Understanding the Individualized Education Program IEP Process in Special Education

First and foremost, what is an IEP? Well, it stands for Individualized Education Program and it’s a comprehensive educational plan that outlines a student receiving special education services. The document includes present levels of performance, goals, and a plan to achieve their goals.

That sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Well it is. Ever look at that never ending pit that is an IEP and wonder, “What needs to be included here?” Well, me too! When working through my Master’s in Special Education, I often struggled to understand all the complicated and nuanced pieces legally required to be present in an IEP. Here, I’ve removed all the unnecessary aspects and bring to you an easy guide of what needs to be present in an IEP.

An IEP Must Have

  • Present Levels of Performance
  • Annual Goals
  • Areas of Service
  • Progress Toward Meeting Goals
  • Least Restrictive Environment
  • Assessment
  • Services Provided
  • Transition Activities
  • IEP Team
  • Transfer of Rights
  • Prior Written Notice

As you read through the guide below, I suggest grabbing the IEP that you are reviewing and have it near so you can compare and contrast. As a side note, much like the rest of the world special education loves acronyms. I’ll make sure to define each one as I go. Let’s get started!

Present Levels of Performance

Present levels of performance are also known as PLOPS. When reviewing present levels of performance, the section should include fact-based and data-driven information. There will be a written statement of the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. Included in the statement will be how the student’s disability affects their involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. The information should be useful and relevant to the student’s current performance.

Be sure to scan through this section to see if there is any irrelevant information, anything that seems like negative connotations about the student, or a long list of issues without any suggested solution. If you see any of these pieces present in the IEP, consider them red flags and immediately work to make changes. You’ll want to soon after bring the IEP team together for a meeting.

Annual Goals

Once a year, measurable annual goals are written. The purpose of annual goals are to track and measure students’ progress in each qualifying area of specially designed instruction. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the goal meet the student’s needs that result from their disability?
  • Does the goal allow the student to be involved in and make adequate progress in the general education curriculum?
  • Does the goal meet each of the student’s other educational needs that result from their disability?

When you review annual goals, use the SMART protocol as a reference to ensure there are no missing pieces. George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham developed the SMART goal process in their 1981 article, “There’s a SMART way to write management goals and objectives.”


Specific goals use the evaluation process to identify and determine areas of need and plan accordingly. A specific goal should have a clear and defined endpoint. If a goal is too vague, it will be difficult to track, therefore the achievement is difficult to measure. 


Measurable goals must be…. measurable! Measurable goals define what evidence will be produced that will prove that progress is being made. The same evidence will inform you when to revisit the goal and process as adequate progress is not being made. Therefore, you must accurately track progress to determine if additional accommodations and/or modifications or adjustments to the goal are necessary. Progress monitoring is also essential to provide and review updates to guardians monthly. 


Attainable yet challenging goals are set through accurate assessment and data collection to determine a student’s baseline in a specific area. Use the baseline data you and the team have gathered to create reasonable goals that can be accomplished within a defined period of time. An attainable goal should not be too ambitious. If it is, it can create frustration and apathy in students, which can cause a lack of motivation. If the data is incorrect, a goal can be unknowingly out of reach of a student’s achievement or met within weeks.


Relevant goals should be applicable and aligned to a content area that makes sense for the student. If the student is not showing a need for greeting peers in a baseline assessment, it would not be necessary to create a goal in that area. The goal must also support the student on a post-secondary level. Is this a skill that the student will need in the community? Consider the, so what test. Is this a skill the student needs or is it inhibiting their quality of life? Or is it something that is annoying to the adults? Always keep things student centered!


Time bound goals are realistic, yet have an ambitious end date. This keeps everyone accountable and motivated. Setting an end date helps to quantify and keep the focus on track. Be sure to monitor progress at least monthly if not weekly. Progress monitoring with fidelity is essential in knowing where the student is at in terms of their goals.

