Let’s talk about Individualized Education Plans (IEP). This article will be the long-form version of a Twitter Thread I posted in February 2022.

If you have a child who may have special needs or have dealt with IEPs, this article is for you. You are seen. The reality is that it takes months of total hours and frustration to put together an IEP. Hopefully, this summary will help.

The Origin of the IEP in the US

Wrightslaw has an excellent overview of special education law in the US. The basics are that the Individualized Education Plan comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The main goal, taken from the website, is:

To ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.

The phrase “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) is essential here. There is a provision in section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973 that handles enforcement to access and the rights of parents and students regarding FAPE.

  • Free means that the education and services needed for your child should be at no extra cost to families. The government pays for this.
  • Appropriate means that if your child qualifies, they are entitled to an IEP with services to meet their unique educational needs. Appropriate is where the battles for services often play out due to multiple conflicting interests. More on that later in the thread.
  • Public means supervised by a public school. Your child’s experience may vary wildly depending on the school district. I’m sure some do this exceptionally well. The issue is that it varies from state to state and district to district.
  • Education can include special education and related services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy, vision assessments, etc.

The IEP Process

FAPE sounds relatively straightforward until you actually try to go down the road of obtaining an IEP, then deciding on goals and services. In my experience that the process breaks down into a few key areas: Obtaining, Deciding on Goals / Services, and Deciding Appropriate.

Unless you’ve been through this, my words will not likely give you a complete sense of the frustration with the seemingly Sisyphean task of navigating the IEP process.

Obtaining an IEP

The first hurdle is obtaining an IEP. To do this, the school has to agree that there is an issue and start a barrage of assessments that may include, for example, psychological, occupational, speech, educational, and social evaluations. This is not an exhaustive list.

After the assessments, the IEP team (including the parents) will determine if your child qualifies for an IEP. My child has Down Syndrome. In that case, determining the need for services was pretty straightforward as my child has a clear diagnosis.

In other cases, such as undiagnosed ADHD or Dyslexia, it might be more of a fight to get services. It might be more of a battle to even get the school system to start assessments. Even if you get an assessment, they may not determine whether your child needs an IEP.

If you still feel that your child needs an IEP, you can file a “due process” claim to get a third-party assessment. Due process is used for dispute resolution in the IEP process for several items.

Deciding on Goals, Services, and Accommodations

Suppose the team has determined that your child qualifies for IEP services. In that case, those services must be selected, including supports and goals to be worked on in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE can vary based on your child’s needs and starts with an open class.

LRE means that if your child can be educated along with their peers, that is where they belong. This is true even if supports are needed. In my case, I wanted my child to spend some time in a special education classroom, mixing for resources like PE or ART.

It is essential for the socialization and normalization of people with special needs to be amongst their peers and not just with others with special needs. It benefits the child with special needs and the other children who will come to see them as children like any other.

What is Appropriate?

Deciding on goals, services, and accommodations is another area where the IEP process can break down. The APPROPRIATE portion of FAPE is ripe for disagreement. This is because these determinations are often at odds with state-level standards testing.

For example, I have determined that my high-level vision for my child aligns mainly with the three areas of IDEA. Further education, independent living, and future employment, with Independent Living, the funnel through which all goals flow. My child NEEDS life skills. That does not mean that academics should be ignored. Reading and math, for example, are still critical. It’s just that those academics will be in service of independence as my daughter transitions into adulthood.

Since this is the case, I have opted for my child to obtain an Applied Studies Diploma. This curriculum is mapped by a series of skills and skill levels in Virginia. There is no grade-level mapping because the individual may be at different skill levels than typical.

A skill level mapping is the right approach because there is no grade-level mapping available that can account for a child with special needs and cognitive delays. It doesn’t make sense to compare their progress to a grade-level standard.

However, a very disappointing process in my state requires students on an Applied Studies Diploma track to sit for the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP). This program is similar to the SOL in that it is a standardized test that maps to a GRADE LEVEL!

As a parent of a child with special needs, this is maddening! I need my child to learn how to count mixed coins, make change, learn personal info (address, etc.), learn what to do in an emergency, count to 100, or remember her days, months, and year and recall them on demand.

VAAP has my child trying to find the area of a 2d geometric shape! We are at the recalling the day of the week level. This is where I feel the Individualized part of the IEP is at odds with the standards.

There is simply not enough time to implement these strategies if the teacher is focused on the standards required in the VAAP. My child has often come home with cramped black and white worksheets dealing with abstract concepts above her head.

How do they get away with things like this? Often the education team will use the IEP to provide for things like calculators on tests. Instead of taking a unique approach tailored to my child’s INDIVIDUAL needs, they teach her to punch in numbers on a calculator to pass.

Keep, Organize, and, Record Everything

Shortcuts, like incorrectly using a calculator on tests, result in exaggerated grades and progress reports that DO NOT match the lived experience of my child’s actual progress. It is disheartening and frustrating. An IEP is very data-driven, so parents will often struggle to obtain additional services with inflated grades.

This is why it is essential to keep good records and data. Do your own assessments of their progress at home and document it!

I scan every piece of schoolwork sent home for my child, so I have a comparison year to year. I video her from time to time doing the exercises in the worksheets and compare the results to implementing the same lessons with manipulatives or other multi-sensory tools.

I keep copious notes about everything that was said at an IEP meeting and how it may or may not align with my vision for my child. I use apps like Obsidian and Craft to stay organized and share my findings with the IEP team. I use Readwise to document research

Keep Fighting

Fighting for my child’s educational rights through an IEP is a full-time job on top of my full-time job of parenting on top of my full-time job. If you are exhausted reading this thread, imagine what it might be like to go through this process.

The school system will try to throw multiple acronyms at parents and expect them to keep up. You have acronyms like IEP, LRE, VAAP, and PWN. You have documents to keep up with that outline your rights and responsibilities with the IEP process. Long, legal documents.

If you are in the midst of starting or have been dealing with the IEP process for a while, I feel for you. It’s not an easy road, but you can do it with some tools and data. If you don’t ask for it, it usually won’t happen. Keep this in mind as you navigate through this.

If you do not have a loved one dealing with an IEP or have never dealt with it yourself, please keep in mind that when you meet a parent of a child with special needs, that momentary interaction is an iceberg of both triumphs and frustrations. Be patient. Be kind.




I write about Educational Rights, IEPs, and Down Syndrome.

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Harley Stagner

Harley Stagner

I write about Educational Rights, IEPs, and Down Syndrome.

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