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Understanding the IEP process

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It’s common for parents to wonder how the IEP process works and how to best advocate for their child’s needs. The truth is, the more parents know about IEPs and how they’re put into place, the more active a role they can take in the process.

In this episode, Julian speaks with IEP expert Jamilah F. Bashir, MEd. Listen as Jamilah explains: 

  • What the IEP process looks like 

  • Common challenges families of color often experience when advocating for their child 

  • And ways schools and families can build positive relationships

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. 

This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3.

On today's show, we're talking about navigating the IEP process. And what a process it is. To help us understand and learn more about it, I'm really excited to welcome Jamilah Bashir to the show.

Jamilah Bashir is an education consultant and IEP coach. She helps parents navigate the often complex IEP process with more peace and ease. She has over 20 years of experience working with charter, public, and private schools. She's the author of several specialty books and courses in the IEP space. Welcome to the show. 

Jamilah: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here. 

Julian: Of course. So, I want to just get right into it, because you have so much knowledge that I think our listeners are really going to benefit from. Can you share a little bit more about some of the impactful work you do as an education consultant and an IEP coach? 

Jamilah: Sure. Prior to me being a consultant and an IEP coach, I was a special education teacher, and then I was a special education supervisor. So I basically took all those skills and I was just like, let me focus on the parts that I truly, truly love. I truly love supporting teachers, doing PD and coaching, so that way we can excel and thrive in our roles because it was something that I did not receive a lot of when I was a teacher. And then also the parents. 

My passion for special education is rooted in my younger sister who has an intellectual disability. So, having that personal connection, my sister, supporting my mother. So like, you know, I'm in college, I'm passing information on to my mom. And then as my sister got older, my mother is learning about different resources in the community. 

So, we kind of was a great support. And that's where my passion for advocating came from, being able to support parents — from supporting my mother — and then also the number of parents when I was doing IEP meetings, who would just thank me for taking the time to explain the process to them or taking the time to just answer their questions. 

That's where that advocacy piece came in at. So, I've been working in SPED for almost 20 years and then once I got into consulting, I was like, "I want to make a course teaching people how to read an IEP." Because of my experience, I have so many parents, "What's this?" And no one explains it. I'm like, "Let me make a course. And then it was like, "Oh, let's make a coaching program. It’s basically the coaching that I never received as a SPED teacher." 

And those are just things that are near and dear to my heart, because I know firsthand what it was like not to get the support, not to get to coaching. And I know what it's like for parents — I want to say struggling — trying to learn about the IEP. So, I was just like, "Why not provide that? Let's provide that." And that's basically where the passion for special education and advocacy has come from. 

Julian: I love that, you know, you kind of grounded it in your life experience at home. I was wondering, you know, at "The Opportunity Gap," the whole point of this podcast is really talking about the intersection of race and special education, right? Because there's a clear intersection between the two. If you don't mind, could you share with the listeners how you identify and what is your identity and how that might impact some of the work that you've done, too? 

Jamilah: Absolutely. So, I am an African American Muslim woman. So, before you even see anything, as you will see my hijab. And then also growing up, being born and raised in Philly and then working with students that look like me, it definitely makes me go hard, especially for the students of color, because I've seen firsthand how sometimes teachers can be biased. 

How sometimes the evaluation process for evaluating these students for special education services is biased. And the, I want to say, the disproportionate level of services that are available. I had worked in Philly for about ten years before I switched school districts and went in the suburbs and I was working in Royersford. It was literally a completely different world when it came to services. 

Like, I really wish I could have taken the resources and services from that district and dropped them and you know. I probably would not have been on the internet every single week getting lessons together for our social skills group, you know what I mean? It was just things like that, you know, the disproportionate availability of funds depending on the district, depending on where you live. 

And then also there is a disproportionate population of boys of color that are identified, you know, in special education. And then also our children when they're getting evaluated, autism is not on the table. Even though some of them, you know, they meet the criteria. But that's not on the table for our kids. You know, they will get identified as having an emotional disability, a specific learning disability, or intellectual disability. Those are always top. And then they also tend to get placed in a more restrictive environment. 

Julian: Right. And again, a lot to unpack with what you said. You know, I think the intersection and how race plays such a role in your zip code, right? Like, we know research tells us your ZIP code is one of the largest determinants of what your future outcomes will be. And how race plays a giant role in what that zip code is. You touched upon school funding and how school funding is a giant issue as well. But that the lack of knowledge and the lack of resources plays a pretty big role in what happens with our students. 

And so, I love the fact that your specific identity, it's not common with the person of your experience in your role. Right? So, just breaking down some of those barriers when you walk into the room, just that in and of itself changes the entire game, right? Because now you're coming in and there's a relationship that's already built, there's already some relevance. 

