Updated: May 12, 2021
In the U.S., your child can receive speech-language early intervention services for children aged birth to three years. School districts are required to serve children from age three to graduation or age 21. Families can find it challenging to sort out what they need to do as their child makes the transition between programs at age three. Early intervention services are available to children in all U.S. states and territories who have a developmental delay or are at risk for a delay. School programs have different criteria for who is eligible and speech-language falls under the umbrella term of special education. Both programs are funded by the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.
Fortunately, there are rules in IDEA designed to make the transition easier for parents to navigate. Unfortunately, the process doesn’t always go as smoothly as the rules intended. This guide describes the rules and timeline for making the transition. The rules mentioned here are from IDEA, and links lead to the official language.
In addition to the rules, you’ll see my advice on how you can make sure you understand the program that’s offered, and how to get the best plan and services for your child.
Get the printable version of this guide, with checklist.
WHAT IS PART C TO B TRANSITION?
The activities that prepare for your child’s third birthday are often called the Part C to Part B transition. This refers to the two parts of IDEA: Part C relates to early intervention and Part B addresses services for children aged 3–21.
The rules say children in EI will have a “smooth and effective transition to those preschool programs.” Smooth and effective — a lofty goal. Fortunately, many agencies have found ways to do it.
Note that this transition planning is required only for students who are potentially eligible for school-based services. When it’s known that the child does not need to continue services, transition planning is not required.
Activities are supposed to follow a timeline that makes sure the new program plan is in place and ready to go by your child’s third birthday. This doesn’t mean services must have a firm stop and start date on that magic day. It means the birthday is the deadline for having the plan in place.
Some children may continue receiving services on an IFSP until a date decided by the planning team. Often this is done when the child has a summer birthday. The school may decide to have IFSP services continue through the summer and have the IEP written to begin on the school start date in the fall. Sometimes IFSP services can continue even longer. If this option is considered, you must be given clear explanations of what you are getting and not getting under this plan.
SCHOOL DISTRICT IS NOTIFIED
Early intervention providers are required to notify the school district of children who will be turning three at least 90 days before the child’s third birthday. This notice includes the child’s name, date of birth and parent contact information. Parents are notified that the information will be sent. Some states allow parents to opt out of sending the notice.
There’s a special rule when children are picked up by early intervention services when they are close to turning three. The EI agency must notify the school district immediately if the toddler is found eligible between 45–90 days before the child’s birthday,
A copy of the notification to the school district is also sent to the state educational agency. This is so they can monitor if transition timelines are being followed correctly.
If the EI agency receives a referral less than 45 days before a child’s third birthday, they do not have to do an evaluation or IFSP plan. Instead, the EI agency will get signed permission from the parent to send the referral information to the school district. The school’s testing timeline begins when they receive the written referral.
THE PART C TO PART B TRANSITION TIMELINE
Begin discussing transition early
Your IFSP has a Transition page. Don’t saved it for the transition conference that’s held shortly before your child turns three. Use this page to write down information you want to learn and answers to questions as they are collected.
Parents are more likely to feel overwhelmed or panicky if all the transition planning is sprung on them with little time to mentally prepare. Gather information over time so you have time to ponder it and make well-informed decisions.
Get an overview of options available in the community
EI staff should be aware of the school districts in your area. Ask them for general information about the programs offered (such as age 3 speech therapy or preschool for children with IEPs). Ask for school contact information so you can speak or email directly with the correct person at your local school.
If you want to explore private options, ask about those as well.
8–10 MONTHS BEFORE THIRD BIRTHDAY
Identify date when child’s name will be given to school
Your EI program is required to report your chid’s name, birthdate and contact information to the local school district and state monitoring agency. The district needs the information so they can plan for the evaluation process. The state agency needs it so they can make sure EI and schools are following the timelines in the law.
EI needs your permission to send this information. Make sure you have your questions answered so you feel comfortable allowing EI to send the information by their deadline date.
Find out about community preschool options
Schools are supposed to have a range of options available for children. Now is the time to start collecting information n what’s available in your area.
