Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About IEPs

The Almost Exhaustive List of IEP Questions and Answers

This is your handy dandy guide to FAQs about IEPs. This is where you can find the answer to all of your most burning questions, from what happens when students move to what really happens in an IEP meeting. Have a question that we missed? Email us and let us know!

What are the similarities of an IEP and a 504?

Both an IEP and a 504 state that a child has a qualifying disability and needs extra support at school because of that disability. An IEP though comes with funded services like a special education teacher/case manager or a speech and language pathologist. A 504 comes with just accommodations, like that the student can take walks, check in with the nurse, or stand in class. The IEP is the 504 + services. It is a higher bar to qualify for because students with IEPs get more.

How similar are IEP forms across states and districts?

All IEPs cover the same content. IEPs in every state will include a disability statement, a strengths statement about the student, boxes to describe the student’s academic and nonacademic needs, measurable annual goals, specific information on what, where, and how much services the student will receive, details on classroom and testing accommodations and modifications, and information about special factors, like whether the student is an English Learner or has behaviors of concern. So the content is the same across every district and state. The layout can vary a LOT though. Some put services in minutes and some in hours. Some put those at the beginning of the IEP and some at the end. Some keep goal pages simple and some dump a lot of stuff on the pages.  Something will be on page 1 in one district and 15 in another. The way the documents look vary but there is very little variation in the actual content included. Because this is such a big question, we went ahead and created a page on how to read IEPs, with screenshots of IEPs from as many states as we could find!

How often does an IEP get used?

Somewhere between every minute of the school day and rarely. If you have a student on five stars and a reward, with a dedicated paraprofessional, or using an augmented communication device, the team is using their IEP a hundred percent of the day in every academic setting. For other students, the IEP might just get used when the student needs a break, when they get pulled out for extra support, or when a speech and language pathologist checks on them in their classroom. The bigger question is not how often the document is used but how often it is read– and the answer is often rarely because the documents are so long, wordy, and challenging to decipher.

How is progress monitored for kids with IEPs? How often is progress measured throughout the year?

The most common way is through narrative reports that get sent home at about the same time as report cards describing the student’s progress towards each of their IEP goals. That’s one of the big reasons you will get push back from special education teachers if you start trying to add lots of goals to an IEP– you are making their life pretty miserable by giving them more paperwork. There is some variation in how districts do progress monitoring– but the law says that schools have to notify parents of progress towards goals. Then at each annual meeting, the IEP team is supposed to do informal assessments that capture not just whether a student met their goals from the last year but how they are doing in school. That information then should be used to inform new goals for the upcoming year. Now, if you have students who are struggling, the IEP team will typically engage in much more frequent progress monitoring. I have a parent right now who wants an email every day on his daughter’s class attendance– and I have done a lot of daily behavior contracts in my time– contracts that the parents signed each day.

What are the different ways that special education classrooms are set up? How many have drop in centers for kids to go for support?

Program design varies a lot between schools and districts and within schools and districts. In 2007 (yep, I’m old), I taught at a school with two different programs. There was a resource specialist who worked with low hours students who would come to her at scheduled times for small group interventions in reading, writing, and mathematics. She had a paraprofessional, but the para mostly worked in the resource room providing more support. I taught in a self-contained class for students with behavioral problems. The first year, my students were with me 100% of the day. After that, they started spending maybe one class a day in general education but my class was their home room. In 2011, I taught at a school with a different model. There were two classrooms for students with more severe disabilities. Those students used that room as their home base and for reading and mathematics instruction, but the kids were mostly in general education classrooms for electives. I ran a resource program where students came to me at set times for small group interventions and received push in support from me or a paraprofessional in their classrooms at other times. Very few programs have a drop in model. IEPs are written based on fixed times– the IEP will state that the student gets 60 minutes a week of support in a separate setting and 150 minutes a week of support in a general education classroom. The school is then legally bound to pull that student out for an hour and to push in support for 2.5 hours a week. A drop in model would not have set hours and would require a lot of complex data tracking to ensure that students’ hours are being met.

What are supplementary services?

Supplementary services is the catch all term for all of the supports students might need beyond a special education teacher or related services provider. It can include the student’s accommodations, their assistive technology, or paraprofessional support. We have examples of what supplementary services look like on the how to read an IEP page as well as more information on them.

What are accommodations? What accommodations are offered for students with disabilities?

