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Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

What's an IEP?

Students who need extra help and support in school may be eligible for special education services in the form of anindividualized education program (IEP). This program is offered free of charge to families of kids in public schools and outlines the goals and any support services that may be needed for a child to succeed in school.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that parents and guardians of students with disabilities or special health care needs are important members of their child's education team. They should work with educators to develop a plan that helps kids succeed in school.

Understanding how to get and use these services will help your child be as successful as possible in school.

Who Needs an IEP?

Students who are eligible for special education services need an IEP. While there are many reasons that students could be eligible, some common conditions include:

How Are Services Offered?

In most cases, the services and goals outlined in an IEP can be offered in a general school environment. This can be done in the regular classroom (for example, a reading teacher helps a small group of children who need extra help while the other kids in the class work with the regular teacher.) The small group serves students with similar needs who are brought together for help.

Every effort is made to help kids learn alongside their peers who do not have disabilities. But sometimes the level of support needed can't be met in a general classroom, so students are educated in a specialized learning classroom that is more appropriate for their needs. These classes have fewer students per teacher and allow for more one-on-one instruction. The teacher usually has training in helping kids with special educational needs. Students spend most of their day in a small group classroom and join the regular classes whenever possible — for example lunch, gym, or the arts.

What's the Referral and Evaluation Process?

The referral process begins when a teacher, parent, or doctor is concerned that a child may be having trouble in the classroom, and the teacher notifies the school counselor or psychologist.

The first step is to gather specific information about the student's progress or academic problems. This may be done through:

  • conference with parents
  • a conference with the student
  • watching the student in class to assess performance (attention, behavior, work completion, tests, classwork, homework, etc.)

This information helps school officials decide the best next step. Sometimes new classroom strategies are all that's needed to help a child become more successful. If this doesn't work, the child will get an educational assessment, which can find a specific learning disability or other health impairment.

Note: The presence of a disability doesn't automatically guarantee a child will get services. To be eligible, the disability must affect how the child does at school. To decide on a child's eligibility, a team of professionals will consider their observations, as well as how the child does on standardized tests and daily work such as tests, quizzes, classwork, and homework.

Who's On the Team?

As a guardian, you can decide whether to have your child assessed. If you choose to do so, you'll be asked to sign a permission form that will detail who is involved in the process and the types of tests they use. These tests might include measures of specific school skills, such as reading and math or developmental skills, like speech and language.

The professionals on the evaluation team can include:

When the team finishes the assessment, a comprehensive evaluation report is developed. This report includes an educational classification and outlines the skills and support the child will need.

You can review this report before an IEP is developed. If there is something that you don't agree with, work together with the team to come up with a plan that best meets your child's needs.

How Is an IEP Developed? 

The next step is an IEP meeting with you and the team to decide what will go into the IEP. A regular teacher should also attend this meeting to offer suggestions for how the plan can help your child progress through the standard education curriculum.

At the meeting, the team will discuss your child's educational needs — as described in the evaluation report — and develop specific, measurable short-term and yearly goals for each of those needs. You can take an active role in developing the goals and determining which skills or areas will receive the most attention.

The cover page of the IEP outlines the support services your child will get and how often they will be provided (for example, occupational therapy twice a week). Support services might include:

Services might also include transportation, test help or modifications, participation in special programs, and the inclusion of transition planning beginning at age 14. 

If the team recommends several services, the amount of time they take in the child's school schedule can seem overwhelming. To ease that load, a professional may talk with your child’s teacher to come up with strategies that help but won’t offer hands-on instruction. For example, an occupational therapist may suggest accommodations for a child with fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the classroom teacher would incorporate these suggestions into the handwriting lessons taught to the entire class.

Other services can be delivered right in the classroom, so the child's day isn't interrupted by therapy. The child who has trouble with handwriting might work one-on-one with an occupational therapist while everyone else practices their handwriting skills. When deciding how and where services are offered, the child's comfort and dignity should be a top priority.

Your child's IEP should be reviewed annually to update goals and make sure your child is getting the support that's needed. However, IEPs can be changed at any time on an as-needed basis. If you think your child needs more, fewer, or different services, you can request a meeting and bring the team together to discuss your concerns.

What Are My Legal Rights?

Guidelines (sometimes called procedural safeguards) outline your rights as a parent to control what happens to your child throughout the IEP process. For example, timelines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to providing services as quickly as possible. When your child is referred, ask about this timeline and get a copy of your parents' rights.

The parents' rights also describe how you can proceed if you disagree with any part of the evaluation report or the IEP — mediation and hearings are some options. You can get information about low-cost or free legal representation from the school district or through early intervention programs.

Attorneys and paid advocates familiar with the IEP process will provide representation if you need it. You also may invite anyone who knows or works with your child whose input you feel would be helpful to join the IEP team. Federally supported programs in each state support parent-to-parent information and training activities for parents of children with special needs. The Parent Training and Information Projects conduct workshops, publish newsletters, and answer questions by phone or by mail about parent-to-parent activities.

What Else Should I Know?

Parents have the right to choose where their kids will be educated. This choice includes public or private elementary schools and secondary schools, including religious schools. It also includes charter schools and home schools.

But parents should know that the rights of children with disabilities who are placed in private elementary schools and secondary schools are not the same as children with disabilities who are enrolled in public schools.

Two major differences that parents, teachers, school staff, private school representatives, and kids need to know about are:

  1. Children with disabilities who are placed by their parents in private schools may not get the same services they would get in a public school.
  2. Not all kids with disabilities placed by their parents in private schools will get services.

The IEP process is complex, but it's also an effective way to address how your child learns. If you have concerns, be sure to ask about the evaluation findings or the goals recommended by your child's IEP team. You know your child best and should play a central role in creating a learning plan tailored to their specific needs.

Reviewed by: Colleen O'Shea, Special Education Teacher
Date reviewed: March 2022