One common option is a preschool program only for children with IEPs, starting at age 3. The preference, though, is for children to have experiences with their typically developing peers. So you might see a preschool program that includes some typical peers, or you might see districts that pay for services to be provided in licensed day care settings.
Schools are supposed to have written agreements with other publicly-funded preschool options in the community, such as Early Head Start for 3-year-olds and Head Start for 4-year olds. Head Start is for families with limited income, but the program is required to reserve some slots for children with disabilities regardless of income. Find out the process for getting on that list.
Learn about community programs’ location, class size and how special education services are coordinated. What are the differences between the programs? How is transportation coordinated between programs?
5–7 MONTHS BEFORE THIRD BIRTHDAY
Set a target date for the transition conference
The planning conference between EI and school must be held no later than 3 months before your child’s third birthday. Get it on everybody’s calendar sooner rather than later. Someone from the school district must attend, and it can be a challenge to coordinate schedules.
Set the meeting day well before the 90-day deadline. Your school district has 90 days to complete all their testing and hold the IEP meeting. The transition conference should allow enough time to get all the paperwork squared away before the 90-day countdown begins.
You want to have the IEP meeting before your child’s third birthday to allow time to set up the details, including transportation. The school district has 10 days to send you a copy of the IEP document with a permission form that says you approve. Nothing can proceed until the school receives your signed permission.
IEP services do not have to start on any specific day after the IEP meeting is held—the start date is decided by the team and written into the IEP.
Your EI program is responsible for scheduling the transition conference. Ask your service coordinator to start the scheduling process now. Find out the name of the school district person who will be invited to attend. You can talk to that person directly to get answers to your questions about the school district.
4-6 MONTHS BEFORE THIRD BIRTHDAY
Attend the transition planning conference
Early intervention services focus on family needs. This meeting is a good time to talk about any supports you need so you’ll be ready to participate in the IEP evaluation and planning process. Want to visit the programs available? Need more information about the process? Decide at the meeting who will provide your supports and when they will happen.
Fill out the school district referral form
The school needs this form to start their process. Your service coordinator may have already prepared this form, or it may be done at the conference.
The form describes information about your child and why they may need school services. It’s a request for the school to start the evaluation process.
The first step in the evaluation process is to send you the evaluation plan. This form lists the sources of information that will be used to decide if your child qualifies for IEP services. Ask about the timeline for sending you the plan. There’s no deadline for the school to send it, but you can let them know you’d like it within the next two weeks.
There’s a chance the school won’t need to do further testing if they plan to accept the data available from the EI program. You can ask what the school’s typical procedure is. Ask the school representative to avoid unnecessary testing by accepting recent test results and current progress reports from IE.
Sign a release of information form
Your EI program and school must keep your child’s information confidential. They are not allowed to talk to each other unless you give them signed permission.
Often, the permission form states which program staff may share information. Make sure the release allows therapists to talk to each other and/or send copies of their evaluation reports or progress notes. Allow either agency to contact the other and exchange information. This will allow school staff to follow up for more details if needed.
Sign a Medicaid information form
Districts often ask every parent to sign this form, because then they avoid the privacy issue of asking if a child is eligible for Medicaid funding. This form gives the school permission to submit your child’s name to the state Medicaid agency to find out if reimbursement is available for any medically related services like nursing, therapy or physical care.
Some parents are concerned that signing this form could cut into the funds available for outside therapy or medical services. Sometimes private therapists have this misunderstanding as well. States actually receive federal Medicaid funds from two different funding streams. One stream is specifically for school-based services and does not affect the funds available to a child who uses non-school services.
Note: Private and school-based therapists are supposed to coordinate their plans of care. Be sure to give them written permission to share information with each other.
Some people wonder why schools should be able to Medicaid funds at all. The costs of providing special education are never fully covered by federal and state funds. You school district has to make up for the shortfall by using money from the general fund. States convinced the federal government that it was reasonable to use medically-related federal funds for those services provided in a school setting. This helps local taxpayer dollars go farther to address school programs that benefit all children.
