Students with delayed skills or other disabilities might be eligible for special
services that provide individualized education programs (IEPs) in public schools,
free of charge to families. Understanding your role in educating a student with an
IEP will benefit both you and the student.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) makes teachers of students
with special needs responsible for planning, implementing, and monitoring educational
plans to help the students succeed in school. The IEP describes the goals set for
the students for the school year, and any special support the students need to help
them reach those goals. The IDEA requires states to provide public education
for students with disabilities ages 3 to 21, no matter how severe the disabilities.
Who Needs an IEP?
Students struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to
be taught in a special way, for reasons such as:
being extremely frustrated with school and homework
How Are Services Delivered?
In most cases, the services outlined in an IEP can be provided in regular education
classrooms. In other cases, IEP services might be delivered in separate resource classrooms
or even separate schools, depending on the students' needs. Some students may have
an IEP for one subject area only, while others may have one for all academic subjects
in addition to social skills instruction.
The least restrictive setting for students with IEPs is a regular education classroom.
Students with IEPs usually join regular education classes for special subject areas
such as science, social studies, art, music, library, gym, and health. It is critical
for regular classroom teachers to read students' IEPs and be familiar with the services
and monitoring that are required in the plan.
The next least restrictive setting is a resource or learning support classroom.
In this setting, groups of students with similar needs are brought together for small-group
instruction. A certified special education teacher is the instructor and other school
personnel (aides or support teachers) assist with teaching.
Students who need intense intervention, however, may be taught in a special school
environment. These schools have fewer students per teacher, allowing for more individualized
attention. Teachers in these schools usually have specific training in helping students
with specific special educational needs.
Evaluation and Referral
The referral process generally begins when a teacher, parent, or doctor is concerned
that a child may be having trouble in the classroom.
The first step is to gather specific data regarding the student's progress or academic
problems. This may be done through:
analysis of the student's performance (attention, behavior, work completion, tests,
classwork, homework, etc.)
This information helps teachers and school personnel determine the next step. At
this point, strategies specific to the student could be used to help the child become
more successful in school prior to any formal testing. If this doesn't work, the child
would be tested for a specific learning disability or other impairment to help determine
qualification for special services.
It's important to note, though, that
the presence of a disability doesn't automatically guarantee a child will receive
services. To be eligible, the disability must affect functioning at school.
To determine eligibility, a multidisciplinary team of professionals will evaluate
the child based on their observations, the child's performance on standardized tests,
and daily work such as tests, quizzes, classwork, and homework.
Who's On the Team?
The professionals on the evaluation team can include:
a physical therapist
an occupational therapist
a speech therapist
a special educator
a vision or hearing specialist
others, depending on the child's specific needs
After it is determined that further testing is necessary, parents will be asked
to sign a permission form that will detail who is involved in the process and the
types of tests they use. These tests might include measures of specific school skills,
such as reading or math, as well as more general developmental skills, such as speech
and language. Testing does not necessarily mean that a child will receive services.
Once the team members complete their individual assessments, they develop a comprehensive
evaluation report (CER) that compiles their findings, offers an educational classification,
and outlines the skills and support the child will need.
The parents then have a chance to review the report before the IEP is developed.
If parents disagree with the report, they will have the opportunity to work together
with the school to come up with a plan that best meets the child's needs.
Developing an IEP
The next step is an IEP meeting, during which the team and parents decide what
will go into the plan. Also, a regular classroom teacher should attend to offer suggestions
about how the plan can help the child's progress in the standard education curriculum
and how it can be used in a regular classroom setting, if that's appropriate.
At the meeting, the team will discuss a student's educational needs — as
described in the CER — and come up with specific, measurable short-term and
annual goals for each of those needs.
The cover page of the IEP outlines the related services and supports students will
receive and how often they will be provided. These can include many different things;
for example, transportation; speech-language pathology and audiology services; psychological
services; physical and occupational therapy; recreation, including therapeutic recreation;
social work services; and medical services (for diagnostic and evaluation purposes
If the team recommends several services, the amount of time they take in the child's
school schedule can seem overwhelming. To ease that load, some services may be provided
on a consultative basis. In these cases, the professional consults with the teacher
to come up with strategies to help the child but doesn't offer any hands-on instruction.
For instance, an occupational therapist may suggest accommodations for a child with
fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the classroom teacher would incorporate
these suggestions into the handwriting lessons taught to the entire class.
Other services can be delivered right in the classroom, so the child's day isn't
interrupted by therapy. The child who has difficulty with handwriting might work one-on-one
with an occupational therapist while everyone else practices their handwriting skills.
When deciding how and where services are offered, the child's comfort and dignity
should be a top priority.
If a child has academic needs and is working below grade level, services may be
offered outside the regular education classroom, with students getting small-group
instruction in a particular subject area (usually language arts or math) by a special
education teacher with other students who have similar needs.
The IEP should be reviewed annually to update the goals and ensure the levels of
service meet the student's needs. During the school year, progress monitoring will
be done often to make sure the student is achieving goals set in the IEP. IEPs can
be changed at any time on an as-needed basis.
Specific timelines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to
providing services as quickly as possible. Be sure to ask about this timeframe and
If parents disagree with any part of the CER or the IEP, mediation and hearings
It is important for teachers to understand the IEP process and their role in delivering
instruction to students who have an IEP. Any questions related to an IEP can be directed
to the team or the case manager assigned to a student.