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Learn about the special education process and IEPs

What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) appropriate to their individual needs.

FAPE means that the public school system must provide an eligible child with specially designed instruction, supports and services to meet the child’s unique needs at no cost to the parents. This instruction is special education. Specially designed instruction is defined as adapting for an individual student the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction in order to address the unique needs of the student that result from his disability. This specially designed instruction is described in the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

States must meet the federal requirements of the IDEA. They can also give students and parents more rights and services. The IDEA also includes regulations to protect the rights of parents and children, and information to help states design special education programs for children with disabilities.

IDEA explains Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) as follows: “…to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities…are educated with children who are nondisabled; and…special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004

Natural and Least Restrictive Environments


What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

MSDE has a booklet called Understanding the Evaluation, Eligibility, and Individualized Education Program (IEP) Process in Maryland.

As a result of IDEA, the IEP is the foundation for your child’s education. The IEP is both a process and a document to be written. It is a comprehensive statement of a student’s educational needs and the specially designed instruction, supports, and related services to meet those needs. The IEP details the accommodations and modifications, known as Supplementary Aids and Services, that must be provided to enable the student to reach her individualized goals. The IEP must be appropriate so that a student with a disability can benefit from his education; make meaningful progress in the general curriculum; and be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent possible.

The IEP is a legal document that obligates the local school system to commit specified resources for the student’s education. It should be revised and updated at least annually. It informs teachers and service providers of the focus of their instruction and functions as a tool for evaluating a student’s special education program. The IEP provides a structure to measure the progress that a child reasonably can make in one year. Educational progress must be meaningful. If the child’s educational progress is meaningful, the child has received the benefit of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Finally, the IEP serves as a monitoring tool to determine whether the school system is complying with IDEA.

IEP Checklist (PDF) – What is an IEP?

Autism Speaks – Individualized Education Program (IEP): Summary, Process and Practical Tips (PDF)

Wrightslaw – IEP FAQs


Will my child qualify for an IEP?

To determine eligibility for special education and related services, parents and their child will become involved in the IEP process. Special education law requires the child to be evaluated in all of the areas of suspected disability. An evaluation is a careful look at a child’s abilities, strengths, and needs by a team including the child’s parents, teachers, and specialists. An evaluation is based on a review of formal and informal assessment data, information from parents, observations by teachers, as well as classroom-based, local, and state assessment information.

Based on the evaluation information, the IEP team determines whether a child has a disability and requires specialized instruction and related services. The evaluation also guides the IEP team in developing an IEP for the child and determining the nature and extent of the special education and related services that the child may need. Remember, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a child’s disability needs to have an educational impact that requires specialized instruction. Parents must give consent in writing before the school begins the evaluation process. All decisions about special education are made through the IEP team process.


How is the IEP developed?

A child’s eligibility for an IEP must be determined within a team-based process. Either the school or the parent can start this process. At no cost to the parent, the school will evaluate the child in all areas of suspected need. A team of individuals, including both school staff and the parents, will review the testing to determine if the child meets eligibility requirements. From the time when the parents provide written permission for the child to be assessed, the school has 60 days to complete the testing and review the resulting report at a properly convened team meeting.

Eligibility for special education requires that the child’s disability have an “educational impact.” If the team determines that the child needs special education supports and services, a draft IEP must be written and discussed during a team meeting within 30 days. In addition to the assessments, the IEP team should consider, for example, classroom observations, classroom assessments, classroom data, behavioral records and progress notes. Parents are co-equal partners in the IEP process. All members of the IEP team are to be heard in a respectful, open environment. The IEP process should be collaborative and conducted in good faith.

PFA Tips: Top Ten Rules to Develop an Appropriate IEP

PFA Webinar: Measuring Student Progress on the IEP


Who is on the IEP team?

“Parents are considered equal partners with school personnel in making these decisions, and the IEP team must consider the parents’ concerns and the information that they provide regarding their child…”

The IEP team consists of the parents, the child (if appropriate), a general education teacher, a special educator, and an individual who can interpret instructional implications of evaluation results (this may be a member of the team already described).

The team must also consist of a representative from the school system who is: qualified to provide or supervise the provision of a specially-designed instruction to meet the unique needs of the student; knowledgeable about the general curriculum; and knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the school system. This representative must have the authority to allocate resources.

