your Child’s Current IEP. An IEP is a living, breathing document. It should be reviewed and, if appropriate, revised, throughout the year. Going into September, make sure you have the most current version of your child’s IEP handy, and read it closely. In particular, pay attention to:

  • Annual goals and how they will be measured. The annual goals are one of the most important components of the IEP; it is through achieving these goals (or failing to achieve them) that your child’s progress can be measured. Your child’s annual goals should be reasonably attainable. Review the goals and related objectives carefully. If any changes need to be made, these should be communicated to the IEP team.
  • Related services and modifications. Familiarize yourself with what services and modifications your child is entitled to under her IEP. What are the frequency and duration of those services? Do you know how they will be offered and by whom? If there will be a new service provider this year, reach out to him or her to discuss your child’s unique needs.

Familiarizing yourself with your child’s IEP will allow you to better monitor her progress throughout the year. If appropriate, you should also regularly check in with your child to gauge whether she is in fact receiving the appropriate services and modifications listed in the IEP.

Know your IEP Team. Your IEP team is comprised of the individuals who will attend IEP meetings. Some of the people who are part of the IEP team will be very familiar to you because they have regular contact with your child. You may even have daily communications with some of them. Other members of the team, however, may be less familiar. IDEA requires that your IEP team be as follows:

  • Parents
  • A regular ed teacher (if applicable)
  • A special ed teacher (if applicable)
  • Related service providers (if applicable/at parent’s discretion)
  • A rep from your local district
  • If appropriate, the child

As the parent, you are also entitled to invite others to join IEP meetings, such as a private therapist or a parent advocate. Going into the new school year, it’s important that you have the names and contact information for the individuals on your IEP team. Do you know who the service providers will be this year? Will your child have a different special ed teacher? Gather this information as soon as possible.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. If your child has special needs, you may already feel accustomed to being a squeaky wheel – because you have to be. Going into the school year, make sure you are armed with all of the above information. If after carefully reviewing your child’s current IEP, you are concerned that something is missing or needs changing, make sure to communicate this with your IEP team.

Although IDEA requires that IEP review meetings are held annually, you don’t have to wait for the annual meeting to voice concerns you may have about your child’s IEP. You are entitled to request a meeting at any time. In addition, an IEP can be amended without a meeting so long as you provide written consent for each amendment.

The bottom line is that the more educated you are about your child’s IEP and the more you monitor and communicate about its contents, the better positioned your child is to receive the education she deserves.



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Nicole Hart, J.D.

Nicole Hart is head of our trusts & estates department and works in our New York office.