As a special needs parent, you may have heard of “getting an IEP”, and may have wondered how it relates to you. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is an official document compiled by a school for a special needs student. It gives the public school a plan for the required amount of support, accommodations and assistance that child needs to access their education. There are some instances where it can be helpful to have an IEP as a homeschooling family, and there are some pitfalls and gotchas that you may run into if you pursue getting one.
What goes into an IEP?
Federal Law in the US mandates that all children have a free, appropriate public education provided for them. This is part of the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA). A student’s IEP is the personalized plan that lays out their educational goals and accommodations to access that mandated education. The plan can includes measurable therapy goals for the child to achieve and written reports on their progress. It can also include accommodations for standardized testing, requirements for extra staffing support, relevant diagnosis reports for physical or learning disabilities from doctors.
I like to say it’s writing down all the things we as parents naturally might do to see our child thrive, so someone else can do the same things in the classroom. The one challenge is that all the recommendations and accommodations have to be deemed “educationally necessary”. Let’s look into this, because it can be confusing sometimes.
“Courts have ruled that if a student can receive educational benefit from the services provided in the regular classroom, even if they have a disability, they do not need specially designed instruction and therefore, do not qualify as “a child with a disability” under IDEA.” (source) So while a child may be capable of honor roll grades with the right supports, the school may see C-average grades as proof that enough supports are being given, because it’s “good enough”. A child with a strong speech impediment may be understood by the teacher but made fun of on the playground. If the teacher can understand the child, the speech challenge may not be seen to interfere in their education. So it will not be deemed needed enough to receive therapy from the school.
For a personal example, our child has documented writing challenges. When he was in a public school for 3rd grade we were given stacks of incomplete and often blank worksheets from the term. The teacher wasn’t concerned because he was contributing to the discussion and was passing the tests. The student was well aware he was unable to complete the work being asked and his self image suffered and his anxiety rose. He would doodle instead on the paper. When the school therapist evaluated him for occupational needs for his IEP, his drawings were seen as sufficient writing skills. No further evaluations were done, which was absurd to me, but “educational necessity” was all that was considered.
Should I pursue an IEP if we are Homeschooling and I don’t have one?
The short answer is it’s not necessary. However, there can be benefits to your child for having one in place. While you don’t need one in place to make accommodations at home, it can be important to have one if your child’s future plans include college. They may need accommodations for the testing. Medical documentation of the disability can also be used in your request for an IEP. It’s important to research ahead of time based on your situation.
Also some states or school districts may also provide homeschoolers with disabilities with support. Each state has their own homeschool regulations and rules for supporting students with disabilities. In our experience, in Florida the Gardiner Scholarship required medical documentation and not an IEP to qualify, but districts in Illinois can choose for themselves how to support private school student with disabilities (including homeschoolers) within their district, and some programs and supports require an IEP to take advantage of.
Homeschooling with an IEP
Now, what if you already have an IEP from your local school, but you now find yourself teaching your child at home? “How can I homeschool if my child has an IEP?” It’s a question I hear often in different places. You need to know that homeschooling with an IEP is completely possible. Homeschooling is the ultimate personalized educational experience for any child! As a parent, you don’t need an IEP to tell you what your child needs in their educational environment.
You can find creative ways for your child learn the way they do best. You can go slow and progress at your child’s pace. Instead of being dragged into advanced math concepts before they master earlier ones, for instance. They can’t fall behind when the class size is one. If you child is fixated on special interests and unable to switch topics to learn, you can include those interests in the school work. My kids never complained about math fact practice when their favorite Minecraft characters were on the same page.
What an IEP is NOT
Getting an IEP is not a magic bullet for success. The process can be challenging as schools and families often feel at odds about how to best serve the student. Often the school is limited in their resources and we as parents want the very best for our children. While the laws are there to support our students’ needs, there is much to be done to support parents in partnering well with schools in the process. It is important even after an IEP is in place to continue to advocate for your child and their changing needs as they grow.