Special Education Advocacy in Ann Arbor: The In’s and Out’s of an IEP

Lisa Woodcock-Burroughs, Ph.D., NCSP
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Special education services are delivered via an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP can include specialized instruction, related services (i.e. occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, school social work) and school-based accommodations. Some children are able to access adult support, such as paraprofessional support, throughout the school day while transportation and extended school year options are afforded to other students. Individualized Education Plans are just that, individual, and tailored to fit the educational needs of children with disabilities. However, not all children with disabilities receive an IEP. And how a child is found eligible for an IEP is not often well understood. My purpose today is to shed some light on this issue to make the process more transparent to parents and families.

In order to receive special education services, a child has to be found “eligible” by the IEP team. There are thirteen eligibility categories outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that qualify students for services. The IEP team determines whether or not a child has a qualifying disability and whether or not they “require” special education programs and services. In order to answer these questions, students undergo a multidisciplinary evaluation (MET), which will likely include standardized assessments as well as consider observation, teacher reports and school records. If a student has had any assessments completed outside of school, these can also be considered as part of the MET.

You may be wondering how to get the evaluation process started. School districts are obligated by the state to actively seek to identify children with disabilities. Your child’s school likely has some screening procedures in place to identify students who may be struggling. However, as a parent you have the right to request a multidisciplinary evaluation for your child to determine if they will qualify for special education supports and services. Teachers and school staff can also make referrals.

Once a referral is made, the child find team will schedule to meet with the child’s parents in order to discuss the concerns, provide written notice and obtain informed consent. It is important to keep in mind that a child cannot be considered for special education supports and services without parental consent. However, consenting to an evaluation, is different than consenting to an IEP.

In the State of Michigan, school districts have 30 school days to complete the required evaluations, after obtaining informed (written) consent. This can be confusing because it may mean that evaluations are not completed in the same school year in which they are requested. For example, if a parent requests an evaluation in May, the school district may not be obligated to finish the evaluation until September the following year.

Once evaluations are completed, the MET team makes a recommendation to the IEP team regarding eligibility. It is important to keep in mind that the IEP team does not have to accept this recommendation. For example, a MET may recommend that a child qualify for services with a Specific Learning Disability while the IEP team determines that they do not meet criteria. While this is a relatively rare occurrence, in my personal experience, it can and does happen.

If a child is determined to be ineligible, there are remedies that can be pursued. However, they will be covered in a separate blog post. If the child is determined to be eligible for special education supports and services, an IEP is developed. Most often this occurs immediately following the MET but may occur some days or weeks later. Once the educational team and the parents agree, the IEP is signed and an offer of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is given to the parents. If they accept this offer, they sign and return the documents to school staff and the IEP is implemented. The IEP is then revised annually, or more frequently at the request of the parent and/or team members.

While need for special education services is “determined” by the local school district, we offer a variety of assessment services at our clinic that can help facilitate the process of potentially obtaining an IEP for your child, and outlining their academic needs. Our evaluations result in a comprehensive treatment plan, which outlines both school- and community-based interventions that may be of benefit to your child. For more information regarding our assessment services, please visit our Neuropsychological Assessment, ADHD Testing, and Learning Disability Assessment pages or contact our clinic.