There's already somebody that a lot of our students, especially in Philadelphia, you know, they see themselves in you. And so I just applaud the fact that you chose this work because it's so needed. And I can speak just from my seat as an administrator in Philadelphia, it is incredibly important to have somebody like yourself doing this work. Now that I'm off my soapbox for a minute, let's get into the info. 

So, I really want to focus on the IEP process, right? The IEP process is incredibly complex. And I think for our listeners a high-level overview is going to be really helpful. And I say high-level because one of my really good friends — former Teacher of the Year, right? Like, Teacher of the Year for the entire nation — Juliana. She's going to be talking about IEPs in an upcoming season of "Understood Explains." 

So, one of our sister podcasts, they're going to have an entire series on how IEPs and the process of IEPs, everything you need to know with Juliana. So, make sure that you check that out. But for right now, Jamilah, can you talk us through what an IEP process looks like? 

Jamilah: So, for anyone who is like, "Well, what the heck is an IEP?" IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. Some states say "program." So that's where IEP comes from. Now, students qualify for an IEP if they meet one of the 13 categories of classification. We have to meet the criteria for one of those disabilities. But before you even get to that part, when a parent or anyone makes a request for their child to be evaluated, once you put that request in writing, the school has to respond to you within ten days. 

Within that ten days, you will get a "Permission to Evaluate" form and it'll list what your child will be evaluated on. If it's for scale, if speech needs to be evaluated as well, all of that is going to be listed on there. From there, you're also going to fill out information about your child. 

They're going to ask you —and you may feel like these questions are a little personal — because they're going to ask you about your pregnancy. They're going to ask you about everything about your child. The environment that you live in, family background, community, all that stuff. OK. 

Now, after that, do you have 60 days to get the evaluation completed. Because I don't want parents, some parents think it's a quick process. It is not quick at all. The school has ten days to get back to you after you put your request in for an IEP to get an evaluation, then the psychologist has 60 days to complete that evaluation report. 

Julian: One clarification — I know a lot of families ask us this — Is that 60 school days or is that 60 calendar days? 

Jamilah: To my understanding, it was 60 school days. Within the 60 days, they do the evaluation report, the student is getting pulled from their class to get the evaluation done, doing testing. They also will send the parent forms. They'll even send the teacher forms because they want to get information on how they are doing in their classes, how are they functioning at home? And you'll fill those out, send them into the school, or now you can submit it electronically. 

Then, once that report is done. Normally, I know from my experience, is the psychologist has sent it to the parent. And then even till the parent, you know, call me or we can do a Zoom so I can go over the evaluation report with the parent. Then, that evaluation report then goes to the special education teacher, because a special education teacher is going to be the one who's going to draft their IEP based off the findings in that evaluation report. And then the special education teacher has 30 days to draft that IEP. 

So, within the 30 days they're going to look at the evaluation report and see, "OK, what goals do I need to create for this kid? Any related services needed for this particular child? Also, what type of specially design instruction, what type of modifications? They may even call you, the parent, to get information, any additional information. But majority of time we're going to take — especially for an initial — we're going to take everything from that evaluation report. 

And I also want to stress to parents that what the psychologist puts in the recommendation section, those are recommendations. You don't have to accept them. Those are recommendations. Because sometimes some parents will look at that like, "Well, the psychologist said." I'm like, "Well, no. That's what they recommended. You can take it or you don't have to." 

And also with an initial IEP, nothing will get started until the parent signs the notice of recommended education placement. Nothing will get started until the parents signs that. Sometimes parents think when they sign that attendance form that they're signed. I'm like, "No, that's just attendance. That is not you signing off for this IEP." 

So, within that 30 days, the IEP will get drafted. Then the special education teacher will create a permission, not permission, an invitation for the IEP meeting will get drafted. They'll contact the parent. Like, "When is the best time?" That's what I would do. I always contact the parent because sometimes some parents like, "No one, called me to see when I was available," you know. 

So, I always would call the parents to see when they were available or when they were off, because back then, you know, you were still coming into the school. But now I know they're doing IEP meetings virtual. So then you have the meeting and then, when it's an initial IEP meeting, the psychologist is there as well to, again, explain the results and explain the testing results of that evaluation, what the recommendations are, and what the classification is. 

And then, the special education teacher will then go over that entire IEP. Now for the initial one, they should go through every single section. I can't make promises that that will happen. 

Julian: But that is something that you, as a family member or granting adult should be asking for. Like, you want to make sure that as much detail is there as possible. Because this is a legal document, when it's all said and done. This is a legally recognized document, and it's really important that you look at all the details. 

