IEPs in Early Childhood Education

Michelle Bouslog
Michelle Bouslog
EdTech Teacher; M.A.Ed. in EdTech, Concordia University St. Paul, MN

Every child is unique. That means that not every child is going to learn and think in the same way. Some children require a more thoroughly thought out plan for helping them meet their educational learning goals. This is where an IEP comes into place. What exactly is an IEP, what are the differences between early childhood and K-12 IEPs, and what are some special considerations for teachers to think about when it comes to IEPs in early childhood?

What is an IEP?

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program or Individualized Education Plan. It is a written legal document that describes the ways a particular child learns best. It identifies the measures and assessments that are most appropriate for that child as well as the supports and accommodations that child needs in order to help them succeed.

An IEP has clearly spelled out learning goals and is created with a team-based approach during an IEP meeting. With input from the child’s parents, care providers, teachers, doctors, therapists, and sometimes even the child themselves, an IEP helps students learn and thrive at school. Families are involved through every step of the completion and follow-through of the IEP to ensure that the decisions made are best for them and their child.

Differences Between Early Childhood and K-12 IEPs

When a child is under the age of 3 and is showing concerns in their development, an IFSP (Individualized Family Service Plan) can be put into place. An IFSP is a document that helps families and other professionals in the community support the needs of the child. It is created through in-depth assessments of the child by a variety of professionals including daycare teachers, doctors, speech therapists, social workers, and others. It is generally broader than an IEP and includes not only learning goals and supports, but current early childhood developmental levels, desired family outcomes, and community services that are available to offer support for that child.

While an IFSP focuses on the child and services a family can use to help enhance the development of their child, an IEP focuses on the educational needs of the child. When students hit age 3, an IEP is used to spell out the child’s specific educational goals. The IEP has annual measurable academic benchmarks. Where an IFSP is broad and more of a guideline for the family, an IEP describes very specific learning goals, how progress will be measured while working to obtain those goals, how often the child’s progress will be analyzed, and how progress will be reported to the family.

Another difference between IEPs found for students age 3-22 and IFSPs for students age birth-3, is that IFSPs discuss the environments where services will be provided. IEPs, on the other hand, describe which services can be provided in the least restrictive environment and to what extent the child will need to be in a different environment for their learning needs.

Some students are able to work under an IEP and still spend their entire day in the mainstream classroom. Some students only spend the first half-hour with their classroom teacher and then move to a special education room. Other students may spend no time at all in the mainstream classroom and instead work on their educational goals in a special education room. Every student’s IEP is different, just as every student’s IFSP is different.

Both IEPs and IFSPs are reviewed and evaluated periodically. For an IFSP, a team evaluates it once a year during the annual evaluation. A smaller review is done every six months, though can be done more frequently if needed. For IEPs, a new IEP must be written, at minimum, annually. Additionally, a revised IEP has to be written whenever significant changes in a student’s program are needed, such as accomplishing one of the IEP’s goals, not making progress towards a goal, availability of new information from parents or the IEP team, or changing location where education is being received.

Special Considerations for IEPs in Early Childhood

There are some special things to consider when it comes to IEPs in early childhood. For starters, all children develop in their own way and at their own rate. However, there are general guidelines for typical development for particular ages. This helps parents and caregivers think about where the child is at and where additional support may be needed.

When identifying areas of necessary support, it is important that consistent patterns of behavior are identified and not just one or two instances. Examples of behavioral concerns could range from not smiling at caregivers, not reaching for objects, only using single word sentences, or not being clearly understood in the child’s articulation.

When caregivers sit down to meet with an early childhood evaluation team, it is helpful if a clear picture of the child’s strengths and weaknesses can be drawn. Additionally, being able to share the child’s likes and dislikes can help the team choose the best approach to services that the child will find interesting and be able to succeed at. Any information the child’s caregiver can provide may be valuable, as no one knows the child like their family.

Every child is unique and special, in who they are and how they grow. Because of this, not every child thinks and learns in the same way. Some children need special accommodations put into place so they can succeed. These modifications may come in the form of an Individualized Family Service Plan or an Individualized Education Plan. Though both slightly different and used at different ages, these plans are meant to support the child so they reach their fullest and brightest potential.

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