The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA 2004) mandates that every child identified as having a disability and in need of special education services be provided an Individualized Education Program or IEP. Parents must be in included in the process of developing these plans and are considered members of the IEP team along with school personnel. Seven steps are involved in the IEP Process. These and the parents’ role and rights in each step are outlined below.
This entails parents and school personnel working collaboratively to determine if general education teachers can appropriately address any educational or behavioral difficulties in the general or regular education classroom. Teachers may try different techniques and strategies, alter instructional delivery, and make accommodations tailored for the students. If concerns persist, a referral for a special education evaluation should occur.
A referral for evaluation may be generated through the process detailed above. Parents may also make a written request for an evaluation. In New Jersey the Child Study Team (CST) receives this written request. The CST is comprised of a Learning Disabilities Teacher-Consultant (LDT-C), a School Psychologist, and a School Social Worker.
Next, an Initial Evaluation Meeting to determine whether an evaluation is warranted is conducted within 20 calendar days of the receipt of the written request. At least one parent, the CST, and the student’s regular education teacher are required participants in this meeting. If this team determines that an evaluation is warranted, they will then plan the nature and scope of the evaluation. Parents must give written consent in order for the evaluation to proceed. If it is determined that an evaluation is not warranted, the team must delineate other appropriate actions to address the presenting concerns. Other participants may include a Speech and Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, and Behaviorist as these professionals may also be needed to evaluate areas of concern. Parents may invite other individuals to attend the meeting.
The CST and possibly some or all of the other professionals listed above will review records including existing evaluation data, attempted interventions, work samples, classroom-based assessments, teacher observations, and information provided by parents. The Initial Evaluation will consist of a multi-disciplinary assessment in all areas of suspected disability. At least two assessments must be performed by at least two CST members. A CST member, usually the School Social Worker, will conduct an interview with the student’s parents. A minimum of one structured observation by one CST member must also be performed. This can be in the general education classroom, or for a student of preschool age, an environment appropriate for that age.
The main purposes of the Initial Evaluation are:
• To determine whether the student has a disability under the New Jersey Special Education Code
• The present levels of academic and functional achievement and educational needs
• Whether the student needs special education and possibly additional therapy
• Provide a baseline of performance that informs the development of the IEP if the child is found eligible for special education
• Evaluation results will be used later to assess the efficacy of the IEP that was implemented
Parents must be provided with reports of the evaluations no more than 80 days after signing initial consent to perform them. A meeting to determine eligibility for special education must be convened no more than 90 days following initial consent.
If the evaluation process has identified that a student has a disability and the IEP team classifies that disability, an eligibility meeting is conducted. This meeting occurs following the discussion of the evaluation results. At this point the parents may sign that they either agree or disagree with the determination made from the evaluation process. If the parents agree, the participants immediately shift to an IEP Development meeting. If the parents do not wish to make a decision immediately they have the right to consider eligibility for 15 days and no IEP can be developed at that time. In this case a meeting would be rescheduled for approximately 15 days later.
Preschool children ages 3-5 may be eligible for special education if they meet New Jersey Code specific criteria: A 33% delay in one developmental area or a 25% delay in two or more developmental areas listed below.
• Physical, including gross motor, fine motor and sensory (vision and hearing)
• Social or Emotional
A preschool child may also be eligible if they have an identified disabling condition, including vision and hearing, that adversely affects learning or development and that requires special education.
Within three years of the previous classification, reevaluation for eligibility for special education services is conducted. It can be conducted sooner if the student’s parent or teacher requests it. Parents also have the right to withhold consent for a reevaluation.
5. Development of the IEP
As mentioned above, the evaluations that were performed provide a baseline of performance that informs the development of the IEP.
Again, parents must be in included in the process of developing the IEP and are considered members of the IEP team along with school personnel. Parents meet with the school-based IEP team, and the child if appropriate, to develop measurable goals and short-term objectives or benchmarks which are driven by the child’s needs. The school-based team must include one general education teacher, one special education teacher, a representative of the school district, and someone to interpret the instructional implications of the assessment results. The interpretation of the instructional implications of the assessment results is usually done by the LDT-C. These implications are typically specified in the educational report that the parents have received prior to the meeting.
The team also determines what constellation of program or services are necessary to meet these needs. When developing the IEP the team must consider the strengths of the student as well as the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child.
It is important to recognize that IEPs are binding legal documents. Five key principles must be adhered to:
I. The student’s needs must be met.
II. Whether services are available or not is not a determining factor as to whether or not they are contained in the IEP.
III. All IEP specified services must be provided.
IV. It is self-evident that INDIVIDUAL Education Programs, as specified in Federal and State Code, are intended to be individually formulated. No two students, even with the same disability category, have precisely the same needs or patterns of strengths and weaknesses. Cookie cutter templates or one size fits all constructs constitute a disservice to all stakeholders.
V. The contents of the IEP should be communicated to all school personnel who interact with the students. This includes the principal and other administrators, teachers, aides, specialists, school nurse, substitute teachers, and other relevant personnel.
It was my practice in the public schools to meet individually with all personnel to discuss each student, have them read the IEPS, and field any questions they might have. They were required to sign that they had read the IEPS and maintain a copy in a safe place for reference. Substitutes were also required to familiarize themselves with the IEPS and know of its’ location in the classroom. Particular attention was paid to the modifications and accommodations specified in the IEP for each student.
6. Implementation of the IEP
This is when service delivery commences. This should begin immediately upon the parents’ consent for implementation being obtained. IEPS may be amended or altered during the course of a school year prior to the annual review due to a variety of reasons. Most amendments do not require any additional meetings, just a parent’s signature. However, if it is proposed that any of the goals or objectives are to be amended, a meeting must be convened to discuss the change(s) before they can be instituted.
7. Annual Review
The student’s progress toward meeting the IEP goals and objectives is reviewed at a yearly meeting known as the Annual Review. Any goals and objectives that have been achieved should either be eliminated or revised with more demanding criteria substituted. Sometimes specific goals and objectives are no longer relevant as the student’s needs and/or program have changed. Thus deletion of these goals or objectives or a tweaking of them is necessary. Parental feedback is important in this process.
I have frequently observed that students’ performance in school can be much different than at home when doing homework. Not only academic performance, but also behaviors often vary considerably across these settings. Thus discussion of how to maximize outcomes across settings and fine tune communication between parents and school personnel is usually another important component of the annual review.
An additional key feature of the annual review is that a new program is developed. As students progress and grow the previous year’s decisions regarding placement and supportive services may not be optimal for the ensuing year. Sometimes more intensive special services may be necessary. In other instances it may be appropriate to diminish the degree of support due to documented progress and increased student independence. Another scenario is when a student has made great academic strides, has often become a strong self-advocate, and is functioning on or above grade level with little or no extra support from school personnel. These students are no longer in need of special education services. When this occurs it has been a source of deep satisfaction and pride for parents as well as for me as a professional.
–Scott Bagish, M.Ed., LDT-C