Special Education and Family Law:
Understanding the Relevant Parts of an IEP Document
IEP documents come in all different shapes and sizes. With different school districts utilizing different methods of preparing IEP documents, interpreting the documents can be especially confusing. To help provide clarity, this article will provide a breakdown of the relevant portions of an IEP, the meaning behind different sections of an IEP, and the legal requirements districts must follow.
Why are IEP documents necessary?
To understand the different sections of an IEP document, we have to first understand school districts’ obligations regarding special education students. Under federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (“IDEA”), school districts are required to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). The term FAPE is defined as including special education and related services, provided at no cost to parents, in conformity with an individualized education program (“IEP”). With the participation of parents, general and special education teachers, district representatives, and those with specific knowledge of your child and their disability, districts must develop and create an IEP document that addresses each child’s unique needs. The IEP document is an individualized contract that the district must adhere to, and is the vehicle by which a FAPE is delivered.
What must IEP documents contain?
IEP documents must include the following:
- Present level of educational performance (“PLOP”): A thorough description of your child’s current abilities, skills, weaknesses, and strengths. This description must include how your child’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general curriculum.
- Goals: A statement of measurable annual goals that are related to meeting each of your child’s educational needs resulting from his or her disability. The goals must also be designed to enable your child to participate and progress in the general curriculum.
- Accommodations and modifications: A description of changes to the classroom environment necessary to assist your child.
- Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”): An explanation of the extent to which your child will participate with nondisabled children in the general education environment.
- Participation in state or district-wide assessments: A statement of modifications needed for your child to participate in state or district-wide assessments. If the IEP determines your child will not participate in these assessments, the document must explain why the assessment is not appropriate and how your child will be assessed.
- Services provided: A statement of specific special education and related services to be provided to your child. The district is bound by the IEP document to provide the services described in the IEP.
- Extended school year services (“ESY”): If the IEP determines your child needs services outside the regular school year, the IEP document must indicate that ESY is being offered.
- The projected date for when services and modifications will begin, as well as the duration, frequency, and location of the services.
What will you see in an IEP document?
Unfortunately, there are no legal requirements for how an IEP document should look, and there is no official IEP form. However, given the legal requirements for IEP documents explained above, you can expect to see the following sections in an IEP document. This list is not exhaustive of all sections of an IEP document, but rather explains the most common and relevant portions of an IEP document that you will find.
Student Information and Meeting Type
The face page of an IEP document typically contains basic student information, including grade level, district and school of residence, parent/guardian information, and the IEP date. This page will also indicate the type of IEP meeting that is being conducted; i.e., whether the document reflects the initial IEP, an annual IEP, or triennial IEP. As a reminder, IEPs must be reviewed annually, so annual IEPs are the most common IEP meeting type you will find. Triennial IEPs are IEP meetings that occur every three years to review triennial evaluations conducted to determine your child’s special education needs. Triennial IEP meetings are very important because the IEP team will be discussing the need for continued services in light of your child’s re-evaluation results.
After seeing student information, you will next find a description of your child’s eligibility for special education. Under the IDEA, there are 14 categories of qualifying disabilities that enable your child to receive special education services. Often times, eligibility is indicated by a one-sentence statement or checkbox indicating whether your child is eligible and their qualifying disability. For example, the IEP might note that your child is eligible with a primary disability of “Specific Learning Disability.” The eligibility section will also include a statement explaining how your child’s disability adversely affects their academic performance. Make sure the IEP document accurately reflects your child’s eligibility, especially if it is your child’s initial IEP or an IEP conducted after your child has been recently assessed or diagnosed. Your child may be eligible based on more than one qualifying disability.
Present Levels of Performance (PLOP)
Next, the IEP document will describe your child’s PLOP. IEP documents generally contain a page or two that describes your child’s PLOP in each “area of need” determined by the IEP team. These descriptions will usually be in paragraph format under a specific heading, such as “Preacademic/Academic/Functional Skills,” or “Communication Development.”
Remember that the IEP document should thoroughly describe your child’s current strengths and weaknesses, while also describing how your child’s disability affects their involvement and progress in the educational curriculum. Sound PLOP descriptions are important because your child’s PLOP is the basis for the goals created by the IEP team. If the PLOP descriptions are vague, ambiguous, do not address each area of need, or fail to describe your child’s current skills, accurate and measurable goals cannot be created.