Accommodations and modifications are changes to business as usual that a student needs to be successful at school. They range from being able to stand in class or use a standing desk to being able to use a calculator on a mathematics test. The difference between the two is whether the demand of the work is lowered. If the test is on addition and you give a calculator to the student, it’s a modification. If the test is on solving algebraic inequalities by using substitutions and you give the student a calculator, that’s an accommodation. If you let a student dictate a spelling test, modification. If you let them dictate an essay, accommodation. Are you making it easier for the student to do the assigned task or changing the nature of the task? We have a whole page on the site about the differences between them and examples of both on the how to read an IEP page

When was the first IEP made?

I’m not sure! The precursor to IDEA, the Education for All Handicapped Children Ac (PL 94-142) was signed by Gerald Ford in 1975. The first IEP that looks at all like modern IEPs would have happened after that. What I don’t know is if there were precursors to IEPs in states before then– if there were, let me know!

What percent of students on average in the United States have an IEP?

Estimates of percent vary but about 11 to 13% or so. Note that these numbers have gone up since the pandemic so the estimates vary not just by state but also by year.

What exactly is an IEP meeting? What is said in one?

An IEP meeting is a formal meeting held at least once a year with a special education teacher, caregiver/parent, general education teacher, and district representative. What is said depends on the type of IEP meeting. The most basic is an annual IEP meeting. At this meeting, the team shares the student’s strengths, their current needs in academics, socioemotional skills, speech, and so on, and decides on services and goals for the upcoming year. At an amendment, the team is coming together for a specific reason, like adding a service or discussing a concern. Those meetings vary a lot based on what is going on. For example, I had a student say he wanted to be able to wear headphones in class when he was feeling distracted. So we did an IEP amendment to add an accommodation of headphones to his IEP. Easy peasy. Mom and I chatted on the phone about whether we thought this was a good idea. Then I talked with the student and emailed with his general education teachers, and we updated the IEP. That is about as informal as IEP meetings get. I also had an amendment recently because a student was making a lot of not so great decisions at school, and we were worried about him racking up suspensions. We met to add school psychologist counseling sessions to his IEP and a new goal to address anger management. Those are both examples of IEP amendment meetings—meetings called in-between regular, annual IEPs to address specific concerns. There are also triennial IEPs aka three year reviews aka whatever your district calls them. Those meetings happen every three years and the discussion is about whether the student continues to be eligible for special education services. So what is said at a meeting varies a lot based on what the meeting is for—but in each you should hear something good about a kid, something about their needs, and some concrete next steps to take.

What exactly happens in an IEP meeting?

In an IEP meeting, the team is supposed to go over the IEP document. That is, discuss what is on each page and ask for contributions from each team member about what they are seeing and their concerns. Things like goals are supposed to be written at the meeting and parents and students asked for meaningful input. In reality, IEP meetings are often quick, rubber stamp meetings where special education teachers propose prewritten goals and present levels and ask parents and general education teachers for token concerns and updates. As a parent or general education teacher (or student!) you can and should speak up and ask for what you want, whether that is new goals, different services, or changes to accommodations. It can be scary to speak up in the meetings because they can be uncomfortable spaces—but it is hugely important to make sure your voice is heard. You are there for a reason and part of the team for a reason.

Can the IEP be revised or do you have to make a new one?

IEPs can be revised through amendments that change only small parts of the IEP. Those are different from the annual IEPs where each year the team needs to make a new IEP.

How often are IEPs updated?

IEPs are updated at least once a year. State compliance offices monitor this so districts are very good about making sure the IEPs are updated every year. Parents or the school can request updates more often though. Like if the team realizes that state testing is coming up and the student needs more accommodations—or if the team decides the student needs assistive technology. Then an IEP amendment meeting is held. Normally, you don’t hold more than one or two amendments for a student within the year, but you could ask for more! The point of an IEP amendment meeting is to make changes to the IEP though. If the team just wants to talk, you might want to schedule something like a progress monitoring meeting instead.

Can a student have more than one IEP?

