Early Childhood Education

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)


An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) represents specially designed instruction and related services that meet the unique needs of a student. When a child who is eligible for special education services reaches the age of 3 years, those services are provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IEP is the central jointly constructed document that provides for the implementation of the special education laws in the United States. It is considered a legally binding document for all signatories (parents and representatives of the local education agency) under the provisions of IDEA.

The concept of an IEP was first stipulated nationally in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-142, which became IDEA in 1990. The IEP is one of the key provisions of the law; it guarantees a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

Parents or professionals (e.g., nurse, teachers, pediatricians) may make the referral to special education. The eligibility determination is made by a thorough nondiscriminatory evaluation that requires prior written parental consent. Parent input and teacher observation are desirable parts of the evaluation. All evaluation information is confidential and should be seen only by people who are directly involved. The evaluation process must be completed in a timely fashion (within thirty school days of the parent’s written permission), and forms the basis for the development of the IEP.

The IEP sets out the unique strengths and needs of the student as well as the current levels of performance. The needs become the basis for student goals. The IEP allows for parents to include their concerns and vision for the child.

After evaluation and the determination of eligibility for services, the child’s team is responsible for developing the IEP. IDEA specifies that parents must always be members of any team that makes decisions about their child. The child’s teacher is also a vital member of the team. A member of the local education agency (LEA) who is knowledgeable about the agency’s resources and general education program must also be a member of the team. The IEP must spell out the service provider, the frequency and duration of services, as well as the place where the services will be delivered. An IEP must be reviewed and rewritten each year, and students are revaluated every three years.

The team participates in the determination about how the student will participate in any mandated-testing program. Once the IEP is signed by all parties, parents are provided a copy and services can be delivered. If the parents refuse to sign the IEP, the state appeals process is set in motion.

Parents are guaranteed due process that provides procedural safeguards for students with disabilities. These timelines are associated with referral, evaluation, the development of the IEP, the signing of the IEP, and student placement. When parents and school systems disagree, there is an appeals process that can be accessed by either party.

Funding has been and continues to be controversial. Many refer to IDEA as an unfunded mandate. Meeting the testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act is also a source of difficulty. Minority and ESL students continue to be overrepresented in the special education population. See also Individualized Family Service Plan.

Further Readings: Bauer, A., and T. Shea (1999). Inclusion 101. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishers; Kostelnik, M. J., et al. (2002). Children with special needs. New York: Teachers College Press; MA/DOEd and the Federation for Children with Special Needs (2001). A parents guide to special education. Boston.

Betty N. Allen