When parents pay attention to the essential parts of their child’s IEP and take an active role in making sure that it properly addresses their child’s needs, it can be a powerful tool for insuring that their child gets the appropriate education that the law expects the school to provide.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. This document is a legal contract between the school and a student that outlines the unique learning program needed for that student to make progress toward the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) guaranteed by special education law. Our experience is that it is up to parents to know about what should go into IEP and to help their child’s Team create an effective one for their children.

While each state defines the contents of an IEP differently, we have learned that there are certain categories that are universally important and require special attention and thought. These categories typically contain information that is most prone to misunderstanding by parents or even the school’s Team members. Note that the following topics
don’t cover every part of an IEP, nor is every part we describe required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), though many state IEP forms include them.


Although not required by IDEA, all the IEPs we have seen contain a place for parents and the student, if old enough, to write about the concerns they want to see addressed in the coming year. Examples of concerns might be, “Parents would like to see student improve math skills,” or “Student would like to learn better selfadvocacy skills.” Your list of concerns can provide important information that the Team may need to develop an accurate picture of your child, without which the IEP can’t fully address his or her unique needs.


The IEP should list the results of any current assessment your child has taken, such as the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement and Cognitive Ability, Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test, or any state standardized tests. Even though this data may be part of your child’s evaluations, these reports aren’t usually available to the people who are implementing the services and accommodations described in the IEP. Having objective data is useful information for teachers and school specialists to help them better understand your child’s needs.


An IEP should contain a specific description of your child’s disability with a current diagnosis by a qualified evaluator. Broad categories of disability, such as “health,” “neurological,” or “emotional,” without essential details are not helpful in pinpointing specific needs.

Although the inclusion of a diagnosis isn’t required by law, and some parents may be uncomfortable having one written in, we have found that if an IEP lacks a complete and accurate diagnosis, it can affect the services a student receives. A missing diagnosis or overly broad categories describing a disability may result in your child not getting the specialized instruction he or she needs.


Federal law requires that an IEP contain a description of a student’s “present levels of academic achievement and functional performance” (PLAAFP). This information helps the Team identify the appropriate types of instruction and accommodations for your child to make effective progress.

In describing the general academic curriculum, the PLAAFP should indicate which specific subject areas, such as English Language Arts, Mathematics, or Social Studies, are affected by your child’s disability. For each area there should be a description of your child’s current performance in the classroom, such as a listing of recent grades or a summary of your child’s classroom behavior, e.g., “He does not complete homework consistently and assignments
are handed in late, or not at all.” This indicates how your child’s disability affects progress in that subject area. The PLAAFP should include details on specialized instruction, methodology, modifications, and accommodations your child needs in each subject.

It is important that the description reflects the available testing data and diagnosis. While subjective methods, such as teacher observations can be important, the PLAAFP should not rely on them exclusively.


Another section in the IEP that isn’t required by federal law, but is by many states, is the vision statement. The vision
statement is a collaborative effort between the parents and the other Team members that describes what the Team
hopes your child will be doing in the next one to five years. Articulating a vision for the future helps the Team consider not only the current school year, but upcoming years through graduation and beyond. If old enough, your child can add his or her input to the vision statement. When the Team understands a student’s aspirations, it can more effectively write goals to help that student achieve them.

Putting some thought into what you want your child to achieve in the next one to five years is a valuable exercise,
because it encourages thinking about the future. Always consider your child’s abilities and have high expectations, because if you don’t, the Team may not either.


By law, the IEP must create annual goals for your child that are objective and measurable. Once a goal is mastered, the Team can write a new, more advanced one. Well written goals are specific, time-limited, and realistic for your child. If a goal is too easy, it isn’t helpful. If a goal is unattainable, it is frustrating.

There are three parts of a successful goal that must function together: a description of the current level of performance being addressed by the goal, a specific and measurable objective, and adequate service delivery. Usually service delivery is considered separately from the goal, but we have found that service delivery is crucial and must not be considered separately from the goal itself.

One way to know if these three parts are working together is to ask if the goal answers the following questions:
• What is your child’s starting point?
• Where is your child going?
• How is your child going to get there?

