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To write an effective IEP for a child with a disability, parents, teachers, other school staff — and often the child — must come together at a meeting to look closely at the child’s unique needs. These individuals combine their knowledge, experience, and commitment to design an educational program that must help the child to be involved in, and progress in, the general education curriculum — that is, the same curriculum as for children without disabilities. The IEP guides the delivery of special education and related services and supplementary aids and supports for the child with a disability. Without a doubt, writing — and implementing — an effective IEP requires teamwork.

So — who’s on the team? Here’s a list, as specified in IDEA, our nation’s special education law. Note that the order in which the IEP team members are going to be listed and discussed has nothing to do with their priority on the team, that every member has an equal say and important expertise to contribute.

The IEP team, short and sweet

IDEA describes the IEP team as including the following members:

  • the parents of the child;
  • not less than one regular education teacher of the child (if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment);
  • not less than one special education teacher of the child, or where appropriate, not less then one special education provider of the child;
  • a representative of the public agency who is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities; is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and is knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency;
  • an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results;
  • other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate (invited at the discretion of the parent or the agency); and
  • the child with a disability (when appropriate).

The IEP team, discussed in detail

There’s a lot that can be said about each of these members of the IEP team, what their roles on the team are, what type of information and expertise they can bring to the table, and what, precisely, IDEA has to say about their membership on this all-important team.

Parents on the IEP team

Since the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1975, parents have been recognized as vital members of the IEP Team. Everyone agrees that parents have an enduring and passionate interest in the well-being and education of their child. So it makes perfect sense that Congress would ensure that parents are represented on the IEP Team, front and center. The school must invite the parents to the IEP meeting early enough to ensure that one or both parents have the opportunity to attend and participate. The notice must include the purpose of the meeting, its time, and location, and who will attend.

Typically, parents know their child very well — not just the child’s strengths and weaknesses, but all the little qualities that make their child unique. Parents’ knowledge can keep the team focused on the “big picture” of the child; they can help the team to create an IEP that will work appropriately for the child. Parents can describe what goals are most important to them and to their child, share their concerns and suggestions for enhancing their child’s education, and give insights into their son or daughter’s interests, likes and dislikes, and learning styles. By being an active IEP team member, parents can also infuse the IEP planning process with thought about long-term needs for the child’s successful adult life.

Being actively involved in developing their child’s IEP is a parent’s right and a parent’s choice. This means that the public agency must:

  • notify parents of the meeting early enough to ensure that one or both of the parents have an opportunity to attend;
  • schedule the meeting at a mutually agreed on time and place; and
  • take whatever action is necessary to ensure that the parent understands the proceedings of the meeting, including arranging for an interpreter for parents with deafness or whose native language is other than English.

Special educators on the IEP team

Not less than one of the child’s special education teachers must also be included in the IEP team, or, when appropriate, a special education provider of the child. The child’s special education teacher has a lot to contribute at the IEP team meeting, including important information and experience about how to educate children with disabilities. Because of his or her training in special education, this teacher can talk about such issues as:

  • how to modify the general education curriculum to help the child learn;
  • the supplementary aids and services that the child may need to be successful in the regular classroom and elsewhere;
  • how to modify testing or to provide the test with individual appropriate accommodations so that the child can show what he or she has learned; and
  • other aspects of individualizing instruction to meet the child’s unique needs.

Beyond helping to write the IEP, the special educator has responsibility for working with the child to implement the IEP. He or she may:

  • work with the child in a resource room or special class devoted to children receiving special education services;
  • team teach with the child’s regular education teacher; and/or
  • work with other school staff, particularly the regular education teacher, to provide expertise about addressing the child’s unique needs.

Obviously, having the special educator at the table is a very important part of writing an appropriate IEP for a child with a disability.

Regular educators on the IEP team

IDEA requires that at least one regular education teacher must be represented on the team “if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment.” According to IDEA, the regular education teacher:

  • must, to the extent appropriate, determine “appropriate positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies for the child”; and
  • determine which “supplementary aids and services, program modifications, and support for school personnel” are needed to help the child progress toward attaining the annual goals; be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum; participate in extracurricular activities and other nonacademic activities; and be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and those who are not disabled.

These supports and services might include adapting the curriculum, providing reading materials written at a lower reading level, using graphics along with written materials, or providing the child with a child assistant. The regular education teacher may also tell the rest of the team what he or she needs to help the child understand the general curriculum and achieve the goals listed in the IEP.

The regular education teacher often knows the curriculum for a child’s grade level and what children in regular education classes are typically expected to do. If the child is going to be educated in the regular education environment for any part of the school day, then the child’s regular education teacher may talk at the IEP meeting about what the child will be taught and expected to learn. This information can contribute directly to making decisions about what types of supplementary aids and services the child may need to be successful in that setting.

Responsibilities beyond the IEP meeting

IDEA requires that at least one regular educator serve on the IEP team, but many children with disabilities have more than one such teacher. It is very important that each of these teachers be well-informed about the child’s IEP — what his or her goals are, what classroom or testing accommodations are to be provided, and what supplementary aids and services are necessary so the child can access and progress in the general education curriculum.

Because it’s not always possible for all of a child’s teachers to attend the IEP meeting, the public agency must ensure that each regular education teacher (as well as other service providers working with the child) has access to the child’s IEP and is informed of his or her specific responsibilities related to implementing the IEP. It’s also a very good idea if teachers regularly review the IEPs of their students, refreshing their memory of the details and monitoring how well the IEP is addressing the child’s needs, progress, and learning.

