What School-Based OTs Need to Know About IEP Meetings

If you’re new to school-based OT, you may be nervously anticipating your first IEP meeting. And even if you’ve been to a few, wrapping your head around why IEP meetings happen and what should occur there can take some time! To make it easier, here’s your quick primer on what goes down at an IEP meeting – and what you as the OT should know about it. 

IEP meetings primarily serve to make a joint plan for the student

Briefly, the purpose of an IEP meeting is for the student’s IEP team to meet and discuss their educational plan. The IEP team includes all of the student’s teachers, specialists, related service providers, and parents/guardians. It also may include the student, depending on age.

IEP meetings must follow certain legal processes

In public schools in the US, special education for students with disabilities is primarily governed by a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As a school-based OT, you should read through all of IDEA to familiarize yourself with the IEP process and special education in general, but if you need some quick links here is the section that discusses the development of the IEP, and here is the part that discusses the IEP team.

IEP meetings can vary by state and district

In addition to IDEA, many states have their own laws that govern special education. All of these laws must be in compliance with federal law, but sometimes states choose to expand access or make other small changes. In fact, many states choose to use slightly different terminology. For example, you might see the acronym ARC (Admissions and Release Committee) instead of IEP. Be sure to check your applicable state laws as well as IDEA, and familiarize yourself with any district-specific processes. 

Many states may also have a guide specifically for school-based OT, which can be incredibly helpful. 

IEP meetings occur on at least an annual basis

The first time a student is assessed for special education, an initial IEP meeting will occur.

Once a student is receiving services, meetings occur at least annually to review and revise the IEP. This type of IEP meeting is commonly called an annual review, or just an annual. When this occurs in the school year can vary. For example, some schools choose to hold all of their annual IEPs in September. But for most places, IEPs happen frequently throughout the year. Generally, if a student initially qualified for special education on March 20th, his annual IEP must take place by that date the next year, and then a year after that. 

Evaluations are typically only completed every 3 years

Unlike most other OT settings that re-evaluate every 6-12 months, school-based OTs don’t tend to re-evaluate a student every year. Instead, every 3 years, a student’s eligibility for special education services must be reconfirmed. This is often called a triennial or re-evaluation. 

This type of IEP meeting typically involves formal assessments that do not usually happen during the annual IEP.

Since students are still due for an annual IEP in the year that their triennial is due, most districts elect to combine these into one larger IEP meeting. Similarly, when a student receives an initial evaluation for special education and requires an IEP, these may be combined into one meeting as well. Other districts prefer to keep these meetings separate. 

school-based OT IEP meeting

IEP meetings can last anywhere from 30 minutes to multiple hours

The length of an IEP meeting can vary wildly. If a student has a small team without many services, and few changes are being made, it’s possible to wrap up an IEP in 30 minutes or less. But more commonly, IEP meetings will take at least an hour, especially for the more-complex students the school-based OT tends to be assigned to. Luckily, it’s possible to split an IEP meeting into multiple parts. So if the IEP team finds themselves needing longer than an hour or so, they’ll typically break and reconvene at a later date. 

There are rules about missing IEP meetings

IDEA allows related service providers like school-based OTs to be excused from meetings with parental permission if their area of service is not being discussed OR if the provider has provided written input to the IEP team ahead of time. But without this arranged in advance, you’re expected to attend the IEP meetings of the students you’re assigned to. 

Many school-based OTs are dealing with incredibly busy schedules where they cover multiple schools, and for these reasons, they may miss IEP meetings. However, in reality, attending the IEP meeting is incredibly important. The IEP meeting is potentially the only time of year where you’ll see your student’s family as well as have the whole team together in one room. It’s best to attend so that you can build relationships and develop a comprehensive, holistic plan that best meets the student’s needs. 

As much as possible, try to attend IEP meetings in full.

You’ll likely be asked to contribute to a draft IEP ahead of the meeting

The draft IEP is mostly completed by the case manager, but as the OT, you’ll also help contribute to certain sections of this, such as Present Levels, Goals, Services, and Accommodations. Depending on the district’s policy, this draft may be sent to parents beforehand or just reviewed at the meeting. If there are any assessment reports such as in the case of an evaluation, these may also be sent in advance. But ultimately, the IEP is developed at the meeting with the full IEP team, including the parents/legal guardians. Districts are careful to make sure any draft IEPs are labeled as such, and that families know they have the right to make changes. Some districts avoid completing draft IEPs altogether to avoid predetermination of services, which could put them in legal hot water. 

You’ll likely be asked to speak at the IEP meeting

At the meeting, the case manager, who is usually not a school-based OT, will be the one to lead. They may share an agenda that details how the meeting will flow. They’ll offer the parents a copy of their rights and procedural safeguards. The members of the IEP team will formally introduce themselves, if everyone is not already acquainted. If there are reports to review such as during a triennial, these will usually be reviewed first.

The case manager will then review the IEP in order. This usually starts with present levels and previous goal progress. All providers that work with the student will be given a chance to go over this information.

After previous data has been reviewed, new goals will be shared. New goals may also be developed collaboratively at the meeting. Once goals are agreed upon, the IEP team will determine what services and accommodations are required to meet those goals. You’ll be asked to make your recommendation to the IEP team in these areas. It’s important to note that developing an IEP is a collaborative process, and goals and services are a team decision. It’s possible you’ll make a recommendation for OT services that will ultimately be overruled. 

There are many other pages to an IEP, but they are typically fairly quick and handled by the case manager, such as discussing what state testing a student might have to complete in the upcoming year. 

You might attend IEP meetings that don’t follow this exact order, but ultimately, all of the same pieces should be there. 

At the end of an IEP meeting, all team members will sign in attendance.Parents/guardians will be asked to consent to the finalized IEP. They may sign the IEP at the meeting if they feel comfortable or may take time to review the finalized document. Until a new IEP is signed, previous IEP services, goals, and accommodations will remain in place. 

There are other IEP meetings besides annual reviews

While annual reviews are the most common type of IEP meeting, there are a few other types of IEP meetings. One that you might encounter is a Change of Placement Meeting, also sometimes called a 30-day review. This happens if a student changes special education settings or when a student moves into a new district. If you work with older students, you’ll also likely attend Transition IEPs, which serve to create a plan for when they age out of public education. These are usually bundled with annual IEPs.

One last type of IEP meeting you might be asked to attend is called a Manifestation Determination. This is a more serious meeting that typically occurs if a student has been suspended due to a behavior that may have resulted from their disability.

Another thing that’s important to note is that anyone on the IEP team can also call a meeting at any time for any reason. This is typically initiated by the family, especially if they’re concerned about the progress their student is making.

Though they can seem superfluous, IEP meetings are an important and large portion of being a school-based OT. While it can be challenging to attend every meeting, it is recommended to prioritize them to help develop relationships, advocate for OT, and more fully serve your students. And armed with this knowledge, you can go into your next IEP meeting with even more confidence!

Looking to go even deeper with this topic? My course, The Dynamic School OT, is the perfect primer for therapists new to the school system. We’ll take an even more in-depth look at how to develop an IEP, as well as evaluation, RtI, appropriate interventions, and how to manage difficult situations. Click here to learn more!

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