Since 1973, laws have been enacted by Congress to address the learning needs of students with disabilities, including writing individual education plans, or IEP documents. In particular, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has governed the guidelines by which states must assess students attending publicly funded programs for diagnosed disability conditions. Once special education eligibility is established, a designated team convenes to discuss a proposed individual education plan. This document addresses the strategies, methods, resources or supports a student requires to appropriately participate in the educational curriculum.
Foundation of an Individual Education Plan: A Free and Appropriate Education
The first consideration for any individual education plan team is to determine the level of services and goals required by an exceptional learner to access a free and appropriate education, referred to as FAPE. An individual education plan is not required to provide assistance that guarantees a student will achieve at or above peer level; rather, it is to provide supports through which a student can access grade-level curriculum and learning opportunities. Keeping FAPE in mind, a meeting is held to discuss proposed objectives and services contained within an individual education plan prepared by a special education case manager. The individual education plan team usually consists of:
- Professionals in special education who evaluate or work with the individual.
- Teachers who teach the student in the given academic year.
- School administrators and support personnel, such as guidance counselors, who interact with the student.
- The student, when appropriate to the age or level of understanding.
- The parents or legal guardian.
- Advocates the parents may wish to invite.
Elements of an Individual Education Plan
Though formats for writing an individual education plan may vary by state, contents must cover specified information. Since eligible ages for special education services range from birth through 21, some components only apply to specific age ranges. However, all individual education plans must address:
- The learner’s current level of performance in behavioral, medical, social, cognitive, communicative and academic areas as compared to age and grade level expectations.
- The least restrictive environments, or LREs, where students access learning, the amount of time spent in each setting, and the extent to which regular education peers are present. LREs may include regular classrooms, resource settings, self-contained classrooms, extra-curricular programs, even areas such as hallways, the lunchroom or the school bus.
- Measurable goals and objectives explaining what gains are expected within the duration of the plan for academic and functional skills affected by the disability.
- Services and accommodations that outline the methods and strategies to be used by staff to help implement the plan. This section coincides with the LRE and states how much time services will be provided in particular settings.
- Transition services for students 14 and older that specify future post-secondary, career, or vocational objectives and how IEP goals will be implemented to achieve those objectives
Individual education plans provide a road map for educators to follow when providing a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. They are timely documents, required to be revised at least annually to continue meeting the changing academic needs of exceptional students. Appropriately written IEP documents allow all those with learning difficulties the opportunity to experience educational growth and success.