What is an IEP?

what is an iep

Many do not understand the necessity and importance of an individualized education program (IEP).  IEPs are designed to allow the school and parents to work together to identify necessary accommodations and set specific goals for each student in need.

What is an IEP?

The IEP is exactly what the name implies. It is an individualized education program that admits to past philosophical errors incorporated in the warehouse concept of education where one size fits all. Every student that receives special education services has an IEP. The program recognizes that all humans learn at a different rate. Thus, learning packages are geared to the needs of those students to prepare them to be an active member of any community. Examples of accommodations made within an IEP include additional time to complete a task or possibly five years to complete a four-year segment of their education. Other accommodations include having a designated reader or allowing the student to take tests in a different setting with few distractions. Students who have a physical disorder such as dyslexia are provided extra training. Others with autism or down syndrome may experience added technological advances provided by the schools to enable them to understand the concepts of mathematics and writing.

History of the IEP

IEPs were first introduced into the school system in 1975. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guaranteed rights to individuals with disabilities and required educational accommodations be made for those in need. The Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted in 1975 which guaranteed all children with special needs have access to free education. In 1997 the EHA was amended and became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which reinforced the need for IEPs for all special education students. The IDEA encourages parents to take an active role in the development and annual review of their child’s IEP. Parents are allowed to participate in any meetings regarding their child and have a voice regarding placement decisions.

The Changes

Several changes occurred as the result of the introduction of IEP into the educational system. According to Special Education News, schools began providing special education services geared to the individual to students in need of additional educational support. Students with special needs were placed into a program tailored to their needs. The principal inhibitor to the new system was the acceptance of extra attention applied to these students by their fellow students, and, by extension, their parents. The success of the program depended largely on the willingness of the community to accept the role of the individual within itself the neighborhood as a social responsibility for each of its members.

What Happens When a School Determines a Student Needs an IEP?

individualized education plan

While a parent has the right to request an IEP, in most cases it is the school that will determine a student needs one. It often comes about when one of the student’s teachers notices problems that indicate the child would do well in a special education program. The student may need to undergo testing before the school creates a plan. Both the student’s teachers and parents need to attend a meeting within 30 days of deciding that the child would benefit from an IEP.

Primary Goals of the Plan

Many parents look at what is an IEP because they want to know how it will benefit their kids and what the goals of the plan are. Any child who is in special education classes must have one of these plans on file. It will lay out all of the goals for the child as well as show how the services the school has will help the child achieve those goals. Parents must keep in mind that the school will establish goals that the child can reasonably meet based on their overall needs and skills. Verbal children may have more extensive goals than nonverbal kids have.

Disability Categories

The ADA identifies different disability categories that help schools and teachers develop these plans. Autism is one of the more common conditions and will include both verbal and nonverbal kids. Deafness is another disability category that refers to students who are either hard of hearing or cannot hear. Deaf and blindness is another category designed for students who cannot hear or see. Other disability categories include:

-Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
-Blindness and other visual impairments
-Hearing impairments
-Emotional disorders and disturbances
-Learning disabilities
-Speech impairments
-Orthopedic impairments

Schools can also use a category to describe children who fall into one or more of these categories if the students suffer from multiple impairments.

Preparing for an IEP Meeting

iep meeting

Many parents do not realize that they can take steps to prepare for the meeting they have with their child’s teachers. They should make a list that includes any of the weaknesses and strengths that they see in the child, especially in regards to their learning and education. If the child sees a therapist, it’s helpful to make notes about what the therapist said and bring the notes with them to the meeting. Parents can also visit the school and ask to sit in on classes to see how their kids handle school. They can also talk with their kids to find out about the problems they have in school and want they want to get out of school.

During the Initial Meeting

The IEP meeting is important because it allows both parents and educators to address the issues they see with the child. During the first meeting, the teachers can talk about what problems they witnessed and what they think the student needs. Parents must take the time to talk about their own concerns and mention what they think their child needs help with while in school. The meeting will also address the best type of special education for the student. Teachers may bring up other situations outside of the classroom where the child needs help such as at home or in special classes after school.

Other Services

Though an IEP primarily focuses on what the child needs at school, it can also address other services that will benefit the student. One example is transportation. Children with disabilities often have a difficult time using the same school transportation that their peers do. A child with sensory issues may feel overwhelmed by the sounds and smells on a school bus. School health services can help students who require medication and ensure that they take their medications on a set schedule. Some schools also offer counseling for the parents and family members of special education students. Those loved ones may need help learning how to deal with their feelings about the child. Schools can also help families get access to social services.

