Knowing what’s in an IEP

ByThe Understood Team

Has your child already been evaluated? Are you waiting for the results? Depending on where you are in the process, you might want to go back to earlier steps in our IEP journey:

Now that your child is eligible for special education services, you may wonder what’s included in an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. How exactly does the school come up with a special education program and create the actual plan for the IEP?

Knowing what’s involved makes it easier for you to participate in the creation of the IEP. It can also offer you some reassurance if you’re feeling uneasy. It’s not uncommon to have mixed feelings when the IEP process is underway. Some parents are uncomfortable with the idea of an IEP.

It can help to remember that once the IEP is put into place, your child will be able to get help that can pave the way to success at school.

Learn about key elements of an IEP, and how the school will create a plan that meets your child’s unique needs.

How your child’s first IEP is created

IEPs are developed by a group of professionals at school. One member of this IEP team typically acts as a case manager and oversees the IEP. You’re part of your child’s IEP team, too. That means you’ll be involved in the process as the IEP is made.

The IEP team will use the results of your child’s evaluation testing to design the plan. The scores show the specific areas your child struggles with. Having that information allows the IEP team to provide the individualized instruction and supports your child needs.

If your child has had a private evaluation, you’ll need to work with the school to use the results as it develops the IEP.

One of the biggest decisions the team makes when creating an IEP is what type of learning environment your child will be in. Schools are required to place students with IEPs in the least restrictive environment. Most kids with IEPs spend the majority of their day in class with their peers. This is called an inclusion classroom, or a general education classroom that includes students who receive special education.

What’s in an IEP

There are many terms in an IEP (and in the entire IEP process) that will likely be new to you at the start of your journey. Just know that you can go to the IEP team at any time with questions about terms or concepts in the IEP.

Seeing your child’s IEP for the first time can be intimidating and confusing. Understanding what you’re looking at can help you ask the right questions about the services and supports your child is getting.

Here are some of the things the IEP will include:

The annual goals set for your child are a key element of the IEP. The IEP gives a target for improvement in the skills your child struggles with. Read on for more information on IEP goals. You can also:

Spotlight on IEP goals

IEP goals set the bar for your child’s level of improvement for the year. The purpose is to chart how much progress your child is making with the services and supports being provided. IEP goals should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound.

In traditional IEPs, goals aren’t related to what other kids at that grade level are achieving. So, a child can meet the goals in the IEP, but still not be performing at grade level.

Some states now use standards-based IEPs. With these plans, goals are based on academic state standards. A child’s improvement is measured against what other kids are doing at that grade level. The purpose is to help close the achievement gap.

Ideally, your child’s IEPs will be strengths-based. This means the annual goals look at your child’s strengths and then find ways to use those abilities to work on weaknesses. This approach isn’t widely used yet, but you can always ask the IEP team to consider your child’s strengths when setting goals.

Look ahead to how you can track your child’s goals with an IEP goal tracker. You can also:

If you disagree with what’s in your child’s IEP

Your role in creating your child’s IEP doesn’t stop once the plan is done. In fact, it’s very important that you go over the IEP carefully and make sure it has everything it should have, and that you agree with what the school has proposed. Learn what to double-check in your child’s IEP.

Even after working with the IEP team, you may not agree with everything that’s in your child’s IEP. If that happens, you can decline the IEP and negotiate changes with the IEP team. If you still haven’t reached an agreement, there are other types of dispute resolution you can turn to.

You may be reluctant to disagree with the team about your child’s IEP. But it’s a fairly common situation — for both parents and schools.

Preparing for what’s next

Once the document is created, you’ll go over it with the IEP team. Assuming you’re all in agreement, the plan will be put into place and your child will start getting the services and supports in the IEP.

Your child’s teachers will know about the IEP. But it’s a good idea to talk to them about what’s in it. Teachers are vital partners in helping your child improve skills and stay motivated to keep working on challenges.

Find out what the process of creating an IEP was like for other parents. Connect with real parents in our secure, online community groups. You can also explore a collection of IEP personal stories.

Here are the next steps in the IEP journey:

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About the author

About the author

The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Melody Musgrove, EdD served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education.