How to read an IEP: 5 things teachers should look for

Have you ever read through a student’s (IEP) and felt unsure about what to focus on?

Every general education teacher will have students with IEPs in class at some point. That’s why knowing how to read and understand an IEP is so important. If you’re called on to attend an IEP meeting, you may even help create the IEP.

There are best practices for getting the most important information from an IEP. Here are five key things to be on the lookout for when you read an IEP and how they apply to your classroom.

1. Present level of performance

Sometimes, present level of performance is shortened to PLOP or PLP. It may also be called PLAAFP (present level of academic achievement and functional performance) or PLEP (present level of educational performance).

Present level of performance describes a student’s current abilities, skills, challenges, and strengths at the time the IEP is written. It covers both academic performance and everyday functional skills. 

Academic performance refers to how a student is doing based on grade-level standards. Functional performance means activities of daily living that aren’t just academic. This includes behavior, communication, social skills, eating, dressing, and mobility. A disability can impact both academic and functional skills.

How it applies to your classroom:

The present level of performance answers two questions: 

  • Where do the student’s skills and knowledge currently stand? 

  • How does the student’s disability impact involvement and progress in the general education curriculum? 

This information helps you best support the student’s learning in your classroom. If the student’s challenges are in the subject you teach, knowing the present level of performance will help you adjust your instruction to meet those needs. Keep in mind that some challenges — like reading — may impact many subjects. 

2. Annual goals 

All IEPs have annual goals. These goals build on the student’s present level of performance. The IEP team believes the student should be able to achieve the goals in one calendar year. Depending on when an IEP is written, the goals may span more than one academic year. For instance, an IEP written in May will have an annual review next May. 

How it applies to your classroom: 

Each goal describes the skill or subject area the student is focusing on and the targeted result. It’s like a map describing where the student is going this year, the route for getting there, and the stops along the way. 

It’s best practice for IEP teams to write “SMART” goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound. These goals also spell out how progress will be measured. 

If you teach the content area of one of these goals, like language arts or math, you may be responsible for tracking and reporting on progress. The same is true if you’re helping the student with functional skills. Special education law requires that student progress toward IEP goals be reported as often as progress is reported for students without IEPs.

Every IEP has a section that describes the services a student receives. This includes specially designed instruction (called ) and related services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and social work services. 

An IEP also states how often and where the services take place. It lists the school staff responsible for each service. There is also information about any services outside the regular school year, as well as transition planning for after high school. 

How it applies to your classroom: 

Sometimes, special education and related services take place in the general education classroom. That means you and other school staff will need to plan and work together to provide instruction for the student. The IEP may list “consultation services” to account for this planning time. 

It’s also helpful to know how often a student may be pulled out of your classroom for services. You can then work with the service provider on scheduling to help the student get as much instructional time in your classroom as possible. 

4. Supplementary aids, services, modifications, and/or supports

The IEP will have a section on supplementary aids and services. It may list , , and , along with when and where they’ll be used. These supports will help the student access learning in your classroom, as well as throughout all school activities.

How it applies to your classroom: 

This is one of the most important parts of the IEP for you as a general education teacher. Chances are you’ll need to manage the student’s accommodations in the classroom. You may need specific training to do what the IEP requires, so don’t hesitate to ask for it.

You’ll also find information about how the student will take part in state tests. Most students who learn and think differently will take the same tests as the rest of your students. But they may use accommodations like extra time, a scribe, or a quiet setting for those tests. 

Sometimes, the IEP team may determine that a certain test isn’t appropriate for the student. The IEP will explain why and give information about other ways to assess the student. 

5. Notes and considerations — including special factors 

An IEP generally includes a catch-all section for notes. It will have comments and concerns that the family raised at the IEP meeting. Often, this part of the IEP also lets you know whether the student has other barriers that get in the way of learning. For example, the student may have behavior challenges or be an English language learner (ELL).

How it applies to your classroom: 

Knowing a family’s concerns, as well as what they see as their child’s strengths, can help you build a relationship with both students and families. Plus, it can give insight into ways to engage the student. 

It can also help you know what other obstacles are in the way of learning. If your student is an ELL, you might need to learn more about how to support that student and connect with the family.

A student whose disability involves behavior challenges that impact learning might also have a . If the plan isn’t attached to the IEP, ask the IEP case manager to see it. You may be responsible for putting parts of the plan into practice in your classroom. 

Want to learn more?

Keep in mind these aren’t the only things in an IEP. An IEP will have evaluation results and comments from other teachers, which can also be helpful. 

Although IEPs often take a standard form, they can have some differences from state to state and even from district to district. That’s why it’s important to read the whole IEP, even as you focus on the five key ideas above.


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