What is an IEP?

If your child is struggling in school, one of the acronyms you may hear is IEP.  While the specifics of an IEP vary depending on where you live, here are some of fundamental elements for you to know. 

School IEP

What does IEP mean?

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program (or in some places it is referred to as an Individualized Education Plan). An IEP is a document that outlines a child’s specific needs and the accommodations, modifications, and supports that will be put in place  in order for them to better access the curriculum. 

Who is eligible for an IEP?

While specific laws regarding accessibility to special education services differ depending on where you live, generally speaking children who learn differently are supported with an IEP. This may include children who have been diagnosed with a learning disability such as dyslexia (a reading disability), dyscalculia (a math disability), or dysgraphia (a writing disability). It may also include children with diagnoses of ADHD, or Autism, amongst others. In most places, children who have a physical disability also have access to an IEP. Some children with other mental health conditions such as an anxiety disorder or significant challenges with behaviour regulation may also be eligible depending on local laws. In some cases, children deemed to be “at-risk” for learning differences may also be eligible for an IEP without a formal diagnosis. 

What is included in an IEP?

An IEP usually includes the following:
  1. A child’s strengths and areas of need
  2. How the child’s needs affect their ability to access the curriculum
  3. Specific goals related to their academic, social, emotional or behavioural needs (these are often referred to as SMART goals as they are often written to be specific, measurable, attainable for the child, realistic, and time bound)
  4. Any accommodations or modifications that your child may need to meet those goals
  5. Any school-based interventions such as resource support, speech therapy, or occupational therapy that your child needs to reach those goals

What are accommodations and modifications?

Accommodations are changes to the environment, curriculum format, or equipment that enable a child to learn. While there are many types, here are a few examples of accommodations:
  • preferential seating in the classroom
  • taking tests or exams in a quiet room
  • sitting on a wobble stool, exercise ball, or disc o’ sit cushion
  • adaptive writing utensil
  • use of a study carrel
  • a quiet corner for calming or sensory breaks
  • use of sensory tools such as fidgets
  • a “reader” who can read materials to the individual
  • a scribe
  • use of a computer/ipad/other technology
  • movement breaks
  • and more….
Modifications are changes to the material being taught in order to adapt to an individual’s needs. Thus, there is a modification of what a child is expected to learn. This might include:
  • a reduction in the number of assignments given
  • worksheets or materials at a different level
  • different homework
  • a reduction in the number of spelling words to study
  • and more…

How do I get an IEP for my child?

If you believe your child may benefit from an IEP, speak to your child’s principal. Depending on your child’s needs, disability or diagnosis, your child may need an assessment to support their needs. 
An IEP is a working document that evolves with your child. They are generally reviewed annually and updated based on the needs and progress of your child. 
Many IEPs are developed within the first 30 days of school (which is actually the mandate in some locations). Check with your state or provincial requirements. 

IEP Tips

I have participated in the development of many IEPs and the following are my favourite tips for IEP development:
  • Advocate for your child. Parents should be ACTIVE participants in the IEP process. It is not enough to send a completed IEP home for signature.
  • If you have an advocate or another outside professional that is supporting your child, ask for them to also be included in the IEP meeting along with you
  • Goals and interventions should serve the child’s developmental needs. They should NOT serve as a way to make a neurodivergent child function like a neurotypical child
  • Forced eye contact should never be an IEP goal
  • Children should not be forced to lose things such as unstructured free play time in order to engage in an intervention. Children need that downtime.
  • Engage in open and ongoing communication with your child’s teacher and school.
  • Your child’s teacher may have the ability to put in place some of the accommodations your child needs without setting up an IEP. Even if you feel your child wouldn’t be eligible for an IEP but would. benefit from some of these accommodations such as a quiet corner or movement breaks, speak to your child’s teacher.

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