All goals should use the SMART goal format to provide accurate goal measurement and tracking. Without using the SMART protocol, you’ll often find issues with goals that may include:

  • Inaccurate baseline data
  • Incorrect data tracking methods
  • Irrelevant goal areas
  • Unattainable goals
  • Broad goals that are impossible to measure

Here’s an article I wrote on everything you need to know on how to properly write measurable annual goals for an IEP.

Areas of Service

In the evaluation report, you’ll find the areas of qualification. If you didn’t retain this information, be sure to check in with your school psychologist. There should be a goal in each of the qualifying areas for specially designed instruction.

Specially designed instruction, or SDI, is the process of adapting content, methodology, and delivery of instruction to meet a specific student’s needs.There are two common assessments often used in the school system to determine areas of qualification, WIAT (Wechsler Individual Achievement Test) and WJIV ( Woodcock Johnson IV). The assessment will gather baseline information on cognitive abilities and oral language. In order to qualify in an area, the student must score two standard deviations below the mean.

Specially Designed Instruction

Areas include:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Behavior
  • Social
  • Adaptive
  • Speech-language therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy

In addition to specially designed instruction, your student may qualify for related services. Related services allow the student to benefit from specially designed instruction fully. Related services are supportive services that are required to assist an individual to ensure the most benefit from their education. Related services make it easier for kids to participate in class and after school activities and are part of a student’s plan related to the specially designed instruction they are receiving.

Progress Toward Meeting Goals

After each goal outlined in the IEP, review the frequency of goal reporting. This section will include how frequently you will be reporting progress updates toward each goal. Typically you’ll report information on progress monthly, and official progress reports each trimester or semester depending on the school and district.

My preference is always to over communicate, especially with families that are new to special education and to my classroom and school. I’m not only trying to keep them informed, I’m working to build trust. You never know what their previous experience has been or they might have zero experience. I’d rather hear complaints from my families that I’m communicating too much than not enough! The last thing you want is to have anyone feel blindsided. Communication is key!

Least Restrictive Environment

The IEP should outline how the student will participate with non-disabled peers in the general education setting, as well as an explanation of the extent, if any, to which the student will not participate with non-disabled peers in the general education setting.

Least Restrictive Environment, LRE, is the federal law requirement that students with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with non-disabled peers. Special education students are not removed from regular classes unless, even with supplemental aids and services, education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily. This comes directly from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – IDEA

LRE is currently a hot topic with inclusion and is an area that parents and guardians will advocate for their children. Most students benefit from an inclusive environment where they can learn and practice skills amongst their general education peers. 

Every option should be exhausted prior to placing a student in a more restrictive classroom or program. You should regularly ask yourself about each student in your program, is this the least restrictive and most appropriate environment for their educational needs? This should always be a data-driven and IEP team determination.


This section outlines which assessments the student will participate in, whether district-wide or an alternative assessment. If the team determines that the student cannot take the district-wide assessment, there should be a statement indicating why, as well as the appropriate alternative assessment.

Let’s assume that the student is participating in the district-wide assessment. In that case, this section will also include any necessary accommodations or modifications required to support the student in completing the assessment. Be sure to review the accommodations and modifications. Specifically, testing in an alternative location, support in reading questions, and scribe for a written response.

Services Provided

These are any additional services that the student requires to access their education:

  • Accommodations
  • Modifications
  • Extended school year
  • Behavior intervention plan
  • Emergency response protocol

An accommodation changes how a student learns the material. This can be a physical or environmental change to the learning environment. For example, giving a student the option to type their written work. 

Modifications are changes to what a student is expected to learn. This may include lowering the level of materials delivered to the student. For example, a reduction on required homework. 

Extended school year, ESY, qualification is determined after reviewing if students have lost skills they have learned and cannot regain those skills within 6-9 weeks. The amount of lost content is typically measured during  school breaks and based on detailed data collection.

A behavior intervention plan, BIP, is for students whose behavior is impeding their learning. This process includes data collection, assessments, and creation of a plan to support the student. A functional behavior assessment, FBA, is necessary prior to writing and implementing a BIP into a student’s IEP.

An emergency response protocol, ERP, is necessary for students who are harmful to themselves or others. The ERP creates a plan for all team members to appropriately support and respond to a student in crisis.

Transition Activities

Transition activities are for students turning 16 within the life of the IEP and should include post-secondary goals to support the student after graduation. During this process, the case manager must interview the student and the parent to determine goals for after high school and how the IEP team can support the student in preparing for the transition. This process may include support with:

  • Resume writing
  • Job application support
  • Living arrangements
  • Vocational determination
  • Daily living skill support

IEP Team

All required IEP team members must attend the IEP meeting. This includes the general education teacher, special education teacher, administrator or administrator designee, the parents and guardians, and the student if appropriate.

If a member is not present, there should be documented evidence of the parent’s and district’s agreement that either the area of curriculum is not being discussed, in which the attendance of the member is not necessary.

If a member is not present, but the member’s area of curriculum will be discussed, there should also be documented evidence of the parent’s consent and permission to excuse the absence. The member should also have provided to the IEP team a report prior to the meeting describing what they would have discussed had they been present at the meeting.

Remember, a parent and guardian has the right to refuse excusing absent members, which means the best thing to do is reschedule the meeting.

Transfer of Rights

Transfer of rights is only relevant for students turning 18 within the year. The IEP team must inform all students of their rights and transfer of rights upon reaching age 18.

Prior Written Notice

Prior written notice, PWN, can be a tricky one to understand. In a nutshell, a PWN is a document outlining school district decisions about a student’s special education program. School districts must provide parents and guardians with prior written notice after a decision has been made about their student’s IEP or eligibility for special education, but before any of those decisions are implemented or changes to the IEP take place.

When Is Prior Written Notice Required?

Individuals with Disabilities Act, IDEA, gives parents and guardians rights called procedural safeguards. Prior written notice is one of those safeguards. Here are some examples of when a school district would be required to provide a student’s parent or guardian with a prior written notice: 

  • The school district wants to evaluate or reevaluate the student
  • The school district refuses to evaluate or reevaluate the student
  • The school district decides to change a student’s IEP or their placement to another educational setting
  • The school district refuses the request of a parent or guardian to change the student’s IEP or their placement to another educational setting
  • The school district receives written notice from a parent or guardian that they are revoking consent for the student to receive special education services
  • The school district wants to change the student’s eligibility category for special education
  • The school district wants to change in any way the services provided to the student

What Happens if Prior Written Notice Is Not Provided?

First of all, try your best to make sure this never happens. Mistakes happen. I would always be honest and timely with my actions. Let your Principal and your Special Education Director know. Contact the parent or guardian immediately. Work together to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. I’ve worked with some amazing parents and guardians over the years who have been incredibly understanding and supportive.

It’s important that parents and guardians have a voice and are a valued part of the IEP process. If a parent or guardian doesn’t receive a prior written notice, they might contact you asking for one. Get it to them right away! A prior written notice gives them a chance to respond before any changes are made to their child’s IEP. 

If there is a big enough disagreement between the school district and parent or guardian, you may go into mediation or a due process hearing. When this happens there is a stay put order that goes in place. This basically means that the current IEP stays in effect until there is a resolution.

What To Expect in a Prior Written Notice

  • A statement describing that full consideration has been given to any input or information provided by the student’s parent or guardian regarding their educational needs
  • An explanation describing the action the school district is proposing or refusing to take
  • An explanation as to why the school district proposes or refuses to take the action
  • An explanation describing the options the school district considered when proposing or refusing to take the action
  • An explanation describing the reasons why the school district is accepting or rejecting the options
  • Documentation of any disagreements with the student’s parent or guardian describing the reasons for the disagreement
  • Information regarding the evaluations, procedures, assessments, and report the school district used in deciding to propose or refuse the action
  • Information about how a parent or guardian can obtain a copy of their legal rights to procedural safeguards
  • Resources for the parent or guardian to contact for support in understanding Part B of the IDEA


Whew! Okay, these are the pieces required, by law, to be in an IEP. I hope the IEP you’re reviewing has all these pieces. Feel free to email me or comment below to ask questions or request clarification. IEPs can be confusing and tricky. I’m here to help!

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.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments