What an IEP Is and How to Know if Your Child Needs One

When will an IEP help a child?. Jamie Grill via Getty Images

If your child has been struggling in school, you may have heard this well-meaning, but incomplete piece of advice – "If your child is having trouble keeping up with their work, ask the school to give your child an IEP."  

As a parent who is watching your child struggle, you probably want to act fast and ask your child's school right away for an IEP. After all, it would seem like your parenting friends, relatives, and even parenting magazines who all dole out this advice must be on to something.

Hold on, though.

If schoolwork struggles are the only reason you want to ask for IEP, pause for a moment to learn more about what an IEP is and who can get one to find out if an IEP will really help your struggling child. Read on to find out when a child or teen would qualify for an IEP.  

If your child is struggling or underperforming in school, then it is important that you do intervene early in order to keep problems from snowballing into something larger. Before we can get into when to ask for an IEP, it is important to understand what an IEP is and who can get one.

What Is An IEP (Individualized Education Plan)?

IEP is an acronym standing for an Individualized Education Plan. It is a technical term for a legal document describing the learning needs and goals for a child with a disability that affects a child's educational needs. 

IEPs are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for every child receiving special education services.

In order for a child or teen to get an IEP they must have one of thirteen disabilities listed in the IDEA, and have been evaluated and identified as needing special accommodations in order to learn the general school curriculum.

Having one of the thirteen disabilities listed alone doesn't qualify your child for an IEP.

The disability must cause a significant interference with your child's ability to learn the standard curriculum. Five factors are used to evaluate how a child's disability and learning are impacted. Those factors are behavior problems, limited English speaking ability, visual impairment, hearing or communication impairment, and a need for assistive technology or services.

In other words, IEP's are for kids who have a disability that affects their learning. These kids cannot keep up with the regular classroom learning requirements without having some sort of extra help – or even a change to the curriculum. The IEP will detail a learning plan that is custom designed to the child's learning needs.

How Do Kids Get an IEP?

A request for Special Ed services, or an IEP, is made at the school. This leads to the child being evaluated. The evaluation may include observations from teachers, parents, school counselors, and even your child's doctor or other professionals.  If your child has been attending school for a few years, then their school work and performance may also be reviewed.


This information will be combined and included in an "eligibility determination." This step is where the information about the child is reviewed to see if your child needs special accommodations in order to learn the regular curriculum.

Why Sometimes People Don't Mention Disability As a Requirement For An IEP

 It is my own opinion that the misunderstanding about what an IEP is and who can get one actually comes from well-meaning school administrators. In an effort to keep any stigmas about learning disabilities from developing or perpetuating administrators may answer questions about IEPs and disabilities with vague answers.

Rather than blatantly state that IEP's are for school-age children with disabilities, administrators give explanations like "IEP's are for struggling students who need a little extra help."  The response makes it sound like an IEP is a simple educational intervention – which it is not. This leads to parents of children whose child who is having a brief, temporary issue keeping up with schoolwork to ask for an IEP.  

Who Can Ask For An IEP?

Parents should also be aware that any parent or school personnel may request to have their child evaluated for Special education. If your child has any real possibility of having a disability that is causing their schoolwork struggles, then you should have your child evaluated. If you have no reason to suspect a disability, asking for an IEP will not help, and may even prolong bringing help to your struggling child.

Special Education evaluations take up school resources. Evaluations require time to administer tests to your child, gather information from teachers, observe your child in the classroom, and having meetings with parents over the findings.  If your child doesn't have a disability, then the whole process can be a huge waste of the school's time, and frustrate finding a solution that works for the problem.  

How can you tell if your child's school problems are caused by a disability? Sometimes it isn't initially obvious.  Children may go to go great lengths to cover up their disability before anyone else finds out they are different.  Here are some thoughts to consider before requesting an IEP or an evaluation for disability:

The Teacher Has Already Tried Alternate Strategies

Teachers who notice that a student is struggling to keep up with workload or learn material will try a variety of different "interventions" to help that child. This could be giving the child extra time to complete assignments, pairing the student with a peer who is succeeding, temporarily modifying or reducing the workload, and anything else the teacher can do that would seem to help the struggling child. If you know that the teacher has tried different interventions and nothing seems to help, that could be an indication of an underlying disability.

If you were getting concerned that your child would not be able to receive help without an IEP, I hope that last paragraph helped to settle that concern. There are several different strategies teachers can try that do not require getting an IEP.  This is another reason why it is wise to contact your child's teachers if you are concerned about your child's school performance.

The Problem Isn't Really New  

Maybe your child has always had trouble with reading or math.  Maybe they always had problems completing assignments or staying on task, and that it has been getting worse as the years pass and the grade level work becomes more difficult.  Sometimes disabilities become more obvious when the school work increases in difficulty in higher grade levels. If you can look back and see that your child has always found a particular task or subject challenging, and now it is impossible, you have more cause to suspect a disability.

One of the 13 IDEA Categories Seems To Fit

If you look over the list and descriptions of the thirteen categories and one really seems to fit your child, that should be a clear indicator of a possible disability.

You Have Ruled Out Every Other Cause

When you have tried everything and nothing seems to work, then perhaps disability is a possibility. Have you talked to the teacher about interventions? Have you tried eliminating distractions, providing extra help, or even trying to motivate a child who might not see the value of doing work?  If you have really tried everything else then it might be that your child isn't being obstinate, but really can't do the work.  

If you think a disability may be the cause of your child's school challenges, talk with your child's teacher about your concerns. You can make a request in writing to the school for special education evaluation to begin the process towards testing.

If you think your child has a disability but does not meet one the thirteen categories, then try looking into a 504 plan.

Continue Reading