IEP Basics for Special Education Graduate Students - Infographic

A Brief History of IDEA and the Inception of IEPs: A Quest for Educational Equality*

What Special Education Graduate Students Need to Know about the IEP

One of the U.S. Department of Education’s* critical goals is to ensure that students with disabilities have the resources they need to succeed in education. Over time, the government has strived to meet these important needs. In 1968, it authorized support for early childhood programs with the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Assistance Act. In 1990, it amended the act and changed its name to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

One thing IDEA did was increase the number of services and resources available to students with special needs. Assistive technology, social work, counseling, and transition planning for older students are just some of the many benefits IDEA granted to students with special needs. In addition, IDEA made these services and resources available to a greater number of people. Under the Act, older students, children with autism or brain injuries, and other people with disabilities gained access to important educational resources.

Here are a few important facts about IDEA:

  • In 2014, the Federal Government spent $12.5 billion on IDEA and special education programs, services, and resources[i]
  • The state identifies students who have disabilities through a 10-step process beginning with identification, evaluation, and the determination of eligibility. You can find a detailed description of these and the next seven steps here.
  • Through IDEA, the Federal Government mandates that every student who receives special education services has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

An Outline of IEPs for Special Education Teachers and Parents of Students with Special Needs

As mentioned above, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Established in the spirit of educational equality, IEPs outline customized objectives for students with documented disabilities. A well-designed IEP helps parents, teachers, and service providers understand each student’s disabilities and how they affect the student’s learning process. More importantly, it helps students achieve educational success. 

Overall, IEPs navigate students, parents, teachers, and service providers through regular school curriculum, special education curriculum, and certain components of the special education system. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Individualized Education Programs include, at minimum, the following information[ii]

  1. A description of the student’s current social, academic, and developmental capabilities; and the results of the student’s most recent evaluation and test results
  2. A set of realistic, achievable, and measureable annual goals for the student
  3. A list of the types of special education and related services the student should receive
  4. A description of how often the student should participate with non-disabled students in the classroom and during school activities
  5. A description of the extent to which the student should participate in state and district-wide testing; and a list of the modifications and accommodations the student should receive
  6. A list of the courses the student needs to reach his or her post-school goals
  7. An outline of the transition services the student needs to prepare to leave school (this is typically given on the IEPs for older students)
  8. In some states, a statement that tells the student of his or her rights to special education benefits at the age of majority
  9. A description of when services will begin, how often they will be provided, where they will be provided, and for how long they will be provided
  10. A outline of how progress will be measured and how parents will be informed of that progress

You can see an example of an IEP form here.

Providing Effective Support to Students in Special Education: Identification and Classification

The first step to providing students with the support they need is identifying them as students with special needs. To facilitate this critical task, the Federal Government and professionals in the field of special education work diligently to establish processes and procedures that effectively identify students with special needs. One such process is the Response to Intervention, or RTI.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) “is a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs[iii].” The RTI leads to the creation and implementation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The components of the RTI are as follows:

  • Provide ongoing assessment and monitoring of student progress
  • Determine which students are struggling with academic work
  • Provide early intervention support outside of special education services
  • Notice students’ non-response to early intervention tactics
  • Test students for learning disabilities
  • Identify students as students with special needs and classify their specific disabilities
  • Develop an IEP

Within the RTI approach are two especially crucial components: testing and classification. Without success in these two areas, providing high quality support to students is essentially impossible. The Department of Education therefore takes a multi-pronged approach to testing students for disabilities. At minimum, testing for disabilities includes: a review of students’ educational records; careful observation of students in classroom and other settings; a close review of students’ work; an assessment of students’ academic skills; testing of students’ intelligence quotient (IQ); a review of students’ developmental and social history; testing of students social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological capacities and tendencies; an assessment of students’ adaptive behavior; testing of students’ medical, visual, and audiological systems; an evaluation of students’ fine and gross motor skills; and an assessment of students’ speech and language skills. This extensive testing helps professionals correctly classify students’ disabilities.  

In 2013, the RTI revealed that of the students tested for learning disabilities in the U.S., close to ten million could be classified as having at least one disability. Of those students, nearly ninety percent were between six and seventeen years old, nearly twelve percent were three to five years old, and nearly six percent were eighteen to twenty-one years old. The spectrum of those students’ conditions ranged from intellectual to emotional; physical to developmental; and mild to severe.

The testing and ensuing classification of students’ disabilities gives students in the United States access to resources and services they need to succeed in education. To facilitate the administration of those resources and services, teams of people design, implement, and fulfill IEPs. Here are some of the people you’ll find on an IEP team:

  • A student’s parents
  • A general education teacher
  • A special education teacher
  • A school psychiatrist
  • A school district representative

Additionally, the primary IEP team may opt to include other members such as the student, an external professional, an adult friend, a translator, and others connected to the student’s ongoing development and support. This team of people works hard during the school year and sometimes beyond to provide students with the support they need to succeed in school.

As you can see, Individualized Education Programs are a critical component of special education. For special education teachers, they provide clear direction and support and make advocating for students’ success possible. And, importantly, individualized learning plans for special ed students exist as a fundamental right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This makes teaching children with disabilities an increasingly-supported endeavor.

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* This article is for informational purposes only. is not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education.  

Sources: [i] | [ii] | [iii]

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