If you have a child with special education needs, chances are you’ve been flooded with information, read words on the web until your eyes glazed over, and seen more acronyms than your brain knows what to do with. One of those pesky abbreviated terms you might have read is “IEP.”


Now you’re probably thinking, “Great! Another article with more acronyms. Why can’t this be simple?”


Well, today’s your lucky day. Here’s your one-stop guide to IEPs—from their meaning to how they work, you can find all the answers that you need right here!

IEPs – What Are They?

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. Simply put, an IEP is a written document that contains all the information for your child’s education plan. The IEP will specify the academic goals for your kid and outline the school district’s and state’s responsibilities for helping your student achieve them.


It’s basically a plan of attack for your child’s education adventure!


The Center for Parent Information and Resources helps parents maneuver these tricky waters. They note some of the specifics required by law for an IEP:


  • Your kid’s current academic status and abilities, as well as how their disability affects their education
  • Educational goals set for the current school year
  • How special education and related services help the student, and how the school will adjust to meet these needs
  • Details about when the child will be educated separately from nondisabled children/not participate in extracurricular or other nonacademic activities
  • Accommodations for state and district-wide assessments
  • Specifics on when, how often, where, and for how long services and modifications will serve the student
  • How school personnel will measure the child’s progress toward the annual goals

Who Qualifies

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifies what conditions qualify a child for special education. Once a child is evaluated and is determined to have one or more qualifying disabilities, an IEP meeting must occur within 30 calendar days


The Intentional IEP offers an excellent description of each of the qualifying disabilities. (Parents can find their helpful article here.) The Individuals with Education Disabilities Act lists the qualifying disabilities as:


  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairments
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injuries
  • Visual Impairments


An evaluation will determine whether or not a student needs extra help and support in school. The child must meet the requirements through one of the qualifying situations. The Individualized Education Program is free for public school students and can be encouraging in what is often a frustrating situation. 

Does My Child Need an IEP?

For some families, an IEP may be a solution to an obvious problem. For others, the question can be a bit trickier to answer. VeryWell Family notes that decisive action is a vital step for most students who are eligible to benefit from an Individualized Education Program. 


“If your child is struggling or underperforming in school, then it is important that you intervene early to keep problems from snowballing. School years go by quickly, and a child can fall behind in a matter of weeks without the right support… Any parent or school staff member may request to have a child evaluated for special education. If your child has any real possibility of having a disability that is causing their schoolwork struggles, then you should have your child evaluated.” 


You might be able to spot some clues that special education would be a good fit for your child. For instance:


  • If they think, speak, or act differently than other kids their age
  • If they seem to struggle with their education more than they should
  • If they don’t appear to fit into ordinary cookie-cutter molds


If any of these sound like your kid, it might be a good idea to have them evaluated. There’s no harm in requesting an evaluation; if your child needs aid or support, an IEP could mean the difference between their success or failure in school!

What’s the Process?

Once you’ve decided that your child might benefit from an Individualized Education Program, it’s time to embrace the process. This can be a daunting step, but remember that your student’s school staff are there to help walk you through it. You and your child are not alone in this journey to a better academic experience!


Special Education Resource notes, “The IEP process should be individualized and fair, and the resulting plan should be used to outline the steps, goals, and personalized learning needed for that particular child to reach their excellence…The IEP is one of the most significant elements used to ensure that children with special needs receive quality teaching and a customized learning environment designed to maximize their education.”


Embrace the experience and dive right in! 



You may have already taken the first step in the process—evaluation. If you haven’t begun this process yet, here’s some helpful information for you.  


Your kid has to be evaluated for qualifying needs, but how does that happen? The evaluation is a multi-step process. The evaluation process examines everything about your child’s education and learning abilities. It looks at their strengths, weaknesses, and academic history. 


A specially convened team creates an IEP for that student—and you’ve just made the team! Also on the team are your kid’s teachers, a special education teacher, and a school administrator. The evaluation includes the whole team, and you are a participating advocate for your kid during this process. 