After the PLOP section, IEP documents then discuss your child’s goals. Depending on how many areas of need are addressed by the IEP team, this section of the IEP document can span several pages. Each area of need with a PLOP description should have a corresponding goal. Some areas of need may have multiple goals. Each goal description is typically accompanied by a “baseline.” This baseline should explain where your child is currently performing with measureable data and parameters. Below is an example of what a goal might look like in an IEP document:
Area of Need: Academic Skills – Writing
When reading goals, it is important to remember that goals must be measurable on an annual basis. This means that the IEP document should explain how the goal is going to be measured and by whom, and should describe when reports on your child’s progress will be provided. Additionally, the goal should be attainable by the end of the year after the IEP document is signed. If you read a goal several times and cannot determine how the goal will be measured, it is a sign that you have a problematic goal that might impede your child’s ability to progress.
Statewide and/or District Assessments
The next portion of an IEP document notes whether your child will participate in state or district-wide assessments. This section typically does not apply to children below 3rd grade, as they are not yet at the grade level where state or district-wide assessments are typically provided. However, if your child will be assessed, this section must describe the accommodations and modifications needed so that your child can participate in the assessments. Examples of accommodations or modifications include: changes to the testing environment, such as taking the test in a separate classroom or being provided more time to complete the assessment, and designated supports to help the student access the test, such as devices that read text aloud.
Offer of Services
Towards the end of the IEP document, you will find the district’s offer of services. As the title suggests, this is where the IEP document spells out the services your child will receive. Additionally, this section will indicate your child’s placement or educational setting. Placement or educational setting refers to the physical environment in which your child will receive instruction. For example, your child may be placed in a Special Day Class (“SDC”) at the school they are attending, which is a separate class for special education students. This section will also indicate the percentage of time that the student will be outside the general education environment. Remember that to the extent possible, students must be placed in the least restrictive environment (“LRE”), so it is important to understand your child’s placement outside the general education environment in order to monitor the district’s compliance with LRE.
The offer of services portion will also indicate the accommodations, supplementary aids, or instructional supports that your child will receive. These include modifications to the learning environment or accommodations that allow your child to access the curriculum, such as modifying the length of assignments, visual aids, prompting instructions, and various other instructional supports.
Lastly, and most importantly, the offer of FAPE section will list the services that will be offered to your child. Each service offered should contain the provider of the service, start date of the service, the end date of the service, the duration and frequency of the service, whether the service will be offered independently or in a group setting, and the location of the service. Here’s an example of how this may appear in an IEP document:
Services offered in this section of the IEP document also include related services, such as transportation and extended school year services (“ESY”). Transportation can include curb-to-curb service or regular bus transportation, while ESY refers to services provided during school breaks. If your child receives ESY, the IEP document must include a description of the specific services to be offered during ESY. Recall that related services are part of a FAPE, and will be included in your IEP document if the IEP team determines that your child needs these services.
IEP documents commonly include a section devoted to notes taken during the IEP meeting. Some IEPs may include meeting notes that are descriptive and thorough, but others can be brief and vague. Notes typically list out the members in attendance at the meeting, and outline the topics discussed at the meeting. Although notes can shed light on the district’s offer of FAPE, the notes published in the IEP document should not be seen as a comprehensive diary of what occurred at the IEP meeting. Districts often leave important details out of the notes section, and the district is not required to provide a specific level of detail.
Signature and Parent Consent
The final page or two typically found in an IEP document are signature pages. Here, all those who attended the IEP team meeting will sign their name to note their attendance. Additionally, these pages are where you, as the parent, sign and consent to the contents of the IEP document. It is very important to remember that you do not have to sign and consent to the IEP document at the IEP meeting. You are encouraged to take the document home with you to think it over if you have any hesitation or concerns regarding any parts of the IEP document. Although services will not be provided until you consent to the IEP document, you have the ability to sign and consent to only some of content of the document. For instance, you may agree with some services offered by the district, but disagree with the district on whether other services should be offered. In these situations, you can sign and consent to portions of the IEP document you agree with, while also signifying that you do not consent to other portions. This will allow your child to receive the services you consent to you while you work to resolve other issues with the IEP document.
Another section you might find among the signature pages involves team member excusal from the IEP team. If a certain member of the IEP team does not or cannot attend the IEP meeting, you might be asked to sign off on excusing them from the IEP meeting. However, members of the IEP can only be excused under specific circumstances provided by law. For example, if the IEP team member is not needed at the meeting because their area of the curriculum or service is not being discussed, the district and parent can agree in writing to excuse this team member from the meeting. However, when the team member’s area of expertise or related services is being covered at the IEP meeting, the team member can only be excused if they submit their input in writing to the IEP team and parent before the meeting.
Understanding the components of an IEP document is integral to ensuring that your child receives the services and accommodations he or she needs. Knowing the various sections of an IEP document before you enter the IEP meeting can help you effectively participate in the construction of the IEP document and your child’s offer of FAPE. Use your knowledge of IEP documents as a tool to help craft the offer of FAPE that best suits your child’s needs.