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Why is the IEP so confusing?

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

I. E. P. ... just three little letters but so much complication. Today I was cleaning and organizing a "new" file cabinet my fiancee refinished for me. I came across years and years of Son's school reports, report cards, evaluations, and IEPs. It was definitely a trip down memory lane.

It all started with a speech delay that was discovered after the county sent out a 6-month developmental milestone questionnaire. He was lagging a bit in communication and after he was still lagging at the one-year mark, the County sent out someone to complete an assessment. He had an in-home worker for language and skills and I taught him some basic sign language to help with the frustrations.

When he got to pre-school he was already receiving special education services and it was already determined he would need accommodations and modifications. The school drafted an IEP. What the heck is an IEP I thought. Turns out it's a very important piece of a child's education process. It's even more important for the parent or guardian to know their rights. I didn't actually grasp the importance of knowing those rights until Son's transition at the middle school IEP meeting. Just to be clear an IEP is not a 504. Always push for the IEP.

Both are for K-12 students who are struggling in school. .

He had an IEP that continued through elementary school. Every three years the school does an assessment. Every year the team would meet to discuss the goals, what was attained, what was not, what needed to be added or changed, and any accommodations.

The first school transition meeting happens when a child goes from elementary to middle school. The middle school staff meets with the current team to discuss the goals, strengths, accommodations, concerns, etc., for the upcoming year in the new school.

The current team was discussing how they placed my Son in modified math and the issues that came up when he was placed in the general classroom setting. The curriculum went much too fast and the class had moved on before he had grasped the concept. He got behind which caused frustration and then behavioral issues at school. He was placed back in modified math and had no more behavioral issues. They had attempted this multiple times over the course of elementary school. The middle school team proceeded to indicate my Son would be placed in a general classroom setting and not a modified class "to see what happens" as "that's not what we do here".

After being in more of these meetings than I could instantly recall, I had been sitting there quietly listening and assessing the "needs and strengths" that were brought up. I finally stepped in and said that I would only sign the new IEP once the current case manager approved it. The silence and shock that proceeded were a little empowering, to say the least. They said that no parent had ever, ever!!, said that before. This was a special education meeting with the largest school district in our state. No parent ever!!

They said they would have come to the elementary school to observe some classes he was in. I said don't bother, he will be switching school districts. There is no way he (or me) is dealing with this until graduation. If I have to fight before he's even in school ... he will go somewhere else.

And I walked out

At that moment I knew that no matter what happened, I had stood up for my son and his education and his rights in his - Individualized - Education Plan. Generally, I'm one to put my head down and comply. Today there was a fire that got lit and I was not backing down.

New school research started immediately. I looked at school enrollment numbers versus special education numbers. I also called the bus companies and made appointments with the special education directors. I took school tours, compiled all the factual research, and chose a new school.

When my son was diagnosed with Autism in 2009 and again in 2015, it was like getting swept off my feet and punched in the gut. After that first appointment when I heard the psychologist say "autism", I went home and cried and cried. I had to pick myself up and figure out what now. Wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. I started reading everything I could get my hands on. My favorite resources were Autism Speaks, Fraser, and Pacer Center. I received a lot of literature from Autism Speaks and attended classes at Fraser and Pacer Center. Those classes were totally worth every minute. Sitting there at that transition meeting, I was so thankful I had swallowed that lump in my throat and tried to figure out how to help my kid succeed with the skills he already had.

I also learned how to make the annual IEP meeting strategic and beneficial. For example, look over the current IEP to find strengths and weaknesses. Use different highlighter colors for each category and make a spreadsheet if necessary.

Make sure the weaknesses are being addressed with appropriate goals and objectives and the strengths are being utilized.

Ask questions:

  • How does your child learn best?

  • How did the tests compare to peers?

  • Are they meeting grade-level standards?

  • How can we close that gap?

  • Are there any concerns?

  • How do they pay attention? Follow directions? Take turns?

  • Are they organized?

  • If there are changes, when will they start?

  • How long will it take to receive the new or proposed IEP?

Other keywords I needed to learn about were:

  • the least restrictive environment

  • modifications

  • accommodations.

I am in no way professionally trained in special education. All of my knowledge comes from learning how to navigate the system for my own child.

It was my understanding that the whole point of an IEP is that it's an individualized education plan that is designed based on a single child's unique needs and their current level of academic achievement (meaning school) and functioning performance (meaning life).

The least restrictive environment would be important so the child can learn with their peers. For my kiddo, this meant being in social studies and science with the help of a paraprofessional. For projects, he would pair up with a general education peer. He participated in the regular gym with no assistance. For math and reading, he was in a smaller class where things were slower-paced.

The accommodations were to "level the playing field" so he could demonstrate the knowledge without altering anything significant in what the assignment or test is measuring. Whereas a modification would be an adjustment of an assignment or test for what is being measured.

Some examples of ACCOMMODATIONS were:

  • having assignments printed as opposed to being on the iPad;

  • seating close to the teacher;

  • a visual schedule was posted on his desk and on his planner;

  • he could have a wiggle seat or pencil chew;

  • outlines and PowerPoint were printed;

  • he had additional time to complete his task;

  • he could leave the classroom early to avoid the hallways;

  • he had longer to verbally reply to a question;

  • long term assignments were broken down week by week;

  • he could wear headphones and sunglasses;

  • he could take a sensory break;

  • teacher or para would check his planner to make sure homework was written down;

  • tests were read aloud when appropriate;

  • test in a smaller quiet room.


  • shortened assignments;

  • use multiple choice instead of essay;

  • he could receive a passing grade if he showed the work instead of an F;

  • some of his spelling was not graded when the content was important;

  • audiobooks for reading assignments to follow along with the regular book

  • he has received more functional math as opposed to regular graded math.

My son ended up changing school districts for sixth grade and that change has been amazing. It's been one heck of a road. There have been many struggles, meltdowns, fights, and not every day is perfect. There is also easier access to teachers, immediate check-ins when things go wrong, teachers know him as an actual individual person, and the teachers know his "tricks" better. He is in a smaller school district where he gets more attention, he's doing fabulous, will graduate on his IEP, and is off to transition school next year.

I've never regretted walking out of that one meeting or using my voice to advocate for my son. Take the classes, and learn what your rights are.

I feel very fortunate to have a place he goes every day that he is comfortable with and is succeeding.

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