Saturday, July 18, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: What Must Be Considered?

An IEP is an individualized plan developed by a team of individuals to address a child's unique needs and provide for goals, services and special education to meet those needs. Because it is individualized, inherently, specific information about the individual child must be discussed and taken into consideration. This information can come from a variety of sources, including evaluation data, classroom data, parents, teachers, etc. Because the IEP is developed by a team of individuals, all of those members should have input into the development of the IEP, based on their knowledge of the child and their specific role in the process.

The IDEA includes a specific list for what the IEP team is required to take into consideration. See 20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(3).

(i) the strengths of the child

Although the child's unique needs, i.e. deficits, are the core of what must be addressed in an IEP, it is important that the team take into consideration the child's strengths as well. An individual child's specific strengths can be very relevant in the discussion of what type of specialized instruction would work for the child, how the child can be included in general education, etc. It may not be appropriate, for example, for a child who has a strength in math skills to be in a specialized setting the entire day, rather than being included for a math class.

Remember that the "strengths of the child" should be based on that particular child, not solely on what may be considered a "strength" for that age or grade level. This is called a "relative strength."

(ii) the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child

Consideration of the concerns of the parents in the development of the IEP is, in my opinion, one of the most important provisions of the IDEA. Other portions of the IDEA echo this requirement, instructing school districts to include parents in the IEP team and to include parents in any team that makes a placement decision about their child. Procedural safeguards and other requirements are all based on this central idea: that parent participation is key to the development of an appropriate IEP.

Meaningful parent participation is not just about whether the school district invites the parents to the meeting and whether the parents show up. The requirement that the "concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child" indicates the importance of meaningful parent participation - their concerns must actually be taken into consideration by the IEP team when the IEP is being developed.

IEP teams and school district representatives can only take into consideration parent concerns if they have an open mind about those concerns, and about any requests that the parents may make to the team and district. The IEP team should listen to the parents, and should have a meaningful discussion about any concerns raised, including how those concerns will be addressed in the IEP.

Parents should be proactive in preparing for participation in IEP meetings. Make a list of your concerns related to your child's education. Consider what concerns you have regarding your child's social skills, peer interactions, academic achievement, attention and behavior, and other areas relevant to the IEP development. Consider how those concerns relate to other data and information you have; like, for instance, if your concerns regarding your child's academic achievement are supported by findings from a recent assessment or by progress reports from the child's classroom. Finally, think about what you would like to see included in the IEP to address these areas, and whether you have any concerns about the provision of any specific instructional programs or services. These are the types of concerns that should be shared with the team in order for meaningful parent participation to occur.

(iii) the results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation of the child

Evaluations are critical to the development of an appropriate IEP that truly addresses the child's unique educational needs. The IDEA specifies that to be appropriate, an evaluation or assessment must be sufficiently comprehensive to identify each of the student's unique special education and related services needs. The school district must utilize evaluation tools and strategies that are effective in
gather[ing] relevant functional, developmental and academic information... that may assist in determining... the content of the child's individualized education program, including information related to enabling the child to be involved in and progress in the general educatin curriculum, or for preschool children, to participate in appropriate activities.
20 U.S.C. section 1414(b)(2)(A)

Evaluation data should be useful in determining what the child's unique needs are, what their present levels of performance (PLOP) are, what changes should be made to any specialized instruction or related services being provided, what areas need to be addressed in goals, and what supports a child may need to be involved in general education.

The IEP team is required to consider information from the evaluation of the child, including the initial evaluation or most recent reevaluation conducted by the school district. Because of this requirement, it may not be adviseable in many circumstances for parents to agree to waive triennial re-evaluations by the school district when the time arises for those evaluations. The IEP team needs current evaluation data regarding a child's unique needs, and that evaluation data is not solely for the purpose of establishing eligibility, but also for guiding the team about what the program must address in order to be approrpiate.

It is also important to note that elsewhere in the IDEA, there is a requirement that the results of any independent educational evaluation, whether funded by the school district or by parents, also be taken into consideration. 34 C.F.R. section 300.502(c) specifies that the results of an independent educational evaluation or private evaluation "must be considered... in any decision made with respect to the provsion of FAPE to the child." Since the IEP team is making decisions with regards to the provision of FAPE, the IEP team is charged with considering the independent assessment.

(iv) the academic, developmental and functional needs of the child

Ultimately, the core of what the IEP team needs to consider is the unique needs of the child, including academic, developmental and functional needs. In each of these areas, the child's unique needs must be considered in relation to how those needs affect the child's ability to access an educational benefit, with the understanding that "educational" means more than merely academic progress.

Academic needs include how your child performs in core academic subjects, and may also include how other areas affect your child's ability to learn academic skills (like attention, behavior, etc). Evaluation data and teacher input are critical for identifying and determining a child's unique needs in the area of academics. It is important to look both at relative deficits, that is areas that are deficit based on this particular child's other strengths and overall abilities, as well as more broad areas of deficit, including those areas that are deficit when compared to what the child should be expected to do at this grade or age level. In order to truly understand a child's academic needs, all of this information should be considered.

One place to look for guidance in determining your child's academic needs is your state's academic content standards or grade level curriculum standards, especially if your child's IEP states that he/she is expected to meet grade level standards. Are there areas identified as expectations for your child's grade level that he/she struggles with? What about the curriculum standards for the grade level below; are there standards that your child has not yet met or made progress towards? Although the District would not ulitmately be required to ensure that your child meet all grade level content standards, this information can still be useful as a point of discussion when identifying a child's academic needs.

Developmental needs can include areas related to child development appropriate to your child's age, such as motor skills, language and communication, cognition, and social skills. Think about the things that you tracked when your child was a toddler, the "developmental milestones." These are generally within broader areas that are under the umbrella of "developmental skills." If your child has a delay in the development of age-appropriate skills in these areas, then that may be an indication of unique need that should be considered by the IEP team.

Functional needs can include those related to deficits in skills or activities that are nonacademic, but are related to the child's ability to function in day to day life activities and routines. Functional skills are those skills, beyond academics, that a child is going to need to acquire to "make it" once he/she leaves school. Remember that one of the purposes of the IDEA is to ensure that children with disabilities are educated appropriately and thereby prepared for "further education, employment and independent living." 20 U.S.C. section 1400(d)(1). Functional skills must be developed in order to prepare students for such endeavors, and therefore need to be addressed in the IEP.

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