Receive a copy of the parent and child rights (due process) document
This lengthy document has a title like Parent and Child Rights In Special Education, or Due Process Procedures. I’ll just call it the Rights.
Parents receive their Rights document at least once per year to remind them of options if they disagree with a plan or if the plan is not being implemented as written. It’s a lot of information and is usually more than you need to know. Usually everything goes fine and parents are satisfied with their child’s program.
Many schools send this information as part of the paperwork for starting the evaluation process. It’s okay to wait until then if they didn’t bring a copy to the transition conference. However, it’s handy to talk about the document at the transition conference because the school person has a chance to explain the information to you in layperson terms. In theory, it’s written in a reader-friendly format, but it’s just too long. The school person can give you an overview of the highlights. Or you can read my version in next week’s blog post.
It’s good for the district to know that you are interested in understanding how to protect your due process rights. Due process means the procedures that are followed when you and the district disagree, or when the IEP is not being implemented as written. Like I said, most parents never need to use the information. You’re showing an interest because you want to understand how everything works.
3–4 MONTHS BEFORE THIRD BIRTHDAY
Receive a Prior Written Notice (PWN)
This step is not likely, but it could happen. The district has to send you a PWN any time they propose to start or change an IEP. They also send one if you request an action (in this case, make a referral for evaluation) and they decline to act on the request.
A district can use referral information to decide that an evaluation if it’s clear the child will not be eligible for services. If they decide not to do testing, they send the PWN to explain their decision. You can appeal the decision.
Districts rarely decline to do an evaluation with a child from EI. That’s because a transition conference is only scheduled if the program coordinator and parent feel the child needs continued services. Usually the school assumes the evaluation should be done. Just be aware that the school district has to give you a written notice if they decide not to go ahead with the evaluation.
Receive Notice of Evaluation from school district
This form restates why your child was referred. It lists what testing will be done by the school district and what information they will use from other sources. Check to see if they will use data supplied by EI.
Call or email the contact person on the Notice of Evaluation
Not required, but if you haven’t met this person it’s a good way to break the ice. Ask any questions you may have about the testing plan.
I suggest you ask if you can schedule a meeting with one person on the team when the testing reports are finished but before the IEP meeting. Often a district will mail paperwork ahead of time so parents have time to look it over before the meeting. It’s much better if you can have it explained to you instead. Understanding this information in advance helps you focus on the program plan when you’re at the IEP meeting.
Sign and return the Permission to Evaluate
Return this form as soon as possible. The 90-day timeline to complete the IEP does not start until the school receives your signed permission.
1–2 MONTHS BEFORE THIRD BIRTHDAY
Sign and return the invitation to IEP meeting
The district needs to make several attempts to obtain your attendance at the meeting. Ideally, someone from the district will contact you before they set meeting time is set, to find a time that works for you.
The school will send you a written notice to make the invitation official. Be aware that IEP meetings are not scheduled outside of school hours. If needed, you may arrange to attend by telephone or videoconference.
Confirm your attendance so everyone can get the meeting on their calendar. If you need to cancel your attendance, give them as much advance notice as possible. If a last-minute conflict comes up, give them a call to reschedule.
Get the evaluation report before the IEP meeting
Put a note on the bottom of your signed invitation that asks them to send a copy of the evaluation report before the meeting date. This is optional but it can help you to be ready to discuss plans at the meeting. Sometimes team members take a long time going through evaluation results. In my opinion, everyone knows your child has needs, so why not get to the discussion of how those needs will be addressed.
When you received the notice of evaluation, I recommended that you call the contact person to let them know you’d like to discuss the evaluation results with one person before the IEP meeting. If they can’t arrange that, at least get a copy of the evaluation before the meeting. It will give you a chance to digest the information and see if you have questions for the meeting.
Be prepared for professional jargon
Early intervention usually does a good job of making their documents reader friendly. Information is written in terms parents can understand and goals are focused on family priorities. Schools tend to have longer reports and lots of unfamiliar terms. The regulations are more detailed than for EI, which adds more jargon to the paperwork. Don’t hesitate to ask about unfamiliar terms.