Jamilah: And yes, as parents, you have the right to request the draft of the IEP, before you even go to the meeting. There was a section you weren't sure about, highlight it and mark it up. So that way when you come to the meeting, you're not trying to look through it at that moment and figure out like, "OK, well what are my questions? What do I need further clarification about?" 

I want to say that really helps. Because only if that's your first IEP meeting, you're seeing this thick document. It's like, "Oh my God, I got to read through all this right now? I got to make a decision right now?" And you don't have to make a decision right at that moment because, like, just think about it. You just got all this information presented to you. 

Is different if you're like, you understood everything and you're like, "OK, I got it. Yep. That's exactly what I agree with." But for the first time, you may be like, "I don't even know what I'm looking at. 

And then you want me to make a decision right here in this moment." Like, that can be very overwhelming. And that is very overwhelming for, I want to say, a lot of parents, and that's where some of them will just sign it just to sign it. OK. I'm like, "OK, I'm just going to sign it," because it's just so overwhelming for them.

Julian: So again, it's a really complex process. Right. Like just think about all the different details, the time frame that you explain. And so families again, I remind you that you have a ton of resources at your disposal. "Understood Explains" our new podcast, Season 3 of "Understood Explains" is going to really explain step-by-step exactly what Jamilah was able to share with you. 

But one of the challenges that I think you brought up is one, just the lack of knowledge of what the process should entail. Are there any other challenges you can think of when families are navigating this initial process of dealing with an IEP? 

Jamilah: So, some parents are like, "Well, I didn't want an IEP. Why is my child getting an IEP?" I've seen in some cases where a parent signed off on something they didn't know what they signed off on, and their child got evaluated. And I want to say that should never be the case. 

You know, how it was presented to you. You're thinking, "Oh, maybe this is just extra help for my child." And then how it's being presented sometimes, "Oh, this will help. This is, you know, your child need it, they'll get extra help." 

So, when parents hear "extra help", it's like, "Oh, great! I want my child to get extra help." But parent may be thinking of, "Oh, tutoring." The parent may be thinking of, "Oh, additional small groups." And that's not it. No, they're pushing your child to get evaluated. 

So that is a challenge right there. And then, parents not knowing what the process is like, not understanding the lingo, not understanding all those acronyms. So that becomes an overwhelming thing for them. 

And then when they get into the meeting they don't ask no questions. It's like, and sometimes they don't know what they don't know. "I don't even know what to ask at this meeting." And then, you know, did they even do this? Did they even go as thorough as they should in his IEP? Present Level section should be so thorough. Like, when I read that I get a whole picture of the kid. I know everything about your kid. 

When I read that section, I should know what their present programming is. I should know what the parent's concerns are. I should see anything regarding their related services. Everything is going to be in that section. And sometimes they're so thin and I'm like, "Who put this IEP together?" That is the most thorough section. The most, I'll say, heaviest section because this is where you're putting everything. All the present levels, everything. How are they're functioning currently. 

Julian: So, families that are listening I hope everybody heard that. That's a little tidbit to really highlight. When you're doing this initial section, looking at that present levels, really understanding all of the aspects of current programming. All of your input as a family because you know your child better than anybody. 

And so, it's really important that you have an opportunity to share your concerns or share your celebrations. What are the strengths? What are the areas of growth, so that the entire picture of the child or as best as possible is there. That's a really important thing. 

So, let me ask then, so say, I am a family member of a child. And I'm initially going through this process, I find that I'm sitting at this meeting, I have no idea what's going on, or I'm just kind of struggling because there's so much information being thrown at me. What do you tell your families when you're working with them, when they find themselves in these situations or these challenges? What do you recommend that they do? 

Jamilah: When I have clients who have been in these situations, I always tell clients, "You know, you can reschedule. You don't have to continue with the meeting at that particular day." You can tell that person, "I need you to explain this. I need you to slow down," like you can make them slow down the meeting. Because sometimes, you know, the teacher may just be trying to get through, because they got another meeting to do. 

But I tell parents all the time, "You can stop them the moment you don't understand something or if they're going too fast, stop them. Make them slow down. Make them explain every single section that you don't understand." When you go to the meeting, make sure they have a draft for you. If they didn't already give you a draft, make sure there's a draft for you to look at. 

So, it's not just the teacher looking at the draft and then telling it, telling it to you. And then it's like, you can't even, make sure what he or she is saying is even in that document, you know, have the document in front of you so you can follow along, you know, throughout the IEP meeting. So that way you might even see an error in the IEP. You can point those things out because at the IEP meeting they can correct, make those corrections. 

Even after you may have signed the IEP you see an error or you may feel like, "Oh like, can we change this accommodation or can we change this modification?" They can do an amendment to the IEP to make a change. 

