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Individualized Education Programs (IEPs): Tips for Teachers

Students who require extra help and support might be eligible for special services that provide individualized education programs (IEPs) in public schools, free of charge to families. Understanding your role in educating a student with an IEP will benefit both you and the student.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes teachers of students with special needs responsible for planning, implementing, and monitoring educational plans to help the students succeed in school. The IEP describes the goals set for a student for the school year, and any special support needed to help reach those goals.

The IDEA requires states to provide free appropriate public education to students who are eligible for special education from ages 3 to 21, in the “least restrictive” environment. This means that kids with disabilities should learn alongside their classmates who don’t have disabilities as much as possible.

Who Needs an IEP?

Students who are eligible for special education services require an IEP. Students could be eligible for many reasons, such as if they have:

Students might have a learning disability if they are consistently unable to meet standards that are normal for their age range. Some common signs of a learning disability can include:

  • trouble mastering tasks or applying academic skills to other tasks
  • trouble with communication and language processing, as well as expressive and receptive language
  • a lot of frustration with school and homework
  • having strong general knowledge, but not being able to read (dyslexia), write (dysgraphia), or do math (dyscalculia) at that level
  • needing ongoing, step-by-step guidance for tasks
  • poor grades despite a lot of effort
  • poor memory of spoken or written material
  • not being able to remember problem-solving steps if they don't understand the tasks or the logic behind them
  • not being able to remember skills and facts over time

How Are Services Delivered?

Usually, the services outlined in an IEP can be provided in regular education classrooms. In other cases, they might be given in separate classrooms or even separate schools, depending on the students' needs. Some students may have an IEP for one subject area only, while others may have one for all academic subjects and for social skills instruction.

Students with IEPs can participate in all subject areas, especially classes like science, social studies, art, music, library, gym, and health. It is critical for regular classroom teachers to read students' IEPs and be familiar with the services and monitoring required by the plan.

Services can also be provided in a separate supported environment within the school. In this setting, groups of students with similar needs are together for small-group instruction. A certified special education teacher is the instructor and other school personnel (aides or support teachers) help with teaching.

Students who need intense intervention, though, may be taught in a special school environment. These schools have fewer students per teacher, allowing for more individualized attention. Teachers in these schools usually have specific training in helping students with special educational needs.

How Are Students Evaluated?

The referral process generally begins when a teacher, parent, or doctor is concerned that a child may be having trouble in the classroom.

The first step is to gather specific data regarding the student's progress or academic problems. This may be done through:

  • conference with parents
  • a conference with the student
  • observations of the student
  • analysis of the student's performance (attention, behavior, work completion, tests, classwork, homework, etc.)

This information helps teachers and school personnel decide on the next step. Strategies specific to the student could be used to help them be more successful in school prior to any formal testing. If this doesn't work, the child can receive an educational assessment, which could identify a specific learning disability or other health problem.

Note: The presence of a disability doesn't automatically guarantee a child will get services. To be eligible, the disability must affect how the child does at school.

To decide on eligibility, a team of professionals will consider their observations, as well as how the child does on standardized tests and daily work such as tests, quizzes, classwork, and homework.

Who's on the Team?

The professionals on the evaluation team can include:

  • classroom teachers
  • occupational therapist
  • physical therapist
  • psychologist
  • special educator
  • speech therapist
  • vision or hearing specialist
  • others, depending on the child's specific needs

If more testing is needed, parents will be asked to sign a permission form that details who is involved in the process and the types of tests they use. These tests might include measures of specific school skills, such as reading or math, as well as more general developmental skills, such as speech and language.

After the team members finish their assessments, a comprehensive evaluation report is developed. It includes an educational classification and outlines the skills and support the child will need.

The parents can review the report before the IEP is developed. If they disagree with it, they will have the chance to work with the school to come up with a plan that best meets the child's needs.

How Is the IEP Developed?

The next step is an IEP meeting, during which the team and parents decide what will go into the plan. Also, a regular classroom teacher should attend to offer suggestions about how the plan can help the child's progress in the standard education curriculum and how it can be used in a regular classroom setting, if that's appropriate.

At the meeting, the team will discuss a student's educational needs — as described in the evaluation report — and develop specific, measurable short-term and annual goals for each of those needs.

What Does the IEP Include?

The cover page of the IEP outlines the related services and supports students will get and how often they will be provided. These can include many different things; for example, transportation; speech-language pathology and audiology services; psychological services; physical therapy and occupational therapy; recreation, including therapeutic recreation; social work services; and medical services (for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only).

If the team recommends several services, the amount of time they take in the child's school schedule can seem overwhelming. To ease that load, a professional may talk with a child’s teacher to come up with ways to help but won’t offer hands-on instruction. For example, an occupational therapist may suggest accommodations for a child with fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the classroom teacher would incorporate these into the handwriting lessons taught to the entire class.

Other services can be delivered right in the classroom, so the child's day isn't interrupted by therapy. The child who has trouble with handwriting might work one-on-one with an occupational therapist while everyone else practices their handwriting skills. When deciding how and where services are offered, the child's comfort and dignity should be a top priority.

If a child has academic needs and is working below grade level, services may be offered outside the regular education classroom. Students might get small-group instruction in a particular subject area (usually language arts or math) by a special education teacher along with other students who have similar needs.

How Often Should the IEP Be Updated?

The IEP should be reviewed annually to update the goals and ensure the levels of service meet the student's needs. During the school year, progress monitoring is done often to make sure the student is achieving goals set in the IEP. IEPs can be changed at any time on an as-needed basis.

Specific timelines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to providing services as quickly as possible. Be sure to ask about this timeframe and stay informed.

If parents disagree with any part of the evaluation report or the IEP, mediation and hearings are options.

It is important for teachers to understand the IEP process and their role in delivering instruction to students who have an IEP. Any questions related to an IEP can be directed to the team or the case manager assigned to a student.

Reviewed by: Colleen O'Shea, Special Education Teacher
Date reviewed: February 2022