What is an IEP?
An Individual Education Plan (IEP) (also known by other names including Individual Learning Plan or ILP) may be developed for a student with disabilities or a complex learning profile. An IEP is about access and equity in education and should consider the “reasonable adjustments” that need to be made to provide students with access to teaching, learning and the schooling experience generally. The provision of reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities is mandated by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education which apply across Australia.
IEPs enable Australian schools to demonstrate that they have met their legal obligations to:
- ensure that students with disabilities participate in education and training on the same basis as non-disabled students;
- plan for and provide teaching and learning adjustments for students with disabilities; and
- consult with the student’s parents or guardian (their “associate” under the Disability Standards for Education) in developing the educational plan and formulating any appropriate adjustments.
Why are IEP meetings important?
IEP planning meetings or “case conferences” are important because they document the teaching and learning adjustments for your child and the formal goals or objectives that your child’s school team will be pursuing for the next school period, usually 3 to 6 months.
It is your chance to influence the goals that are set and how the school will endeavour to achieve them. As a parent, you know your child and your input will be valuable in the team considering what academic and social goals should be pursued, when they should be pursued and how best to achieve them.
You are involved to ensure that the IEP outcomes are in the best interests of your child and to bring your long term vision and aspirations for your child to the table.
Don’t undervalue the importance of your role in the IEP process.
Remember, your child only grows up once, so take the time and effort to maximise the long-term outcomes of their schooling experience.
Who comes to IEP meetings?
IEP planning meetings involve your child’s teacher and, if your child is supported by an education or teaching assistant, the assistant might also attend. The meeting will usually involve a senior school administrator, such as the principal or a deputy principal, and perhaps the school psychologist. Some larger schools will also involve a staff member specifically responsible for administration relating to students with disabilities and complex learning profiles.
At least one parent or guardian will need to attend the IEP meeting on behalf of their child. Depending on your child’s age and preference, your child should also be invited to attend the IEP meeting.
If a parent does not comfortable attending on their own, they should try to reschedule so that their partner can attend or notify the school that they wish to attend with a friend or another trusted adult to support them. In that case it is important for the parent to always discuss their intended approach and desired outcomes for the IEP meeting with any person accompanying them so that they are both “on the same page” and understand their respective roles.
Schools will usually allow parents to also invite relevant external professionals, such as a medical professional, psychologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist or a speech therapist. However, you should notify the school of any proposed external professional attendee and be prepared to explain why it would be beneficial or reasonable for them to participate.
How often should you meet for an IEP?
Your school will contact you to schedule the proposed IEP planning meeting at a date, time and place mutually agreeable to you and the school.
There should be an IEP meeting at least twice a year. It is common for an IEP to be developed at a meeting a month or two after the beginning of the school year, and for the IEP to be reviewed and updated at a meeting a month or two after the middle of the school year. However, you can ask for an IEP meeting at any time if you feel it is needed to address concerns or issues about your child’s schooling. The first point of contact to arrange a meeting is usually your child’s teacher.
If you are having a mid-year IEP meeting, it may also be an opportunity to raise your child’s teachers and assistant support for the following year as schools often start their planning processes at that time.
What types of things will the IEP cover?
Your child’s IEP is likely to focus on some or all of the following and the supports and adjustments required in respect of them:
- academic strategies and progress
- communication strategies and progress
- physical health and needs
- independence skills, including building capacity to study and self-care independently
- socialisation skills and peer connection issues
- general emotional well being
- self-regulation and behaviour skills.
Before the IEP Meeting
Preparation is key to successful IEP meetings. There may well be a difference between a “smooth” IEP meeting and an IEP meeting that results in outcomes in the best interest of your child. Your input as a parent may result in the school changing or qualifying the goals and strategies that they were proposing – that is not a “bad” IEP meeting – that is a constructive “two way” IEP meeting and is why you are involved as your child’s ultimate representative.
It is important to prepare for the IEP meeting by:
- having a Vision for your child
If you haven’t already, try to write down your Vision for your child’s future life as well as their life at school. Each goal that is formulated for your child at an IEP should be considered against that Vision – is it on the path to or consistent with achieving that Vision ? For example, if you imagine an inclusive life for your child, as a part of his or her community, having meaningful social relationships, then you should consider whether your child’s proposed IEP goals and how they are proposed to be implemented support achieving that Vision. Share your Vision with the school. Your Vision should guide both you and the school.
One of the principal barriers that people with disabilities face is the culture of low expectations within broader society. As a parent, they way you talk about your child, their disability and their right to learn can influence your child’s self perception and, equally as importantly, the attitudes and expectations of their school team.
- talking with your child about school
Discuss school with your child and try to get a sense of their feelings, attitude and any worries about school. Other significant people in your child’s life, like their siblings and friends, may also add useful insights. If your child will be attending the IEP meeting, plan for this so you can support your child in being heard and understood.
- try to ascertain what new goals the school is considering
Talk with your child’s teacher about what new goals are being considered for the IEP meeting or ask for a copy of the proposed IEP in advance – some schools will be happy to provide you with a draft IEP for you to consider.
- reflecting on your child’s strengths and requirement for supports
You know your child better than anyone. You know what skills they have mastered and which skills they need support with.
- reflecting on strategies that work at home
Strategies that work at home (including use of technology or apps, social stories, pictorial aids, schedules, etc) are good starting points for the classroom. Share your insights at the meeting.
- writing down school successes to acknowledge and questions you would like to raise
Both your child’s teacher and you are trying to maximise academic and social outcomes for your child. Not all ideas will work. Some need to be modified, some replaced with new strategies. But when they do work, acknowledge and celebrate successes. Importantly, IEPs are also an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child’s school team so take the opportunity to reflect on the successes that you have observed, write them down and share them at the IEP meeting.
