The ABCs of Individualized Education Plans

When Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, one of its key objectives was to provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities. Lawmakers probably never anticipated that a simple concept to provide a "free appropriate public education" to all public school students would require massive local resources and spawn a cottage industry that has swept up school administrators, teachers, and parents in trying to do what's in the best interest of the children under their collective care.

A key element of IDEA is the "Child Find" provision, which requires every school district in the U.S. to locate and identify every child or youth within that district who appears to demonstrate a need for special education or related services. In addition, parents who believe that their child should be evaluated can approach their school administrator and ask for help. By law, the school district must then evaluate the child and determine whether that student meets the statutory requirements for special education or related services. In doing so, it is important (and statutorily mandatory) to invite the parents to participate in the process.


Once a child has been identified as eligible under IDEA, the next step is to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which sets out specially designed instructions to help that student improve his or her academic and social performance. The Department of Education's website,, calls the IEP "the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability," and that describes the importance that IDEA and the federal government put on developing the right IEP for each student. 

Indeed, teamwork is key. And teamwork involves not only assembling the right mix of people from the school (teachers, school administrators, the district's point person on special education, psychologists, and other related service personnel), but also involving the parents, and sometimes the student too, from the beginning. If done right, the school district and the parents agree on a plan, the plan is implemented and regularly reviewed, and the student shows incremental improvements.

When the Process Breaks Down
So where do things go wrong? There are two major ways that the process breaks down:

- The school district says no IEP is needed, but the parents disagree.
- The school district puts an IEP in place, but the parents don't think it's the right plan.

After all, nothing is simple when it comes to children - especially your children. Parents, teachers, and school districts all want what's in the best interest of the child, but often there's disagreement on what that entails. The most prevalent claims seek compensatory education or tuition reimbursement.

From a risk management perspective, the best way to protect against a process turning contentious (and into a legal proceeding) is to communicate with the parents early and often.

You Are Not Alone
IDEA's individualized education program is tough to navigate, but you don't have to go it alone. There are resources available to help school districts manage their IEP programs. A good starting point is

Finally, it's important to remember that while lawmakers may have enacted IDEA in the halls of Congress, school districts and parents are working with imperfect information in real-world situations. While the process can be difficult and fraught with emotional subtext, the good news is that, almost all the time, everyone is trying to do what's in the best interest of the child.

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