Parent/School Guide for
Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

By Julie Beem

All American children, regardless of their origin, are guaranteed the right to “a free, appropriate, public education” (FAPE).  This means that children with identifiable disabilities can receive special services and individualized educational programs tailored to their needs.  The law is clear on what is generally referred to as “special education”. 

In 1974, Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the law governing most of the special education services.  In addition to the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also apply to special education services.  Through the IDEA, federal financial assistance is provided to states and ultimately to local school systems (often referred to as local education agencies or LEAs) for providing special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities.  Section C of the IDEA also provides for children younger than school age to receive services as preschoolers with disabilities.  Infants and toddlers with developmental delays in cognitive development, physical development, communication, social and emotional development or other adaptive behaviors are eligible for services under the IDEA as well.  These services are generally provided through programs called Early Intervention in most states.  Local school systems usually take over the responsibilities of providing services for children ages 3 through 21, although under IDEA 2004 states are given more flexibility in constructing “seamless” programs for children under the age of 5.

The IDEA includes two key concepts that are vital to understanding special education.  The first is FAPE – that a student is entitled to receive Free, Appropriate Public Education.  The second is that each child’s education must be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

The following are the basic steps of the special education process.  The terminology used varies widely from state to state, as do some of the specifics in each program.  Parents are always wise to make yourselves familiar with your state law and local policies.

Step 1.  Identification.  Some children are identified early and are referred to the Early Intervention program within their state, through which they are qualified as developmentally delayed and eligible to receive services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy.  Depending on the child’s progress, by age three they may be referred directly into the special education preschool services administered by the local school system and then on to the special education programs for school-aged children, being evaluated along each step of the way.

Children not previously identified can be referred for evaluation by the parents, teachers or anyone else involved with the child.  Schools are not required by law to evaluate a child based on a parent’s request.   However, most will, and if the parent’s request is not honored, the parent will be notified in writing as to why the child was not referred for evaluation, giving opportunities for appeals and a basis to later prove that the child was denied services if the child indeed is shown to have a disability.  Parents are encouraged to ask their school system for a copy of parent and student rights to understand the specific procedures and systems in their state and local district.

When a child is referred for evaluation the first step is referred to as identification.  This process varies widely from state to state, LEA to LEA.  Schools sometimes call this process the SST (student support team) or refer children to the AEA (area education agency) for evaluation, or other screening process.  Regardless of the process, the parent’s participation in it is paramount.  Parents should supply any information they have on the child’s history and other evaluations that have been done if they are pertinent to the child’s areas of suspected disability. 

Step 2.  Evaluation.  Because parents are an active part of the evaluation team, you must sign off on any evaluations to be conducted, so advocating for a full assessment, since our children’s issues are complex, is always a good idea.   More information is always better and the cost of these evaluations is covered by the school system.  You will be asked both your child’s history and your observations about your child.  It is also a good idea to share any independent evaluations or observations by doctors or therapists that you think are valid assessments of your child’s areas of concern.  You are not obligated to share everything, such as assessments you feel did not adequately reflect your child’s issues.  School systems are required to consider all independent evaluation information you supply.

Further, if after the school conducts evaluations, you do not agree with their assessment, you have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school system’s expense.  Many educators either don’t understand that this right is protected by IDEA or don’t want parents to understand that this is an option, so they will openly discourage this.  Others will explain this option from the onset.  Either way, it is a mandated part of the special education regulations and is often needed by adoptive parents, especially those who have children who appear to have a variety of issues that need further evaluation from highly specialized individuals.  Full neuropsychological evaluations are often requested as IEEs.  Check with your local system about the specific procedures for requesting an IEE.

The evaluation results are then used to determine the child’s eligibility for special education and related services. 

