How To Create Individualized Programming for Students With IEPs

When the school district and the parent or guardian of a child agree that the child should be participating in special education services, this is only the first step in the process. The next step involves developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the child. This program will spell out goals for the child’s participation in the special education classroom, while also determining any general education classroom participation the student should have.

One of the most important aspects of creating the IEP is that it requires individualization for the child. The team developing the IEP cannot simply reuse an IEP that worked for a student in the past who has a similar age and disability to this child. Each plan must fit the particular needs of this student.

Special education teachers looking for ideas to aid in truly dialing in an IEP to fit the needs of a particular child will appreciate our guide. I will lay out the key aspects of developing an IEP that focus on individualism. I will break down various segments of the IEP, helping you save time while achieving the best ultimate outcome for each of your students!

Understanding What Goes Into Individualizing an IEP

Having worked as an autism specialist for many years in a large public school district in the Seattle area, I witnessed all of the work that special education professionals invest into every child. I also understand some of the apprehension instructors may have when trying to come up with ideas to individualize the educational plan for each special education student. 

Even though coming up with techniques and ideas in the IEP that will perfectly fit the needs of each child in the special education classroom is a challenge, it also represents time very well spent. 

I’ve seen first-hand the improved results teachers often have when they put together an IEP that connects closely with the intended student. This process of creating an IEP requires patience, creativity, and effort. Developing a successful IEP that fits the individual needs of the student is a challenge, but it is vitally important for all parties involved.

  • What Is an IEP?
  • How the IEP Team Helps With Individualization
  • Creating Specific Individual Goals in the IEP
  • Does the Student Need Modifications or Accommodations?
  • Individualized Work Outside the Normal School Day and Year
  • Dealing With Standards-Based IEPs

What Is an IEP?

When a student has one or more disabilities that negatively affect the student’s ability to achieve the greatest level of success in the classroom, this student has the right to a free public education. This includes steps the school district takes to meet the student’s individual needs. A federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees this right. 

As part of IDEA, the school must create an IEP that spells out exactly how the school will provide these services for the disabled student. Simply saying that the student will spend time in a special education classroom is nowhere near enough to satisfy the requirements for an IEP.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the IEP must include a number of different aspects, each of which fits the child’s individual needs. Some of these aspects will easily lend themselves to individualizing the process for each student, while other aspects require some creative thought to come up with a means of individualizing the plan.

  • Measuring performance in school to this point
  • Determining goals for the school year
  • Determining benchmarks that show progress toward goals
  • Coming up with tangible ways to measure progress
  • Determining the special education services the student will receive
  • Listing the date for starting these services and places where they will be in use
  • Determining whether modifications to the school’s educational programs are appropriate
  • Deciding how the student will take district and state standards tests and whether accommodations are necessary
  • Determining if and when the student will participate in the general education classroom with peers

As the student moves to age 14 and beyond, the IEP will need to begin addressing the goals for the student’s post-education life. Any transition services the IEP team believes would help the child transition to adulthood should be part of the plan too.

How the IEP Team Helps With Individualization

Special education teachers do not create the IEP on their own. Instead, the IEP process requires that a team comes together to create the IEP. This helps to reduce some of the pressure an instructor may feel to develop a truly individualized plan, as having more voices in the room can lead to a better overall level of creativity and personalization. 

When putting together the IEP, it’s important to hear the voices of each team member. People who do not work inside the school system may provide a unique perspective, for example. According to Pacer Center, some people who may be part of a child’s IEP team and able to provide some important insight include:

  • Child: Sometimes, older children will have the ability to participate on the IEP team. This is a decision the IEP team should make on a case-by-case basis. But having the child involved in at least some capacity can be highly beneficial. 
  • General education classroom teacher: The teacher who has experience with the student in the general education classroom can provide insight on strengths the student may have compared to peers. This can be helpful for determining whether part of the IEP should involve general education classroom time and how much.
  • Medical professionals who treat the child: Depending on the type of disability the child has, a doctor or another medical professional who treats the child regularly may be able to help the IEP team quite a bit. The medical professional may have years of experience treating and working with the child, yielding important information about the child’s capabilities and challenges.
  • Medical specialists: Sometimes, the IEP team may include medical professionals who do not treat the child’s condition. However, they can provide insight on the general challenges a student with a particular disability may face. These specialists can include psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists, among others.
  • Parent or guardian: Parents and guardians are important members of the student’s IEP team. No one spends as much time with the student as the parents and guardians. They often have a unique insight for what works and what doesn’t for the student, both at home and at school. Hearing their voices is important.
  • School district administration: A representative of the school district’s administrative team who has experience with special education techniques in use at various schools around the district may be able to share some ideas that are working in other buildings. This team member should have a clear idea of what services are available across the district as well.
  • Special education teacher: The special education instructor delivers an accurate and current assessment of the child’s abilities. Because of this teacher’s training, he or she can come up with ideas for individualized learning strategies, as well as special education classroom modifications that are available for the student to use.

Creating Specific Individual Goals in the IEP

The setting of goals for the child to reach is a very important part of the IEP. Additionally, the creation of goals is a good way to create individualization in the IEP. Considering which goals to include in the IEP forces the IEP team to closely consider the student’s individual capabilities.

Goals should take into account the assessed needs of the student. Giving a student a goal that has little to do with overcoming a specific educational or social challenge the student faces would not be helpful. Thinking closely about the student’s needs is helpful with individualizing the goals.

Another way the IEP’s goals must have individualization to each student is in developing methods of working toward the goals. The IEP should list exactly what type of work the student will do to move toward achieving a goal. 

For example, one student may be able to work on improving communication skills by interacting with peers during lunch time. However, another student who has a goal of improved communication skills may need to spend time working with a speech therapist instead. 

Measuring Progress Toward Goals

As the student begins working toward meeting the goals, special education instructors need to monitor progress. Goals that are too easy or too difficult should undergo an adjustment on the fly. Although the IEP team typically makes a major evaluation of the plan once a year, adjustments to goals in the IEP can occur regularly throughout the school year.

Some goals may need an adjustment regarding which instructor has direct involvement in working toward the goal. Perhaps the initial goal called for a special education classroom aide to work with the student on a goal, but the speech therapist is having more success, necessitating an adjustment of the goal.

By being willing to make adjustments and changes to the goals on a regular basis throughout the year, the IEP becomes highly personalized, always reflecting each student’s current needs. 

Does the Student Need Modifications or Accommodations?

As part of the IEP, the team must include information that indicates exactly where, when, and how the student may need extra help with activities or schoolwork. The IEP team must take into account the difficulty of the task, the student’s disability, and the time required for the task when determining if modifications or accommodations will be part of the process.

Modifications for the Student

Some students making use of special education services will need modifications to have a better chance at success in reaching the IEP’s goals. This means the student will receive a type of content that is less involved or completely different from peers. Assignments may be shorter for the student who needs the modification, for example.

Through the assessment of the student’s capabilities and skills, the IEP team can include a recommendation for modifications as part of the IEP. The team may discover through its consideration of the student’s capabilities that the student needs modifications for certain subjects but does not need them for other subjects. Drilling down to this level of personalization is an important part of the IEP.

Accommodations for the Student

When the IEP team recommends that a student receive accommodations as part of his or her educational experience, the accommodations work differently than the modifications. With accommodations, the student will work toward learning the same educational content as peers, just in a different way. 

A student who struggles to hear, for example, may need written instructions for a particular subject, rather than a verbal lecture. At test time, a student who struggles to hold a pencil or to write quickly may need to be able to provide answers verbally or through making selections on a computer screen, rather than writing answers on paper. 

Other options for making accommodations as part of the special education classroom may include:

  • Adding more lighting in the room for a student with visual impairment
  • Creating quiet rooms that allow the student to avoid distractions
  • Providing instructions for a task at a slower-than-normal pace

Any specific accommodations that the IEP team believes would be helpful for the individual student should be part of the IEP. Additionally, team members should be willing to make adjustments to these accommodations as needed. If a student is not having success with a certain type of accommodation, for example, try adjusting it to better fit the individual needs of the student.

Individualized Work Outside the Normal School Day and Year

Another area where the IEP team can incorporate ideas to individualize the educational experience for the child involves recommendations for doing extra work. 

Doing Work at Home

To help the student make progress toward the goals in the IEP, the team’s plan may involve performing certain types of extra work at home with parents or siblings. This can include things like working on self-care skills, communication, or behavioral issues. They do not have to involve items specifically related to education, although they can.

Before including extra work at home as part of the IEP, the team should take into account the student’s current skill level. Working at home on certain skills should be an individual decision. Just because one student responds well to extra work at home with family members, another student with a similar disability may not respond in the same way. 

Participating in Extended School Year

Some students need the structure of the special education classroom all year around, rather than taking the summer off. Certain students may lose some of the skills they gained during the school year when they do not continue to work on those skills in the summer.

The determination to participate in an extended school year must occur on a case-by-case basis. Just because one student thrives in attending classes all year around doesn’t mean all students will benefit from the extended school year. Some students need a break from school, spending more time with family, to allow them to have the most success during the normal school year.

Any recommendation for an extended school year must be part of the IEP.

Dealing With Standards-Based IEPs

One of the most challenging aspects of personalizing an IEP involves dealing with standards-based IEPs. This is a requirement that the U.S. Department of Education added to the IEP process several years ago. It means that special education students must have segments in the IEP that help the student work toward meeting the state’s educational standards tied to that student’s grade level.

Even if the student learns differently than peers, the student still must work toward the state academic standards. The Department of Education understands that not all special education students are going to be able to reach the state standards for the student’s grade level, especially if the student is starting from a point well below the standard. However, the student should show steady progress toward reaching the standards.

With this focus on the state standards, it takes away some of the IEP team’s ability to make certain individualized changes to the plan to match the needs of a specific student. The team can still personalize many aspects of the IEP, but all IEPs must have a basis around working toward meeting the state standards.

For a student who struggles to meet the state’s academic standards for reading levels at the student’s grade level, for example, the IEP team cannot simply create individualized goals that allow the student to try to match the state standard for a younger reading level. Instead, the IEP team must come up with personalized ways to help the student have more success in moving toward the state academic standards for the student’s actual grade level, which may include:

  • Giving the student access to any and all special education services required to make progress toward the standards
  • Making accommodations or modifications for the student that provide a chance to move toward the state standards
  • Creating milestone goals along the way that show progress toward the ultimate goal of reaching a state standard
  • Precisely measuring progress throughout the year
  • Making changes to the student’s IEP as needed during the school year to deliver a better chance of reaching the standards


Special education teachers understand the importance of personalizing their approach in the classroom to meet the individual needs of each student. A special education classroom may contain students of widely varying ages and disabilities. A one-size-fits-all does not work for the special education teacher. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand the importance of developing an IEP that fits the student perfectly, moving toward the most successful outcome for the student.

I love exploring new ideas designed to help special education instructors meet the individual needs of their students. I believe strongly that the best resource special education teachers have is each other! If you have some ideas for personalization techniques you use for IEPs that you believe would be helpful for the special education community at large, please share them with me! I also am available to answer questions you may have. Please email me or add comments here!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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