Changing an IEP

When parents look at what is an IEP, they occasionally worry that their children will feel forced to stick with the program for longer than they should. One of the benefits of these plans is that they allow for changes. A common reason to change the set plan is that the child made significant progress towards their original goals. The school can change the IEP to implement new goals. An IEP can also change if the school finds that the child doesn’t benefit from the original plan. The child’s teacher may suggest new programs to add to it.

How Often Does an IEP Change?

While an IEP can change whenever the school or the child wants to change it, the child must go through a new evaluation every three years as long as the student remains enrolled. During the evaluation, the IEP team will look at the progress the child made in the last few years and since the implementation of any changes to the plan. They must determine whether the child suffers from a disability as defined under federal law. In some cases, the school may find that the child made enough progress that they only need help and support in a few key areas. Schools can request that the child goes through other assessments, too.

Parts of an IEP Team

iep team

The IEP team is the group of people responsible for creating and following the plan. It will include the child’s parents and at least one of their teachers. If the child is in a special education program, a teacher familiar with their disabilities must join the team. The team will also include a school administrator who understands the curriculum that the school uses and the policies for special education classes as well as the resources that are available to the school. The Center for Parent Information & Resources says that any agencies that are part of the plan should have representatives on the team.

How Often Does the Team Meet?

Parents have the chance to request a meeting with the IEP team whenever they want. They often request a meeting when they notice that their kids made progress towards their goals or when they see their kids falling behind their peers. When a parent requests a meeting, the school must arrange for the whole team to get together during school hours or later in the day. Unless someone associated with the case requests one, an IEP meeting will only take place once a year.

Can Children Attend the Meetings?

IEP meetings allow parents and educators to meet with other experts to address a student’s needs and goals. Some parents want to bring their children to these meetings and allow them to speak about what they want. Though students can attend these meetings, most states have policies that only allow them to attend when they are 14 or older. The idea is that younger children have a hard time following what others have to say and expressing their thoughts.

Types of Assessments

A big question that parents have in mind is about the types of assessments their children must undergo. Federal law requires that any child who needs an IEP must undergo a full assessment that addresses the child’s academic performance and skills. This ensures that the child is in the right classroom and can keep up with their peers. An emotional assessment is required when the child has an emotional or behavioral disorder, which may also require a behavioral assessment. The school needs to make sure that the child can handle working in a classroom. Other assessments address any disabilities that the child may have such as speech and language testing or a motor skills assessment.

What Happens if a Parent Disagrees?

While an IEP is a way to help a child in need, some parents find that they do not agree with the initial assessments or the plan itself. All states allow parents to request an independent evaluation. Though some states may ask that parents pay for this evaluation, other states require that the school pays for it. An independent evaluation includes the same assessments but may find that the child has problems in areas the initial tests missed or that the child has stronger skills than initially thought. Parents can then use that information to change the IEP.

Special Education at Home

A major problem arose during the COVID pandemic as so many schools closed and sent kids home to learn. Any child who lives in the United States has the right to free public school. If the child is a home learner, the school must still use the IEP and work to ensure that all of the student’s needs are met. Children who suffer from serious disabilities have the right to in-person help. This might include a tutor who works with the child in their home or a therapist who provides support in an office setting.

Parents with special education children learning at home should contact the school district and explain the issues they have. The school may allow the child to spend more time at home when other kids come back to school and let them attend classes via webcam. Schools can also arrange for virtual IEP meetings through Zoom and similar apps to ensure that kids stay on track until they can get back to the classroom.

Do All Students Qualify for an IEP?

The simple answer to this question is no, not all children will qualify for an IEP. While a teacher can approach the idea, the school must work with the parents and student to see if they would benefit from one of these plans. According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NDCCD), the school or school system has the final say over whether a child can use one of these plans. If the school decides that the child would not benefit, it must notify the parent in writing and include any reasons they have for not allowing the IEP. Parents should request this letter if they do not receive one.


IEPs have been shown to have a positive impact on the educational experience of special needs or at-risk students. The goal of an IEP is to improve overall educational results. While some may not feel individualized education plans are necessary, they have been proven effective in the educational system.

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