What Is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) helps children with disabilities receive personalized and specific assistance. This written plan allows them to receive special education or other resources needed to be more successful in school.

After a referral, an evaluation is the next step in an IEP and includes multiple factors. Once a child qualifies for an IEP, a written plan is developed and shared among the team. This includes the parent or guardian. 

This article discusses the differences between an IEP and 504 plan, who qualifies for an IEP, the evaluation process, services, and what to expect in an IEP meeting.

a woman and child who has disabilities are reading a book together

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Differences Between a 504 Plan and an IEP

The IEP and the 504 plan both help support children with disabilities at no cost to families. The IEP falls under a special education law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), while the 504 comes from an anti-discrimination law (the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). A few key differences include:

  • Consent: Both require permission from a parent or guardian before evaluation, but the IEP requires written consent.
  • Eligibility: The 504 covers a broader range of disabilities than the IEP’s list of 10 disabilities. An IEP is more appropriate for a child who is falling behind academically while a 504 provides a child with disabilities accommodations. 
  • Evaluation: The IEP evaluation process is more formal and lengthy than the 504.
  • Family notification: Both plans require notice to parents or guardians before a change, meeting, or evaluation. However, the IEP notification must be in writing.
  • Review: An IEP has to be reviewed yearly and reevaluated every three years. Typically states follow these guidelines for the 504, but it can vary.
  • Document type: An IEP must be a written document while the 504 does not.
  • Who creates it: The IEP is more strict about team members than the 504. 
  • What’s in it: An IEP is specific about a child’s performance, goals, and timing of services provided. The 504 states who provides services and who makes sure the plan is done.

Who Qualifies for an IEP?

Children qualify for an IEP if they have one of 10 disabilities and needs special education or related services. The disability must have a negative impact on their academic performance. 

These 10 specific qualifying disabilities include:

  • ADHD
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Cognitive challenges
  • Developmental delays
  • Emotional disorders
  • Hearing problems
  • Learning problems
  • Physical disabilities
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Visual problems

While a child could have both an IEP and a 504, it’s unusual for them to have both. In general, an IEP plan is for a child who is falling behind academically. 

A 504 is available for children with disabilities who don’t qualify for special education. These children may have a disability that needs assistance, but they are not struggling to keep up with their learning or schoolwork.

What Is the IEP Evaluation Process?

Typically, someone in the child’s life recognizes they struggle in school. This may be their parent, guardian, healthcare provider, teacher, or counselor. 

Once there is a referral, the school will meet with the parents and talk with the child. They will pay special attention to how the student is doing in class. This includes their behavior, schoolwork, how they adapt, coping mechanisms, and their ability to pay attention.

If the team decides that tests would help identify the specific areas of concern, they get written permission from the parent or guardian. These tests may include reading, math, speech, language, or developmental skills.

Depending on the child’s specific needs, the team members doing the evaluations or testing vary and may include:

  • Counselors or psychologists
  • Healthcare providers
  • Hearing specialists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Speech therapists
  • Teachers or special education educators
  • Physical therapists
  • Vision specialists

Testing Types

Aptitude and achievement tests are only one aspect of the evaluation. The referral and assessment for an IEP must come from multiple sources.

IEP Services 

IEP services are the resources available to support a child with disabilities. Sometimes they involve assistance with traveling to and from school or mobility at school. Other children may need counseling or occupational therapy. While this is not a complete list, the following are common examples of IEP services.

Audiology Services

Audiology involves helping children with hearing loss. Services might include identifying a child with hearing problems, evaluating the level of hearing loss, speech and language therapy, and choosing the right hearing aid if appropriate.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists work with children to help them improve, develop, or restore skills or function. Examples of the types of skills the occupational therapists can help children with include:

  • Re-training of everyday skills (getting dressed, preparing food, managing the household)
  • Learning and practicing skills for school, work or free time
  • Movement and perception exercises
  • Concentration and memory exercises
  • Manual and creative exercises
  • Help in structuring your daily routine
  • Modification of your home or workplace
  • Using medical aids, such as a walker or prosthesis
  • Advice and, if needed, guidance for family members

Parent Counseling and Training

Sometimes parents need help understanding their child's unique needs or their disability. In this case, parent counseling and training may be part of an IEP plan. 

Training can range from information about how to help a child with anger management or exercises to perform at home.

Psychological Services

Psychological services are frequently provided by or coordinated by the school counselor. The counselor or other trained mental health professional can assist in identifying special needs. They might also develop strategies to help with outbursts, behavior modification, emotional coping skills, and more.

Recreation

These services help children with disabilities learn how to use their recreation and leisure time in a way that is beneficial to them. Recreation services may include after-school or community youth programs. Learning to use leisure time constructively can help improve skills related to the following:

School Health Services

Children with disabilities often require help from school health services for support, such as medication administration, special feedings, managing a tracheostomy, and chronic illness management. 

Additional IEP Services

Additional IEP services include:

IEP Meetings: What to Expect

Once the evaluation process is complete and a child is eligible, the school will schedule an IEP team meeting. At this meeting, the team shares information and writes the IEP plan. Team members may include:

  • Parents or guardians
  • Teachers 
  • School administrator 
  • Healthcare providers
  • Therapists 

Typically, the school schedules the meeting within 30 days of eligibility and sends written notice to the parent or guardian. The meeting invitation should include the purpose, date, time, location, and team members invited to the meeting. Meetings are usually held at your child’s school.

Do Parents Attend the IEP Meeting?

Parents are highly encouraged to attend. However, meetings can move forward if they choose not to attend. 

During the meeting, the team reviews the evaluation findings and makes decisions regarding an IEP. If the team moves forward, they will write a plan, and parents or guardians will receive a copy. It’s a good idea to put that in a safe place with other important documents so you can refer to it at a later date.

Services are provided based on the plan. The team measures progress through reports they share with parents. They review the plan at least once a year and reevaluate the child every three years.

What If Parents Disagree With the IEP Plan?

Parents who disagree with the IEP plan can request a team meeting. If the team does not resolve those concerns, you can ask for mediation. The next step is a due process hearing. This is a formal, written complaint involving attorneys. You can take further legal steps if this does not resolve the concern.

Summary 

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) helps children with disabilities by providing personalized resources to help them be more successful in school. Once a child is referred, an evaluation period helps determine a child’s eligibility for an IEP. 

The school typically schedules an IEP team meeting within 30 days of eligibility. Schools invite parents or guardians to the meeting where the plan is written. They review the plan at least once a year and evaluate eligibility every three years. 

Services vary based on a child’s individual needs. Examples include physical therapy, occupational therapy, anger management, speech-language therapy, and more. 

A Word From Verywell

Having a child with disabilities can feel overwhelming at times. While the IEP process may not always be comfortable, it can help you and your child get valuable resources to help them succeed in and out of school. 

Anytime you have questions or concerns about the plan, talk with their teacher or principal. You can always request a team meeting if you disagree with the plan. You can also take legal steps if the disagreement is not resolved during the meetings or with mediation. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What qualifies a child for an IEP?

    Children who have a disability that needs special education or related services qualify for an IEP. In addition, the disability must have a negative impact on their academic performance.

  • How is an IEP used?

    Schools use IEPs to provide specific services to help a child with disabilities who are falling behind academically. The IEP can help overcome barriers to their education. The IEP team measures outcomes and reviews a child’s progress.

  • What are the steps of the IEP process?

    Once someone refers a child for an IEP, there is an evaluation process for eligibility. The IEP team, including caregivers or parents, has a meeting to write the plan. Services are provided based on the plan, and reports measure progress. The team reviews the IEP at least once a year and reevaluates the child every three years.

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