The IFSP and IEP: Two different but similarly required documents in Special Education (Guest blogger: Dr. Barry Birnbaum)

Most people know about the Individual Education Plan (IEP).  This is a document that outlines exactly what the child in school with a disability will achieve during the academic year.  The IEP lists the goals, objectives, and other pertinent material that is relevant to learning.  It is a contract between the school and the student and a great deal of work goes into it. This is a legal agreement that needs to be followed and any changes or modifications have to be made with the parents, the school team, and the student, where appropriate.  These changes need to address any of the problems that the child encountered while in the classroom.

For younger children (aged 0-5), an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) takes the place of the IEP.  This document involves the family and the school and requires that a plan for early intervention is developed.  The IFSP details the home environment and what can be done before the child is of school age.  The parents play a very big part in what happens.  The IFSP outlines the strengths and needs of the child and most of this comes from information provided by family members.

The community and the school have an obligation to refer children with potential learning problems to the school for services before the child is old enough to attend.  The child’s home school is responsible for providing services and developing a plan of intervention that is early and appropriate.  This is known as Child Find and can be started by anyone who identifies that a child has a potential disability that may interfere with school success.  The school must reach out to the community to make sure that parents and pre-schools know who to contact.  The main goal of child find is to make sure that all children are identified regardless of age or ability.

Services in special education help all children learn. If the child is diagnosed with a disability, the opportunities for accommodations or modifications are developed. This involves input from the teachers and all school personnel who might work with the child.  This process supports individualized learning styles and helps the student be successful in school.  Today, education is created truly for all, giving all children the opportunity to learn and be engaged.


Barry W Birnbaum is Associate Professor of Special Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University.  He has been a classroom teacher and school principal.  He is the author of six books and numerous articles in the field of special education.  Additionally, Dr. Birnbaum has presented his research at conferences and schools around the world.

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