A student will only have one IEP at a time. Every year the team does new informal assessments, sets new goals, and writes a new IEP. If you look at a student’s file, there will be at least one updated IEP for every year that the student received special education services. So you could say that a student has a new IEP every year– but the student will never have more than one IEP at a time. An IEP is elastic. If a student starts to have more needs, the IEP can stretch, with new services, goals, and hours added in. If the student starts to have fewer needs, the IEP can contract, with direct services dropping to consult, goals getting removed, and hours decreasing. An IEP for a student who uses a wheelchair, an augmented communication device, and a feeding tube is going to look wildly different from one for a student who has some difficulties decoding words. I once had a student with a traumatic brain injury. Her IEP started in kindergarten when she wasn’t able to walk, feed herself, or communicate easily. By 5th grade, her brain had healed a lot and she presented more as someone with a learning disability. Her IEP changed a lot between kindergarten and 5th grade as her brain healed—- IEPs change and evolve with students.

What do IEP evaluations and meetings look like? Do they vary by suspected disability?

IEP teams vary based on the child’s disability and needs. For a student with a learning disability and no other needs, an IEP meeting might consist of just the parent, student, general education teacher, special education teacher, and, in most but not all districts, an administrator. If the student has any related service needs then those people would also be there. Like if a student has counseling on the IEP, the counselor needs to be there—or if the student has occupational therapy, the OT needs to be there too. For students with more complex needs, the teams can get really large. If it is an annual IEP, which are the most common types, each service provider will share out how the student is doing, what progress they made to last year’s goal, and what they will work on this year. Therefore, length of meetings also varies a lot! For a student who isn’t doing well or who has a lot of needs, they can be up to 1.5 hours long. For others, the meetings might be only 30 minutes. They are rarely over 1.5 hours. If a meeting is going to go over, the team can always reconvene. Note that parents can bring anyone they want to an IEP—a family friend, an advisor, or an advocate. If an advocate (like a special education lawyer sort of) is present, the meetings will be longer. Meetings used to all be in person, sitting around a table, but now many are on Zoom. Meetings vary in structure but typically begin with introductions, a reminder to parents of their rights, and a discussion of why the team is meeting.

How do you identify a child with a disability? What should the teachers look for?

Basically, a general education teacher should be looking out for students who are having difficulty mastering content even when provided with high-quality instruction and classroom interventions. Maybe it is a girl who is having trouble with multiplication facts and cheating off a classmate on tests. Maybe it is a boy who gets belligerent whenever you ask him to read and doesn’t seem to be getting better at sounding out words. Those can be warning signs of learning disabilities. You also might notice that a kiddo has noticeable ADHD that is impacting their ability to do work or manage in the classroom. Schools cannot tell families to medicate children, but they can talk to parents about what types of supports those students need in school, including IEPs. You also might notice that a student seems really sad, really shy, or really struggles in classroom situations and these behaviors aren’t going away even with your support. This might be a sign of something going on at home or a sign of a disability. Whatever you are seeing that triggers your spidey senses, you should speak up about. Talk to the parents. Talk to your guidance counselor. Bring the child to team. You lose nothing by bringing up your concerns—and you can be the person who helps a child get the support they need without having to wade through years of failure and frustration.

How are students evaluated? What is the assessment process for special education?

The special education evaluation process will vary from child to child and based on whether the student is just qualifying for students or has had them for a while. The student is supposed to be evaluated in every area of suspected disability. If a student has behaviors, that might include behavior rating scales and classroom observations. If a student doesn’t, those would not be included. If a student is suspected of having Autism, there might be rating scales for that. If not, there wouldn’t. There are some assessments that are pretty universal. All students need a formal academic assessment to qualify for special education. This is often the Woodcock Johnson or Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement. These tests tell how the student’s academic skills compare to the skills of same age peers. All students at initial IEPs will have some sort of cognitive assessment that evaluates their ability to learn and, in most cases, how they process and remember information. Everything else varies but at it’s minimum an assessment includes cognitive and academic testing.

How long of a process is it for a student to get an IEP? How long does it typically take out to find out when an IEP is necessary?

There are two answers to this question. The first is that from the day a parent signs a permission to evaluate form for special education, the district has 60 days to do the assessments, hold the IEP, and make the eligibility determination. So one answer to the question is 60 days. The other is, it depends. There are typically a lot of steps that come before the evaluation form gets sent home. For a child with a learning disability, there might be time in class for a general education teacher to get to know and worry about the kid, time for a team meeting to be scheduled, time after that to try interventions, time after that to meet again, time after that for interventions, and maybe then assessment. That is if a teacher is proactive and bringing the kid to team—which not all do. For some kids, it can take multiple years for them to get an IEP. Typically, learning disabilities are the slowest to identify because of how the assessment works and how hard it can be to recognize when a student has one. More significant disabilities are often identified more quickly, but there is huge variability in how long it takes from first concern to permission to evaluate forms going home. If you are concerned about a child, speak up right away and start documenting your concerns and the interventions you have tried. Interventions need to be systematic and sustained so the sooner you can start them, the faster the process from worry to IEP will be.

