A Parent’s Guide to an IEP

By Huntington Learning Center

What is an IEP? 

An Individualized Education Program (IEP), is a document designed for each student who receives special education services that outline their educational goals, accommodations, and support. An IEP team is responsible for creating the IEP and for ensuring that it is properly implemented throughout the school year. The IEP team typically consists of the student’s parents, teachers, a school administrator, a case manager, relevant service providers (e.g., speech-language pathologist, school counselor, occupational therapist, reading specialist, psychologist), and the student when appropriate. IEPs are reviewed and updated by the IEP team on an annual (or more frequent) basis to ensure that the student continues to receive the support and services they need to succeed in school.  

Who is Eligible for an IEP?

A student may qualify for an IEP if they have a disability that affects their ability to learn and participate in educational activities and are therefore considered eligible for special education and related services. Disabilities that often qualify a child for services include autism, deafness, blindness, developmental delays, emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD), and learning disabilities like dyslexia. It’s important to note, however, that a diagnosis alone is not sufficient for a student to qualify for an IEP. This is especially true for ADHD, which can be considered a disorder that affects a child’s behavior, but not necessarily their ability to demonstrate academic achievement. IEP eligibility is ultimately determined after a comprehensive evaluation of the student's academic, behavioral, and functional abilities is completed by the school district (learn more about how to know if your child needs an IEP).   

What Are the Key Components of an IEP?

IEPs are designed to lay out the special education supports and services that will help a student improve their educational results. The IEP allows parents, teachers, and other school staff involved with that student’s education to be on the same page about their responsibilities to carry out the IEP. It also establishes specific goals for each student and establishes how to measure progress toward achieving these goals. The IEP includes the following sections:  

Current level of performance: A description of the student's current academic performance and progress in school based on evaluations (i.e., tests and assignments) and observations. 

Measurable annual goals: Specific, measurable, and attainable goals for the student to achieve over the course of the school year. 

Special education program services: The IEP lists the special education and related services that the student will receive, such as resource room services, counseling, speech therapy, or assistive technology. This includes the accommodations and modifications that the student needs to participate and learn in the classroom.  

  • An accommodation is a change to a student’s environment or learning equipment—some type of support that allows the student to access the general education curriculum. Examples include preferential seating in the classroom, speech-to-text software for a student with a physical disability or hearing impairment, extended time on tests or assignments, or computer access to type notes (vs. writing them in a notebook).  
  • A modification changes the standards for a student who might have more significant intellectual or other disabilities that make learning a general education curriculum not possible, even with accommodations. Students might take alternate assessments that do not cover the same amount of material as other students’ exams or receive a reduction in homework or class work. Modifications can vary widely, but generally change the curriculum for a student to enable them to be academically successful.  

Transition services: For older students, this section outlines a plan for facilitating a successful transition from high school to post-secondary education, employment, and/or independent living. 

Measuring progress: This section explains the procedures for evaluating the student's progress and how parents will be informed.  

Learn more about the other components of the IEP in the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services guide 

Which Accommodations and Services are Typically Included in an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

As mentioned above, the specific accommodations and services included in an IEP vary based on each student’s individual needs and goals. Accommodations and services often fall under these categories: 

Assistive technology: Access to devices or software that assist students in completing tasks or learning, such as a computer with text-to-speech software. 

Extended time: Extra time on tests or assignments for students with processing speed or attention-related impairments.  

Preferential seating: Preferential seating minimizes distractions and/or accommodates vision, hearing, or processing impairments. 

Visual and auditory supports: Typical supports include visual aids, such as graphic organizers, or auditory supports, such as a personal FM system to reduce background noise, improve clarity, and reduce listening fatigue. 

Access to a resource room: Additional support and services may be provided in a separate room or resource center, this often includes supplemental instruction or providing a room where work or exams can be completed with minimal distractions. 

Behavioral and organizational supports: Common strategies include the use of a classroom behavior chart (daily report card), allowing a student to fidget in a non-distracting manner throughout the day, frequent movement breaks, the strategic use of praise to motivate positive behavior, simplified organization systems, and regular check-ins with the teacher to help maintain an organization system.  

How Does the IEP Process Start? 

The process starts when the parents address their concerns by submitting a formal written request for special services to the school’s child study team or special education coordinator.  Typically, within 15 to 20 days of receipt of that request, an initial meeting will be scheduled.  The parents and school staff meet and determine the need and scope of the assessment.  If further evaluation is necessary, the parents provide written consent, and the school has 90 days to complete the assessment for that student. If the results from the evaluation verify that the student has significant learning/behavioral difficulties which are impacting their academic ability, an IEP program is developed.  Once the program is developed, specific special education services can begin.   

How Long Does It Take to Get an IEP?

The time from when an evaluation is requested to when an IEP is implemented can vary significantly depending on the complexity of the student’s needs, the number of assessments that are required for a comprehensive evaluation, the time it takes to receive assessment results, and the resources available within the school district. In general, it’s reasonable to expect that the process should take 3-5 months to complete. Developing the IEP varies by state and school district.   

What Should Parents Do When a Child is Denied Special Education Services?  

If the school district determines that a student is not eligible for special education and related services, the school must notify the parents in writing and include an evaluation report as well as instructions on how to challenge the school’s decision. If a parent chooses to challenge the decision, it can be helpful to enlist the help of an educational advocate or attorney.  

It’s important to remember that an IEP is not the only pathway to obtaining services and accommodations for your child. Many students may be eligible to receive services through a 504 Plan—and the special education services team at your child’s school can explain the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan. In addition, many school districts offer programs for struggling students that can be accessed without a special education plan. IEPs are a valuable tool for students who need them, but they are not the right fit for everyone. Throughout the disability evaluation process, remember that the end goal is to get your child the services they need, regardless of whether it is through an IEP, a 504 Plan, or another option outside of the special education system.