If the IEP needs to be revised to address either lack of progress or great progress, teachers responsible for the child’s education are invaluable in alerting the rest of the team that it’s time to gather and discuss what adjustments need to be made.

A Representative of the school system

IDEA specifies that every IEP team must include a “representative of the public agency” responsible for educating the child in question. (By “public agency,” we’re usually talking about the school system — the local educational agency, for example.) This person must be:

  • qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;
  • knowledgeable about general ed curriculum; and
  • knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency.

The phrase in the first bullet “qualified to provide specially designed instruction” is closely tied to the definition of special education, which begins, “The term special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability …”

Thus, the representative from the public agency must be qualified to provide special education or supervise its provision.

The last bullet is very important, too, as to this person’s qualifications. He or she “must be knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency.” It doesn’t do any good to sit and plan in a vacuum, wondering what type of help is available and if someone will actually commit that help on behalf of the child. The public agency representative must know what resources the school has available. This person must also have the power to commit the resources needed so that services can be provided as described in the child’s IEP and be able to ensure that whatever services are described in the IEP will actually be provided.

IDEA also states that the public agency may designate another public agency member of the IEP Team to also serve as the agency representative, as long as that person has the qualifications required for the public agency representative. Thus, it’s possible that the public agency representative may also be serving on the team in another role.

Someone to interpret evaluation results

Another important member of the IEP team is the individual who can interpret what the child’s evaluation results mean in terms of designing appropriate instruction. As stated in IDEA, this is “an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results.”

There may be quite a stack of scores and totals on various tests of performance or other measures the child has completed as part of the evaluation process in special education, especially if this IEP meeting is taking place after the initial evaluation conducted to determine if the child, indeed, has a disability and is eligible for special education.

Results may also be available from statewide or districtwide assessments, class work, observations, outside evaluations that the parents have arranged, and so forth.

Somehow the team has to move from those scores to that instruction…and this is the person who brings that knowledge to the IEP team meeting table.

The evaluation results are very useful in determining how the child is currently doing in school and what areas of need the child has.

This IEP team member must be able to talk about the instructional implications of the child’s evaluation results, which will help the team plan appropriate instruction to address the child’s needs. He or she may be a member of the team already, such as the child’s special education teacher or the public agency representative, or may be someone else entirely, such as the school psychologist.

Others with knowledge or special expertise about the child

The IEP team may also include, at the discretion of the parent or the public agency, additional individuals with knowledge or special expertise about the child, including related services personnel as appropriate. The parent or the school system may invite these individuals to participate on the team.

Parents, for example, may invite a friend or relative who knows the child, a professional with special expertise about the child and his or her disability, or others (such as a vocational educator who has been working with the child) who can talk about the child’s strengths and/or needs.

Or the school system may invite one or more individuals who can offer special expertise or knowledge about the child, such as a paraprofessional or related services professional.

Because an important part of developing an IEP is considering a child’s need for related services (see the list of related services below), related service professionals are often involved as IEP team members or participants. They share their special expertise about the child’s needs and how their own professional services can address those needs. Depending on the child’s individual needs, some related service professionals attending the IEP meeting or otherwise helping to develop the IEP might include occupational or physical therapists, adaptive physical education providers, psychologists, or speech-language pathologists. The key here is that the person must know the child and have special expertise about his or her needs or strengths.

What type of knowledge or special expertise does this person have to have about the child, or how much knowledge or expertise, in order to be “a person with knowledge or special expertise?” And who decides whether or not that person actually does have that knowledge or special expertise?

IDEA does not specify answers to these questions. However, it does say that it is “the party (parents or public agency) who invited the individual to be a member of the IEP Team” who makes the determination of whether or not the person invited has the knowledge or special expertise about the child.

Student with a disability on the IEP team

Operating on the premise that the child with a disability — who is the focus of all this discussion and planning — may have something vital to contribute to planning his or her educational program and future, IDEA clearly provides for the child’s inclusion in, and participation on, the IEP team whenever appropriate.

Specifically, IDEA:

  • provides that the public agency must include the child with a disability at the IEP meeting “whenever appropriate, and
  • requires that the child be invited to attend the meeting “if the purpose of the meeting will be the consideration of the postsecondary goals for the child and the transition services needed to assist the child in reaching those goals.”

As you can see, then, if transition goals and services are going to be discussed, the student with a disability must be invited to attend the meeting.

Who Decides if the Student Attends the Meeting?

Other than the requirement that the child must be invited to attend the IEP meeting if transition planning is going to be considered at the meeting — who decides when and how a child may participate in an IEP meeting? This issue was addressed in the Analysis of Comments and Changes in the preamble to the final Part B regulations. The Department of Education explained:

Until the child reaches the age of majority under State law, unless the rights of the parent to act for the child are extinguished or otherwise limited, only the parent has the authority to make educational decisions for the child under Part B of the Act, including whether the child should attend an IEP meeting.

In reality, parents and children often make this decision together. It’s not uncommon for parents and even teachers to encourage children to take part in developing their own IEPs. Some children in elementary school come to the meeting just to learn a little about the process or to share information about themselves.

As children get older, it may be a good idea to encourage them to take a more active role. This allows them to have a strong voice in their own education and can teach them a great deal about self-advocacy and self-determination. Older children may even lead the IEP meeting, and specific materials exist to help them get ready for such a role. 

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