When previous IEP strategies don’t go to plan, learn from the experience in trying a different approach. If you are interested in exploring or suggesting a particular approach to an issue, consider whether there is research or evidence to support it and provide to the teacher, in advance if possible, any relevant articles that you may have identified. Remember that teachers are busy so consider pointing to or highlighting the relevant areas and be mindful not to provide more information than is necessary.
When you don’t know the answer but want to raise a query – write down the question and ask it at the IEP meeting. Different perspectives help the quality of the goal setting and formulation of strategies to achieve them.
- thinking about any external professional that you consider should also attend the IEP planning meeting
Planning for and addressing your child’s needs may well benefit from expert advice from time to time. If in doubt, ask a trusted professional whether they think they should attend in person or by teleconference. In some cases, the professional may suggest that a brief letter to the school may be enough. However, it is important to ensure that the professional understands your Vision for your child and their advice is for the purpose of supporting your child to access education.
As a matter of courtesy, notify the school if you plan to invite an external professional and briefly explain why you think their attendance would be beneficial.
- Gather all documents to which you may need to refer at the meeting
These could be school letters, report cards, medical certificates, etc.
The more prepared and organised you are, the better the chance that the matters you wish to raise will be considered and addressed.
At the IEP meeting
Share or reaffirm your Vision for your child. Success is more likely to be achieved when everyone has the same ultimate outcomes in mind.
When discussing potential IEP goals with the school, remember the acronym “SMART“.
As a general guide, IEP goals should be:
- S = Specific – goals need to be clear to be capable of being implemented.
- M = Measurable – progress towards the goal must be objectively measurable.
- A = Attainable – don’t agree to a goal that is clearly unrealistic at that time.
- R = Relevant – how does each goal relate to your child’s education and your vision.
- T = Timely – An agreed timeline for each goal will guide efforts to achieve it.
For examples of the kinds of outcomes that are likely to be proposed and the types of questions to ask when applying SMART to each goal, a great resource is the Developmental Disability WA’s booklet “Documented Plans” (click here).
Many parents like to take notes of matters discussed in IEP meetings or instead “bring a friend” who can take notes for them so they can focus on the discussion. Remember that if you are bringing someone along as a note-taker, you should make sure in advance that you both understand your respective roles at the meeting.
Other things to consider in developing IEP goals:
- Curriculum adjustments: for children with intellectual or cognitive impairment, unless adjustments are provided, they may not be able to participate in the class lesson and progress academically. Curriculum adjustments are not an alternative program and must not result in students being left in a corner of the class, doing their own separate lesson disengaged from the rest of the class. (You can read more about universal design and curriculum adjustments in this parent resource here.)
- Education assistant support: its important to ask specific questions about your child’s support. How often and when is support being provided? Will there be an education or teacher assistant and if so how many and when? Where possible, when exploring aide support it is important that the student be consulted. The relationship between your child and their education assistant is critical to its success. Remember that close aide support for a student, especially over time, is not always the best approach to maximising academic and particularly social outcomes. (You can read more about this here and here.)
- Behaviour support approaches: for students who are seen by their school as having “behaviour challenges”, it is important to get a clear understanding of how the school is proposing to support your child (specifically whether through traditional “disciplinary” approaches or more positive behaviour supports that seek to identify unmet need and recognise behaviour as a form of communication – you can read about this in our Parent Toolkit). In some cases, schools may already have in place a behaviour plan that parents are not necessarily aware of, so you may like to ask whether that is the case for your child. If there are any strategies that the school is using with which are harmful (such as those involving restraint or seclusion) or with which you disagree or are not comfortable, it important to express this clearly to your child’s school (you can read more about this here.)
Agreeing to the proposed IEP
You will usually be asked to sign the IEP at the end of the IEP planning meeting to show that you agree with its content.
However, if you are unsure about some aspect of the IEP, you should say that you would like to take a copy and to have a little more time to consider it. Taking a couple of days to consider the IEP is not unreasonable given that its content usually guide the next 3 to 6 months of your child’s schooling.
If you and the school are not able to reach agreement, the matter will usually be resolved or escalated as follows:
- a further meeting between you and the teacher.
- a meeting between you and the principal (with the teacher attending if appropriate)
- an appeal to your Regional Education Office for assistance in resolving the issue -this should involve an independent review of the situation and may include mediation. You State’s Education Department’s website should contain the relevant contact information.
It should be appreciated that the higher a disagreement is escalated, the greater the impact on the subsequent working relationship between your family and the teacher and the school. As such, it is important to try to resolve disagreements as quickly and as cordially as possible, to minimise unnecessarily adversarial outcomes.
If after signing an IEP you have second thoughts about some aspect of it, talk to your child’s teacher. Addressing the issue promptly by asking the school to consider revising the IEP is better than wishing, at the next IEP meeting in 6 months time, that you had voiced your concern earlier.
Follow-up actions after an IEP
It is a good idea to write a note or email to your child’s teacher and the staff who attended the IEP meeting to thank them for their time and efforts – particularly when you feel that they have worked with you and taken your views into account. This also provides an opportunity to reaffirm your Vision for your child and will help to ensure that the relationship with your child’s IEP team remains positive and constructive.
The implementation of the IEP will be the responsibility of the school. However, consider how what you do outside of school hours may be able to assist your child in meeting the IEP goals. The quicker the goals are met, the quicker new goals can be set in realising your vision for your child.
The Australian government has developed its own resource, Planning for Personalised Learning and Support: A National Resource, to support personalised planning and learning for students with disabilties, based on the obligations that schools have under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005, and covers issues such as consultation with parents and students.