Introduction to IEPs

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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires schools to provide special education services to children with disabilities through an individualized education program, or IEP. The IEP is a written document that describes the services and supports the school will provide to help a child with a disability achieve his or educational goals. By describing exactly what schools will do to meet a child’s individual needs, the IEP plays a vital role in ensuring that children with disabilities receive the services they need to benefit from their education.

What must be included in the IEP?

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The specific plan created in an IEP must be individualized – that means the plan should be different for every child, because every child’s strengths, needs, and learning styles are different. However, there are certain kinds of information that must be included in every child’s IEP:

  • Present levels of performance
  • Annual goals
  • Amount and type of special education
  • Amount and type of related services
  • Accommodations and modifications
  • Special factors
  • Extended school year services
  • Transition services

Present Levels of Performance
Present levels of performance describe the skills that the child already has. There must be a present level for each area of need, specific to that child. Areas of need may include academic skills, daily living skills, social skills, behavioral skills, sensory skills, motor skills, and communication skills. The information in the present levels section of the IEP often comes from report cards, teacher-made tests, and standardized test scores, but may also come from teacher, related service provider, and parent report or observation. This section helps give a history and overview of the child and can include information about the child’s learning style, communication style and preferences, and preferred interests and activities.

Annual Goals
Annual goals describe what a child will learn in one year. Goals should be challenging but reasonable. Like present levels of performance, there should be at least one goal for every area of need, depending on what academic, social-emotional, and other needs the child has. To make sure that everyone understands the goals and knows how the child is progressing on the goals, the goals should be specific and measurable.

For example, “Student will improve in reading” is not specific or measurable. How do you know if the child improved in reading? How much improvement is enough? What if one person thinks the child improved, but another person doesn’t? This vague goal leaves too many issues open to disagreement. “Student will be able to recognize all upper and lower case letters of the alphabet on 4 out of 5 tries” and “Student will be able to answer 8 out of 10 questions about a grade-level text” are more specific and more measurable.

Amount and Type of Special Education
After describing what the child can already do and what the child will learn to do in one year, the IEP must state how much special education the child will receive and in what setting. Special education services can be provided in a variety of settings, including the general education classroom, a separate classroom, a separate school, a residential facility, a hospital, or the child’s home – these are placements on a continuum from least restrictive, or least segregated (general education classroom) to most restrictive (learning at home segregated from all other students). The IEP must say how much of each day the child will spend in each setting. This is the child’s placement.

The law requires that students with IEPs learn in the least restrictive environment, a general education classroom in their neighborhood school with children who do not have disabilities, as much as possible. In other words, children with disabilities must be included, and not segregated, as much as possible. The IEP can only place a child in a separate classroom or separate school after all services, supports, accommodations, and technology have been considered that might help the child learn in the general education classroom.

Amount and Type of Related Services
Just like special education, the IEP must also describe the kind and amount of related services a student needs to learn, as well as the setting where the related services will be provided. Any specialized service a child needs to progress toward their goals should be included in the IEP. The related services listed in the law include:

  • Audiology
  • Counseling services
  • Early identification and assessment
  • Interpreting services
  • Medical services
  • Occupational therapy
  • Orientation and mobility services
  • Parent counseling and training
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychological services
  • Recreation
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • School health services
  • Social work services
  • Speech-language pathology
  • Transportation

Although applied behavior analysis, or ABA, therapy is not listed in the law, it and other supportive services can be included in an IEP, if a child needs the services to make progress on the goals in the IEP.

Accommodations and Modifications
Accommodations change the way that information is presented to a child, but they do not change the actual content that the child is learning. Some examples are shorter assignments, more time to complete assignments or tests, where the child is seated in class, how big the class is, and items the child can use to complete assignments, stay focused, or keep organized.

Modifications actually change the information the child is learning to be more appropriate for their level of understanding. For example, a child may be learning his or her alphabet when the rest of the class is learning to identify parts of speech in language arts, or a child may be learning to follow directions when the rest of the class is dissecting a frog to learn parts of the body in science class.

Whatever accommodations and modifications a child needs to make progress on the IEP goals must be included in the IEP, as well as the accommodations and modifications a child needs to take standardized tests. If a child will take a different, or alternative, test than the one provided to students without disabilities, the IEP must explain why and identify the alternate test the student will take.

Special Factors
There are five special factors that every IEP team must consider and address in the IEP, if necessary:

  1. Behavior – if a school knows that a child with an IEP has behavioral challenges that interfere with his or her learning or the learning of other students, then the school cannot wait for the child to get in trouble before providing behavioral supports. The school must identify positive behavioral supports in the IEP. The school should complete a functional behavior assessment, or FBA, before completing the IEP, because it is difficult to identify the most effective supports for a particular child if the team doesn’t target the places and reasons for that child’s specific behavior.An FBA is a process for gathering data about when, where, and why a child has behavioral challenges. FBAs can include formal tests, interviews, and observations of the child at school. The observations should occur over several days and in different settings, and include data about what happens before, during, and after an inappropriate behavior occurs. An FBA should not be conducted during a meeting or based on only one test or input from one person. The FBA report should include a summary of the behaviors of concern, data about when and where the inappropriate behaviors occur, and ideas about why the child is acting out. School social workers, psychologists, or behavior specialists usually complete the FBA with input from the child, the child’s parents, and school staff. The more information they have, the better the identified strategies will be. Strategies can include behavioral goals, classroom accommodations, related services, or a formal behavior intervention plan, or BIP.Like academic goals, behavioral goals should be specific; not just “student will follow school rules.” The goals should be positive as much as possible, or say what the child will do instead of what the child will not do. Classroom accommodations might include frequent praise, prompts, breaks, sensory input, rephrasing directions or class material, and ensuring the child understands directions and the lesson. Accommodations must not just be listed in the IEP; they must be consistently implemented by all of the staff that interact with the child at school. Related services can include direct counseling for the student, counseling and training for the child’s parent, and consultation and referral services to help school staff work together and help the child’s family identify resources outside of school.If a formal plan is needed, a BIP should be written based on the results of the FBA and should become part of the child’s IEP. The BIP should include supports for the child that will prevent whatever is triggering the child’s behaviors, such as changes to the routine, changes to the class or school environment, and changes in how other students and school staff interact with the child. The BIP should also include the teaching and reinforcement of replacement behaviors, or more appropriate ways the child can act to get his or her needs met. Finally, the BIP should include a plan of response for how the child will be calmed and redirected if he or she does have another behavioral issue, without making the behavior worse. The BIP should be regularly reviewed and revised if it isn’t working. However, the team must make sure that the problem is with the strategies in the plan and not with how the plan is being implemented. Serious behavior problems do not usually start over night, so the team needs to understand that it will take time, patience, and consistency to change a child’s behavior.
  1. Limited English proficiency – if a child’s primary language is not English, schools must address how the child’s primary language affects the child’s progress on his or her IEP goals.
  1. Children who are blind or visually impaired – schools must include instruction in Braille, unless an evaluation determines that Braille isn’t appropriate for that child.
  1. Communication – schools must consider how children with communication needs, including children who are deaf or hard of hearing, can talk with their peers and school staff, in their preferred language and mode of communication. This could include instruction in sign language, a picture exchange system, use of technology, or other modes of communication.
  1. Assistive technology – schools must consider whether a child needs assistive technology, including purchase of devices and services to learn how to use a device. Assistive technology can be as simple as a magnifying glass to make print larger and as complex as software that reads to a child or a voice output device that speaks for a child who is nonverbal. Most schools will complete an assistive technology evaluation or have related service providers make recommendations in their evaluations to determine what assistive technology devices and services a child needs to benefit from his or her education.

Extended School Year Services
Extended school year, or ESY, services happen during the summer, after school has ended. IEP teams must determine whether students need ESY services to receive an appropriate education. If a student needs ESY, the IEP must include the amount of ESY services the child will receive, the goals the child will work on during ESY, and any related services the child will receive during ESY.

The IDEA does not provide a guide for when students should receive ESY. Some factors that IEP teams consider include:

  • Whether a student forgets more information than the typical student over the summer; this is also called regression.
  • Whether a student takes longer than the typical student to catch up when school starts in the fall; this is also called recoupment.
  • Whether the child has a very significant disability and needs more frequent instruction to maintain skills.
  • Whether a child’s behavior, or other special circumstances, interfered with progress on goals during the school year.

Transition Services
Once a student turns 16, and in some states 14, the IEP must include goals and services that will help the student prepare for life after high school. This is called the transition plan. The transition plan must include goals for further education, employment, and independent living skills, as well as the services that the school will provide to help the student achieve those goals. The goals and services must be based on an age-appropriate vocational assessment. These tests help students figure out what jobs they might be good at. The transition plan should not be written without input directly from the student, because the plan must be based on the student’s specific strengths and interests.

Learn more about transition planning >>

Who are the members of the IEP team?

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The IEP must be written by an IEP team. The team is made up of school personnel and parents who meet at least once a year. The school must send a special education teacher, someone who can understand evaluations, and someone who can commit school resources. This can all be the same person, but usually includes the child’s special education teacher, the school psychologist, and the school principal or special education director. A general education teacher must also attend if the child will spend any time in a general education class. Parents are an integral member of the IEP team and must be invited to participate in any meeting to discuss their child’s services. Parents and schools can also invite others to the meeting who know or have special expertise about the child. For example, related service providers often attend when their services will be discussed, and parents sometimes invite family friends or advocates when they want extra support. The child should be invited whenever possible, and must be invited when the transition plan will be discussed, no later than age 16. With permission from an adult student or the student’s parents, representatives from adult agencies that might support the student after he or she leaves high school must also be invited to meetings where the transition plan will be discussed.

What role do parents play in the IEP process?

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The IDEA was written to include a collaborative process where schools and parents come together to discuss a child’s needs and come to agreement about the services the child needs to learn. Therefore, schools are required to take extensive measures to ensure parents can participate in the IEP process. These measures include:

  • Sending notice about IEP meetings early enough, and with enough information about the purpose and people who will be there, so that at least one parent can attend;
  • Scheduling meetings at a time and place that are convenient to both the school and the parent;
  • Providing opportunities for parents to participate by phone or video;
  • Maintaining detailed records of calls, written notices, and home visits to the parent attempting to arrange the meeting at a convenient time, before holding the meeting without the parent;
  • Making sure parents understand what is being discussed at the IEP meeting, including having an interpreter for parents who are deaf or speak a language other than English; and
  • Providing a copy of the IEP to parents, at no cost.

Parents are supposed to be equal members of the IEP team. Parents should feel comfortable sharing their opinions and making recommendations. Parents should make sure their recommendations are either included in the IEP, or included in the IEP notes with an explanation of why the school decided not to include their recommendations in the IEP.

The law requires the IEP to be updated at least once every year and for the child to be reevaluated at least once every three years. However, parents can ask for IEP meetings and evaluations more often, if necessary. The school must provide parents reports on how their children are doing on their IEP goals at least as often as report cards are sent. If parents have any questions or concerns about their child’s progress based on these progress reports, they should not wait until the next annual IEP meeting to talk about their concerns. The IEP team, which includes the child’s parents, can agree at any point in the year to change the goals, placement, related services, and accommodations on the IEP, if necessary to help the child make appropriate progress on his or her goals.

When parents are concerned about their child’s education, they need to address their concerns with their child’s IEP team and their child’s school. If parents do not feel that the school has addressed their concerns, they have certain rights called procedural safeguards. Parents may be able to get help from a chapter of The Arc or another organization in their state.

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Where can I get more information?

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