Being able to put every student on a route to academic success can be difficult — especially when some students have different needs and hurdles to jump in and out of the classroom.

That’s why having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that works for your child each school year can be vital. But what exactly is an IEP and who needs one?

Suzie Baker, program director for Easterseals Arkansas Outreach Program and Technology Services, said that, in its most basic definition, “It’s a plan that evaluates students’ strengths and weaknesses and long term goals and annual goals and objectives.”

Baker shared her knowledge on IEPs and how parents can best contribute to the process of creating a plan that works for their child. Here’s what she had to say.

Who qualifies for an IEP?

It’s not about a medical diagnosis, but rather an identification of need. For example, just because a child has autism doesn’t mean they need an IEP. Each child needs to be looked at differently. A child with cerebral palsy may have a typical IQ but need an IEP to address the motor and health care needs that they have. So it’s very broad.

Parents can request an evaluation, and as part of that process, a team that could include educators, a speech pathologist, maybe a nurse or therapists, would review existing information and then determine if more is needed. The parent will be asked if they would like to give consent for these additional evaluations or assessments. After information is gathered and evaluations completed, then eligibility will be determined under one of 13 disability categories.

What does the starting point look like for an IEP?

It starts with a referral and an identification of concern … You don’t really request an IEP, you request additional support and services and through that process. The parent along with the school team members decide how to best serve that child. You don’t walk into the scenario wanting that (IEP) document, you walk in wanting to know what does my child need to be successful in the classroom?

How should a parent/caretaker prepare for discussing their student’s IEP?

They need to be ready to communicate with the team on what are their goals for their child, what are the strengths of their child, what are the special needs the child might have. More than likely the child has had some intervention services, but if not just prepare to have open dialogue and open communication in developing the assessment process that needs to take place.

It’s overwhelming for a parent to walk into a meeting with a table full of experts, sharing information about their child. But the parent needs to walk in knowing that they are also an expert at the table. There’s a lot of information that’s shared, and if they don’t understand anything they can take a minute to review information and ask questions and become more informed.

What kind of special services can result from an IEP?

The team will determine how much time the child is in general education — how many minutes they’re in general education. The team may determine what type of related services the child needs. Does the child need any therapy — occupational, physical or speech therapy? They’ll look at, based on looking on the strengths and weaknesses, does the child need a behavior intervention plan? What type of assisted technology the child might need to be successful in a general education plan.

Each team should consider things like how does the child communicate, do they have any special hearing or vision needs, do they have a need for adapted writing or looking at the environment.

What Goes In an IEP?

Since an IEP is a legal document, it follows standard guidelines of what is included. Here’s a rough outline of what you can expect, according to

  • Student Information
    Basic details about the student.
  • Present Level of Performance
    Details about the student’s current academic performance.
  • Annual Goals
    Goals in both academic and functional skills for the school year.
  • Progress Reporting
    How the parent or guardian will be informed on progress throughout the year.
  • Services
    Details on any services, therapy, etc. that the student will receive.
  • Supplementary Aids & Services
    Modifications and accommodations the child will receive in the classroom or other learning environment.
  • Participation
    Explanation of what degree the child will be involved in general education and testing.
  • Parent Consent
    A signature line for approval.