Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and IEP Meetings

Autistic children have specific legal protections that are meant to help them get an education.  Here, we will discuss what happens during an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting and provide tips for achieving the best outcome for you and your child.  This article is the part of a series on IDEA that will summarize what the IDEA is, how IDEA is applied in schools (IEPs) and to young children (IFSPs), and how caregivers can work with schools to create an IEP that addresses their child’s needs. 

What is an IEP?

IEPs are written documents that outline a child’s current level of performance, what their goals for the future are, and how the school will help the child reach their goals.  The creation of IEPs for children with special needs is mandated by part 2 of IDEA and IEPs must be reviewed every year.


What is an IEP meeting?

IEP meetings (also known as annual reviews) are time for educators and caregivers to come together and create an individualized response to a child’s specific educational needs.  Meetings can be held to create IEPs, to perform a yearly review of an existing IEP, or to change an IEP.  Please note – IEPs should be reviewed once per year, but that is the minimum.  IEP meetings can be held as often as needed to create an effective IEP.  During IEP meetings, caregivers will have the opportunity discuss their child’s abilities and goals, and the school will use that information to create an IEP.  Because the topics discussed during IEP meetings will act as the basis for creating an IEP, it is important that caregivers are active participants.


Who should attend an IEP meeting?

There are five roles that are required to be filled at an IEP meeting.  They are:

  1. The child’s caregiver(s)
  2. The special education teacher (or special education provider) who serves or will serve the child.
  3. A general education teacher (if the child participates in or may participate in a general education classroom)
  4. Someone who can interpret test and/or evaluation data. This role is usually filled by the school counselor but may vary depending on the type(s) of testing the child has undergone.  For instance, if the child has had psychological testing done, then the school psychologist should fill this role.  If speech and language testing was performed, then the school’s speech-language therapist should be present.
  5. A school district representative (usually the school principal or special education director, but may also be a coordinator or other administrator who had talk about the resources that the school district can offer.)

People who may also attend IEP meetings:

  1. (optional) Guests invited by the child’s caregiver(s) – guests could be a healthcare provider, a tutor, or a friend/relative of the family. Please note: while caregivers are entirely within their rights to bring additional people to their child’s IEP meeting, they must send the school prior written notice that additional people will be joining.
  2. (optional) The child – If the child is able to participate in the IEP meeting, they are recommended to do so! After all, the decisions made will impact them the most directly.


Important Details about Meeting Attendance

  • Roles of People in an IEP Meeting: While there are five roles that must be filled (caregivers, special education teacher, general education teacher, someone how can evaluate data, and a school district representative), one person can fill more than one role.  For instance, a special education teacher may also be qualified to evaluate data.  That said, if you are unclear on the roles that the people in an IEP meeting are serving, you should ask for clarification.


  • Meeting Attendance: One way or another, all IEP meetings must have 1) a caregiver, 2) a special education provider, 3) a general education teacher, 4) someone who can interpret evaluations, and 5) a school district representative in attendance. If anyone tries to start the meeting without having all five roles filled, you should stop the meeting.  Ask to reschedule the meeting or wait until everyone is present.                                                                                                                                                                     Note: if the special ed teacher/provider, general education teacher/provider, and/or the local education agency representative (school district representative) is unable to attend a meeting, caregivers can waive their attendance (agree to let them skip the meeting).  If one of those three meeting attendees is unable to attend a meeting, the school district must seek out the caregiver’s permission in writing to waive attendance.  That way the caregiver can decide to excuse their absence or reschedule the meeting.


  • Additional IEP Meeting Attendees: Though mentioned above it bears repeating: caregivers are welcome to invite additional people to an IEP meeting.  Caregivers can bring people who know the child well, who has provided medical or psychological care for the child, tutors, or just people that caregivers want to bring to the meeting for support (just remember to let the school know if additional people will be attending in advance).


  • Recording Meetings: Caregivers are allowed to record meetings for future reference.  It is a good idea however for caregivers to let the school know that they intend to record.


What should be discussed at an IEP meeting?