This team discusses why you’re together:your student. Together, you decide what tests are most likely to be helpful in evaluating your child. Understood, a nonprofit dedicated to bettering the lives of students with disabilities,  notes some common assessments include

  • Psycho-educational testing, including cognitive testing and achievement testing 
  • Interviews with the student’s family, teachers, and the student to develop a comprehensive picture of the student’s social, functional, and academic history
  • Classroom observation to understand how a student responds in a classroom setting
  • Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to determine behavioral struggles that may prevent learning
  • Psychological evaluation examining your child’s emotions, behavior, and social skills
  • Other evaluations including speech-language, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or other specialized evaluations

Once you have a plan in place, it is put into action. Your child will undergo a series of whatever tests you and the team decided were necessary. Most of these can be conducted at the school but may take several days to complete. Once all the tests are done, each evaluator will create a report including their findings and recommendations. 


Understood offers a step-by-step explanation for more in-depth information concerning the evaluation period. 

The Results

After completing the evaluation tests, the team will look at the results to determine your student’s eligibility. If your child is determined to have a qualifying disability, eligibility still isn’t automatic. The team still needs to decide whether or not the child’s education is sufficiently affected by the disability. If not, then the child will be ineligible for an IEP. However, the process continues if their disability proves to cause sufficient educational challenges.

IEP Meeting

Remember that if your child is eligible, your team has 30 days to complete an IEP document. Here, you reach the next step: an IEP meeting. This is where your team forges the “plan of attack,” then documents it. As part of your child’s IEP team, you are part of the planning process. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your kid, but remember that the rest of the team is there to help your child, too. 


Sometimes, this meeting doesn’t go as parents expect. If you disagree with the IEP created, you have options. 


  • Discuss it with your IEP team members. Try to work out an agreement that satisfies everyone.
  • You can request mediation via the state education agency if a satisfactory agreement can’t be reached. This will result in a due process hearing, and you may plead your case there. 


Congratulations! You’ve finished the IEP process, and your child will receive the specialized education they so desperately need!


Once an IEP has been established, the next step is to put it into action. Your child will begin their individualized education at the earliest possible moment. Their IEP will receive annual attention and be updated and adjusted yearly as needed. Your child will also receive periodic reevaluations to ensure eligibility and progress. 

The Downsides

With everything in life, you must take the good, the bad, and the ugly. IEPs are no different. While individual education plans are tremendously positive tools to help struggling students, there are also some definite negatives. 

Red Tape

For one thing, red tape is always frustrating, and when someone “official” drops the ball related to your kid’s IEP, it can trigger a nightmare scenario. This is the problem Tracy Thompson faced when something inexplicable happened to her daughter’s paperwork, and the months rolled on without a resolution. IEPs happen on a timeline; if something gets mixed up, it means a big fat mess. What can be a hopeful process to get your child the support they need, can become a stressful issue. 

Teacher/Parent Conflict

Another downside to IEPs is that parents and teachers often have different ideas of what will work for the same student. A mediation is a good way to work toward a resolution during the IEP meetings, but what about the rest of the school year? Special Education Guide has a list of helpful suggestions to smooth the way. 

More Work for Teachers

Yet another con to IEPs is that it puts more paperwork on often already overwhelmed teachers. The Psychology School Guide explains that teachers will have to gather information on their IEP students and track and document their improvement.  Speaking to teachers, the Guide says,“[Y]ou will use up a lot of your work time and energy filling out paperwork for each student. This could be a pretty time-consuming task and quickly become overwhelming if you were to fall behind on all of it…you must be very organized and good at time management.” 

Get Legal

According to ADDitude, many of the difficulties involving IEPs require legal or professional solutions. Whether hiring a lawyer, bringing in an expert, or advocating for your child’s legal rights on your own, ADDitude mentions several common scenarios requiring legal attention. Some of these might include having your ideas and insights about your child ignored, having your child’s IEP ignored instead of properly implemented, and seeing little to no progress in the process. 

Your Child’s Best Interest

While Individual Education Programs aren’t flawless, millions of students are helped every year through special needs education programs, including IEPs. Regardless of the difficulty or simplicity of the process, when your child needs help, it’s good to know where to turn. Your child depends on you to advocate on their behalf. Contact your school staff if you’re unsure where to start. With the tips and resources above, you know everything you need to know to start this journey! 

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