What is the difference between disability identification at school and at a doctor’s office?

Schools can’t diagnose anything medical. Like a school can’t say a child has diabetes or even ADHD or Autism or depression. For things like ADHD and Autism though the school can say the child has characteristics of ADHD. It’s a weird loophole—but schools aren’t doctor’s offices and teams need to watch their language. For depression or anxiety, schools skip it entirely and instead state that the child has an emotional disturbance. What schools can do is diagnose learning disabilities and challenges. So an auditory processing deficit can be diagnosed by the school, but depression can’t be. Doctor’s offices generally have the opposite issue. They can diagnose medical issues but not learning disabilities because those require specific educational assessment tools. There are gray areas with intellectual disabilities and Autism but in general schools diagnose educational disabilities and doctors medical ones. A letter from a doctor is proof of a disability BUT that child would still need special education assessments to understand how it impacts the student at school. A medical diagnosis doesn’t automatically equal an IEP.

What is the criteria for deciding when a child gets a 504 or an IEP?

The criteria is the need for special education services. The student needs to have a demonstrated need for an IEP to qualify for one. This used to mean a discrepancy between their academic potential (aka IQ) and performance (aka scores on the Woodcock Johnson). The law changed about 20 years ago to let students qualify if there is sufficient documentation that, even with research based interventions, the student is not progressing at an expected rate. That can be enough to show that the student needs the IEP. It gets more complicated for emotional challenges or attentional ones. What counts as needing services? If the child is so anxious they can’t come to school but they do great when they sit in class, does that count? A lot of time that does, but there can be differences by school, district, and state because students are often really complicated. What if that same child had self-medicated through drugs and drug use was part of what was keeping them from going to school? Is it still the disability impacting them? What if the anxiety wasn’t just biochemical but was about fear of an abusive parent? The point is that it is often not clear cut when you are looking at whether the student’s documented disability is what is impacting their school performance. As a result, the decisions on 504 or IEP are often subjective and it is really important for general education teachers, parents, and students to speak up throughout the process. challenges. So an auditory processing deficit can be diagnosed by the school, but depression can’t be. Doctor’s offices generally have the opposite issue. They can diagnose medical issues but not learning disabilities because those require specific educational assessment tools. There are gray areas with intellectual disabilities and Autism but in general schools diagnose educational disabilities and doctors medical ones. A letter from a doctor is proof of a disability BUT that child would still need special education assessments to understand how it impacts the student at school. A medical diagnosis doesn’t automatically equal an IEP.

What happens if a child qualifies for special education under multiple disabilities, like if they have a learning disability and ADHD?

So the disability category of multiple disabilities weirdly does not cover this! It is used for things like an intellectual disability and blindness, not a learning disability and ADHD. For folks with two high-incidence disabilities, one becomes the primary and the other a secondary disability. You pick which one is most impacting the student at school and put that as primary. They get one IEP with both a primary and secondary disability listed.

Can you age out or test out of special education services?

Both! If a student continues to need special education services, those will go until high school graduation or age 22, whichever comes first. Many students, however, do not need special education services all the way through their K-12 careers. Every three years, the special education team meets to determine whether the student continues to qualify for—and need—special education services. For many students who start school with just speech delays, at that three year review the team will decide that the student doesn’t need special education services anymore. Parents can also choose at any point to remove a child from special education services. Special education is voluntary and parents can say no thanks at any point.

What is the transition part of an IEP about?

IDEA requires that IEPs include transition services “focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of a child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities.” In short, transition services are required on all IEPs of high school students. Teachers need to talk with the student each year about their plan for after high school and work with the student on concrete steps to get there. Is the student going to do the military? Are they in ROTC? Do they want to go to college? What classes are they in? The fact is that employment and college success rates for students with disability are pretty bad. The point of the transition part of an IEP is to beat the statistics and to make sure the student is on a path towards their desired future. To learn more, check out the examples and explanation on the how to read an IEP page!

