Students with delayed skills or other disabilities 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 2004) 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 the students for the school year, as well as any special support the students may need to help them achieve those goals.
Who Needs an IEP?
Students struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to be taught in a special way, for reasons such as:
Signs that a student may have a learning disability include:
- getting poor grades despite significant effort
- needing continual, step-by-step guidance for tasks
- not being able to remember problem-solving steps because he or she does not understand the tasks or the logic behind them
- having poor memory of spoken or written material
- having difficulty mastering tasks or transferring academic skills to other tasks
- not being able to remember skills and facts over time
- having strong general knowledge, but not being able to read (dyslexia), write (dysgraphia), or do math (dyscalculia) at that level
- having difficulty with communication and language processing, as well as expressive and receptive language
- being extremely frustrated with school and homework
How Are Services Delivered?
In most cases, the services outlined in an IEP can be provided in regular education classrooms. In other cases, IEP services might be delivered in separate resource 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 in addition to social skills instruction.
The least restrictive setting for students with IEPs is a regular education classroom. Students with IEPs usually join regular education classes for special subject areas such as 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 that are required in the plan.
The next least restrictive setting is a resource or learning support classroom. In this setting, groups of students with similar needs are brought together for small-group instruction. A certified special education teacher is the instructor and other school personnel (aides or support teachers) assist with teaching.
Students who need intense intervention, however, 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 specific special educational needs.
Evaluation and Referral
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:
- a 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 determine the next step. At this point, strategies specific to the student could be used to help the child become more successful in school prior to any formal testing. If this doesn't work, the child would be tested for a specific learning disability or other impairment to help determine qualification for special services.
It's important to note, though, that the presence of a disability doesn't automatically guarantee a child will receive services. To be eligible, the disability must affect functioning at school.
To determine eligibility, a multidisciplinary team of professionals will evaluate the child based on their observations, the child's performance 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
- a psychologist
- a physical therapist
- an occupational therapist
- a speech therapist
- a special educator
- a vision or hearing specialist
- others, depending on the child's specific needs
After it is determined that further testing is necessary, parents will be asked to sign a permission form that will detail 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. Testing does not necessarily mean that a child will receive services.
Once the team members complete their individual assessments, they develop a comprehensive evaluation report (CER) that compiles their findings, offers an educational classification, and outlines the skills and support the child will need.
The parents then have a chance to review the report before the IEP is developed. If parents disagree with the report, they will have the opportunity to work together with the school to come up with a plan that best meets the child's needs.
Developing an IEP
The next step is an IEP meeting at which the team and parents decide what will go into the plan. In addition to the evaluation team, a regular classroom teacher should be present to offer suggestions about how the plan can help the child's progress in the standard education curriculum and how it can be implemented 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 CER — and come up with specific, measurable short-term and annual goals for each of those needs.
The cover page of the IEP outlines the support services students will receive and how often they will be provided (for example, occupational therapy twice a week, pullout daily math classes). Support services might include special education, speech and language therapy, occupational or physical therapy, counseling, audiology, medical services, nursing, vision, hearing therapy, and many others.
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, some services may be provided on a consultative basis. In these cases, the professional consults with the teacher to come up with strategies to help the child but doesn't offer any hands-on instruction. For instance, an occupational therapist may suggest accommodations for a child with fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the classroom teacher would incorporate these suggestions 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 difficulty 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, with students getting small-group instruction in a particular subject area (usually language arts or math) by a special education teacher with other students who have similar needs.
The IEP should be reviewed annually to update the goals and make sure the levels of service meet the student's needs. However, during the school year progress monitoring will occur on a frequent basis to assure that 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 CER or the IEP, mediation and hearings are options.
It is important for teachers to understand the IEP process and the role they have 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: Steven J. Bachrach, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013