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What’s an IEP? (and does my child need one?)

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Student holding a pencil and taking a practice test with The Learning Room to prepare for a test coming up.

If your child has been struggling at school for some time now, it’s probably occurred to you that they need more help than you (or even a basic tutor) can give. In a public school, there are programs designed to provide that extra help inside the classroom, but the process can be long and complicated. You may have heard of the term IEP. But long before that happens, there are several steps that take place. In this post, we’ll discuss what the process looks like so you can determine what’s right for your child and be fully prepared for the road ahead.

What’s an IEP?

IEP stands for individualized education plan. Essentially, it’s a legal document that outlines the learning needs, goals, and participation levels in various school activities for a child with a disability. IEPs are regulated and borne out of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the program applies to students enrolled in a K-12 grade school that receives public funding.

It’s important to keep in mind that only certain students end up qualifying for this type of help. According to the U.S. Department of Education, They must have one of 13 disabilities listed in the IDEA and have been evaluated and identified as needing special accommodations in order to learn the general school curriculum. But that alone doesn’t qualify them, so that’s where it can get complicated!

Because of the limited amount of resources for these services and the complexity and length of the process, you’re going to want to exhaust all other options first. It’s possible working with a counselor or academic coach may work for your student. Seeking this outside help would be your financial responsibility as the parent (as opposed to an IEP), but it’s a much smoother process if your child is not likely to qualify for an IEP anyway. It can also be a faster path to success.

How it Works

Parents can request an evaluation for an IEP, but it’s typically much more effective if your child’s teacher is involved and advocating for your child to get the process started. So the first step is to talk with your child’s teacher and make sure they are on board. Hopefully, prior to this, you’ll have already been in contact regarding your student’s challenges. (If you haven’t, then THAT’S your first step!)

Parent filling out IEP forms.

Once that happens, the request can be made and a formal meeting will take place with the school to determine if it’s necessary to move the process forward. It’s during this meeting you’ll want to present supporting evidence to demonstrate the need as you see it.

(note if your child’s teacher does not agree with your assessment of the situation, you can go “up the ladder” to the school counselor and/or the vice-principal)

If it’s determined there’s a need to take further action in this meeting, you’ll enter the intervention or remediation stage. This is a three-tiered process that happens in the classroom, is grade-appropriate, and has goals/benchmarks associated with each one. If the student meets those goals and is making progress, they’ll either stay in that tier or be moved back into the regular classroom curriculum. It is only after moving through all three tiers that an IEP is developed and implemented.

What happens in each tier can vary by the school district, but in general the instruction gets more intense and individualized in each tier. It’s important to note that until the IEP is officially approved, the instruction through the first two tiers is in a group setting. Monitoring and assessment take place in each tier so the instructors can figure out if your student is responding and making progress, or needs more help. You can learn more about the tier process (also called response to intervention) here.

The time it takes to move through the tiers depends on a variety of factors, including your student’s individual needs and the school itself. And they may not move out of one of the tier levels, meaning the process won’t reach the IEP level. As I’m sure you’ve realized if you’ve been attempting to work with your child’s teacher and the school already, they are operating on limited resources and there’s only a certain amount of funding for these services.

Next Steps

After reading through this post, you may already suspect whether or not your child would likely qualify for an IEP and if you should move forward with the request. If not, as we mentioned above, your first step is to talk with your student’s teacher. It’s very common to feel overwhelmed and stressed out during this process. Especially when you add on all of the time it takes to get your child the help. We’ve put together this visual quick reference guide that you can print or screenshot to help you remember this information and how it works.

If you feel strongly that this is the course of action you want to pursue, we offer coaching to help you through the process. But in the meantime, we can also work with your child to determine if there are things holding them back from success at school that are more mindset, habit, or learning process-related.

We are more than happy to talk with you about your needs to see if it’s a fit, and we offer a complimentary assessment to see where your child is at and what the best course of action might be. You can set up a time to talk here and please feel free to email or message us on Facebook or Instagram. if you have any questions. We have helped many families through this process and are here to help!


U.S. Department of Education

RTI Action Network

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