Step 3. Eligibility.  To qualify, children must be identified as falling into one of 13 categories.  These categories are:  autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, mental retardation (sometimes called intellectual disability), multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbances, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairments.  The evaluations must have shown a discrepancy between the child’s ability and their actual performance for the child to be eligible. 
It’s in the eligibility step that “labeling” of the child occurs.  Parents are often dismayed by the process of labeling our children; however, to receive services, parents must understand that  an exceptionality must be assigned.  I have recently learned that some school systems even use this “fear of labeling” to avoid assigning an eligibility – pushing instead for parents of young children to “wait and see” rather than “label your child and scar them for life.”  Frankly, this is BUNK – and parents should insist that if the evaluations show a disability, that the child be “labeled” and provided the services needed as quickly as possible.  The vast majority of research indicates that children whose disabilities are identified and serviced early have the best chance for remediation and academic progress. 

Keep in mind that once a child qualifies for special education under one of these categories, by law the child is re-evaluated and the eligibility re-established every three years (unless the parents waive that right) and evaluations can be requested by the parents more often than three years if there has been significant change.

Since parents are active participants in this process, educating yourself on the exceptionality categories is a great idea and will allow you to assist in deciding which category best reflects your child’s current functioning.

Step 4.  Developing an IEP.  Once eligibility has been established, an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) is developed and updated annually for every child receiving special education services across the country.  (There is some talk in the IDEA 2004 about states being allowed to only update IEPs every three years – parents may want to watch their state regulations and advocate on behalf of annual IEPs if this issue comes up.) 

So, you’ve been invited to the IEP meeting...what to expect:

  1. The IEP Team will always consist of at least your child’s classroom teacher; a special education teacher (or general education teacher if the classroom teacher is qualified in special education); an administrator; and you. 
  2. Parents are allowed to bring other people to the IEP meeting.  Check with your state to see if advanced notification is required.  Parents often find it useful to bring a parent advocate along with them.   Parent advocates (paid or volunteer) are available in each state and are generally parents of children who have received special education and have become advocates because they understand the procedures, jargon, and regulations.  Parents can locate advocates through their state’s Parent Training Institute (PTI).  Sometimes parents bring therapists or other professionals who have been working with their child as well.
  3. The structure of the IEP will be to discuss the following things, usually in this order:
    1. The child’s present level of performance (known as the PLOP, or sometimes by other wording such as present level of academic achievement).
    2. Specific educational and behavioral goals will be defined – both the actual goals and the percentage of current achievement and target achievement.  The goals will also indicate how progress will be measured.
    3. Placement will be determined – what type of classroom—where the child will be educated.
    4. The types and amounts of services the child will be receiving will be documented.
    5. Modifications and/or accommodations for the child’s disability will be outlined.
    6.  Testing modifications and/or accommodations will also be addressed.
  4. Parents are expected to actively participate.  IDEA is very clear that parent input into the IEP is expected.  Parent’s observations are to be documented and considered in any decision. 
  5. The goal of the meeting is to reach consensus on the child’s goals and objectives, placement and modifications/accommodations.  Parents can disagree with the IEP Team at any time.  Parents should try to support their position with information/facts.  The IEP Team will ask the parent to sign the IEP to enact it.  Parent signature is critical.  If you don’t sign and give your consent, it is much harder for the IEP to be enacted.  SO, the bottom line is that it behooves all parties to negotiate and work together to reach an agreement during the IEP meeting.


Other Things Parents Should Know about IEPs and IEP Meetings:

