What’s an IEP? Special education is a free service provided by public schools. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a legal document that every child who receives special education services must have. This guarantees a child’s right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is a unique educational program that is designed to meet a child’s special needs. In Michigan children from birth – 25 years old are eligible to receive special education services. IEPs are developed for children ages 3-25.
Who Qualifies? According to the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (MARSE), students with autism have a lifelong developmental disability that adversely affections social, behavioral and academic performance. To qualify for an IEP, a child must exhibit qualitative impairments in communication and reciprocal social interactions. They also may show a restricted range of interests, repetitive behaviors, or unusual and inconsistent responses to sensory stimuli. Along with autism, speech and language impairment is considered a disability and may concurrently be treated with an IEP.
Who is Involved? IEPs are developed by a Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) that consists of a psychologist/psychiatrist, a speech-language pathologist, a school social worker at minimum, and of course the parents. Parents may choose to include previous teachers, other caregivers or therapists. Don’t be afraid to ask your BCBA to attend your child’s IEP meeting, because they have lots of insight into your child’s behavioral needs, progress and goals.
What’s in an IEP? When developing an IEP, first a Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) is established, taking into account the child’s strengths, parental concerns, most recent evaluations and communication needs. Next, Measurable Annual Goals and Short-Term Objectives and other benchmarks are set for the school year for instructional areas and core curriculum using baseline data. A schedule for monitoring and reporting progress is also established at this time. Finally, the time, frequency, location and duration of special education services is determined and explicitly stated in the IEP.
Accommodations vs. Modifications. It is also determined what supplemental aids and services are needed including ongoing instructions and assessments, curriculum supports and adjustments, and supports and modifications to the environment. When considering supplemental aids, the IEP team must consider peer-review research. Accommodations include alteration of the environment, curriculum format or equipment to allow access to the general education curriculum. Accommodations do not alter the curricular standards. Modifications do alter the curricular standards. They are made only after it has been demonstrated that the child does not have a proficient understanding of the general education curriculum. Schools may also provide a liaison or other supports to families and school personnel, such as consultation or training.
The IEP is reviewed annually, and the parent can request that it is reviewed more frequently. There must be sufficient documentation to show whether or not the special education services are working. If progress is not being made, the school district is obligated to review the IEP sooner. The team will use data collected to determine which supplements and services are working. An IEP can be amended throughout the year, only with parental consent; the school does not have the right to change an IEP by itself.
Be prepared. It is important to be as prepared and as involved as possible by knowing what to expect going into the IEP process, advocating for your child, and working together with the school rather than against the school. Your BCBA can help answer questions and participate and little or as much as you would like in the MET meeting. At the end of the day, an IEP is what is determined best for your child’s educational progress and goals. Although it is a legal document, it is a tool meant to help your child succeed in the environment around them.
Additional Resources. It is important to know your rights when developing an IEP plan. There are a few organizations in Michigan that can help you navigate the IEP process. One of our favorite non-profit resources, the Autism Alliance of Michigan, offers a Complete Guide to Special Education here, including a step-by-step IEP guide. They also offer webinars on IEPs (among other things), have family advocates and provide great information on an array of topics. The Michigan Alliance for Families is great state-funded organization that advocates for special education. They too offer lots of information, have on-demand webinars on many topics, including several on IEPs. The Michigan Department of Education has lots of specifics regarding laws as well as parent resources for special education.