I had a parent — when I was still teaching — I had a parent contact me and say, "Miss Bashir, my daughter gets this particular service outside of school. I don't want her to also have it in school because I feel like that's just too much for her. Can we remove that service in school?" That was not a problem. And it didn't change her special education time. 

So I could easily do the amendment, document who gave me permission, meaning that I had a conversation with the parent. I'm documenting the date. I'm documenting the section that I changed, and I had the conversation with her counselor at the school. So, the counselor at the school also knew. 

And then also, that information got added to Section 2, and I put the date that it occurred. So that way, the next person, the next case manager she has, they can look at the IEP and say, "Oh, OK, an amendment was done on this date and this is what was changed." 

Julian: Right. And I think you're speaking to the idea of collaboration. Like, the whole idea of this entire process. It doesn't happen in a vacuum. The goal is for the child to feel success. And so, the child, the family, the school advocates, all of these people come together to collaborate, to build a program or, programmatic decision to really help the student excel. And, you know, for me, as a school administrator, you know, I always talk about how positive relationships are the baseline for everything else. 

Like, we have to have a positive relationship between the school and the family, because that makes all the difference. If we don't have that baseline, then what are we doing? 

And that's something that to me, it's the baseline of everything else we do. I'm wondering, what do you recommend for families where that relationship between the school and the family is not strong, where it's becoming more of a challenge, where it hasn't been positive. What can families do to rectify that situation? 

Jamilah: Something that I always recommend to parents and families — I always recommend that they do this at the beginning of the year — schedule a meeting with all of your child's teachers. And just so that when you can put faces with names, they know that you are a parent. They know that you are involved. Whoever is involved with your child, like invite them too. So that way they know like, "This is a team we need to work as a team." 

And then also, so that way you can share your input about your child. Like, "Listen, I know my child has an IEP, but listen, my child thrives on this. My child thrives when they have structure. My child thrives when they have a caring teacher." You know what I mean? Like just knowing those particular things and also what motivates your child, that can help teachers too. 

Because sometimes, you know, you and I both know you. You're in a classroom and then it's like, it's just one of those days. You're like, "Oh my God, you're just not getting through to this kid. Nothing is working." But then when you talk to the parent, they say, "Oh, well, he really likes this, this, this." And you're like, "Oh thank you. I'm going to use this." 

Julian: Right. A lot of times, you know, our families are busy and life is busy and there's just so many things going on. But our role is to really do what we can to keep that line of communication open. 

You know, going back to the question around the challenging relationship, if I'm a parent or a parenting and tell and I'm listening right now, and I find that I'm just struggling immensely with making a positive relationship with the school, where would an advocate come into play? Or talk us through what that is specifically with your role? Like, you are an advocate, what do we do to go about getting that support? 

Jamilah: First, of course you can follow me at Of course, you can contact me there. But like, also I want to say reach out to like, your guidance counselors at your school because they know of so many resources in the community or advocacy support in the community that can help you. So, if you're ever having a problem where it's like, OK, I'm not getting that type of, I want to say, communication that I need from the school or from the teachers. 

Before even getting an advocate, after you've already tried scheduling a meeting, I will contact the administration of that school to say, "Listen, I'm the parent of so-and-so. I'm just trying to have some type of connection with the teachers. I'm not getting anything back from them." Now after that, and you still don't get any help or support? Then yes, absolutely. You know, reach out. 

I want to say there's so many — everyone's on social media — there's so many advocacy groups on Facebook. You can find so many on there and even get information about things. I'm actually in a few advocacy groups. 

Julian: Is there a cost associated with an advocate? 

Jamilah: Really depends on the, I want to say, if you go to our agency, if you go through a company, that probably is a cost. Whereas if you go through maybe a community organization or something, it may not be. Guidance counselors, I want to say, tend to have more information on the resources available in the community. So, you do have some advocates that are free, and some you do have to pay for their services. 

Julian: Phew! You have dropped a lot of information. I just want to say thank you so much for joining us Jamilah. 

Before we sign off, I do want to share some resources from both Jamilah and Understood. First, be sure to check out Jamilah on social media @theeipcoachllc. Then, check out her website, That is There's a fantastic video on there titled "5 Tips to Prepare for an IEP meeting." Also, check out Understood's article "What is an IEP?" And of course, check out the course that Jamilah has called "Master the IEP'' course. You can find that at 

Jamilah: And I have a coupon for you guys, too. 

Julian: Listeners, once again, we will link everything in the show notes. Everything will be in the show notes. So, if you didn't hear me, you can check it out in the show notes. We appreciate you so much for coming on. Just the knowledge that you brought to us. 

Jamilah: Thank you so much for having me. 

Julian: Thank you so much. 

Julian: "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Ilana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show for the Understood Podcast Network. Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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