The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities to have access to a “free and appropriate public education.” Under IDEA, students who are “adversely affected” by a certain subset of disabilities are eligible for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which define a program of instruction that allows them to fully access their education. An IEP is not about putting a “problem” label on your child or stigmatizing them; it’s about establishing a personalized set of supports and resources that meet their individual needs, so they can thrive in school. But getting an IEP, understanding what it means, and making sure it’s actually helping your child can be an overwhelming process.
Here’s what all parents need to know about IEPs, whether or not your child has one.
- An IEP articulates a specific program of instruction and supports to ensure that a student can thrive in school. The plan will include language about your child’s strengths and areas of challenge, their annual goals, and the supports and teacher actions that will help them achieve those goals. This might be things like small group academic support in class; visual aids, graphic organizers, or other tools and resources; additional time for specific tasks; support from a school counselor or psychologist; and much more.
- The process of getting an IEP begins with an evaluation of the student. As a parent, you can request that your child be evaluated for special education services. Public schools must offer these evaluations for free, but you can also opt for a private evaluation if you prefer. Alternatively, your school might suggest that your child be evaluated, but they must obtain your permission before moving forward. This chart from Understood outlines the steps involved in obtaining an IEP.
- Eligibility for an IEP is defined by federal law. Under IDEA, students are eligible for IEPs if they are “adversely affected” by a disability that falls into 13 particular categories. These categories include specific learning disabilities (like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or auditory processing disorder), deafness, visual impairment, traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, speech and language difficulties, and more. Students who struggle in school for reasons outside of these 13 categories are not eligible for an IEP, but they might still be eligible for a 504 plan, which covers any other exceptionality that interferes with a student’s ability to learn in a general education classroom. (Many things could meet this criteria: for example, attention issues, “gifted or talented” status, or a severe food allergy. Check out this helpful guide to understand the differences between IEPs and 504 plans.) And while the categories defined by IDEA represent a baseline for IEP eligibility, states do have some latitude to expand upon what is included or how it is categorized, and you will be walked through those criteria during an eligibility determination meeting.
- An IEP is written by a team—including parents. Your child’s IEP team will include you as well as several others: most likely their classroom teacher, a special education teacher, an expert related to their disability (like a speech and language therapist or a reading interventionist), a representative from the school district, and a trained interpreter if needed. Together, you will discuss your child’s needs and how to meet them, prior to a teacher or district special education staff member putting these plans in writing. As your child gets older, you may wish to include them in the IEP meetings as well. When they’re over 16, they can be an official member of their IEP team.
- IEPs are legal documents, as well as roadmaps for your child’s school experience. Once written and signed, the IEP is a legally binding document. But it shouldn’t just be a contract that gets tossed in a drawer. The IEP should include enough detail to articulate how your child’s supports will change their daily life at school and improve their experience. If the IEP doesn’t tell you those things, it’s important to ask your child’s teachers.
What can you do if you think your child needs an IEP?
Know your rights.
As the parent, you are an equal member of your child’s IEP team. The IEP should be developed in collaboration with you—not presented to you. If English is not your primary language, you have the right to have a trained interpreter present at all meetings. (Your child or an untrained member of school staff does not count, even if they are fully bilingual.) And you should not feel pressured to agree to an IEP that seems insufficient to you. If the IEP doesn’t have clear goals and make good sense to you given your child’s needs, keep pushing the team. You can also bring a support person to IEP meetings if you’d like, such as your Navigator or another parent advocate, or even a friend who can listen and take notes. Once the IEP is written, your child’s school is required to follow through on the supports they’ve committed to. Finally, if you have concerns that your child isn’t receiving those supports, or that the support they’re receiving is not sufficient, you have the right to raise it with your child’s IEP team or request a formal team reconvene. (Read more about your rights in the IEP process.)
Know your point person.
The process of navigating special education services can be overwhelming. Try to identify a point person at your child’s school: This might be a special education teacher or director, a school psychologist, or a therapist or interventionist who supports your child. Make sure you know who to turn to when you have questions, and how to reach them most efficiently.
Your child’s school might not want to complete an evaluation, since it may require more work from them. They may suggest that the existing supports—without an evaluation and eventual IEP eligibility determination—are sufficient, or they may keep telling you to “wait and see.” But too much waiting and seeing can cost your child valuable learning time. If you feel that their needs aren’t being met, keep asking. It’s your right and your child’s right to have an evaluation completed and receive specialized support if they are eligible.
You probably have a lot of them, and you are entitled to answers provided in understandable terms. It can be daunting to ask questions in a room full of education professionals, but don’t feel afraid to speak up. Sometimes evaluation results may be provided in educational or psychological jargon—ask the questions you need answered so you feel entirely comfortable with what’s in your child’s IEP. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, these five questions are a good place to start.
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