Why do some students receive a traditional diploma and some a certificate of attendance? How is that determined?

Students who receive a certificate of attendance are almost always students with more significant needs. These are students who will need services at school until 22 and then, typically, adult services in the community once they age out. Because of the requirements in many states for diplomas—like passing a standardized test—these students are not on the diploma track. They are also students who will take alternate state assessments. States typically have two sets of assessments—the ones most students take and a separate, life skills focused assessment for students with more severe disabilities. Now there is a grey area between diplomas and certificates of attendance for students who are just really struggling to graduate high school. These students are still normally considered diploma bound, but the school is expected to provide a lot of supports and, to be honest, many of the grey zone students wind up dropping out of high school. Some districts have job corps style programs for the grey area students to help them get their diplomas. These act as credit recovery programs while providing students with more functional skills for staying in the workforce and being independent.

What adult services are available for individuals with disabilities after graduation or after they age out?

IDEA only covers students to age 22. After that, there is no comprehensive federal law to shape the supports that adults with disabilities receive. Students with more significant needs typically qualify for SSI disability—social security disability—payments which at least provide some amount of monthly income. They also are likely to qualify for Medicaid for insurance. That is under federal law. The real questions though like are there supported employment opportunities? Where do they go during the day? Where do people live? How do you prevent abuse? What recreation leagues are there? What about people with less significant needs? Here is your bleak answer. Jail. About 40% of people in jail have disabilities (from Prison Policy Org). About 23% of prisoners have an intellectual disability according to the Office of Justice Programs. The truth is that we don’t serve adults with disabilities well. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely than the rest of the population to commit suicide (per the CDC). There are some amazing programs out there in states—and amazing advocacy groups—but there is an enormous drop off in services after people age out of special education with a significant impact on peoples’ lives.

What services are available to students who are Deaf and blind?

Only about 10,000 children in the United States have been identified as Deaf and blind. This is a really low incidence category with a lot of variation within it. Like the classification of visually impaired includes folks with a wide range of functional vision—not just folks that we think of as blind. Same with hearing impaired. Students might need hearing aids or have implants, but the deaf and hard of hearing category includes students who can hear. That’s a long way of saying that a student who is classified as deaf and blind might be hearing impaired and vision impaired but not totally blind or deaf. How a child is served—and where—would depend on the extent of their disability. A lot of time, these students go to a boarding school of some sort. That’s because there is a huge social element they can miss out on in a typical school and a lot of specialized instruction they might benefit from. Galludet university in DC is a really amazing university for the deaf. They serve a lot of folks who are deaf blind too and having amazing architecture and supports to enable all students to access the curriculum. If these students are served in a traditional public school, they would have a highly trained one-on-one paraprofessional and a lot of support services, like instruction in orientation and mobility.

What happens if a parent doesn’t want their child diagnosed or doesn’t want them to have an IEP? What happens if a teacher notices a child might need special education but the parents don’t want their child evaluated?

Folks also asked, “What happens if a parent refuses to get their child tested for disabilities?” The law say that the parent has the right to refuse assessment and refuse an IEP. Parents have the legal right to remove their student from special education at any point. Here is the low down on how to avoid that. Talk to the parent. A LOT. Don’t drop stuff on parents at meetings. Build relationships. Listen to them. Why don’t they want the IEP? What are their worries? What concrete steps can you do to alleviate those worries? If you truly believe the student would benefit from special education services, invest the time in talking and listening. Only once, after all that, in all of my years has a parent said no. The parent was Somali and we wanted to assess his eldest son for a learning disability. To the dad, disability meant something that kept you from being successful in life. If we assessed his son, we were saying that his son would not be able to be successful. We talked a lot to dad and to the family—and used cultural brokers— but dad’s beliefs were really deep. We didn’t assess—but we did get dad to agree to informal intervention services to support his son’s progress in reading. So the child got help and dad avoided the label. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a compromise. Other than that, listening has worked magic for me in all other cases. If what you want to know is what happens from the perspective of a general education teacher, the answer is you keep trying interventions and you keep bringing up your concerns. What you don’t get is extra support for the student like you would if the student had an IEP. So if you want the child to get services, start talking to the parent ASAP.

Do parents have to pay for certain services in special education?

