What Do Child Care Providers Need to Know about IEPs and IFSPs?

If child care providers have children with special needs in their programs, they may have heard the terms IEP and IFSP.  What do these terms mean, and how do they help child care providers better educate children with special needs? 

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, are plans developed to guide the education of a child with special needs between ages 3 and 21 in the early childhood or school setting. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all children with an identified special need have an IEP to help educators meet their unique educational needs. The IEP is a team-based effort that includes the child’s parents, child care providers, school staff, doctors, therapists, and even the child when appropriate. At every step, the family is involved to ensure that the decisions made are best for them and their child.

An IEP is a written document that describes the ways that an individual child learns best, the measures and assessments that are most appropriate to document that child’s learning, and the supports and special educational services that the child needs in order to learn most successfully. The IEP includes specific learning goals for the child. An IEP must be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that it continues to be appropriate for the child’s learning progress and special needs.

Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP)

An Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) is a document intended to help families and professionals within a community support the special needs of a child under age 3. The IFSP focuses on providing supports and services to the family of a very young child with special needs in order to help that family enhance their child’s growth and development. The IFSP is developed based on in-depth assessments of the child by a variety of professionals. An IFSP is usually broader than an IEP. In addition to learning goals and supports, the IFSP documents the child’s current developmental level, describes outcomes for the child and family, and specifies community services for the child and family that will support the development of the whole child. The IFSP includes the needs of the whole family, with the parents as major contributors in its development. IFSP team members may come from a variety of different organizations and may include medical professionals, physical and occupational therapists, speech therapists, child development specialists, child care providers, early intervention specialists, social workers, and others.


Child care providers can help create IEPs and IFSPs

The IEP and IFSP can be effective tools to help educators make decisions about the most effective care and education practices for a young child with special needs. Child care providers may be members of a team that creates, reviews, and revises the IEP or IFSP for a child in their child care program. If you are asked to be a team member, here are some of the things you may contribute:

  • Observations of the child’s development. IEPs and IFSPs are based on observations of the child with special needs. Child care providers may be able to add valuable information from your day-in, day-out interactions with the child. You may be asked how the child interacts with other children in the program, the types of activities the child likes to do, or the child’s eating or sleeping patterns. Discuss the child’s strengths and abilities as well as challenges. Be as honest as you can.
  • Documentation. The IEP or IFSP team may ask to see any documentation you have kept about the child with special needs. Be willing to share any notes you have written, goals you have developed, information you have learned from the family, photographs of the child engaged in learning activities, and samples of the child’s artwork, writing, and other materials. These notes and documents can help the team better understand the child’s development and create a plan that best meets that child’s needs.
  • Information about the early childhood curriculum. Child care providers may be asked to share information about your curriculum goals, activities, and plans, as well as information about the physical layout of your classroom or family child care home. These questions help the team better understand the setting, in order to provide supports to help the child with special needs succeed in that setting. You may also be asked to help identify ways that your curriculum can be modified to support the child with special needs. If you have already tried making modifications and have found ideas that work, share those with the team.

Using the IEP or IFSP to guide classroom practice

If a child comes into your child care program with an identified special need, ask for a copy of the IEP or IFSP. Child care directors and providers should review the document carefully, and pay attention to the following:

  • Description of Developmental Level and Special Needs. An IEP or IFSP should include some description of the child’s current developmental level and special needs. This information can help child care providers better understand the child’s special need and can guide decisions about how best to adapt educational practices to include that child.
  • Goals or Outcomes. For children age 3 and older, an IEP includes educational goals for that child. Child care providers can help the child move toward those goals by building those goals into learning experiences in the child care curriculum. If a child’s goal is to throw a ball with two hands, for example, the child care provider might design a small-group activity that involves tossing balls into baskets of different sizes. As the child with special needs participates in this group activity, he can practice throwing while also developing social skills such as turn-taking and cooperation. For a child under age 3, the IFSP will specify goals or outcomes for both the child and the family. Child care providers can support these goals through close communication and cooperation with parents and other family members.
  • Ways of Assessing the Child’s Learning. An IEP may describe the best ways of assessing or documenting the learning of a child with special needs. A child with a hearing disability, for example, may need to have information presented through visual means such as sign language or pictures. Use these guidelines to help you find the best ways to assess the child’s learning and development.

    For more information about children with special needs

More information about working with children who have special needs is available in the eXtension Alliance for Better Child care section on Child Care for Children with Special Needs. To learn more about disability laws in the United States, see What Child Care Providers Need to Know about Disability Laws. For more specific information on including children with special needs in child care, check out the article What Is Inclusion? For more details about IEPs and IFSPs, go to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities website.