What Is an IEP? Helpful Resources for Parents and Educators


More than 7 million children in the United States receive special education or related services, and each of them has what’s known as an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. This legally required document ensures that each student receives the support and accommodations they need to succeed in school. If you’ve recently been told your child qualifies for an IEP, or you’re a teacher with your first IEP student, you may have some questions. What is an IEP, and what does it mean for parents, families, and teachers? Read on to learn more.

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What is an IEP?

Infographic explaining the definition of an IEP.
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IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. It’s a legal document that clearly defines how a school plans to meet a child’s unique educational needs (specially designed instruction) that result from a covered disability.

The IEP is the cornerstone of a child’s special education program. It assesses their present performance, sets reasonable measurable goals for the child, and specifies the services the school will provide. IEPs grow and change along with a student and are regularly reevaluated to ensure they’re still effective (at least annually, sometimes more frequently).

IEPs are covered under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This federal law entitles all children with certain types of disabilities a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Children who qualify must be provided with an education that meets their unique needs, provides access to the general education curriculum in the least restrictive learning environment (LRE), and meets state grade-level standards.

An IEP helps schools and teachers figure out how to help students succeed in the LRE that’s right for them, which for many is a general education inclusion classroom. For some students, a general classroom isn’t an appropriate LRE. However, the law requires schools to do their best to keep kids learning alongside their peers before opting for a different choice.

Who qualifies for an IEP?

IDEA covers children from birth until they graduate high school or turn 21, whichever comes first. To qualify, a child must fall under one of 13 disability categories, and their disability must adversely affect their school performance. These are the included categories under IDEA:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities (more than one condition covered by IDEA)
  • Orthopedic impairment (impairment to a child’s body)
  • Other health impairment (conditions that limit a child’s strength, energy, or alertness)
  • Specific learning disability (learning issue that affects a child’s ability to write, listen, speak, reason, or do math)
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

Just because a child has a disability does not mean they need special services or require an IEP. They do have the right to an evaluation for one, though.

IEP vs. 504 Plan

Sometimes schools determine that students need access to special education services, but the student isn’t specifically covered under one of the 13 IEP disability categories. In that case, they may recommend what’s known as a 504 Plan instead.

A 504 Plan is similar to an IEP in its overall goals, but it’s usually less formal. The law doesn’t even require them to be written, although they usually are. Learn more about 504 Plans and how they compare with IEPs here.

How are students evaluated for IEPs?

Under IDEA, schools are required to actively seek out and identify students who qualify for special education services through a program called Child Find. It’s often a classroom teacher who first suggests a student be evaluated for these services. Other times, a doctor, counselor, or parent may initiate the process.

Once a school decides to evaluate a student, they must seek parental approval. Schools usually have set processes in place, including assessments and evaluations, but they must follow the law. Most districts have IEP coordinators to help with the process. Parents may also choose to have their children evaluated privately, at their own cost.

As a parent, you can ask to have the process explained to you in detail, so you and your child know exactly what to expect. Here’s more about the evaluation process in special education to get you started.

Who creates an IEP?

After an evaluation determines a child qualifies for special education services, schools assemble their IEP team, which is different for each student. This might include (but isn’t limited to):

  • Classroom teachers and special ed team members
  • Counselors, psychologists, or behavioral specialists
  • Other interested parties, such as other teachers or staff members who interact with the child
  • Parents or legal guardians
  • Child, if appropriate

The IEP team changes over time, and not all members must attend meetings. However, at each formal yearly evaluation, it’s best to assemble as many members of a team as possible. Learn more about IEP meetings and how they work here.

What information does an IEP include?

Each IEP must be an individualized document, created especially for the child in question. There is no standard form, but the law does require it to include sections for present levels of performance, goals, and services. See a sample IEP with its sections explained here.

Present Levels of Performance (PLOP, PLP, or PLAAFP)

This section documents a child’s current school performance and how their disability affects their progress and involvement. These are reevaluated on a regular basis, at least annually, and updated as needed. They should include a detailed look at:

  • Academic achievement: This refers to a child’s progress in academic subjects like reading, math, science, etc. It could be based on observations of classroom teachers, grades, results of state and district standardized tests, special education evaluations, and more.
  • Functional performance: This term encompasses all the skills and activities kids learn that aren’t directly related to academics. That might include language development, social skills, behavior, life skills, mobility skills, and so on.

Learn more about the Present Level of Performance component of an IEP here.

Goals

An IEP must include measurable goals for the student that can be reasonably accomplished in a school year. The goals are based on the student’s present level of performance and focus on the student’s specific needs.

It’s vital that the goals on an IEP be “measurable.” This means they must be very specific in their wording. A goal should include how success will be measured and when progress is expected to be seen.

Here’s an example of a poorly written IEP goal: “The student will improve their reading skills by focusing on sight words.” This goal doesn’t include any way in which progress can be measured or a projected time frame for meeting the goal.

Instead, this goal might say, “At the end of the first grading period, the student will demonstrate mastery of a list of 50 common sight words by reading aloud the words when presented on flash cards, with an accuracy of 95%.”

Looking for more examples or ideas to help a child? Find our big library of IEP goals here.

Services

In this section, schools state the ways they’ll help the child achieve their IEP goals. This might include:

  • Accommodations: These are special arrangements that aren’t part of the standard classroom equipment or policy. For instance, a child with sensory-processing issues might be permitted to wear noise-cancelling headphones in the classroom. Or a student with vision challenges might have a written test read aloud to them and be allowed to respond orally. Accommodations don’t change what a student learns, it only changes how they learn it. Explore our collection of 80+ IEP accommodations here.
  • Modifications: Modifications do involve changes to what a child is learning. They might lower or raise expectations for specific standards, or reduce the amount of work a child is expected to produce. Learn about modifications vs. accommodations here.
  • Assistive technology: Examples include text-to-speech software, typing instead of handwriting, closed-captioning, hearing aids, pencil grips, etc. See more examples of assistive technology here.
  • Related services: These are any other services kids need to help them succeed in the LRE, such as transportation services, occupational therapy, social skills groups, interpreters, or classroom aides.

What rights do parents have in the IEP process?

The law gives parents some very specific rights in the IEP process. Parents and legal guardians have the right to:

  • Request a special education evaluation at no cost
  • Give or deny consent for a special education evaluation
  • Agree or refuse the special education services offered
  • Have an independent evaluation performed (at their own cost)
  • Disagree with a school’s decision by asking for a due-process hearing or mediation
  • Participate in or request IEP meetings, and bring others to the meeting
  • Review IEP documents at any time
  • Control who has access to their child’s IEP
  • Receive prior written notice of any proposed changes to the IEP

As a parent involved in the IEP process, especially for the first time, you likely have a lot of questions. If you feel like you need some extra support, you might find it helpful to talk with a special education advocate. Learn more about how they can help families through the IEP process here.

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