The IEP team may also include “other” individuals at the discretion of the parent or school system who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child. These specialists may include an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a speech therapist, a hearing therapist; a vision specialist; a mobility and orientation specialist; an adaptive physical educator, a school psychologist, nurses, counselors, social worker, and behavior specialists. Specialists can be conferenced in; they do not have to be present.

Parents may also choose to invite friends, tutors, advocates and therapists. It is recommended that a parent ALWAYS take someone with them to the IEP meeting. Those invited by the parents can lend support and take notes.


When do I need an IEP meeting?

IEP meetings may be held to: determine eligibility; develop or revise an IEP; conduct an annual review; determine Extended School Year (ESY) services; conduct a periodic review; determine transition services; or to determine manifestation of disability (when a student is suspended for a disciplinary violation). Parents have the right to request an IEP meeting at any time for any reason and the school must schedule one within 30 days.

IEP 10 Rules of Advocacy

IEP Checklist


What special education and related services does my child need?

A school may be asked to consider anything that will enable the child to learn.

    • Bus Accommodations

Transportation is considered part of the school day, so you have the right to consider bus issues on the IEP. Transportation is a Related Service. Typically it would go on the LRE page of the IEP, but you could state that you want staff training on the Supplemental Aids section of the IEP. If your child has difficulty riding a bus full of other children, you may want to request a special education bus. Talk to your Case Manager or IEP Chair Person about adding this training to the IEP. Then, in writing, request an IEP meeting and request that the appropriate Transportation person attend the meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page. If your child doesn’t have a one-on-one aide on the bus, you may need to make that request. Other bus accommodations to consider are preferential seating and seat belts.

  • Assistive Technology
  • Safety issues
  • Fire Drills
  • Related services (page 16) – Related services are those services that must be provided to your child so that he can benefit from special education instruction. Some of the related services that your child may require, depending on his special needs, include but are not limited to: Transportation, Speech Pathology, Audiology, Recreation, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy and more.


What is the difference between Accommodation and Modification?

Accommodations are changes in HOW a student accesses and demonstrates learning, but do not reduce learning expectations. Rather, they provide access to reduce the effects of a student’s disability.

Modifications or alterations change WHAT your child is expected to learn and refer to practices that change, lower, or reduce learning expectations.

Maryland Accommodations Manual

The Five Step Process for Accommodations for Students with Disabilities by Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE)

Supports, Modifications, and Accommodations for Students from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)

School Accommodations and Modifications from Families and Advocates Partnership for Education (FAPE), Pacer Center


Determine with your IEP team which state assessment tests are most appropriate for your child

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 requires that ALL STUDENTS be assessed and that students receive an individual score in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and a high school grade. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004, also requires that states provide an “alternate assessment” when implementing statewide accountability systems. An alternate assessment is an assessment designed for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are unable to participate in a regular assessment, even when accommodations are provided.

Does my child participate in state assessments?


What is the re-determination process?

As children grow and mature, their educational needs change as well. Information that once was current becomes out of date. At least every three years, the IEP team must meet to plan for updated assessments that will utilize testing to identify the child’s current needs and strengths. Based on the updated testing and current school performance and progress, the team will decide whether the child’s diagnosed disability continues to have an educational impact. Finally, the team will determine which federal census code most accurately captures the disability with which the child has been diagnosed. The code is not intended as a label.

Initial Eligibility and Continued Eligibility


What do I do if the school is not implementing my child’s IEP, or if I do not agree with the services suggested by the school?

To discuss concerns about your child, use the following steps:

  1. Talk with the teacher/therapist.
  2. Talk to your child’s case manager.
  3. Talk with the IEP chairperson.
  4. Talk with the principal.
  5. Talk with the Special Education specialist assigned to your school zone.
  6. Talk with the Assistant Superintendent’s office staff.
  7. File a formal complaint or file for mediation or due process.

Parental Rights

Special Education Rights: A Handbook for Maryland Families and Professionals

Facilitated Team Meetings: An Introduction and Frequently Asked Questions for Parents and Public Agency/School Personnel

MSDE facilitated IEP brochure and FAQ (not all local school systems provide facilitated IEPs)

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