HOW TO READ AN IEP:
“You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The foundation of a child’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) is the Individualized Education Program (“IEP”).
The IEP is more than a legal document; it is a plan of action to accomplish a specified end. Developed, reviewed and revised at least annually, each iteration of the IEP provides specific short-term guidance to help the child progress on their long-term journey to becoming a self-sufficient adult. The IEP acts as ‘headlights’ shining a light on a particular leg of a child’s journey to adulthood.
Unfortunately, the IEP is not always illuminating. It is often captured in a disarmingly long and technical document, making it difficult and overwhelming to comprehend. This can undermine its functional use as a guide for the child’s education.
It is particularly critical that the parent understands the IEP so they can participate in its design and implementation. In all likelihood, the parent will be the only consistent member of the IEP team throughout the span of their child’s education. With contextual understanding of the child’s history, personal investment in the child’s success, and informed guidance from their fellow IEP team members, the parent is in the best position to lead the IEP team and ensure the educational program is truly designed for the individual.
As a parent, before you can lead the process of designing and implementing the IEP, you first have to understand the document in front of you. In the coming weeks, stay tuned for more periodic updates in my IEP article series, HOW TO READ AN IEP, which will examine the specific sections of the IEP with tips to guide your reading. In the meantime, here are some recommendations to consider before you even open the document.
Step 0: Get ready to read the proposed IEP
Imagine: you are at your child’s annual IEP meeting. You have multiple packets of freshly printed papers in front of you, including a thick document labeled “Individualized Education Program” with today’s date listed as the IEP meeting date and implementation date. It’s your first time seeing this specific IEP, but it looks very similar to your child’s previous ones. Over the course of the meeting, you listen to your fellow IEP team members describe your child’s progress and goals. Maybe you flip through the document as team members reference it, maybe it sits untouched. At the end of the meeting, you are asked to sign a Notice of Recommended Educational Placement (“NOREP”) consenting to the implementation of the IEP in front of you. Do you sign?
Not yet. The IEP you received from the school is a preliminary recommendation for review and discussion. Take the time you need to read the draft IEP so you can approve, disapprove, or propose revisions. In Pennsylvania, you have 10 calendar days to return a NOREP either approving or disapproving the proposed action. The timelines associated with NOREPs differ from state to state, however you should have ample time to take the IEP home, review it, and incorporate your input.
You might receive a copy of the proposed IEP a day or two before the meeting. Reading the IEP before the scheduled meeting can be helpful because it enables you to discuss any questions or areas of concern that arose upon review. The school team is not required to prepare a draft IEP prior to a scheduled IEP team meeting. However, if a draft IEP is developed prior to the meeting and made available to the school staff, the agency should:
i. Make it clear to the parent that the services proposed by the agency are preliminary recommendations for review and discussion; and
ii. Provide a copy of its draft proposals to the parent prior to the meeting to allow the parent the opportunity to review the recommendations and be better able to engage in a full discussion of the proposals for the IEP.
Whether you receive the proposed IEP five days or five minutes before the IEP meeting, you have the right to read it and review it thoroughly. The question is: how do you go about reading this beast of a document?
- Prepare your materials. I advise getting a printed copy of the proposed IEP and sitting down with a highlighter and pen. And that’s it. It is essential that the IEP is informed by outside information (evaluations, report cards, teacher input, etc.); however, it is clarifying to focus on what is and is not incorporated within the four corners of the document, just as a teacher would receive it.
- Prepare your environment. Set yourself up in a place where you can see the document well enough to read it and hear yourself think.
- Keep your purpose in mind. Before reviewing an IEP, I like to remind myself of its purpose: to guide the IEP team, and any other professional, who will be working with this individual child. I imagine myself in the position of a teacher or service provider before the first day of school. I would want to be able to scan the document and understand what instruction and supports I need to provide. After finishing the document, answers to the following questions should be clear to me:
- What are your child’s strengths and areas of need?
- What skills does your child most immediately need to develop on their journey to becoming a self-sufficient adult living as independently as possible in their community?
- What supports should your child receive to help develop these skills?
To find the answers to these questions, and ensure they are loud and clear in the written IEP, it helps to read strategically. And that doesn’t necessarily mean starting on page 1. The next article of the HOW TO READ AN IEP series will provide a deep dive into the first section I turn to when handed in an IEP: Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance.