The IEP Decoded: A Parent’s Guide by a Special Education Teacher

An IEP meeting — that is, a session to discuss your child's Individualized Education Program — can seem overwhelming at first. Add to this experience the pages of paperwork required to apply for support for your child, and you may go home feeling like you have no idea what just happened.

What does an IEP include?

Perhaps you wonder what you can expect to find in an IEP and what it will mean for you and your child. While every district may use a slightly different format for this documentation, IEPs will contain the same information because the federal law known as the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) mandates which areas must be addressed.

Identifying Information

This section will include your (or a guardian’s) name(s), address, phone numbers, and email address, as well as your child's name, date of birth, student identification number, grade, and school.

Present Levels of Performance

This portion will provide a description of how your child is performing in all academic, cognitive, behavioral, and physical areas. The information contained here should be completed by your child's teacher, any therapists who work with your child, and a school psychologist or independent evaluator who has met with her. These professionals will provide their assessments based on classroom assignments, formal neuropsychological evaluations, and possibly standardized test results.

This is an area where you can add your own observations of your child’s difficulties based on any issues you see at home as well.

Annual Goals

Each year, your child's IEP team — which includes you, as her parent or guardian — will develop goals that she can reasonably achieve within the year. These targets can focus on academic or other needs, including behavioral, social, or physical development. Occasionally, a child will meet a goal before the next annual IEP meeting, in which case you can request an amendment meeting to develop new goals.

This section should also provide a clear description of how your child’s progress will be measured and how often it will be assessed. Common tools for evaluating her growth may include formal observation by one or more members of her special education support team, work samples, tests, comprehensive portfolios, or other types of evaluations.

Progress is typically measured at least once a semester, and you will receive this feedback along with her report card or narrative assessment.

Supports & Services

This section will outline the special education services that your child will receive at school, which could include, for example, speech therapy, occupational therapy, or direct intervention from a special education teacher. This portion will also cover additional supports she might require, such as an extended school year or a one-on-one paraprofessional. It will, moreover, outline any additional training that her teacher may need, especially if your child has medical considerations such as a life-threatening allergy or a G-tube (a means of delivering nutrition to children who have trouble eating).

You may also see specific products included here, such as pencil grips or some other type of assistive technology if she has dysgraphia or dylsexia, for instance.

Modifications & Accommodations

This section differs slightly from “Supports & Services,” and covers anything your child may need to support her learning the curriculum. Modifications refer to changes to the material taught to your child or expectations for her. One example is requiring her to complete fewer homework problems in a particular subject that is affected by her disability. By contrast, accommodations are changes that enable your child to overcome her disability or learning difference, such as preferred seating to ensure she can see the whiteboard or extra response time on class tests or quizzes if she has a language processing disorder.

This part of an IEP should also include considerations for modifications or accommodations that apply to state and district testing, such as being in a separate testing room or having directions read aloud.

Participation in General Education Classrooms

The IEP must include the percentage of time your child will spend in a general education class with peers, along with the percentage of time she will be in a special education setting. While the school is likely to have a proposal for these figures, your input is important.

Based on the district’s policy and your child's various levels of functioning, she may spend all of her time in a general education classroom — either independently or with a one-on-one assistant — or she may join them during particular programs like art or music. Similarly, if her achievement is at grade level in certain subjects but not others, she may be in the general education classroom all day and simply receive additional support from a member of her special needs team. These services can be provided individually or in small groups and take place in the class or in a separate setting, according to her needs.

Remember that nothing in the IEP is set in stone, and if your child's needs evolve throughout the year, you can request an amendment meeting to address changes to the plan. For example, you may have seen growth in areas of her development that convince you that an inclusive classroom is better than a special education setting for her. Or you may believe that she needs additional support outside of her general education class, and you have the legal right to meet with her team to discuss these issues.

Transition Service Needs

If your child is over the age of 14, her IEP must address the courses she will need to graduate from high school. Beginning at the age of 16, an IEP should also include a statement about the services (if any) that your child will need as she transitions out of school.

Determining post-secondary goals — that is, those that follow high school — depends largely on your child’s functioning. For example, these plans may include going to college, a trade school, or getting a job. Alternatively, they may focus on teaching her the skills to function independently outside of the home or to attain living skills like making meals for herself. These goals are usually developed together with the student, and each subsequent year’s IEP goals are created with these aims in mind. As with other stages of your child’s development, you can request changes according to her growth.

It’s important to note that some special needs students remain in the K–12 school system and continue to receive services until they reach the age of 21. That said, some colleges and universities are beginning to provide post-secondary programs for people with disabilities. Whichever path your child pursues, she is eligible to receive support services until this age, either through your school or district office.

Signature Page

Everyone who attends an IEP meeting should sign this page. There will be one area for you to sign that confirms your attendance, as well as another field where you sign to agree to what was covered in the IEP. That said, you are not required to provide consent at the meeting, and can take home a draft to review before returning the signed form.

Although all members of your child’s special education team are legally required to be present, there will be a section to note if anyone was absent. This area should also include the team member’s notes on your child's development.

To learn about other acronyms commonly used in special education, check out 65 Common Special Education Acronyms.

Also on Noodle, you can find more help with researching schools for children with special needs and asking the right questions when you begin to tour them.