Invite someone to come along with you, if desired
You may always invite others to an IEP meeting. Sometimes it helps to have someone who can take notes or be there for moral support. When you respond to the IEP meeting invitation, list other people who you will bring.
You may request to have an EI staff person attend. Talk it over with your service coordinator or therapist and see if you think that would be needed.
Attend the IEP meeting
Every IEP meeting must include at least these members: parent, special education teacher, general education teacher, representative of the school district. Sometimes a staff person will play more than one of these roles.
There may be more than the minimum team members. Usually these are people who did testing or will be providing IEP services.
Review evaluation results
Typically, evaluation results are reviewed at the same meeting that IEP planning takes place. Sometimes the district will determine that a child does not meet the eligibility criteria for school-based services. In that case, the meeting will end and you will receive a Prior Written Notice (PWN) that the district proposes to not provide IEP services to your child.
It’s unusual for this result to occur for a child transitioning from an EI program. If a question comes up, make the following points. (1) The child has already been identified as a child with a developmental delay, using the same criteria that’s available for school-based services. (2) If the EI staff did not see a need for continuing services, they would not have made the referral to the school. (3) Team members have the ability to use clinical judgment in these decisions, and not be ruled strictly by a test score.
You can appeal a PWN that says your child is not eligible. Follow the procedures in the Parent and Child Rights document.
Find out about Extended School Year services
EI services are year-round, but that is rare in schools. Some children with IEPs need to have Extended School Year (ESY) services, which means over the summer break. ESY services don’t match all the services received during the school year. They only need to address any goal that would show a significant regression during a break and would take a long time to recover.
Now is the time to find out about how the school handles ESY decisions. Planning for ESY takes many months. If a child needs ESY services, those services must be described in the IEP.
The ESY decision needs to be backed up with data that shows documented regression during breaks (e.g., the winter holidays). If you think your child may need ESY, you need to start the discussion now. This will make clear to staff that they need to have a plan for collecting this data. If EI can provide data that’s great; however, the district will probably want to see some more recent data as well.
In most cases, ESY will not be written into an initial IEP. That means another meeting will need to be held to discuss, decide and make an ESY plan. Get that meeting on people’s calendars now, if possible, or find out the district’s deadline for having this IEP change in place.
Decide on child’s IEP start date
There is not supposed to be a gap between when your child ends EI services and begins school services. A common issue is that school is not in session when the child has a summer birthday. There is supposed to be a written agreement between agencies that states how these potential gaps are handled.
Make sure the start date is clearly stated during the IEP team meeting. If a gap is suggested, make it clear that this is not acceptable. You can ask to put the meeting on hold until “higher ups” can be contacted to work out how services can be provided during the gap period.
Sign and return the permission form that comes with the PWN
The IEP is supposed to be developed by the whole team (including you) at the meeting. That means the final document isn’t ready for your review and approval that day. The district has 10 day to send you the final version of the IEP and the PWN offering placement.
IMPORTANT: The school may not provide any IEP services until they receive your signed permission. Sign and return it as soon as possible, to make sure the process keeps moving.
3-4 MONTHS AFTER IEP SERVICES START
Receive first progress report
Your child’s IEP states how often you will receive a report on your child’s IEP goal progress. Reports must be sent at least as often as general education progress reports are sent (that is, the report card reporting dates).
Look for a measurement of progress on the goal. A general statement of “doing well” or “making progress” is not enough. There needs to be data that can be compared to the level of performance where your child started (called the baseline). You can find baseline data written as part of the goal or included in the Present Levels section of the IEP.
Each IEP goal lists objectives or benchmarks. These are listed as a guide or steps on the way to the goal. Progress reports are not required to state a measure for each objective or benchmark, but you might see them mentioned in the progress report.
Stay in touch with the teacher or therapist
Ask questions whenever you have them. This can relieve your worry or frustration that might arise when you wonder why things happen. It also helps you know how to support your child’s learning at home.
