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What Is An IEP And How To Find Out If Your Child Needs One

By Vicki Little

When you notice that your child is struggling, the first thing you want to do is fix it. You want to help, and you want things to move quickly. Sometimes the hardest part about addressing an issue is knowing where to begin and who to turn to. This is especially true in the world of public education. IDEA, IEP, ISP, 504 … the acronyms only add to the confusion involved in making sure children get the education they need. What do all of these acronyms mean? Where do you start when you notice your child is struggling?

While this article focuses primarily on IEPs, it is important to note that if you, your pediatrician or your child’s daycare provider notices that your infant or toddler isn’t hitting milestones or is experiencing significant delays, you may qualify for free early intervention assistance from the state. You can find more information by talking to your pediatrician, at Early Childhood Technical Assistance, or at the Office of Head Start.

The first important acronym to know is IDEA, which stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA is a law that was enacted in 2004 and amended with the Every Child Succeeds Act in 2015 that requires schools to make available free public education, special education, and related services to eligible children with disabilities. Children starting from birth to age two receive early intervention services under IDEA part C. Children age three through 21 receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B. Special education is specifically individualized instruction designed to meet the particular needs of a student with a disability. Under IDEA, there are 14 categories of disability that would make a child eligible for special education and services. These are:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Developmental delay
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment (including blindness)

The Center For Parent Information and Resources describes each of these categories in greater detail. It is important to note that the disability must adversely impact the child’s educational performance in order to qualify for intervention. If a child is found to have a disability that affects their learning, but they do not qualify for special education, they may still fall under a 504, which is described later in this article.

In most cases, a teacher or school official notices the need for an evaluation, but the parents can request one as well. The testing is typically done in-house at school, but a family can request outside testing be done. The school is not obligated to pay for the outside testing (though some may), and they don’t have to accept the results. The purpose of testing is to determine if the child has one or more of the specific disabilities listed in IDEA (learning and attention issues may qualify under one or more of the categories), and if this disability impacts the child’s educational performance and ability to participate in and benefit from the general curriculum. If both of these criteria are met, an IEP is developed.

An IEP is an Individualized Learning Plan. The goal of a plan is to ensure that the student is able to participate in school in a way that accommodates their unique needs and helps them grow and learn at a pace that complements their abilities. This plan details what the child’s special education at school will involve. These services will be provided to the family by the school at no cost to the family. IDEA requires that the IEP team be comprised of:

  • the parents of the child;
  • not less than one regular education teacher of the child (if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment);
  • not less than one special education teacher of the child, or where appropriate, not less than one special education provider of the child;
  • a representative of the public agency who is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities; is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum, and is knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency;
  • an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results;
  • other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate (invited at the discretion of the parent or the agency); and
  • the child with a disability (when appropriate).

Once the team has been assembled, they will develop a very thorough IEP. The plan will need to include where the child currently is in their academic performance, yearly goals for the child’s education, how the school will track progress towards these goals, which services the child will get – including when the services start, how often they will occur, and when they will end – any accommodations to the learning environment that the child will receive, any modifications that will be made to the curriculum, how the child will take standardized tests, and how the child will be included into typical classroom and school activities. The team will review the IEP on a yearly basis to determine what adjustments need to be made, and every three years the student will be re-evaluated to determine if an IEP is still necessary.

The IEP is a written document and it must be very clearly followed. If the school wants to change any part of the plan, they must notify the parents in writing of their intent and get approval. The IEP also allows for a process that must be followed if there is a dispute between any parties of the IEP team. The school receives funding for any student that is on an IEP.

If your child is experiencing limitations in learning due to a disability but they do not qualify for an IEP (such as ADHD/ADD, mild sensory disorder, anxiety, etc.), they may still be eligible for a 504 plan. This plan derives from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is a federal law that requires school districts to provide free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities that reside in that particular school district. This act does not specify categories of disability, such as the IDEA does.  As with an IEP, a 504 plan is provided to families at no cost and provides for adjustments to the learning environment so that the child can participate as equally as the other students. The student isn’t part of the school’s special education program, and there are fewer requirements on the accommodations. The plan doesn’t need to be written out, there aren’t guidelines on who must be involved in the planning or implementation. Typically, the child’s parents, their teacher, the principal and the student are involved in coming up with an action plan. This plan typically will include what accommodations will be made, what teachers or specialists will be involved and what their responsibilities will be, and what the goals are for the student. Each state varies on when they require the plan to be reviewed, but usually, a review each year with a reevaluation after three years is recommended. There is a recommended policy for disputes, and parents do need to be notified of changes to the plan, though not in writing. The school district does NOT receive funding for students with a 504 plan, but funding can be pulled from schools that do not provide 504 plans to eligible students.

If you think your child may benefit from an IEP or 504, your first step should be to talk with their teacher and get the ball rolling. You don’t have to wait until a conference – ask to schedule a meeting immediately. Chances are, they share your concerns and will help you contact the correct school officials to get testing started. If they don’t, perhaps they can ease your mind on how your child is doing at school. If you still don’t feel comfortable, don’t be afraid to go to the next level up and speak with a counselor or the principal of the school. You are your child’s best advocate, and you know your child better than anyone else. For more resources, visit the National Association of Parent’s With Children In Special Education.



“Learning about IEPs” Understood.org https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/what-is-an-iep Web. 3 July 2018.

“Short and Sweet IEP Overview” Parentcenterhub.org 1 August 2017. Web. 3 July 2018. https://www.parentcenterhub.org/iep-overview/

“Understanding Section 504” Smartkidswithldorg http://www.smartkidswithld.org/getting-help/know-your-childs-rights/understanding-section-504/Web. 3 July 2018.


Vicki Little is a preschool teacher with two children. A Colorado native, she spends her time writing, sitting in the bleachers for her daughter’s gymnastics, and engaging in spirited debates with her son. In her free time…well, she is still waiting for some of that.


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