No. If the student attends a public school, their services are free. That includes the technology they need to be successful, their services like speech, and other supports like paraprofessionals. Here’s the caveat. Parents who home school or who send their children to private schools might have to pay. And if parents want a service that the school isn’t willing to offer, like music therapy or after school tutoring, the parents might have to pay. But parents do not have to pay for special education services at a public school. Period.

Are the special education services between 0 and 2 state or federally funded or do families have to pay for them?

All special education services are publicly funded, including those for children between 0 and 2. Parents do not have to pay for them. The services are paid for by a mix of state and federal dollars but are at no cost to families.

Are all students aware of their IEP plan?

Yes and no. The yes is that, under IDEA, students have to be invited to their IEP meetings when they hit 14. Up until 14, IEP teams get to make a choice on whether or not students are invited to the meeting. At 14, it is no longer a choice. The no is that parents will often ask that older students not be invited to meetings– and there is no requirement that younger students attend their meetings. There is also no requirement that IEP teams ever go over the IEP with students. That means that, in theory, students might not know they have an IEP. In reality, that is pretty rare. Almost all students with IEPs get pulled out. They might not know why they are pulled out or the job title of the person pulling them out, but they know they are getting extra services. There is a lot of research in special education on self-determination. Students with disabilities do better in life if they are empowered. I believe in inviting students to IEP meetings right from the beginning. Maybe they aren’t there for the whole meeting– but I have always wanted them to be part of the team as much as is possible and is appropriate. I like to talk to their faces, not behind their backs.

Do parents get support when filling out special education paperwork?

Not normally. It depends to some extent on what you mean by paperwork. For example, if you mean signing the IEP document and giving consent to the IEP, then the answer is yes. Schools really, really want IEPs signed and finalized for their timelines. That means that parents will often get more help than they wanted finding the consent box on a signature page. If you mean filling out rating scales for initial or triennial assessments, then the answer is sometimes. School psychologists really need that paperwork done so they have a reason to help parents– but generally that only happens if the parent is proactive and reaches out to the psychologist. I think I have seen that once, ever. If what you mean is help navigating the complex web of special education, the answer is rarely. All parents are supposed to get their rights aka procedural safeguards at the start of every meeting. Does that happen? Rarely. Parents have the right to bring anyone they want to an IEP meeting to help them navigate it– something that many don’t know. But schools don’t have anyone whose job it is to help parents navigate the maze– everyone at the school has a vested interest in the process and that means that school staff are often not the best advisors to parents. Some districts have an ombudsman who is a neutral party and can support parents. Some regions have an exceptional family resource center where parents can receive support and advice. But most parents are on their own navigating the maze.

How do you explain the complexities of an IEP to a young student?

I haven’t had a lot of luck explaining this to the littlest students. Typically the students I have worked with in PreK, K, and 1st have pretty significant needs with things like communication. They know they are getting extra support and often know that they have challenges with communication, but that’s about it. My 2nd graders and above with learning difficulties though have been different. The way the process works is that a student has to fail a lot to get special education for learning difficulties. Autism, communication, and developmental disability focused IEPs are different. OHI and SLD (aka ADHD and learning disability) focused IEPs require kids to fail. So when I get even young students with those disabilities, they typically come to me with a narrative that they are stupid or bad. That’s where I will talk about their disability. I will talk about all of the ways that their brain is smart– all of the things that they do so well and easily– and then we talk about the things that are hard for them. We talk about what they find to be hard and how that relates to what other people like their teachers or the school psychologist see being hard for them. We talk about the fact that everyone has things they are better and worse at– that having difficulties with some of the things that school requires doesn’t make them stupid, just human. Then we talk about what my job is– that it is my job to help them get better at some of the things that are hard for them and to help them find ways to be successful. If the student has other supports, we talk about those to and what the point of them is. I do the same thing with older students to– I have a 10th grader right now who really wants to understand Autism because she feels different than the others students and kind of lost– so we talk about it. Kids know what is hard for them. You aren’t telling them they have something wrong with them– you are helping them make sense of the stuff that they already know is hard for them.

Do the students, parents, or team create a student’s IEP goals?

