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What is an IEP? Resources to help kids with disabilities

What's an IEP? IEP resources for parents

Updated: April 22, 2024 · 8 Minute Read

Lisa M. Carey

Reviewed by:

Lisa M. Carey, Education Advocate at Undivided

Highlights

  • An IEP is a public school’s education “game plan” for children with disabilities.
  • The IEP can be updated or changed at any time if it's not working for your child!
  • A 504 plan can remove barriers your child faces at school that prevent them from learning or getting the most out of their education.

What’s an IEP?

An IEP (Individualized Education Program) spells out a child’s needs at school and how these needs will be met. Essentially, it’s the “game plan” for how the school will give the child a free, appropriate, public education (aka “FAPE”) that is individualized to their unique challenges and strengths. An IEP is a legally binding document, and must be honored like any other contract. To learn about what’s actually in an IEP, check out our guide here. To learn more about the IDEA Act, which is where we get IEPs from, check out this guide from Undivided.

 

What is the purpose of an IEP?

The ultimate purpose of an IEP is to ensure that the student receives a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). When an IEP is executed properly, it allows disabled students to access the appropriate curriculum for them. For some kids that will mean the same curriculum and standards as their same-aged peers, but for some kids that will mean a modified curriculum.

 

Who makes the IEP?

An IEP is created by a team of educators, school officials, and the child’s parent(s). This group is called “the IEP team.” Everyone on the IEP team is part of IEP meetings (with some occasional exceptions).

 

Who’s part of the IEP team?

At minimum, the IEP Team is made up of:

 

  • the child’s parent or guardian
  • at least 1 special education teacher
  • at least 1 of the child’s general education teachers (if they will be in general education classes, or get general education services)
  • the school psychologist or someone else familiar with interpreting assessment results
  • a district representative who has authority to authorize services (plus other qualifications)

 

 

One person (usually a teacher) should be appointed as the student’s IEP manager. That’s who you’d go to with any concerns or immediate questions about your child’s IEP. You and your child are the most important members of the IEP team, and it’s important to involve your child as much as possible when you can. You can also bring along a helpful person to IEP meetings, like a loved one or a special education advocate (find one in our directory or check out Understood’s guide for more resources).

 

Does my child need an IEP?

That depends! Your child must have an IEP in order to receive special education services in school. Without an IEP, your child would be expected to navigate school without accommodations, supports, or services. Children without IEPs learn the general education curriculum, but kids with IEPs get specialized instruction. If you feel your child needs supports, services, or accommodations to learn the same stuff as their peers, they may need an IEP.

 

Does it cost anything to get an IEP?

No, an IEP should never cost you anything. An Individualized Education Plan, and all the services connected to it, are provided free to students with disabilities under the IDEA act. Public schools, including public charter and magnet schools, receive government funding to make this possible.

 

Does my child qualify for an IEP?

If your child has a disability or learning difference (like autism, ADHD, or dyslexia), and that disability or learning difference affects their ability to learn the general education curriculum, they meet the requirements for an Individual Education Plan. It’s important to know that even if you feel your child meets the requirements, the school can still deny your child an IEP.

 

How do I get my child an IEP?

For a visual overview of the IEP process, please check out Understood’s IEP Roadmap. Here’s the step-by-step process below.

 

Step 1: Request an evaluation

To get the process started, you’ll need to contact the school and request a special education evaluation. It’s best to make this request in writing and be specific about your concerns. The school is required to evaluate any child they suspect may have a disability. Learn more about IEP assessments and how to request one.

 

If the school denies your request for an evaluation, here’s what to do. They’re required to send you a written notice explaining why they denied the evaluation request. (Keep in mind, you can also seek a private assessment, which you pay for yourself, if you’ve tried everything else and the school still won’t evaluate.)

 

Step 2: Prepare for and attend the evaluation

After the school approves your request for a special education evaluation, they have 60 days to make it happen. The evaluation will include school staff, and will probably include testing your child’s ability in areas like reading or math. It’s natural for you and your child to be nervous leading up to the evaluation. Know your rights and build up your child’s self-esteem before going in.

 

Keep in mind, assessments are just ways to collect information about your child compared to neurotypical standards. Common ways of testing intelligence in autistic and neurodivergent kids aren’t always accurate, especially if they have communication difficulties — so these results are not the final say on how smart your child is. This evaluation will just show educators what areas your child may need help in, and give them a way to measure growth in the future.

 

Step 3: The eligibility meeting and review

After the evaluation, you’ll likely have to wait a few weeks to get the results. The school should allow you time to look over the results before meeting with you to discuss them. Then, you will have an eligibility meeting with your child’s school. During this meeting, you’ll go over the results with school staff and they’ll share with you their opinion of if your child is eligible for an IEP or not.

 

It’s possible that you won’t agree with the school’s findings, or you may not agree with the results of the evaluation. If you disagree with the evaluation, you can request an independent education evaluation, at the expense of the school district. Keep in mind, the school may deny your request — in that case, they should provide you a written reason for denial, and file due process against you to defend their assessment. You can request mediation or due process to challenge that denial.

 

Many parents have felt sure their child needed an IEP, only to be denied or told their child “isn’t autistic enough” for services. If the school says your child isn’t eligible for an IEP, you have options.

 

Keep in mind, the special education evaluation is not a diagnosis. The team reviewing your child’s evaluation should take into account any official diagnoses your child has gotten in the past. Some parents end up confused and worried after being told by the school their child isn’t autistic — but the school can’t say that (they’re not doctors). What they can say is that they think the child’s disability doesn’t hinder their ability to get an education enough to need personalized instruction (an IEP). Check out our guide to common IEP problems here.

 

Step 4: IEP Meeting

If the school does decide your child is eligible for an IEP, the next step is an IEP meeting. This will be the meeting in which the IEP actually gets made. Read our full guide to IEP meetings here.

 

If not an IEP, then what?

If the school is refusing an IEP (and you’ve tried everything above) or if you don’t feel your child needs an IEP, but you know they need something to help at school, you do have another option: the 504 plan.

 

What’s a 504 plan?

A 504 plan can remove barriers your child faces at school that prevent them from learning or getting the most out of their education. Your child may need different evaluations to get a 504 plan than are necessary to get an IEP.

 

Does my child qualify for a 504 plan?

If your child has a medical diagnosis but the school doesn’t believe that an IEP is necessary, you can request a 504 plan. A 504 plan is short for Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act. This protects students from discrimination and can provide accommodations. It is not considered special education because there is no specialized instruction, but it can allow extra time for tests or assignments/homework, and many other accommodations.

 

What’s the difference between an IEP and a 504?

While an IEP deals with what and how your child is taught, as well as services, a 504 plan is used to make changes to your child’s learning environment and experience. 504 plans very rarely have services attached, but rather accommodations so the child can access their education — things like movement breaks or wheelchair ramps. Different laws govern 504 plans than IEPs, so it’s important to know how your child’s rights will differ. Undivided and Understood have in depth guides that explain the differences between IEPs and 504 plans.

 

 

Are there other options besides IEP and 504 plans?

MTSS or RTI are other options to ask about. Multi Tiered System of Support (MTSS) or Response to Intervention (RTI) are essentially the same and are considered general education supports. There are 3 tiers that describe supports, like reading support or math support, tutoring services, etc. that aren’t considered specialized instruction but can give a student what they need to be successful. You don’t have to give consent for these services, and in some cases, your child may already be receiving them and you just don’t know it because they’re not considered special education.

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