Find out how your child’s teacher or therapist communicates with parents about school activities. Keep the communication two-way. Let school staff know about significant issues that may affect your child’s ability to participate.
If your schedule permits, ask about a volunteer opportunity in the classroom or school. Being comfortable with the people and routines of school helps you keep the lines of communication open.
6 MONTHS AFTER IEP SERVICES START
Attend six-month review conference
For preschooler, some states hold a 6-month review conference to discuss progress on the IEP and decide if any changes are needed. This is a nice feature, especially for parents who are used to that from their experience with EI.
If your school doesn’t use this system, be aware that you can request a meeting with any of your child’s teachers or therapists whenever needed. You can schedule a 1:1 conference with a staff member any time. This is like a parent-teacher conference and it’s not considered an IEP meeting.
If you want to talk about issues with or possible changes to the IEP, that needs to be an IEP team meetings. Request that your child’s case manager set up an official IEP meeting. (You’ll know it’s official when you receive the written invitation form.) Let the team know what you want to address so they can be prepared to discuss it.
10–11 MONTHS AFTER IEP SERVICES START
Receive and respond to invitation to the annual IEP review
An IEP must be reviewed at least annually at a meeting of the IEP team. It must be scheduled for a time that works for you, within regular school hours. If you can’t attend in person, arrangements can be made for you to be there by phone or videoconference.
Even if someone talks to you to find a time that works for you, you’ll get a form to make the invitation official. Sign and return the form to confirm your attendance.
A new IEP must be ready to go before the old one expires. As was done with your child’s first IEP, you’ll get the final draft along with a PWN to tell you this is the new service offer. You are asked to sign and return the permission form.
Here’s an important difference in the process. Now that your child has been receiving IEP services, there’s some assumption that you want services to continue. If you don’t return the signed permission within 10 days, the district is allowed to begin the new IEP on the start date listed. Refusing to sign does not stop the new IEP.
Follow up with concerns
Hopefully, the staff and you have kept the lines of communication open and you have a good relationship with the people supporting your child’s education. There are times when the usual process fails, though. That’s why the school is required to give you a copy of your Rights at least once per year—just in case you need it.
You must speak up immediately If you disagree with the new IEP. Ask to have another IEP meeting as soon as possible to discuss the area of disagreement, and include attendance by the special education director or other administrator. To make sure the IEP changes do not begin, you must make a written request. Get out your latest copy of the Rights document to find out what information to include and where to submit your written objection.
If you can’t work out a satisfactory agreement, you may request mediation or a due process hearing. Either request starts the “Stay Put” process. That means the existing IEP continues as-is until the issue is resolved.
Mediation is recommended before filing a due process complaint. A trained mediator pulls together you (and any support person you want to bring with you) and school district representative(s). The mediator helps to get the issues defined as well as possible solutions and/or compromises. In most cases, this informal process can help keep both sides focused on a solution and they’re able to work out an agreement.
You can have a special education advocate or attorney help you with mediation. Usually, if one side calls in an attorney for the meeting, the other side feels it’s also necessary. I’ve been in successful mediation that stayed at a less legalistic level, though.
A due process hearing is a more formal process that involves a hearing examiner, sworn witnesses and state-level documentation. You should have legal representation for this process. It’s more expensive and takes longer than mediation.
It’s human nature for a written complaint to result in discomfort among staff that work with your child. They are typically advised to not discuss the issues with you outside of an IEP meeting, because then you could get confusing or conflicting information. Try not to take it personally if a staff member seems uncomfortable about how to talk with you about the issue. It’s best to keep communication between you and staff focused on your child’s daily activities. Remember, you’ll still be working with them after the dispute is resolved.
This is the first of several transitions in your child’s school career as they move through preschool to kindergarten, elementary to middle school and middle to high school. Some students with significant disabilities are eligible to receive IEP services until the year they turn 21, which may involve transition to another program.
For now, you can focus on preparing for your first experience with school-based IEP services. For a printable checklist of the steps in this timeline, click here. Use it for planning your activities: cross out items you don’t plan to do and fill in dates when you complete tasks.