Independent Education Plans, or IEPs, are at the heart of special education programs for public school children, and are constantly developing for every child. From that first jump into kindergarten, through elementary school, high school, and beyond, the IEP provides the structure that assists personal growth. How do you ensure that your child's IEP reflects her changing needs and abilities? Here’s what you should know:

Early Childhood to Elementary School

The key to successful transitions is anticipating what will come up next. Parents, says Mary Z. McGrath, author and former special education teacher, should “function like a case manager and anticipate where the current IEP might not work as well.” As your child is moving from a family plan (an Individual Family Service Plan) to an IEP, or from a preschool IEP to an elementary school IEP, think about how the environment will change. Your child may be starting school for the first time, or her school day may get longer with more kids in a class. At this point:

  • Talk with the speech, occupational, and physical therapists that are involved with your family. How will these service providers be involved with your child during school? How will your child’s goals change as they start school?
  • Consider including modifications and accommodations, such as extra time or help, for transitions to and from lunch, to and from art and gym class, to and from school.
  • Think about how your child is going to be included in the larger school community, including assemblies and field trips.
  • Make sure that your child is spending as much time as possible in an inclusive classroom (read our article about learning environments to identify a good inclusion environment).

Elementary to High School

Going from elementary to high school, your child will likely be going from one or a few teachers to a schedule with many more transitions during the day as she moves from class to class. As your child moves into a school environment that’s more compartmentalized, you'll want to ensure that all the teachers are on the same page. For example, if you know a behavior technique that works with your child, add it to the IEP now so all the new teachers will be aware of it. Also:

  • Consider how your child is going to keep track of all the information (meetings, schedule, homework) she’ll need to remember in a day and plan for that. McGrath suggests providing a specific notebook that teachers can use to record notes, homework, and more.
  • A transition plan that considers vocational education, independent living, or college must be in place by age 16, say George Giuliani, Ph.D., and Roger Pierangelo, Ph.D.. executive directors of the National Association of Special Education Teachers, but you can start it earlier.
  • Now’s the time to think about where you want your child to be when she graduates. What post-secondary goals do you have for your child? What are your child’s goals? What education, training, employment, or living skills does your child need to achieve her goals?

High School to Independent Living or College

During high school, a child’s IEP should include a plan to move her into college or work. Transition planning, according to Giuliani and Pierangelo, is based on your child’s interests and preferences and includes education, services, community experiences, skills she’ll need for adult living or work. Here are some things to consider in creating the transition plan:

  • A Functional Vocational Evaluation can provide information about your child’s interests, skills, and abilities that will help shape the IEP.
  • Include related services (driver’s education, public transportation, etc).
  • Services can come from the community as well as the school. For example, a student may take vocational education courses through a local community agency, or learn how to manage her finances through a non-profit.
  • Ask the school guidance counselor about college options, says McGrath, as there are colleges and universities that help kids with learning disabilities.

In College

Your child’s IEP won’t follow her to college. “It is important to realize that after a student graduates from high school, a school district is no longer obligated to provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities,” says Giuliani and Pierangelo. Before your child graduates, have her evaluated by an independent professional so she has documentation of her disability. Once on campus, she can go to the Office for Students with Disabilities and advocate for what she needs, as she's still covered under federal law.