Ever since my son was diagnosed three years ago with minor special needs, it’s like I’ve enrolled in an ongoing crash course in navigating the special education system. After aging out of Early Intervention and preschool special education services, my soon-to-be kindergartner has recently been evaluated for and given an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that begins when he officially enters elementary school next fall. Thankfully, the process was straightforward, and as a parent I was included all along the way. Here’s the IEP timeline, step by step:
- Referral: Someone, usually your child’s teacher or another school professional, suspects your child may have a learning disability or need extra services, such as speech pathology or occupational therapy. Your child is then referred to the school district for an evaluation, and you will be asked to give parental consent. As a parent, if you suspect your child may need additional help, you have the right to request an evaluation as well.
- Evaluation: The members of the evaluation team differ according to your child’s special needs. The team leader is often a school psychologist or special education professional from your district, and the others may include a physical therapist, a vision specialist, a speech and language pathologist, or another specialist whose expertise is required in assessing your child. If you disagree with an evaluation, you have the right to request an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE), and to ask the school district to pay for it. Your child’s IEP coordinator should tell you about this and the other rights you have as a parent throughout the process.
- Eligibility: Once all of the evaluations have taken place, the team members write their reports and determine together whether your child qualifies for services. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in order to be eligible for special education or related services, your child must be determined a “child with a disability” — which can mean anything from an articulation issue to ADD to a hearing impairment and many others. If your child isn’t found eligible for services and you disagree, it’s your right to challenge the decision.
- The Meeting: The IEP meeting is scheduled by the school district, and it’s the coordinator’s job to contact you well in advance and attempt to accommodate your schedule. On the call, the coordinator is required to list the meeting’s attendees and invite you to bring anyone you feel would be an advocate for your child, such as a teacher or therapist. At the meeting, your child’s IEP will be written, including the specific services he’ll receive, how many times per week and for how many minutes he’ll get them, and whether they’ll be one-on-one or with a group. If you disagree with the IEP, you have the right to request a due process hearing and mediation.
- Services, Progress Reports, and Review: Once the IEP is written, your child’s school is responsible for making sure it’s followed. Her teacher, service providers, and you will all be given copies of the IEP. Often, you’ll meet together at the beginning of the academic year with the school’s IEP coordinator to discuss how the program will be carried out. As often as your child’s report cards are sent out, you should receive official IEP progress reports, though usually you’ll be given less formal updates on a more frequent basis. At least once a year, the IEP will be reviewed. At the meeting you can request changes or make suggestions, and if you disagree with the results, you can ask for additional evaluations or a hearing and mediation.
- Reevaluation: According to the U.S. Department of Education, kids with IEPs have to be reevaluated every three years to determine whether they’re still eligible for services. If you or your child’s teacher requests it, however, reevaluations can be done sooner or more often.