There are three important topics that need to be discussed in every IEP meeting:

1. The first important topic is the Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP). The goal of a PLAAFP discussion is to access how your child is doing at present.  That should include a discussion of your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs.  To make sure everyone present at the meeting understands your child’s individual needs, you should prepare for the IEP meeting by doing the following:

  • Listing your child’s strengths (things they are good at or like doing) and weaknesses (things they are less good at or don’t like doing).
  • You should also list your child’s areas of need. That means listing skills that they need help with and/or listing out any assistive technologies that your child needs.
  • If you have grades, behavioral referrals, records of your child’s work habits, evaluation results, observations of your child’s daily functioning, etc… bring them to the meeting. They will help other meeting attendees better understand your child’s challenges and needs.

2. The second important topic is setting future goals for the child. In this part of the meeting, you and the other IEP meeting attendees will identify areas for growth, specific goals for your child to meet, and discuss how the school will support your child in achieving those goals.  Those goals are called “Measurable Annual Goals” and they should be explicit, appropriate, and measurable.  That means that goals should be clearly spelled out and be specific (explicit).  They need to be something that your child can actually accomplish in one year’s time (appropriate).  And, they need to be measurable – meaning it is not enough to say that the goal is to ‘improve performance.’  A goal needs to have some description of how you will know if there has been improvement.  That means that goals need to include some way of gauging improvement by counting something, measuring something, or evaluating a skill using some sort of scale.

3. The last section of the IEP discusses how the school will accommodate your child and help them meet their goals. That means that this section should outline where your child will be taught, who will teach them, and what accommodations you child will receive.

  • The IEP should describe how your child will receive instruction. This section should discuss where your child will be taught – will they be in a general education classroom? A contained classroom?  A combination of general education and contained classrooms?  Somewhere else?
  • The IEP should include a description of who will serve the child. People who could work with the child include: special education teachers, general education teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, behavior specialists, speech language therapists, occupational therapists, etc . . ..
  • This section of the IEP should also discuss the accommodations that your child will receive for learning and for testing. If your child needs a device (speech to text readers, etc…) to help them in the classroom, it should be outlined in this section.


Important Details about IEP Meetings

  • Know your rights: IEP meetings are not something that schools do as a favor to you; rather, they do them because it is the law. Your child has the right to a free and appropriate public education and IEP meetings are one of the ways you can make sure they get one!  The better you understand IDEA and the IEP process, the better off your child will be.


  • Stay organized: Between school evaluations, evaluations done by specialists, and behavioral referrals, kids can create a lot of paperwork! Since all of that testing can help caregivers and school officials create the most appropriate IEP possible, it’s a good idea to keep all that information together in one place.  We suggest creating a 3-ring binder where you can keep your child’s evaluation results, grades, behavioral referrals, teacher observations, and any observations you make about your child in one place for easy use.


  • DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!!! Document every interaction you have with the school.  That means that if you send the school an email, save a copy of the email.  If the school replies to your email, save the reply.  If the school emails you, save a copy.  You get the idea.  Moreover, whenever possible, communicate with the school through email as it will create a paper trail.


  • If you attend a meeting or have a conversation with a school representative but did not get what was discussed in writing, an easy way to follow up is to send the school or school representative an email that says: “Dear [school faculty], based on our conversation the other day, I wanted to follow up with you to make sure that I understood everything we talked about.  [Summarize what you talked about, then ask if your summary is correct].”  This is a great way to confirm via email what was discussed and to get a reply from the school.


  • From the outside, we know that this may seem like we’re making a big deal out of nothing, but 1) taking these steps will make sure that you understand exactly what the plan for your child is, 2) you can use the records you create to remind the school about certain accommodations that they promised should it become necessary, and 3) if you ever need to take legal action, having those records will be essential to your case.  It’s definitely better to have those records and not need them than to need them and not have them.


  • Always remember – you are the expert on your child and what you say matters! If committee members discuss your child’s performance in a way that seems inaccurate, or if the goals being set seem inappropriate, say something!  It’s okay to (respectfully) disagree with other committee members and/or to ask them questions.  You do not have to ‘go along’ with the other committee members if you don’t think they are moving in the right direction for your child.