The special education system is very complex and often overwhelming, particularly to parents who are exposed to it for the first time. Federal and State laws and regulations require that public schools (including charter schools) provide children with disabilities with a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE). For many of these children, the types of services are outlined in a document referred to as an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The following are guidelines for developing a legal and effective IEP.
1. Present Educational Levels - The IEP must include a statement of the child’s present educational levels (“PELs”). This information should reflect data obtained from the testing summarized in the evaluation report, curriculum and classroom based assessments, classroom observations, parental concerns, and teacher feedback. The PELs should describe the child’s strengths and needs arising from the disability. Both academic and non-academic (e.g. behavioral) areas of a child’s education should be consider in this part of the IEP. The present levels are important because they establish baseline information used in creating the IEP’s goals.
2. Goals - The IEP must contain annual goals that address the areas of need. For the goals to be effective, they should be specific and quantifiable. Accordingly, a goal should not merely state that a student’s skills would improve. Rather, the goal should state the level of increased (or decrease) performance or activity from the baseline.
3. Progress Monitoring - Frequent progress monitoring (quarterly or more often) is essential to assess whether the student is making gains towards meeting the IEP goals. Progress monitoring determines whether the student is making academic progress and evaluates the effectiveness of instruction. The IEP should identify the method by which progress is measured. The method should be based clear criteria and measures and not based on anecdotal information.
4. Specially Designed Instruction - The IEP must also make provisions for specially designed instruction. This portion of the IEP specifies accommodations and modifications. An accommodation for example, provides for the same test or assignment administered to other students but allows for changes in the manner in which the test or assignment is administered such as extended time, a larger print formatting or testing in a non-distracting environment. A modification is an adaptation to the test or assignment. For example, a student may be administer an alternative test or may be permitted to complete half of an assignment.
5. Related Services - Related services and supplemental aids provide additional special instruction designed to enable the child to benefit from special education. Related services may include speech therapy, audiology services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, and counseling services. Supplemental aids may also include one-to-one tutoring, remediation services for reading, writing, spelling and math.
6. Placement - The law mandates that students with disabilities must be educated in regular classrooms with their non-disable peers to the maximum extent appropriate i.e. the least restrictive environment (LRE). When making educational placement decisions the IEP shall therefore consider the full range of supplemental aids and services including modification of curriculum content before considering a more restrictive setting. Students should not be excluded from the regular education classroom based solely on the severity or type of disability. Educating students in the regular education classroom provides the greatest potential to lead to independence and provides a more robust educational experience.
7. Supports for School Personnel and Parent Training - The law envisions that the IEP may include services that are provided to the parent or teachers of a child with a disability to help them to more effectively work with the child. Supports for school personnel may include special training for the child’s teacher related to child’s needs. The training should be targeted to meet the unique needs of the child and should not be an in-service training program that is available for all teachers. Furthermore, parent counseling and training includes helping parents acquire skills that will help them support the implementation of their child’s IEP.
8. Extended School Year (ESY) – When a student demonstrates a likelihood of regression or slow recoupment during periods of break or lack of progress, the student is entitled to ESY services. Provisions for ESY services provides for instruction during the summer and other breaks.
9. Transition Services – During the term of the IEP when the student turns 16, the IEP shall coordinate goals and a set of activities designed to facilitate the student’s movement from school to post-school including post-secondary education, vocational education, employment, independent living and community participation.
10. Preparation - Special education has a number of complexities that can be overwhelming for parents. Having an understanding of the process and terminology will go a long way towards helping parents of a child with a disability advocate on their child’s behalf. Furthermore, it may be helpful to contact an attorney or advocate whose representation is focused on special education issues.