What is Your Child’s Starting Point? Every successful goal begins with an assessment of your child’s current ability in the specific skill area covered by that goal. This is called your child’s “current level of performance,” and it establishes the starting point for the goal. Knowing how far a student is below grade level, for example, helps answer the question about what kind of specialized instruction is needed and how intensively it should be given. A student who is three years below grade level in math will need more intensive instruction than one who is only a year below grade level.

The most effective way to determine the current level of performance is through testing. In reading, the Woodcock-Johnson Test or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) is considered a good indicator of current performance. In non-academic areas, a psychological evaluation is an effective indicator of social-emotional or behavioral performance, while a test of fine or gross motor skills can indicate occupational or physical therapy performance. More general assessment methods, such as the completion of a reading skills class or participation in a sports activity, can also be helpful.

Where is Your Child Going? The goal itself is the IEP’s road map for achieve ment. You need an objective to take your child from his or her current level of performance to a realistic higher level during the time period covered by the goal, usually a school year.

In their book, Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives, Barbara Bateman and Cynthia Herr describe the four characteristics of a measurable goal:
1. It contains a method for measuring whether or not the goal has been achieved.
2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.
3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure progress using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.
4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time.

How is Your Child Going to Get There? A goal won’t work if there aren’t adequate services to help your child achieve it. The service delivery grid specifies what services your child needs to achieve that goal, the dates when services begin and end (usually defined by the school year), where and how often the services are given, and who is providing the services. The grid must allow enough time and a properly qualified person to provide those services.
Vague references to “sped staff” are not helpful, and not even permitted in some states.

In addition to making sure that service delivery is clearly spelled out in the grid, we recommend having this information written into the description of the goal itself. The reason is that the service delivery grid often appears pages after the goal and can be overlooked by both you and your child’s service providers. The duplication helps remind everyone that the most important part of an IEP goal is achieving it.


Only after deciding on goals and services should the Team propose a placement for your child. Placement is the location where your child receives his or her education and how much of the school day includes specialized services. A student is entitled to placement in an appropriate setting, without regard to the cost. You can either accept the Team’s placement decision or reject it, so make sure you understand what the school is offering. If you disagree with the Team’s placement, you may have to resort to mediation or a due process hearing to resolve the disagreement.


A transition service is one designed to help a student on an IEP make the move from high school to adult life, whether the transition is to college, vocational training, or independent living. To facilitate transition, planning for it should start with the IEP in effect when your child is 14. Though federal law doesn’t require this until age 16, many state laws use age 14, which is more realistic.

The transition section of the IEP should include details such as the anticipated graduation date from high school, a statement of interagency responsibilities (i.e., what agency, if any, takes over from the school district), and a discussion of guardianship issues, if necessary. Check your state department of education’s web site to learn what services are available for students after they graduate.


Toward the end of most IEPs is a page for parents to respond to the completed document. You have the choice of accepting the IEP as developed, rejecting it completely, or rejecting specific parts of it. This page is where you can
describe any parts you reject. In many states, you can also request a meeting to discuss the portions you have  ejected.

At the bottom of the response page is a place for the parent or guardian’s signature and, if your child is 18 or older,
your child’s signature. Federal law does not require a parent to sign the IEP, but many states require that both the school district and parents (or adult student) sign each IEP before it takes the force of a legal contract. Depending on the state, if parents do not sign and return the IEP, then either the old IEP remains in effect or the new IEP is implemented without the parent’s signature. Check to see what your state requires. In all cases, it is prudent for parents and representatives of the school district to sign, as the signatures provide a record of who has agreed to what. In case you decide at a later date that you want to reject either the entire IEP or parts of it, you can revoke your consent at any time.


The IEP is a complex, legally binding document intended to provide a clear picture of a student’s current abilities and needs, and to outline special education services for that student. When parents pay attention to the essential parts of their child’s IEP and take an active role in making sure that it properly addresses their child’s needs, it can be a powerful tool for insuring that their child gets the appropriate education that the law expects the school to provide. •

This article is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 6, “The IEP: Powerful Tool or Worthless Paper,” of the book Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves are parents who spent 15 years in the special education system trying to obtain an appropriate education for their son. Through trial and error, success and failure, they learned what it takes to navigate the bureaucratic maze and the often hidden agenda of school culture so that their son could receive the education he was entitled to by law. Writing as parents for other parents, the results of their journey led to the publication of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, an acclaimed parent manual published in 2014 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Their website is www.MakeSpecialEducationWork.com

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