In theory, goals are created by the full team, with the input of the student, the parents, the general education teacher, the case manager, any impacted related service providers, and others with knowledge of the student. That’s how it’s supposed to be. In reality, a special education teacher will almost always write the academic goals on their own before the meeting and the related service providers will write theirs before the meeting and the meeting will be a rubber stamp of pre-created goals. It doesn’t have to be this way though. I really like writing at least one goal at the meeting– asking the parent and the student what they think should be a focus for the next year and then working together to figure out how we could measure that. I think it is empowering for the student, includes the family, and leads to much better goals. Doing that can slow down IEP meetings however and lead to goals that don’t exactly fit the template the district wants– and districts are much more responsive to the demands of state auditors than they are to families and students. Families probably won’t do due process. The state will catch if the paperwork isn’t exactly right– or so the thinking goes. That leads to standardized goals pre-created before a meeting that conform to the whims of the state with limited input from the rest of the team.

How you would address a situation where the school wasn’t following an IEP?

Depends on who you are. If you are a parent, pitch a fit. Parents have a lot of rights under IDEA. They have the right to file a complaint or due process. That complaint might be that an IEP isn’t being followed or that it isn’t being written properly or that a student’s needs are just not being met. There is then a series of steps including mediation and hearings. In the end, the student might get compensatory services. That means services to make up for the shortcomings of the district. A lot of the time this is tutoring or a placement at a different school. While the outcome doesn’t always cost the school a lot of money, the process does—and it looks bad for the school. As a result, when parents threaten due process, schools will mostly cave. As a parent, there are a few power moves you can pull and threatening due process is one of them. Now, if you are a teacher it is trickier because you work for the school district. Like, you aren’t SUPPOSED to tip off a parent that things aren’t being done right but you know… informally…. Other than that, you can speak up in whatever way and whatever avenue the district allows. But, TBH, it is pretty brutal if you are a teacher and worried about services because a lot of times you can feel powerless.

What happens if a teacher doesn’t follow the IEP? Can a teacher get fired if they don’t provide the services on an IEP?

The sad truth is, typically nothing happens and I have never heard of a teacher being fired—written up maybe but nothing beyond that. Let’s say you have a general education teacher who refuses to give extra time on a test. The special education teacher can say this is the student’s legal right. But, unless administration is willing to get involved and throw weight around, often little happens. In theory, it could lead to disciplinary action but, unless a safety incident resulted, I haven’t heard of that happening. A lot of times, the special education teacher will either just start pulling that student out for all tests or move the student out of the classroom entirely. Like, why would you keep a student with a teacher like that? It isn’t going to be good no matter what. Parents can always file due process (basically threaten the special education form of suing). That can cause a district to act but I have had teachers say no when I pushed them to implement an IEP. It is even more problematic when it is the special education teacher not following the IEP. That’s when you need parents who know their child’s rights—and students who know their rights too. Squeaky wheels get the grease.

Why don’t special education students spend more time in general education if it benefits them and doesn’t harm other students?

The answers vary by school but a lot of time it has to do with scheduling, habit, and staffing. It can be complicated to figure out how to schedule students with more needs in general education. Who goes with them? How are the teachers supported? That is often combined with staff shortages and the force of habit. In high schools, it is even more complicated. If you are at a heavily tracked school where students are in the highest class where they can be academically successful doing that curriculum, what do you do with kiddos with more academic challenges? They often get grouped together in de facto special education classrooms. People can dress up the reasons, but decisions about tracking, scheduling difficulties, staffing shortages, and inertias are behind a lot of the more restrictive programs I have seen.

When does an IEP get called into question?

An IEP gets called into question if someone is unhappy or something is going wrong. If everything is going great and everyone is happy, they are rarely called into question. It’s when things go badly that there are more likely to be questions. That could be the parent being like, “Hey, my kids isn’t making growth. Why not?” or “Hey, my kid just came home crying because they have no friends. Why isn’t the school doing anything to help?” Parents have the right to request an IEP meeting whenever they want one. Practically, schools could stall 10 to 30 days depending on the state/district. That means that even the most aggressive of parents would have trouble getting an IEP scheduled more often than once a month. If a parent is concerned about anything, however, they get to request a review and changes to the IEP. Schools can also request meetings between the annual IEPs. These are often done because a student is struggling and the school wants to document that they are doing something– or because the school is trying to put pressure on a parent to do something like get the kid to school, look at therapy services in the community, or take away the student’s phone at night so the kid sleeps. The other situation where an IEP gets called into question is if an advocate gets involved. Most are paid by the hour so they have a financial interest in holding lots of meetings and asking for lots of changes.

If a student has daily support or needs throughout the day, what happens when there is a sub?

