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Federal law guarantees a free and appropriate education for children who have a disability from birth through age 21. However, in most public school systems, services are provided through specific agencies for children from birth up until their third birthday. Just before a child turns 3, a transition meeting is held so that the change in services your child receives is seamless.

This transition can be confusing. First, there is sometimes a change in services provided. Second, there is a change in the language used. Last, there is a difference in the purpose of the services. Let’s compare and contrast the programs.

Vocabulary In both programs, there is a document with goals for your child. In birth-3 services, children with disabilities have an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP). When children transition to school, this document changes to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Services Determining the services your child needs depends on what system you are in. In birth-3, children are compared to typical developmental levels, and services are determined by comparing your child to them. Before your child turns 3, she has an evaluation by the school team. The team will do testing, observations, interviews and a review of records. The team will review state criteria and the services for which your child qualifies.

Focus The IFSP provides early intervention to meet the child’s developmental needs. Often, these services are provided in the home or at the birth-3 agency. In contrast, the IEP provides support and services to the child within the context of the public school system. The IEP seeks to provide children with disabilities the same educational opportunities as the child’s non-disabled peers. An IFSP seeks to provide early intervention to young children while the IEP seeks to “level the playing field” so all students have access to education in school.

Review of the Plan The IFSP is reviewed every six months, and the IEP is reviewed every year. However, both of these documents can be reviewed at any time if someone requests such a review.

Goals In the IFSP, goals are designed and written to help the child reach specific developmental (age-appropriate) goals. After the team determines a list of goals, the family determines which outcomes will be included in the IFSP. In a slightly different conceptual model, the IEP prepares your child to work with non-disabled peers in the school system. The IEP focuses on where the child is at with his developmental skills and includes goals that appear attainable within 1 year. The IEP team, including parents or guardians, determines the goals and the services.

Adjusted Age I find that this point often can be confusing to parents. If your child was born premature, the IFSP uses the “adjusted” age of your child. So, if your child were born 8 weeks early and was turning 1 chronologically, his adjusted age would be 10 months. The IEP does not use the adjusted age of a child but rather uses only a child’s chronological age. This situation will only occur if your child was premature.

So while the two programs are similar, there are some stark differences. Look to your team of support staff and professionals that work with your child for guidance through these processes.

Tracy Christman is a psychologist with Milwaukee Public Schools and mom of two.

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