  1. Parents (and other participants) must be notified in writing at least 10 days prior to the IEP meeting that the meeting is scheduled.  Parents should receive a list of all participants the school has invited to the meeting.  Parents may request that the school invites others as well.  For example, if you have an independent evaluation showing your child needs speech/language services, requesting that the speech/language professional be there is a wise thing to do.
  2. Taking notes or tape recording the meeting is a great idea.  Someone on the IEP team will be taking official notes during the meeting, but it’s always a good idea to take notes yourself.  Find out in advance if you have to provide written notification that you will be tape recording the meeting.  Often couples will attend the IEP meeting together and one will take notes. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  The world of special education has more jargon and acronyms than even the world of adoption.  If the rest of the team is talking about something you don’t understand, ask for it to be explained.  Keep asking until it is explained to your satisfaction.
  4. You should receive a copy of Students and Parents’ Rights.  If a written copy of your rights and all the appeal procedures has not been given to you prior to the IEP meeting, one should be provided during the meeting.  If not, ask for it – it contains information you need to know.
  5. Exceptionality (Eligibility) does not drive Placement.  Determining which category a child falls into does not determine where a child will be placed (such as general education or special education classroom).  There are numerous placement options that must be considered during the IEP meeting and the overriding goal is to place the child in the least restrictive environment (LRE) where he will be successful.  Parents should be active decision-makers in determining the right placement for their child, and should understand that even if a particular school doesn’t have the type of placement your child needs, the school district is still obligated to provide it at no cost if it is the LRE where your child can be successful.
  6. For the IEP to be implemented, parents must sign their consent.  For a school system to enact or change an IEP without the parent’s signature requires a great deal of administrative and legal effort on their part – although, it can be done.  Therefore, the bottom line is that getting parents to agree to what is in the IEP is the easiest way for the IEP meeting to conclude.    Knowing that you, the parent, have the right to say “NO” to goals, placement or other details is empowering.  As the parent member of the team, you are more than an active participant because your signature of approval is needed.   But this places a special responsibility on you to understand the IEP process and to work WITH the team to reach solutions and resolve any differences of opinion.
  7. You should receive a copy of the IEP. If you don’t get one – ask for it!  It’s important to file this and all other correspondence regarding your child’s education in an accessible place.  Some parents use large 3-ring binders divided by school year to house all related paperwork. 
  8. Parents also have the right to review their child’s official file, which contains copies of evaluations, notes from meetings and from observers, as well as past and present IEPs.  Check with your local district for procedures on accessing this file.  Parents have the right to obtain copies of anything within that file, but must be prepared to pay for the copies if asked.


Some Wise Advice I Have Received

Below are jewels of wisdom these seasoned professionals have shared with me:

  1. Prepare for each IEP meeting as if it will end up in Due Process.  Due Process is the legal mechanism parents have with which to contest an IEP.  No one really wants to go there (we’re currently in due process over my daughter’s recent IEP, so I’ll be happy to answer individual questions about how much fun this process is NOT!)  When I first heard this piece of advice I was can preparing as if you’re going to do battle with the school every time there’s a meeting be a good strategy?  It is the old adage - “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”  Approach the IEP Team as if you are a team player, but always keep in mind that should things go sour, you have to be ready, as your child’s primary advocate, to do what is necessary.  What this really means is to:
    1. Document everything.  Some people think it’s antagonistic to tape record IEP meetings, but it is the most fool-proof way to assure you have captured all that is said.  It also sends the message that you are actively involved and highly interested in obtaining the best possible education for your child.  Being in an IEP meeting can be very stressful for most parents and it is often hard to think clearly and comprehend all that is being said.  Capturing it on tape allows you to review what was actually said.
    2. Document everything else.  What this means is that there are lots of bits of information and decisions that are made outside of the IEP meeting.  Your child goes to school every day and you sometimes get a call from the teacher, a note home, run into the principal in the hallway, or have a quick chat with the speech therapist in the car pick-up line.  Document each of these in writing.  Keep a running notebook with dates and times.  One technique that has proved useful is to send a quick email back to a teacher/administrator documenting a verbal conversation.  This provides written documentation that the conversation occurred and can later serve as proof that an event happened, that a service was promised, that a problem was noted.  Sending it to the person (I always start out with.... “Thank you for talking with me today about...”), also gives the school subtle notification that you’ve documented this conversation and they have to amend or refute the information in your note otherwise the law presumes that they said what was in the note.
    3. Maintain comprehensive and organized files.  Your credibility goes up with the IEP team and you have the information you need if things go sour.  Ask for copies of everything during the meeting and make it your goal not to leave without them.  You do have the right to access your child’s file anytime, but it is easier to get the copies of all reports during the actual meeting.  Make sure you follow up if you don’t receive them at the is important that your file be as comprehensive as possible.  One tactic I am finding very frustrating right now is the school keeps saying they haven’t received independent evaluations or documentation I have provided.  But I have the full notebook file at each meeting and not only can cite when I gave them a copy of the report but am prepared to offer another copy right then if they need it.
    4. Independent Evaluations.  When seeking an independent evaluator, make sure you ask him/her these two questions:  1.) Will you come to the IEP meeting and explain the evaluation results?  2.) Will you be willing to testify at a hearing if needed?  Use only evaluators who agree to do both.
  2. Become Your Child’s Best Expert.  School professionals sadly know very little about adopted children and their issues.  Some are more aware than others and some are more eager to learn.  Regardless, parent involvement in the IEP process is mandated by law because parents are recognized as “experts” about their children.  Parents report that time and time again they are made to feel inferior to school professionals or their input is not taken into consideration.  Sometimes this may be due to the emotionality factor.  They are our children and it’s hard not to get emotional about their struggles – but emotional parents in an IEP meeting are often viewed negatively.  It is better to respond than to react.  Arm yourself with information.  Surround yourself with professionals and support.  Invite your child’s therapist, the evaluator, your family friend or babysitter.  Do your homework.  Research your child’s disability and know of effective learning strategies.  Provide information on those during the meeting.  Don’t be afraid to suggest ideas – after all YOU KNOW YOUR CHILD BEST!
  3. Surround Yourself with the Right People.  It’s a good idea now to locate the advocates and special education attorneys in your state.  The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) is a national organization of these folks.  There may be opportunities in your state to educate yourself further about advocating in the schools.  Partners in Policymaking is another national resource that offers training throughout the US on advocacy.  Get to know these people.  Here in Georgia, I am very fortunate they have a listserve called Georgia Children’s Network, moderated by two parent advocates and open only to parents, advocates and professionals who do not work for any school system.  The information I have learned there is invaluable, and it was a quick way to find a good advocate and attorney when our own situation started to deteriorate and head toward due process.  Surround yourself with positive people as well – people with compassion for your situation and a sense of humor.  Get support.  Don’t go it alone. 


Useful Resources

Adopted Children in Schools

Wood, Lansing and Nancy Ng. (2001).  Adoption and the Schools:  Resources for Parents and Teachers.  Families Adopting in Response.

Gindis, Boris, Ph.D.  Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment & Remediation

Demchuk, Felicia.  “Special Education and Children Adopted Internationally,” presented at 2004 FRUA Conference Focus on Education:  New Frontiers, Oct 1 & 2, 2004, Ypsilanti, MI.

Stuart, Annie.  “Identifying Learning Problems in Adopted Children”


Special Education Resources
Website with comprehensive explanations of special education laws, including information on the reauthorization of IDEA 2004 and the impact of the various changes under this law.
Website of the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.  Contains lists of state contacts in special education, early intervention and local parent support and advocacy groups.  Available through this site is each state’s Parent Training Institute (PTI), a great resource for learning more about the state’s regulations and how to advocate for children with disabilities.
Partners in Policymaking is a competency-based leadership training program for adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities.  It’s purpose is to teach best practices and the competencies of influencing public officials.
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA) is an independent, nonprofit, §501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization of attorneys, advocates and parents. Our primary mission is to secure high quality educational services for children with disabilities.
COPAA is premised on the belief that the key to effective educational programs for children with disabilities is collaboration -as equals- by parents and educators.


© 2006-2008 Julie Beem
Julie Beem is a Director of the Attachment Disorder Network, aparent-led, non-profit international support group for families of traumatized children. She is the director of Marketing & Fundraising.  Julie is managing the upcoming ADN conference, Parenting Traumatized Children, in Atlanta, GA, June 22-24.  The link to conference information is: Julie is also the author of the Parenting Special Children blog on





Please contact Carrie Kitze for information on obtaining reprints of this article for pre and post adoption kits and seminars.

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