This is the million dollar question. The legal answer is, the student gets their services and supports. The reality is a bit different. Let’s break down subs a bit. First, there is what happens if a general education teacher is out. The classroom sub is never given the IEPs of students in the class– long term subs excepted. Sometimes teachers will leave behavior plan information for the kids who need it, but often they don’t. What happens in that case is a lot of prayers, hope, and luck. Ideally the special education team isn’t out that day and can be proactive– and the sub isn’t awful and a trigger for the student. Second, there is what happens if a special education teacher is out. If the teacher has instructional responsibilities, they get a sub. Maybe. Sometimes they don’t and a paraprofessional covers. The sub is typically not specially trained and often they don’t have access to IEPs either. If the teacher is a resource teacher/case manager/whatever, they typically don’t get a sub and the student goes without for the day. The third case is what happens if a paraprofessional is out. Typically what happens here is shifting. The neediest students always get covered first– and generally someone will shuffle the schedule to make sure some rando is not sitting with the most explosive child in the school. Basically, if there is a sub, except some chaos. There is all sorts of planning you can try to do to prevent the chaos– but subs are in short supply and many are of questionable quality, so good luck to you and your students.

Why are IEPs so difficult to read?

IEPs are legal documents. Every state has a special education compliance office that audits IEPs to make sure that everything that needs to be in an IEP is in there and that everything is phrased the way the state wants to see. As a result, districts focus on writing compliant IEPs, not ones that make sense. My boss is one of the best in my state at ensuring our IEPs are compliant. We have had a lot of conversations about the facts that our goals make no sense. For example, here is one, “By March 2025, given direct instruction in problem solving and scheduling, in order to meet her goal of becoming a programmer, Rose will create and maintain a digital schedule with 80% accuracy on three of four occasions as measured by a special education teacher using a curriculum based measure.” I wrote that to be less bad than most of our goals. What does it mean to do something with 80% accuracy on three of four trials? Like really, what does that mean? That type of language comes straight from the state. I am obsessed with writing easy to read IEPs and yet my goals are totally incomprehensible because that is what the state compliance office is asking for. Parents are supposed to be the end users of IEPs– them and general education teachers. At some point, however, the end users became state compliance officers and that led to even more jargon, weird sentence structure, and nonsensical phrasing.

What are the discipline methods for students with disabilities?

There are three totally different, correct answers to this question. The first is that discipline for students with disabilities is just like that for all other students. They can be referred, suspended, and expelled, just like other students– and, in fact, are far more likely to experience all of that discipline than their non-disabled students. The second is that an IEP is supposed to be inclusive of ALL aspects of a student’s disability. If a student has behaviors, the team is supposed to look at why and when those behaviors are happening and to add in services and supports to keep those behaviors from happening. That might mean giving a student counseling, adding a behavior support plan, or providing the student with social skills instruction– but the team can’t just ignore it and say, “Oh well.” The third is that students with IEPs have special legal protection against expulsion and suspensions that total 10 or more days. If a student is heading towards 10 suspension days or towards expulsion worthy behaviors, the team needs to hold a manifest determination meeting. At that meeting, the team is required to review the IEP and determine whether the behaviors are a manifestation of the disability. If so, the team needs to show how they have tried to address the student’s needs– the onus is on the district to prove that they tried to prevent the problems and followed the IEP. If the district can’t do that, the student and their family have options like getting the student back to school or supplemental services.

What happens if you move states? Does the IEP travel with you? Do you reapply or retest?

When a student with an IEP moves to a new state, the IEP travels with them. In fact, if the student or their family doesn’t tell the new school about the IEP, it is the responsibility of the new school to figure it out! I used to have to do a lot of phone calls to out of state transfer students being like, “So…um… did this child have any services back there?” IDEA says that the new school has to “take reasonable steps to promptly obtain the child’s records, including the IEP and supporting documents.” Once the new school gets the IEP, they need to start following it immediately, offering “comparable” services. Most districts typically have a requirement that, within the first 30 days or so that the new student is there, they hold an IEP meeting to update the paperwork. School districts want to have all IEPs on the district forms. The district can modify goals or services at that meeting BUT the student remains eligible. IDEA is super clear on this. The law says the new school has to provide the transfer student “with a free appropriate public education, including services comparable to those described in the previously held IEP, in consultation with the parents” until the school does new assessments and writes a new IEP.
Short answer: The IEP travels with you. Students do NOT have to reapply.